DIY

Client management tips for freelance support pros

If you are new to running your own business, structuring your client relationships can be tricky. Here is how to set the right tone.

If you are new to running your own business, structuring your client relationships can be tricky. Here is how to set the right tone.

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Taking freelance work is something lots of techs consider, whether it is to make ends meet between full-time jobs or to earn a little extra on the side. Before stepping into the role of independent contractor, you should think about what is involved with managing your own business.

I stumbled into my own outside consulting practice. I didn’t go looking for clients. Rather, I got my first gig through a contact I made at my day job. Since I knew this customer beforehand, I did not spend a lot of time thinking about how I should structure our relationship, and our contract was a handshake agreement.

I made a lot of mistakes with that first client of mine, and I’ve since revised how I handle any freelance jobs I take on. Managing your client relationships well is the key to being a successful freelancer, even more than being technically skilled. What follows is my advice for the techs who are new to the freelance market and my methods for making sure my relationships with my clients get off on the right foot.

Market yourself. Clients can’t hire you if they can’t find you. Self-promotion does not have to be expensive; a free blog account and some inexpensive business cards will get you started. My freelance work relied a lot on personal referrals. If you have a happy client, ask him to recommend you to others. Decide how you are going to get paid. Are you billing by the hour, or are you charging a flat fee? Should a long project require a retainer? The specifics might vary from job to job, but figure out what payment arrangements you’ll accept before taking your first client. Clarify the scope of the job. Is the work going to require a single on-site visit, or is this the beginning of a month's long project? If you’re trying to balance multiple clients or if you’re moonlighting, it is vital to understand at the outset what kind of time you have to offer and how much of it this particular client will require. Plan upfront how expenses will be handled. What happens if the client’s system needs a replacement part or he needs software? Are you going to buy it for him, and then bill for the cost? Will he need to buy the item himself and have it before you arrive on site? Don’t spend your own money on the client’s behalf without having agreed on an explicit reimbursement plan. Set the service levels. Are you providing emergency on-call service? If not, make sure that clients know you aren’t necessarily at their disposal 24-7. I had a freelance client who regularly called me for help while I was working at my full-time day job. It would have been much better for me if I had made my boundaries clearer at the outset, rather than having to resort to an awkward conversation that left the client feeling slighted. Put everything in writing. This protects both you and the client. Don’t proceed until everyone is clear on the structure of your relationship and has approved a written contract. Use a calendar. Keep on top of your client appointments and your billing schedule. Google Calendar is a great resource. I set up a special account to let my clients request appointments online. Provide documentation, and keep copies. It’s tempting to try and lock your clients into long-term relationships by making yourself indispensable. That, however, is a mistake that will eventually sour your relationship with your customers. Make sure that your client has a detailed description of the steps you took on her behalf, and you’ll earn a measure of trust. Keep copies for yourself in case the client engages you again. Be firm, but fair. If you’ve held to these tips so far, the obligations of all the parties in your contract should be clearly defined. Even so, someone might ask you to make concessions against your existing agreement. Don’t be heartless in the face of a real need, but maintain your professional standards. A favor is an investment that might never show a return. Know when to say when. It’s natural to build a relationship with a client, but remember that you’re running a business. It doesn’t make sense to indulge a client who won’t pay their bills or causes other problems. There’s no need to be vindictive, but you should not continue working with a client who will not be professional.

Have you worked as a freelance tech? Have you got any advice for those just starting out? Chime in with your comments.

7 comments
cole.parker
cole.parker

I'm really enjoying how much thinking people are doing right now. It looks like in this bad economy people are really buckling down thinking and working hard. It's great to see and will pay dividends when things naturally turn around. Cole Coleman Parker at Work Cole Parker Personal

dixon
dixon

1)Never allow your client to develop the perception that you're a 'miracle worker who can do anything'. Choose your words carefully when predicting possible outcomes in a given situation. 2)Never trust that your client really has a good backup, no matter what you're told. Verify, verify, verify. 3)Be willing to give some amount of free advice. It'll pay big dividends if you're a little generous with your time. 4)Don't assume that, just because he's enthusiastically nodding his head, your client actually has any idea what you're talking about. 5)Don't dress like a character from The Matrix. It freaks people out, especially older folks. 6)Make clear when you're available and when you're not, unless you enjoy 3:00 AM Sunday morning technical conversations. 7)Never claim to possess a skill or piece of knowledge that you don't. 8)Always make sure, with everything you do, that your client knows that his privacy is your number one priority. 9)Stick to technical specs and vendor recommendations, and be prepared to politely explain why a client's request isn't likely to work. See #1. 10)Be sparing with technical jargon and lengthy explanations. Many clients are only aware of, and only interested in, one thing: whether or not they're currently pleased with what appears on the their screens.

williamjones
williamjones

In my post for this week, I detail some of the suggestions I have for making sure that my relationships with my freelance clients work. Here's a bonus I didn't include in the original article: find a lawyer. It's worth finding someone that you trust when you're starting out. Hopefully you'll never need your lawyer, but finding a good one that you are comfortable with can take time and effort. You don't want to have to rush to find someone when you're trying to get a deadbeat client to pay up. What lessons have you learned while working freelance. If you've never tried it, what keeps you from taking the plunge?

chris
chris

Some great tips from the article and from dixon. From experience not having a plan on the scope of work you are willing to do can be very discouraging and demotivating. If doing work for friends then friends of friends can quickly escalate into a lot of unwelcome distractions at work and home. If you are doing work on the side to help out family or acquaintances, be clear that you are not an IT charity helpdesk 24/7. If you suspect your act of kindness will be ongoing it might pay to recommend others or companies willing to do the work your act of kindness generates. Also if you have a strong referral network you might just be able to squeeze in a commission ;)

williamjones
williamjones

Number 5 made me laugh out loud! Thanks for your thoughts.

williamjones
williamjones

Thanks for pointing out the issues with working for friends and family, chris. We've talked about some of them before on the blog, but it's always tempting for new freelancers to start trying to look for business close to home. I'm personally not comfortable charging close friends and family for any help I provide. I've found that helps keep their expectations reasonable and my obligations flexible, since it keeps the work firmly in "favor" territory. The onus is on me to stand up for myself if I'm feeling over committed, though, since I have had to learn to say "no."

dixon
dixon

Number five was inspired by the several occasions when older clients have thanked me for showing up dressed like 'a normal person'. I can only surmise what their previous experiences had been. Great article, by the way.

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