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Minimizing Non-Billable Work

Photography: Jim Frazier

The Internet, the Blackberry and the ability to telecommute from a home office, a café or a beach hut in Koh Samui has freed all sorts of people from the tyranny of cubicles. These days, Starbucks is as likely to be filled with graphic designers and bloggers churning out websites and creating their latest posts as with foot-sore shoppers giving their credit cards a rest with a green tea frappuccino.

But while the list of jobs that could be done anywhere with an Internet connection has now grown to encompass almost everyone but massage therapists and hairdressers, when you get right down to it, freelancers — whatever their field — only do two kinds of work: billable work and non-billable work.

Only one of those pays.

The challenge for freelancers then is always to try to fill as much of their day as possible with tasks that end in invoices while only doing enough non-billable stuff such as selling, quoting and filing — to keep the money rolling in.

Marketing without the Effort
FreelanceSwitch has some interesting advice about how freelancers can indulge in passive marketing so that they can focus on the paying stuff. Much of their suggestions seems to be based on referrals and having a good website with a solid portfolio.

Those are all sensible ideas, of course, but in practice, passive marketing has to go a little further than that. You could have a perfect set of samples and a website good enough to win a Webby but if no one sees it, you’re not going to pick up much work. Websites, like your services themselves, have to be actively marketed.

Unless, of course, you market smartly at the beginning.

The temptation here is to go for good search engine optimization which relies on a mixture of careful keywording and plenty of linking. But that can backfire. Answering emails from loosely-targeted leads might win you some new jobs but it also increases your amount of non-billable work. Only a small fraction of the people who Google “Web designer” and ask for a quote will actually become your clients. You’ll have to spend time writing to all of them.

A better option then might be to target your incoming links carefully rather than spreading them widely. While that might affect your SEO ranking, it could give you much better traffic. More of that non-billable work would be likely to become billable later on.

A freelance coder, for example, is likely to find that a recommendation and a link on a site selling software plug-ins generates fewer enquiries than a high page rank. But it could well generate more sales overall and less wasted time.

Happy Customers Come Back
Perhaps the best form of passive marketing though is to keep your old clients and continue working for them. Rubiqube recommends delivering work that makes buyers happy and being completely honest so that each side knows exactly what they can expect… even if that means losing the job in the short term.

Get that right, the site says, and you’ll be able to create an addiction to your services.

If only. Pleasing your clients is key, of course, and it’s always important to meet expectations (and even better to exceed them). But an addiction suggests constant demand and that’s something that isn’t created by quality alone.

If it were, Apple would never have to market an iPod again and music-lovers would buy a new one every week.

The best way to keep old clients is to turn one-off jobs into continuing work. A writer hired to produce a sales page, for example, could offer a discounted rate if the job also included a monthly newsletter that would promote supplementary products.

The initial act of upselling wouldn’t be passive. But the continuing work would come in by itself and as long is it does actually generate profits for the client, you can be certain he would become addicted to the income your work creates.

And that’s really the key to minimizing non-billable marketing work. Fill your book with satisfied clients who earn from what you do and you won’t need to spend any time looking for new gigs.

You might though have to spend time looking for people to outsource it to.

One Comment

  1. graft Says:

    The title of this article is kind of misleading. What you really wrote about was how to make your marketing efforts more efficient. Non-billable work encompasses hundreds of other tasks. It would be great if you could talk about how to keep client emails simple and direct, minimize phone calls, prevent the inevitable "one more thing" that comes up after you send your invoice, etc.

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