8 Tips To Work With Better Freelance Clients

Are you happy with your clients? Are they giving you projects you enjoy? Paying enough for your time? Hopefully you answered yes, but I often hear freelancers saying they’d like better clients. I thought I’d offer some ideas to help you build a better client list.

Before we get to those ideas let me say this isn’t a post of client horror stories. Sure everyone has had or will have clients who we’d rather forget. For the most part though, your clients are good and honest people.

However sometimes you feel like there’s something missing in your client list and you’d like to get more of that missing element.

Be the boss: Freelance

What Makes One Client Better than Another?

Better is a subjective word. There’s no specific set of requirements in some set amount that makes one client automatically better than another. The truth is only you can define what makes a better client for your business.

Your first step in working with better clients is to define what a better client is. Some things that may define better for you:

  • Clients with more interesting projects
  • Clients that bring out the best in you
  • Clients who give you more freedom
  • Clients with a greater social ethic
  • Clients that pay more money
  • Clients you like personally
  • Clients you believe in

The list above is, of course, incomplete. There are an endless number of things that can define better for you and the list above doesn’t take into account which items are more important.

The main thing is to realize that only you can define better and you have to define it before you can attract better to your business.

Glass ball with upside down garden reflection

Today’s Clients Predict Tomorrow’s Clients

If I could summarize this post with a single thought it would be the work you do today leads to the work you’ll do tomorrow.

Today’s clients will recommend you based on what you did for them. They’re going to recommend you to people they know who are probably like them.

They’ll recommend you based on the reason they chose you and choose to work with you again. If you land a client because you had the lowest price, that client will recommend you as the low cost option.

New leads will choose you based on the work they’ve seen you do in the past. Your portfolio shows them the work you can do and offers proof of your skills. The work you do today is going to help convince others you can do that same work in the future.

If everything in your portfolio is a small site with hand drawn illustrations your portfolio isn’t doing much to convince corporate clients you’re the person for their large and conservative site.

Closeup of a handshake

How to Work with the Clients You Want

Essentially it comes down to doing more of the work you want to do in the future as soon as possible. That’s much easier said than done so here are a few practical tips.

Value Yourself

The most important thing is to value what you do. You and I think it’s easy to set up a quick html page, but that’s only because we’ve been doing it for awhile. It’s easy to forget the years of learning that go into creating a simple site.

What you do is valuable and adds great value to your client’s business. If you don’t see that no one else will.

If you want clients to value your skills, experience, and time, you need to value them first.

Learn to Say No

You don’t have to say yes to every client request or demand. Learn to say no.

Clients will ask you to do lots of things that probably aren’t fair to you. It’s not because they’re bad people or trying to rip you off. They’re usually just trying to get the best deal they can for their business.

You generally won’t lose a client because you say no to a 20% discount or because you won’t work over the weekend. Instead you’ll send a clear message that you value your work and time.

Just say no

Be Selective: Turn Away Bad Projects

There are times when money is tight and you feel like you have to take on any project offered at any price. While there might be times when you have to say yes to stay in business, these times really aren’t that abundant.

Often you’re better off filtering out some clients. Bad business recommends bad business. Taking on a bad project also means no time for the better project that comes in tomorrow.

Turning away business is not easy, especially when there’s a financial need, but turning away bad projects was one of the best things I ever did for my business.

Do More of the Projects You Want to Do

This might sound like a catch 22, but there are ways to do the projects you want even when no one is offering them. You can be your own client. Develop a theme for a popular CMS. Build a site for a new business.

This is also the exception to working for less than your value. Consider if it’s worth a large discount or even a free site in order to shape your portfolio.

A site built for a charitable organization is an easy way to justify any lost revenue. You can consider the lost revenue a marketing expense.

Think of all the example pages and sites you’ve built while learning. Think of this in a similar light. You’re doing free or low cost work in exchange for a portfolio that will help attract the projects you want to do in the future.

Blog About Things that are Important to You

Like a portfolio a blog can show proof of skills. If you can’t work on the projects you want, you can still write about how you would improve similar sites or simply write about things that show you can successfully complete the projects you want.

This is really an extension of the point above. If you’re not currently getting the projects or clients you want, find some way to show you can handle them.

It doesn’t specifically have to be a blog. You can write a book, a white paper, speak at conferences, give away sample code, etc.

Cover of Artful Blogging magazine

Be Selective in What Your Portfolio Shows

You don’t need to show every project you’ve ever done in your portfolio. Be selective. Show those projects that most closely resemble the types of projects you want to take on in the future.

A portfolio isn’t meant to be all your work. It’s meant to be a selection of your work. What you choose to show will affect how people view your ability to work on their project.

Be Where Your Ideal Clients Are

Identify where your ideal clients are most likely to spend their time and then build a presence there.

If you want corporate clients, a small business forum isn’t the best community to join. Do what you can to network with the people you want to work with.

People network with others similar to themselves. Find a way to get into the social circles representing the clients you want.

Build a Brand that Attracts “Better” Clients

Everything you communicate affects your brand. The color scheme of your site, your copy, how you reply to emails, everything. Build a brand that appeals to the clients you want.

Every point above is really one aspect of this one. Figure out what what will appeal to your definition of “better” clients and do what you can to be those things.

Beware though that you may learn along the way that what you think makes for a “better” client turns out not to be all that great when you realize what you have to do to land those clients.

Summary

If you aren’t happy with the clients and projects your freelance business currently attracts don’t get down. Start taking steps right now to attract the clients and projects you want.

First define who those clients are and what those projects will be. You need to know what makes for a better client for you before you can attract that client to your business.

Understand that the work you do today will attract similar work in the future. Who you work with today usually leads to working with more of the same tomorrow.

Be more selective in the work you take on now and the work you show to others. Take incremental steps to grow your business in the direction you want it to grow.

It comes down to having your current business reflect that it’s capable of working with the type of client you want to work with and working more on the types of projects you want to work on.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

12 comments

  1. Hello Steven – Nice article you’ve written here. I especially appreciate the idea of “the work you do today leads to the work you’ll do tomorrow.” It summarizes the possibility that we can create our own fate, not overnight but over the months and years.

    • Thanks David. I absolutely think we can create our fate. Sometimes we don’t really know where we want to go, but if we take steps in the direction we think we want to go we at least get a little closer.

      What you do today really will affect what you do tomorrow.

  2. Very good article. I’ve always had trouble with the “Learning to Say No” concept. It’s hard to say no to potential work when you’re working for yourself. However, in my experience, I’ve found that I do tend to better appreciate the ideal projects, and end up resenting the others. I’ll work harder to implement that concept. Thanks!

    • Thanks Brandon. It’s not easy. It can be very hard to say no to a client, especially when you need the work. And I would never tell someone they have to turn down work when they need the money it’ll bring.

      I noticed years ago that some projects I took on ended up costing more in time than the money paid. Sadly some clients will take advantage. Other times it’s more about us not being interested in the work and doing less than our best because of it.

      Don’t turn things away if you can’t afford to, but when you can be more selective.

  3. This is a helpful, encouraging article. As I’ve been building my freelance writing business, I’ve also (finally) figured out that the less a client is willing to pay, the less likely it is that the client communicates well, the less likely it is that the client knows what he wants or needs, and the more likely it is that the client is wary, looking for flaws, and disappointed. I no longer take low-paying assignments, and I don’t feel any remorse about asking for what I want and letting the prospective client go if my price isn’t low enough.

    • Thanks Carol. I find price can be a good way to determine quickly how serious a client is. I used to hold off on the money talk until I felt like I would probably get the job. Now I bring it up relatively early in the conversation.

      Years ago I would have taken on any job just to get some money in, but now I’m like you. I price according to my value. I don’t feel any remorse either. I know for every person that doesn’t see that value there’s someone else out there who does.

  4. “You can right a book” – under the blogging section, just spotted an error for ya. ;)

    Also, I love the points you make. You MUST value your expertise and time, and market yourself accordingly. Your website is your digital face and it should portray who you are and what you’re about in terms of your business.

    Do you think it’s a good idea to put a base project cost to weed out annoying clients that would just waste your time? Like, all projects start at $300, final price depends on scope of work? I’m thinking of doing that on mine.

    The work we do takes a significant amount of time to learn, even though it’s not physics or rocket science. It’s so much knowledge rolled into one, I feel more people should value their work. The more people will value themselves, the more everyone will be valued.

    • Thanks Daquan. The error should be fixed.

      You have to value yourself before others will value you. That’s true in all parts of life and it applies to business as well.

      With pricing I think the main thing is not to work below your value. I don’t know if that means a minimum price across the board, though I’ve reached a point where I won’t do a certain kind of project below a certain price.

      I don’t want to tell anyone not to take on work if you really need the money, but I find if you take on work for less than your value you just get more of the same.

      We do put in a lot of time learning and I think we also forget how much learning at times. You and I can think it’s easy to build a simple web page, but you have to consider that most people can’t do that. We can because we’ve put in the time to learn how and ideally the time to learn how to build that page very well.

  5. There are some really nice tips and guidelines in this article. I will be sure to pass it on to my freelance friends.

    I like how you stated that “Bad business recommends bad business.” Looking back at my own experiences, I now see the pattern. No wonder I had an onslaught of trouble at one time. I was working to get by, and left myself out of the equation.

    This is a good cautionary read.

    • Thanks M-A. It’s funny. I can trace back so many bad clients back to a single source of word of mouth. The clients I’ve enjoyed working with have usually led to more clients I enjoy working with and those I don’t enjoy working with lead to more of the same.

      Clients ultimately recommend new clients who will be similar to them Maybe not always, but most of the time.

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