The swings and roundabouts of freelance client management
Freelance client management is like a box of chocolates: all clients look good but it’s not until you’ve bitten into one that you realise the relationship is a cockroach cluster*. Or a cluster something else, anyway.
One of the benefits of working as a freelancer is that you can choose who to work with. Do not squander this benefit by choosing money over your sanity, at least not for the long term. If your client is a douchebag, don’t be afraid to (politely) ‘fire’ him/her/them. It’s worth it. There’s an opportunity cost if you work for douchebags, because you could be working with someone less painful. However, if there’s nothing in the bank, consider ‘pain pricing’, which is upping your rate for people you know are going to be trouble so you can at least ease the pain with cash.
How to find clients
Many freelance writers start freelancing after they’ve secured some contacts who can give them a decent amount of work. If you don’t have a Rolodex** of clients (or binders full of women) because you’re starting from scratch, or those contacts aren’t giving you enough work to keep you in cheese and wine, you’ll have to find some.
Approach clients you want to work for, whether that’s an editor at a publication or an organisation you like that you think could do with your services. As with any job hunt, do your research as to whether/how much they pay and the kind of work that’s likely to be on offer. Just say there’s an organisation you really like but it doesn’t accept paid content submissions to its lovely website, but will pay freelancers to write its press releases. Do you still want to work for it?
Network with other freelancers. Overflow work is always on offer. Find someone in a similar field to you and take them for coffee. Offer to help them with their workload. Once they trust your work they will feel more comfortable ‘subcontracting’ work to you or referring clients they cannot service to you.
Join freelance websites that post jobs. I do not recommend Freelancer as the kind of work and the rates are rather base, but services like Rachel’s List are worthwhile. It has an annual admin fee of $24.95, but I’ve scored several jobs there that I hadn’t heard about through other means, which easily made it value for money. Pedestrian and The Loop are also popular and worth a look, though I’ve never applied to posts at either of those.
Talk to people at events and have your business card ready, as you never know who might need you. I’ve been to parties where friends of friends ask me what I do and they’ve contacted me for my services. Industry events, for example conferences, are filled with potential clients.
A great percentage of client management is understanding what they expect of you and delivering at or above those expectations. There are two main types of clients I’ll discuss in this section: publications and organisations, under which I include businesses, government and not-for-profits.
Publications tend to have an established structure for managing freelancers. If you haven’t had a job in the publishing industry this process can be a little opaque, so I’ll take you through it.
Generally, the freelancer pitches a story idea to an editor. If the editor likes the idea, s/he will commission it. This involves a brief, a deadline, a word count and a word rate. You deliver on time, to brief and get paid.
Things to note:
- Does the publication accept pitches? (Does it pay?)
- Are there publication or pitching guidelines? Read them, heed them
- Who’s the best person to pitch to? Find them, contact them
- Research the publication: topic coverage, demographics, stories it has run recently and don’t suggest something that’s out of scope or already published
When I receive a commission, I like to confirm a few things before I start work. This is the minimum you need to ensure that you have a leg to stand on should the editor change his/her mind about running the piece (you may be able to extract a kill fee, for example) or should there be a dispute about what you’ve written matching what the editor wanted.
- Brief of story including expectations re: interviewees, images etc
- Word count
- Rate (word rate or fee for whole article)
- Format (if applicable)
- Contract (if applicable). A contract may state payment terms, copyright terms etc. READ THIS. Do not sign or accept the conditions by default if you are not comfortable with it.
ALWAYS SUBMIT YOUR WORK ON TIME AND TO BRIEF. I used to be an editor and it is actually amazing how many writers do not do either of these very basic things. Work that is 80% there but submitted on time is better than 100% there and submitted late. At least the editor know s/he has something to run, even if it may need work!
Follow-up is also important. If there’s no response (even busy editors usually ping back a ‘thanks’), call/email a day later to check if the editor has received your submission. I’ve been saved by this before when my email was playing up. If the editor says the piece needs more work, be available to do the rework promptly.
Once the editor is satisfied, invoice promptly. I like to make sure the editor is okay with the piece before sending my invoice, but for regular clients I now submit it in the same email. Just check what the editor’s preference is if you are unsure. S/he may have an assistant who handles invoices, or you may need to liaise with the accounting department.
If it is not made clear earlier, find out when your piece will be published (whether online or in print) so you can brag about it and add a clipping to your portfolio. It may also be a good time to sound out when the editor will be commissioning more stories and what s/he is looking for—you can then pitch again.
Non-publication clients may engage freelancers differently and it’s certainly my experience that they usually come up with a brief themselves (rather than you pitching to them) and also pay by the hour or by the project rather than the word. My approach is simply to be there to make their job easier. If it’s my job to come up with ideas, I come up with ideas; if it’s my job to fulfil someone else’s brief, I fulfil it.
Just like with a commission, I like to make sure there are certain arrangements in place before I start work. I suggest you:
Ask for or propose a brief. If the client does not have a thorough brief or you are not confident quoting to the supplied brief, don’t be afraid to ask for further details. This is the professional thing to do and will help you scope the work.
Ask for or propose a deadline. If it’s a fairly long project, break up the pieces of work into milestones.
Quote thoroughly. This includes your rate, what is included in that rate, how many hours you think the job may take, and payment terms. Also include provisions for further work/costs should the job take longer than expected.
Some clients, if you give an inch, will take a mile, so be firm about the fiddly ‘extras’ that clients like to include but don’t want to pay for. For example, I include two rounds of revisions in my editing work but if the client comes back and says ‘just one more tiny change’ after those two rounds, I charge. It may be a nominal amount, like $5, but I like to show that there’s a cost to me (and them) to drop everything to accommodate something beyond the agreed brief. It also teaches them to be more thorough with their revisions next time.
As with publications, submit on time and to brief. I admit that I’m absolutely terrible with soft deadlines and will almost always bend self-determined deadlines so I ask my clients to set a deadline for me and I deliver to it. Once the client is satisfied, invoice promptly.
A lot of freelancers like freelancing because of the variety of work and, in addition to keeping you fresh, a diversity of clientele is also good to stabilise your cashflow. My clients are mainly small businesses, publishers, member organisations and occasionally advertisers for a website I run. They pay different rates, in different cycles and the work is different for each.
On the other hand you may wish to specialise because you love a particular industry or type of work (for example you may only want to write feature articles). My only warning is not to put all your eggs in one basket because people move around and what you thought was a reliable commission can suddenly peter out.
How many is too many? Consider the ir/regularity of jobs, how organised you are, and how demanding they are. I have about 20 clients but only 5-6 of them are active at one time. I have one client on a monthly retainer and fairly reliable commissions from two bi-monthly publications; the rest is made up of ad hoc and semi-regular work.
Don’t forget it’s not just about the hours, it’s the headspace you need to service them all well: seven one-hour jobs for different clients will not take you just seven hours.
I’m not always good at this, but I have since learnt to prioritise and hone my time management skills as well as communicate with my clients to adjust their expectations when things are hectic. This is better than having them chase you when you haven’t delivered on time, which will earn you a reputation as being unreliable, which is almost the worst thing you can be***.
My next post will be on the craft of freelance writing.
This is the third of a series of posts based on a freelancing workshop I gave at the National Young Writers’ Festival on 2 October 2015. The first was Notes for the first-time freelancer and the second The Freelance Writing Spectrum.
* Yes that’s a Monty Python joke.
** An olde fashiony piece of office equipment that holds business cards on a wheel.
*** The worst thing you can be is Scott Morrison.