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The Biggest Client Killers


One of the downsides to freelancing is the loose connection between buyers and suppliers. Finding a good replacement is never easy but for clients, freelancers are much easier to fire than permanent employees who have contracts and might demand compensation. Once you’ve managed to persuade a client to pay you for your work, you want to hold onto them — and you want to avoid these giant client killers that will soon have you pitching for new gigs.

1. Promising What You Can’t Deliver

The usual advice given for success in business is to underpromise and overdeliver. And the usual discovery of business owners is that when you underpromise you don’t get to deliver anything.

The problem though is that when you promise more than you can do, you only get to deliver once, and clients aren’t too keen on handing over the cash.

It’s a mistake that’s just too easy to make. You look at the specs, assume that you can do most of the tasks and tell yourself that you’ll either learn the rest or charge enough to outsource those elements you can’t do to someone who can.

But when the problems start, they quickly mount. It’s hard to gauge how long it will take to learn something you don’t know how to do, so the first symptom of being out of your depth will be a delay. The second symptom, and the one that will really kill off the relationship, will be amateur quality on delivery: if anyone could learn how to do the task in minimal time and get it spot on with no experience, the client would have done it himself.

The easiest solution is not to bid on projects you know you can’t do but to regard each spec as describing the skills you should be learning if you’re to dominate your niche. The real difficulty comes though, when it’s established clients who are asking you to do something that falls outside your skill sets. Saying no to someone who relies on you weakens their dependence — they now have to find someone else. But it’s still a better bet than committing and failing.

2. Disappearing from View

The result of promising what you can’t deliver will be a sinking feeling that this project is never going to get done. At that point, the temptation is to hide. Emails from the client asking for updates are stored for later, then ignored and never answered. When they’re not sure about the best way to explain a delay, some freelancers prefer to say nothing, hoping that if they can complete the project properly eventually, they’ll be able to repair any damage caused in the meantime.

It rarely works that way, especially when the product comes in substandard. At that point any forgiveness or polite requests for change are likely to be replaced by anger at being kept out of the loop about the difficulties as they came up.

It’s easy to disappear when you’re freelancing for a client at a distance but it’s smart business to stay in touch even when  things are difficult.

3. Disloyalty to the Firm

When you’re an employee, passing your resumé to a competitor would be grounds for instant dismissal — or at least a quick search for a replacement and then instant dismissal. Freelancers  have a little more freedom than that. Clients assume that they’re working for others and possibly even for competitors, but they also assume confidentiality. Sometimes, they’ll even nail that trust down with a non-disclosure agreement. So while you should be free to work with another business in the same field, you’re not free to share the information  you learn working for other people — however much you think the client might love you for the gossip.

When a current client hears you’ve been talking behind their back, you can be sure it won’t be long before they’re giving you a kick in the rear.

That’s a problem because professional small talk can help to cement relationships between a client and a freelancer who rarely meet in person. One solution then is to share either old stories about related businesses or anecdotes about non-competitive fields. So a programmer working for two security companies might talk about the work he did as an in-house programmer before he went freelance and he could also discuss the work he does for a law firm on a very different kind of program. Those stories might still contain lessons that could benefit the client but if they’re not sharing any confidential information , they won’t cost you the trust of an established buyer.

4. Disturbing the Peace

Good clients always say that if you have any questions they’ll be happy to answer them. And good freelancers always know their stuff well enough to rarely do it.

This goes to the heart of the reason the client is hiring a freelancer in the first place: they want to offload the project onto someone else so that they can concentrate on doing something else. If you’re constantly sending them emails or calling them up to ask questions, you’re taking up time that they could have spent doing the work themselves.

That doesn’t mean you should never ask a client questions. It’s better to check than to get something wrong, and it’s better to stay in touch than to disappear. But it’s best of all to get all of the information you need right at the beginning of the project so that you can work on the project undisturbed —and without disturbing the client either.

Freelancing, by its nature, is a precarious way of making a living. You need multiple revenue streams and multiple clients. But most important of all, you need the skill, the talent and the reliability to hold onto the clients you’ve got.

On the other hand, freelancers might be easy to fire but they’re not very easy to replace and for the client there’s no guarantee that their next choice won’t bring out one of these giant client killers too.


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