Welcome, fellow freelancers! As someone who's been in the freelancing game for a while now, I've learned a thing or two about client management. And let's be real. Every once in a while you’ll get a client who’s a real pain in the a$$.
When I first started freelancing, I was lucky enough to land an anchor client right away. Thanks in large part to their consistent work, I almost doubled my full-time salary that first year. It was a dream come true after years in a “regular” job.
I was so thankful for their belief in me and the regular checks that I let that relationship turn toxic. I set no boundaries, never raised my rates, and let them drive how I was running my business. They often treated me like an employee and at the time, I didn't know how detrimental that can be for a freelancer. By the end of the relationship, I was struggling.
My next anchor client was the exact opposite. They respected my experience and listened to what I advised, expressed their appreciation for the work I did, paid top dollar without blinking, and often asked for referrals for other contractors because they valued my input on who I would work on projects with.
The difference was night and day. After about three years of full-time freelancing, I had an epiphany. I went into that second relationship determined not to make the same mistakes twice. I changed how I “managed” my client and it made an enormous difference in the relationship.
Over the years (and there have been a lot of years), I’ve developed a solid client management and communication process. Eventually, I started mentoring newer freelancers and one piece of feedback I’ve heard over and over is, “More people need to know this stuff!”
That's why I'm here to share with you the 5 essential client management skills every freelancer needs to make their life a little easier.
Communication: The Keystone of Client Management
The first skill you want to develop is communication. I’d actually say communication is the key to every part of client management.
As freelancers, we're often working with clients who have different expectations, preferences, and communication styles than our own. It's our job to bridge that gap and make sure both parties agree.
But how do you do that?
Listen more than you speak
It's important to hear your client out and understand their perspective. Sometimes, clients may not know exactly what they want, and it's up to you to help them figure it out. By actively listening, you'll be able to ask the right questions and provide the best possible solution.
Be transparent about your expectations and limitations
Don't over-promise and under-deliver. If you know that a project is going to take longer than your client expects or that you don't have the expertise to complete a certain task, be honest about it. It's better to be upfront about what you can and can't do than to let your client down later on.
Keep the lines of communication open
Reply to emails and messages in a timely manner, and don't be afraid to give your client a call if you need to discuss something in more detail. I’ve created a client onboarding packet, and I include my communication response times in that packet. One question I ask in my project kick-off call is how long they expect responses to my communications will take. That is the first step. It also makes it easier to ensure that you and your client are on the same page throughout the project, and don't be afraid to ask for feedback along the way.
As freelancers, we often have to juggle multiple clients and projects at once. At least that’s the hope! The problem is that it can be tempting to say “yes” to every project that comes our way, especially when we are first starting out or during times of economic upheaval. Don’t do it. That's a surefire way to burn out and it will prevent you from finding the clients you really want to work with.
I’m not telling you to turn down work if you really need it. But you should avoid projects that undervalue you and projects that don’t support your business goals.
Learning to say “no” is a crucial client management skill. Here are a few ways to say no professionally.
Be honest about your workload
If you're already swamped with other projects, let your client know your schedule is currently full and you won't be able to take on more work. It's better to turn down work than to take on too much and not be able to deliver quality results. I’ve found that most projects aren’t as urgent as the client says they are, so they’ll often shift the deadline to work with my schedule.
If you can't take on a project right now, and the client can’t wait, suggest another freelancer who might be a better fit. This helps your client find the right person for the job and it shows that you're willing to go the extra mile to help them out.
Be polite but firm
Saying “no” doesn't mean you have to be rude. In fact, remove rude from your communication toolbox. Thank your client for considering you for the project and let them know that you won't be able to move forward. Remember, it's all about setting expectations and managing your workload.
One of the biggest freelancing challenges is separating work from personal life. Clients may expect you to be available 24/7, but that's not a sustainable way to work. Part of your client management process should be setting boundaries and sticking to them.
Establish working and response hours
Let clients know what your regular work and response hours are and clearly articulate that you won't be available outside of those hours (unless it's an emergency, of course). If your client knows when they can and can't reach you, it will help manage their expectations and reduce the likelihood of them contacting you outside of your working hours.
Don't be afraid to take time off
Just because you're a freelancer doesn't mean you have to work all the time. Take a vacation or a mental health day when you need it. I would actually encourage you to set a strict time off schedule and stick with it. Take at least a week off several times a year. If possible, set a regular sabbatical time for every few years. I set aside a month off every three years, in addition to taking at least four weeks a year of downtime. Remember, you're your own boss, and you have the freedom to set your own schedule.
Set expectations early on
When you first start working with a client, let them know your process and what they can expect from you. I do this in my client onboarding documents. I recommend including things like how often you'll provide updates, how quickly you'll respond to emails, and what your working hours are. By setting expectations early on, you'll be able to avoid miscommunications and headaches caused by over-eager clients.
Dealing with Difficult Clients
Not every client is going to be a dream to work with. Some clients will be demanding, rude, or just plain difficult. The trick is knowing how to deal with them.
Don't let a difficult client get under your skin. Remain calm and polite, even if they're being unreasonable. Remember, you're a professional, and you should always act accordingly.
Set boundaries (yes, again)
If a client is being overly demanding, let them know you won't be able to accommodate their requests. It's important to set boundaries and manage your workload, even if it means saying “no” to a difficult client.
Be honest about what's possible
If a client is asking for something that's outside of your skillset or expertise, let them know. It's better to be honest about what you can and can't do than to promise something you can't deliver.
Know when to walk away
Sometimes, a client just isn't worth the headache. If a client is being abusive or disrespectful, it's okay to end the working relationship. Sometimes it's necessary. Remember, you deserve to be treated with respect and professionalism.
Managing Client Expectations
Managing expectations is a critical skill for freelancers, as it can help you avoid misunderstandings and ensure that your clients are happy with the work you produce. Happy clients is the goal of client management.
Be clear about your process
When you first start working with a client, make sure that you communicate your process clearly (onboarding documents). Let them know what they can expect from you at each stage of the project and make sure that they understand what they need to do on their end.
Provide regular updates
Keeping your client informed about your progress is essential for managing expectations. I’m not saying tell them everything you’re doing. But do report milestones and set regular times to send a quick email. Make sure that you provide regular updates on the project and let them know if there are any delays or roadblocks that you're encountering.
Be realistic about timelines
It's important to be realistic about the time it will take to complete a project. Make sure that you give yourself enough time to complete the work to a high standard and communicate your timeline to your client. If they want a project faster than you would normally take and it means clearing your schedule, make sure you charge a rush fee in addition to your regular project rate.
Building relationships is a crucial skill for freelancers. Even for us introverts. It helps you keep clients and it can also lead to referrals and new business. Referrals are the best way to build your business. Here are a few tips for building strong client relationships:
Be responsive: Respond to emails and messages in a timely manner, and be available to your clients when they need you, within reason.
Be proactive: Don't wait for your clients to come to you with work. Reach out to them to see if there's anything you can help them with.
Be personable: Building relationships is all about connecting with people on a personal level. Take the time to get to know your clients and their businesses, and show a genuine interest in their success.
And there you have it, 5 essential client management skills every freelancer needs. I’m sure you know that this isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. Mastering these skills will go a long way in making your client management process less stressful. Happy freelancing!