The biggest challenge in selling freelance services isn’t finding potential new clients. And it isn’t choosing the works to show in your portfolio. It’s creating trust, the tipping point where the questions about your ability transform into a belief that you can do the job. That’s what every sales process does to a prospect: it allows them to trust that you can create the product they need, at a schedule that roughly suits them and according to the budget you’ve agreed.
But trust works both ways. Just as a client who’s just handed over a deposit to a freelancer needs to feel that that sum they’re paying will translate into a product they can use, so the freelancer needs to believe that the deposit they receive won’t be the last payment that comes their way. We need to trust the client to accept good work and pay for it.
The initial process is pretty simple. If the client has come in through a referral, then we’ll already feel pretty at ease about handling the work; a trusted client can lend trust to a new prospect. For other clients, there’s usually half-hour or an hour spent researching who they are and what they’ve done. It’s not actually due diligence, more like a cursory glance to understand who we’ll be working with and whether they look professional. If they have a website that’s well-designed, maintained and up-to-date, they win a little trust. If their LinkedIn profile has plenty of connections, a good background and carefully written text, we’ll know where they’re coming from. If a quick Google turns up nothing suspicious, negative or worrying then we can assume that the client offers nothing to worry about and is just one of the majority of people who are reliable and trustworthy.
“You’re working for Mark Zuckerberg. Really.”
But all those attempts to build trust rely on everyone being who they say they are. In theory, there’s nothing to stop an apparent client from claiming to be Mark Zuckerberg, for example, leaving the freelancer scrabbling to produce work for a valuable client then writing to Facebook for the payment. And there’s also nothing to stop a freelancer claiming to be someone they’re not in the hope of leaving behind a reputation for poor work and missing deliveries.
If either of those situations sounds unlikely, consider that identity fraud rose by 13 percent in 2011, affecting more than 11.6 million adults in the US. The most popular social media platform for stealing identities wasn’t Facebook, where little more than 5 percent of users were affected, but business site LinkedIn whose identity fraud incident rate was a remarkable 10 percent.
It’s a risk that the government has already noticed. In order to prevent money-laundering, regulations now require professional service providers such as accountants, real estate agents and legal companies to conduct identity checks on new clients. To open an account with investment firm Leader Capital, for example, clients need to provide a taxpayer ID number or passport, and “provide identification documents as necessary to enable the Firm to verify your identity.” The company will also screen clients’ names against “various databases.”
Online Photo ID
That clunky process, which has to be repeated every time someone uses one of those services, has led Canadian entrepreneur and IT expert James Varga to try to create a kind of online passport that anyone can use to prove their identity. miiCard opened its beta in February and has been growing steadily in the seven countries the firm supports. Users can sign up then use their online bank accounts to verify their identities, receiving a password through SMS. Finally, they can link their social media accounts to their miiCards, guaranteeing that their Twitter and LinkedIn accounts (and soon their Facebook accounts as well) really do represent them. The cards are free for the first 10,000 users then cost $1.99 per month or $19.99 a year.
The goal is to create an online ID card as trustworthy as driving licenses and other forms of photo ID that would allow users to buy and sell safely online, prove their identities on dating sites and verify their social media accounts — even when they’re not famous enough for Twitter to do it for them.
There is a hope too, though, that the cards will allow freelancers and clients to build up some early trust.
“Your miiCard lets you prove you are who you say you are in your social and professional networks, and replaces the traditional offline identity checks associated with applying for a range products and services in financial and professional services,” says Cassie Anderson, miiCard’s Marketing Manager. “We imagine miiCard could be used in freelance and group collaborations where individuals have never met or done business before and are looking to establish a level of trust before commencing work.”
In practice, for freelancers, the biggest risk is that clients won’t pay them. While contracts can bring some level of recourse, the best solution is to break the payments into milestones so that any amounts lost are minimized. Even if your contract is watertight and you win both the case and costs, there’s no guarantee that you’ll see any money and you certainly won’t win back the time spent fighting for it.
It’s also possible though that some clients will misuse the services you provide, selling your designs as their own, for example, or adding them to their portfolios without due credit. There’s little you can do about that beyond pointing the theft out on blogs and forums, a method that quickly kills the thief’s reputation. A miiCard or other form of ID is less likely to help there than proof that you created the image, design or content first.
But while the identity risks for most freelancers remain low, identity verification could become an issue if more people use it. Once other freelancers are verifying their identities, service providers who don’t could start to look suspicious. That would make winning trust a great deal harder.