SMBs

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.

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