When you market yourself as a freelancer, you try to be as open as you can. You might launch a blog to bring traffic to your website and demonstrate the way you work. You hit up clients for testimonials so that leads can see you have experience. You put up samples and portfolios so that anyone can browse the work you’ve produced and see what you can do. It’s all a matter of trust. The more secure you can make a lead feel about hiring you, the more likely they are to get in touch and hire you do the job. But when it comes to the new clients themselves, the same openness doesn’t apply. Clients tend not to be as forthcoming about their identity, their ideas and their experience as the freelancers they employ, and yet there’s plenty of risk on the freelancer’s side too. You can find yourself working for the kind of business that doesn’t pay until it sees a letter from a lawyer, or you can find that because you have little idea about the firm, you have no idea how to please its customers.
Neither of those two pieces of information is particularly easy to come by. Some freelance websites do allow service providers to write reviews of the hirers, which can give an indication of whether a company is likely to argue about the bill — or not pay it at all. But not all sites offer this and even contributors have an incentive to be nice about the people they’ve worked for: if they’ve said something nice, there’s always the chance that they’ll work for them again. Reviews on freelance sites then tend to either very good or very bad.
Google Only Tells You So Much
Googling too can only bring up what other people have chosen to put online. Not every swindled freelancer wants to advertise the fact that a client disputed the value of their work, let alone name the client, so while a reference to no pay should set off a warning light, the absence of a complaint doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is okay with your new paymaster.
A website can be a reasonably good indicator of a client’s professionalism. A cheap, unprofessional site suggests that the client is more interested in saving money than creating results. A blog that’s updated regularly shows that they have an eye on the future and that they’re willing to put in the day-to-day effort required to maintain a business.
But social media can be an even more helpful guide to a client’s reliability. If a buyer has put a lot of effort into maintaining a Facebook presence, a LinkedIn page and a Twitter stream then they’ve built a reputation. That reputation can be quickly damaged by allegations that the client doesn’t pay his bills or disputes every invoice in the hope of getting bargains. That doesn’t mean that every social media user is reliable. But when social media makes damaging a reputation this easy, bad clients are likely to have taken those blows already.
Rather than trying to figure out whether a client is reliable though, which often boils down to a sense of whether a job feels right than a definitive piece of evidence that it isn’t, it’s always better to make sure that you have built-in safeguards: milestones for payment and delivery; escrow for large payments; samples to ensure that you’re on the right track before you reach the end.
No less important though is information that can tell you what you need to do to please the client’s customers — and please the client.
Who Are Your Client’s Clients?
It’s never enough to rely on the client’s own description of their target audience. They might have an idea that they’re reaching a certain age group and a certain way of living but the client has hired you because you have an even better idea, and he or she thinks that you can appeal to it. If you didn’t have the skills to program software that his target market uses, if you can’t write copy using language that appeals to the company’s demographic or design websites that match their expectations, then the client wouldn’t be hiring you. He’d be hiring someone else.
Rather than rely on the client’s own characterization of their audience then, you’re likely to be better off making your own judgments based on the nature of the product, the style of their marketing material and your awareness of the market. This is a time when it’s more important to know yourself than know your client.
But you’ll also need to know how your client wants to work, and that’s something only they can tell you. Every client is different. While some are happy to work entirely by email, receiving the work when it’s finished, others prefer regular Skype chats and even the odd personal meeting if possible. One of the first questions you’ll need to ask of a new client is how they want to communicate. (And while you might have your own ideas and your own preferences, as long as they’re paying the bills, the client gets to choose the communication tools.)
Every new job comes with a certain amount of mystery. You don’t know whether you’ll enjoy the work. You don’t know what the client will be like to work with and whether he’ll pay on time, if at all. You don’t know how long you’ll be working with him or whether you’ll want to continue working with him for a long time. Those first points of contact then are a little like a blind date. You test each other out, try to get a feel for who the client is and how they’re likely to behave, and slowly you begin to build a relationship, forgetting the baggage of previous collapses and hoping that this one will work out fine.
Because if it does, you’ll have another testimonial to add to your marketing material and bring in even more new clients.