Bad clients are easy to describe. We’ve all had them and in more than twelve years of freelancing I’ve had my fair share. I’ve had clients who paid late or didn’t pay at all; who demanded additions to projects but were surprised to see the days added to the bill; who said they wanted one thing until I delivered it when they realized they actually wanted something completely different; and who imposed impossible deadlines forcing me to work nights and weekends then sat on the finished work until it was out of date. Clients like these turn up in a freelancer’s career but they don’t turn up as often you might expect and they pass quickly. Most clients, like most freelancers, are reliable and professional. They know roughly what they need, they pay for the work and they’re grateful for the skills and talent you can bring to their project. Clients like those are easy to find.
Perfect clients though aren’t just harder to find; they’re also much harder to describe. That they should pay the bills on time and without argument is a given. That they should make your efforts feel appreciated and important would be a part of it. That you can rely on them to deliver work on a regular basis so that you can count on their income to the same degree that they need your deliverables is important too. Freelance life is unstable; a client with regular demands goes a long way towards stabilizing a schedule.
The (Almost) Perfect Client
I found a client who meets all those qualifications very early. He was the second client I took on when I turned freelance, and I’ve been writing his newsletter every month since 2001. He’s given me some additional work since then and both those projects form a pillar of my freelance schedule. He’s such a good payer, I don’t even need to invoice him. I send him the work at the end of the month and within two or three days, he’ll send the money through Paypal. He never asks for changes, never argues with the decisions I take about the content I include and never tells me what to write. He’s so appreciative that every Christmas he sends me a gift. What started as a box (a big box) of chocolates has grown to include an iPod Nano, a voice recorder and a remote-controlled helicopter. I’ve spoken to him on the phone just once and met him in person once when we happened to find ourselves in the same city at the same time. As freelance relationships go, our connection couldn’t be easier.
That might sound like my search for a perfect client didn’t need more than a month of looking. But I’ve been doing P.’s work for so long now it isn’t a challenge. The work hasn’t changed at all. I’ve got faster at it, so what used to take me a day I can now knock out before lunch. Our relationship works because I know what the client expects and can deliver exactly the same thing time after time. It’s not boring but it doesn’t stretch me and if I tried to get creative, I’d risk the reliability that the client buys from me.
More Creativity, Less Control
I did find another client a few years later though who does expect creativity. She acts more like an agent than a client, selling a particular writing service that I supply through her company to individuals who want it. Because each job is slightly different, each piece has to be unique. It’s informal so I have some freedom to play around. And of course, in more than seven years, she’s never missed a payment.
If a perfect client is someone who gives you the room to work the way you want, then M. goes a long way towards achieving it.
But because the client is doing all the marketing, the work isn’t reliable. If she decides to push hard or launches a promotion, I can find myself unexpectedly overwhelmed. If she eases back to focus on other parts of her business — as she’s perfectly entitled to do — that otherwise reliable revenue stream can suddenly shrink. M. is a perfect client… except in one small way: unlike P. she has control over my schedule, making my week hard to predict.
Both those experiences have made me realize that the hardest part of looking for the perfect freelance client is defining it. Beyond paying on time, the client should also supply regular work that’s creative, challenging and still varied. And it should keep me in control so that I’m able to plan my week and arrange my hours.
That sounds impossible, right? I should be grateful for all of the great clients I have (and I have a number of others who, in their own way, are just as good) — and I am grateful for them all. But it’s taken me twelve years to realize what the perfect client looks like, and to realize that I’ve found him.
If I want someone who pays regularly, lets me work the way I want, allows me to be creative and gives me control over my schedule, instead of selling my work to clients who then sell it onto others, I should be selling it for myself.
Other people do that. There’s no shortage of freelance writers now who self-publish and organize workshops, promote their books on Twitter and Facebook, and write what they want in the hope of finding a market for it.
But then I wouldn’t just be a freelance writer. I’d also be an entrepreneur and a marketer. I’d need to hire a designer to create the website and someone with the expertise and inclination to do the SEO work no freelance writer can ever stomach. I wouldn’t just be my own client; I’d be the client of half a dozen other freelancers all of whom I’d have to rely on to make my business work.
I’m pretty sure I’d make a good client. But I doubt that any of them would think they’d found the perfect one.