How can freelancers set client expectations? Develop an approach driven by clear communication and transparency. To set expectations, document the scope of work, timelines and deadlines, payment terms, your hours of availability, and your role as freelancer. This ensures both sides understand the working relationship.
In the excitement of kicking off a new project or especially a new client-vendor relationship, it can be very easy to skip over the nitty-gritty unpleasant parts of a contract. A lot of entrepreneurs are skittish about setting client expectations: scope of work, hours of availability, net payment terms, even extremely important things like commission on co-pitched deals. Neither side wants to be thinking of negative scenarios or discussing dealbreakers during the honeymoon phase of a new partnership. But in almost any project, unforeseen hiccups will arise, and it truly eases the situation if terms are in place to deal with it.
So, before you dive headfirst into your next collaborative partnership, do each other a favor: Discuss every detail. Structure not just the billing system, but time commitments, calendar milestones, the revision and approval process, and project scope. Then put things in writing, in the scope of work or other contract. It might seem like a tedious and unpleasant prelude to “the work,” but we spoke to several freelancers and entrepreneurs who swear by specific strategies that have been instrumental to their continued career success — and who are generous enough to share their lessons learned through harsh experience.
Experts’ Tips for Setting Client Expectations
1. Never forget that time is more than money. Time is life.
Remember, time is often more precious to the contractor than the hiring party. Negotiate a rate that ensures a certain number of contracted hours, plus increases if the hours creep above original scope. And for work-life balance, work hours should take place within designated times.
“I have a full-time role and consult on the side. I try to get clients to agree to project fees for big things like a content calendar or a social media training, as well as hourly rates for ongoing work, since I have to be very efficient about my time… And being more efficient means I get paid less when I work only hourly. I have a weekly call with most of my clients, which I do one day a week, and apart from that I tell them I’m only available via email during the workday, and I don’t answer on the weekends.
“Also, I hard stop on work if I’m not getting paid within the agreed-upon window. I will continue to answer emails pleasantly, but emphasize that that’s what I’m waiting for to get back to work.“
— Kate Winick, social media manager
2. Show you’re there to support the client.
Consultants, establish yourself as support for your client, not competition, and not someone who’s coming in to pass judgment or criticism. It can be nerve-racking to bring in a new team member, especially for the people who didn’t make the decision and are wondering whether the new resource is there to pick up their slack. Great consultants or vendors know how to augment a team and fill in holes.
“Oftentimes people inside the company think you want their job. Make sure, right from the beginning, that you are here to make their lives easier. You are here to support them and make them look good. You are not after their jobs.”
— Kim Livengood, founder, Eclipse Agency
3. Include revisions in the initial scope.
If you are working on a per-word or per-assignment basis, build a number of revisions or edits into the scope of work. The standard is two. Anything over that commands an additional fee – or if there’s been a major change in the brief, it may become an entire new assignment.
“My fee includes two (2) revisions. Anything above that gets a new fee. I’ve never had to do more than one since putting that into play.”
— Jenna Mahoney, editor and lifestyle journalist
4. Ask which expenses will be covered.
Even if the project fee or day rate is generous, try to estimate your expenses — and ask which ones will be covered. This is especially important for jobs that involve travel or lots of unexpected small purchases: event planning, writing, photography, production or new business development.
“Last year I started asking for more. Phrased as an assumption, on one assignment, I said: “Great! Mileage is covered, right?” They added an extra $100 to cover it (less with taxes, but it raised the rate of the story more than 10 percent). The story went to the Sunday section cover and I asked for double because they wanted me to rewrite it at almost double the word count.
“My photographer on that story got a $500 day rate, mileage for 300 miles, and the hotel the night before expensed because of an early call-time. So they had the money as a news organization. I also stayed in a hotel, but didn’t dare ask to expense it. He was done by noon, whereas I still had to write my story.”
— Anonymous*, journalist
*Source asked to remain anonymous to avoid a conflict with the news organization.
5. Start fresh threads to make communication easier.
When the email communications get convoluted… Start a fresh thread. Edit down the length. Or if you must add more, break it into outline form.
Lengthy, multi-colored email threads with umpteen snippets and inline responses are the bane of workplace communication. People reply to an old thread rather than starting fresh to remember projects from the start, to keep an electronic paper trail, and to have all details in one place. But before long, 10 people are CC’d and 15 different responses stacked up in the inbox.
If it hits the aggravation point where people are just endlessly trying to clarify each other’s statements, the problem is probably the thread itself. Start fresh. Just hit the high points. Keep it succinct and bullet-pointed.
“In another life, I worked for the United States Department of Agriculture as an Employee Development Specialist. One of the key communication strategies that I learned was: Most humans only can retain between 5-9 separate thoughts/ideas/items on a list. They will divide larger numbers of items into chunks — and only remember and refer to the overarching “main idea” that characterizes that chunk of information. So to ensure the reader intakes the most information, the writer of a memo or email should only include five or fewer thoughts/items in one communique.
“If you have to include more, break the items into 2-3 groups, each group with a heading and associated sub-ideas. Write the sub-ideas in bulleted format and the shortest possible sentences.”
— Greg Tillman, producer/director/editor
6. Share your progress, even if it’s not going as planned.
In fields like PR or strategic partnership developments where third-party traction is crucial to hitting KPIs, aim sky-high but communicate ahead of time that you may not hit the stars — and then share your various attempts, and any progress on them, as they happen.
“If press coverage isn’t coming — or it’s not coming soon enough, or the outlets aren’t grand enough — I find that the most beneficial thing I can do is bring the client along on the journey. Keep in touch with them as much as seems productive. Let them know when something is promising — though I’ll caution not to get one’s hopes up too high — and if it doesn’t pan out, at least they knew that it was being considered (i.e., that their project IS getting on important folks’ radars).
“The field of publicity is wildly annoying to me because of this intangible energy-in, energy-out unpredictability. Discussing expectations and shifting them mid-way through with the client’s consent is a HUGE part of the process.”
— Lynn Tejada, publicist, Green Galactic