Just for the record, I have never tried this, exactly.
But ever since I heard it from a veteran freelancer ages ago, it has stuck in my head.
When talking to a potential client, they always have plenty of questions for us.
“Have you ever done any work with [biomedical, e-commerce, user interface, mens fashion . . . ]?”
“Can you sent me relevant samples?”
“What sort of companies have you worked with?”
“How long have you been designing?
The bigger, the longer, the more critical the project, the more they want to know.
(My designer friend David told me — laughing — that one particularly nosy client wanted to run a credit report on him. He offered them a urine test instead. But not quite in those words. But I digress.)
Sometimes, if a client is a nervous Nellie, she will ask, “Can you send me references from other clients that I might talk to?”
The gutsy answer is this:
“I’d be happy to. It would also be helpful if I could talk to some of the freelancers you have recently worked with. Would that be okay?”
Would the client consider that adversarial, and immediately brand you as a prima donna pain in the ass?
Or would they see that as pro move, that you know what you’re doing, and automatically see you as a peer, a co-equal in this relationship?
Would they actually give you names?
Would those other freelancers let you know if this client actually paid their bills on time, or if they nitpicked the fees or if they take forever to review things, or change their minds too often, or otherwise treat freelancers like oxen?
Or if they are a joy to work with, spurring you on to greater heights?
(Precisely the things I prefer to know, going in.)
I have no idea how this would work. Which is why this arrow has remained unused in my quiver.
It has been useful though. Knowing I could ask this reminds me that I’m interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing me.
Stuff you can use, right away: Smarter Freelancing.
May 1, 2019 @ 11:37 am
I love the message it sends: I’m not a contractor and I don’t work *for* you; we are equal partners.
But, like you, and maybe because it’s so wonderfully counterintuitive, I can’t quite imagine putting it out there in a way that doesn’t sound deliberately adversarial, even to those great clients we all want. Waiting to hear from someone who has used this!
May 1, 2019 @ 12:48 pm
I LOVE this!
It’s a great reminder, agreed. What I do when the questions pile up is I cut to the chase:
“Is there something in particular that’s a stumbling point for you right now?”
In other words: Get it out in the open, stop wasting my time.
Either they want to hire or they don’t. From my experience, when there are a bunch of questions, there’s a tire-kicker in front of me.
May 2, 2019 @ 2:49 pm
I love this. I teach people how to screen a potential housemate and remind them that they should ask the homeowner for a reference too! ( https://www.sharinghousing.com) In the freelance sphere, not quite as adversarial as asking for a reference is the question: “Have you worked with freelancers before?… Please tell me about that experience.” You can learn lots. : )
May 5, 2019 @ 9:35 am
Walt, I think your “gutsy answer” is perfect: polite and to the point. Translators like me are lucky enough to have websites like Proz.com’s blueboard or the Payment Practices website where freelance translators post information about the payment practices of translation agencies and other clients. I take a quick look on these sites every time a new client approaches me to check their payment history. The PP website was created by a freelancer and in my opinion every freelance profession should have something like this to rely on.
May 20, 2019 @ 10:23 am
Walt: thanks for posting this. I have tried the reverse reference, as you call it, and the results have been as you surmise. I usually have a vibe about the would-be client before I ask, so that may affect my results. On the other hand, I also research new clients on the various payment performance lists before either asking for reverse references or accepting the job.
Keep up the great blog!
June 18, 2019 @ 2:04 pm
may i ask: what would you suggest replying to a potential client who asks for reassurance/references if you are right at the beginning as a freelancer?
Translation favorites (July 26-Aug 1)
August 2, 2019 @ 1:16 pm
[…] We Studied 100 Mentor-Mentee Matches — Here’s What Makes Mentorship Work The Editing Podcast – S1E1: The different levels of editing Gutsy freelancer move: The Reverse Reference […]
February 11, 2020 @ 12:12 pm
That’s a very interesting discussion, Walt.
I see it as a kind of power relationship. The one who has more power makes the demands.
I think the big question is: do you need them, or do they need you?
Of course, the answer tends to be a bit of each, but there’s often a power imbalance.
When I was beginning, I accepted nearly all kinds of demands, from endless forms that should be filled out to offering free samples. I needed them.
Fortunately, I’m in a better place now, and I no longer need to accept unreasonable demands, unpaid tests, and so on. If the client doesn’t like my conditions, they can move on, and so can I 🙂