In our somewhat foolhardy line of work, it’s easy to feel that everything is all lopsided in the client’s favor.
The field isn’t level; they have all the leverage.
They’re big, we’re small.
They are a giant corporation, or university, or trendy startup, or someone with a big office. We’re just a lone writer, a designer, a coder, or a translator with a laptop and a backpack.
They have the work. We want the work.
They have the money. We want the money. (Or really need the damn money.)
They get to say yes or no. They decide whether to call us, or not. They can decide not to call for months if they want. We just have to wait.
They get to decide if they like our work, or want us to do it over.
They often get to say how much they’ll pay. And too often they decide when they pay.
They can’t do what we do, yet we’re at their mercy.
I know that feeling well.
It’s dumb, of course, and dead wrong. And we never have to work that way, so quit such thinking immediately.
(But I do know the feeling. There’s a story about that way down at the end of this post.)
Turning it around
I learned this the hard way, which is pretty much how I learn anything.
The only way to thrive as a freelancer is to play it like a pro: peer to peer, equal to equal, colleague to colleague.
Otherwise, you will always be on the wrong end of the seesaw.
We are not migrant labor in search of a day’s wages. We’re not supplicants in search of benefactors.
We are pros who can fix things, create cool stuff, solve problems, figure things out, get things built — and then be on our way. That’s how we need to play it.
Here’s how to tilt the odds in our favor.
Master your craft
This will at least save your soul, if not your bank account.
The more skillful you are at writing, coding, illustrating, or designing, the easier it is to keep your head up, and ignore the slights of clients who don’t get it. You know you can write rings around that guy who isn’t calling back.
And the more skillful you are, the more likely you are to attract people who truly need what you do. Better still, if you specialize, you can be the best on the planet in your chosen trade. That helps.
If you’re not quite a genius yet, work at getting better. Or at least practice thinking you’re good.
Me, I started out as the sixth-best freelance copywriter in Morris County, New Jersey. After decades of effort, I’ve worked my way up to third best. I certainly don’t get pushed around so much any more. Clients sense my aura, I think.
Attract more prospects than you can handle
When every project and every opportunity becomes make or break, this or nothing, do or die, you will be miserable.
That happens every time I let my incoming pipeline go dry. I end up needing a particular assignment a little too much. I take jobs I shouldn’t take, for clients I don’t fit. I’m too shy with fees. I grovel and fawn. I fret when a client dawdles or wants another rewrite, or delays payment. I spend my whole day hoping. I hate it.
The more things you have on the horizon, the more inquiries you get, the more conversations you have going, the less you’re at the mercy of any one inquiry, any one client. You can shrug things off.
So however you prefer to hunt for clients — social media, blogging, emailing, referrals, LinkedIn, posting work, meet-ups, cold calling — work it. Every day, at least a little.
Even when you’re busy. Especially when you’re busy.
Just so you know, I struggle with the discipline of this. I do it for a while, then my inborn laziness wins out. And I pay for it every time.
Always negotiate, at least a little
I wanted to be the ultimate likable, low-friction freelancer. I wanted the work. So whatever the client asked for, I’d say,”Okay. Can do.” Whether it was okay or not.
But that’s not quite right.
I discovered that you gain status points with clients by pushing back, just a little, now and then. Even when the terms seem okay. Now and then.
“If we can agree on the 14th, instead of the 12th, I’d be happy to get started.” Or, “If we can agree on $2250 for this, it would allow for a fuller, more developed article.”
I’m prescribing an aspirin here. Don’t take the whole bottle.
Interview them, too
“So do you buy translation services often?”
“Interesting, how long has the firm been in business?”
You are natural and casual about this, of course. Just engaged and curious.
“Do you work with copywriters regularly?” “Do you have a design background yourself?” “So, are you responsible for all the web content, or just the product areas?”
They will start selling themselves to you. Good leveler, that.
This is another aspirin. We are not trying to annoy people.
Work closer to the bone
As freelancers, our holy grail is to work with clients who live and die on what we do.
We don’t want to be furnishing routine check-0ff items or nuisance tasks. We want to work at the core, not the periphery.
We want to work with the company whose fortunes rise and fall on their website photography, or their presentations, or their product copy. We don’t want to be designing, writing, illustrating where no one much cares. We will always play ninth fiddle there.
Or, we’re latching onto clients whose job is to buy what we do. Whose performance evaluations, status points, or salary depend on how fast, how good, how brilliant our work turns out.
You’re not just a vendor, you’re a resource.
To be sure, landing clients like this isn’t easy. Chances are, they already have freelancers they like. But they are always worth pursuing — patiently and persistently.
If half your clients are in this class, you’ll be in clover.
Make them look good
A critical corollary to the above.
Make the client look like a genius. Make it so they win raves and kudos.
You will have an ally for life. A highly motivated client.
Peer to peer, equal to equal. They need you as much as you need them.
Now, the story. Where I broke every principal above. I originally trashed this, but thought it more responsible to recycle than just add to the landfill.
Doing it wrong
I know about feeling small.
I once scored an interview with a big-deal creative director at a big-deal ad agency in New York.
It took me the entire morning to get into the city, trek across town, and get up to his office on the 35th floor. (This was pre-Skype, when we actually went to offices.)
Upstairs, the guy was apparently busy. He kept me waiting in the hallway for 15 minutes.
When he beckoned me into his office, he had his feet up on the desk eating Chinese food from a takeout container.
He asked me a few questions, then poked around in his fried rice while I talked.
And he kept calling me Will, which wasn’t my actual name, although phonetically close.
Soon a girl came to the doorway and told him he was needed in the conference room. He held up a finger to say he’d be right back. But he took his rice with him.
So I just sat there, for twenty minutes. This guy was a big deal, and since I really needed an assignment, I sat there seventeen minutes more.
Finally I got up and left my business card on his desk. I crossed out ‘Walt’ and wrote in ‘Will’.
I rode the train home, alternately cursing that boor, and cursing myself for putting my fate at the mercy of such a jerk.
I also tried to think of what to say when my wife asked “So how did it go?
Photo credit: Brady, by Nina.