Peer Advice for Freelancers: 9 Lessons on Setting Client Expectations
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Peer Advice for Freelancers: 9 Lessons on Setting Client Expectations

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 easy to skip over the nitty-gritty parts of a contract. A lot of entrepreneurs are skittish about setting client expectations on scope of work, hours of availability, net payment terms.  Reluctance to hash out unpleasant particulars is understandable — neither side wants to be thinking of negative scenarios during a new partnership’s honeymoon phase. 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, frequency of check-in calls or meetings, calendar milestones, the revision and approval process, and project scope. Then put things in writing, in the scope of work or another template.

We spoke to several freelancers and entrepreneurs who swear that specific strategies have been instrumental to their continued career success. We also asked them for some strategies to deal with clients who are changing the predetermined parameters midway through the game. These generous freelance pros share their wisdom, so that your journey can encounter fewer potholes and more paychecks.

Freelancers’ tips for setting client expectations:

Peer Advice Client Expectations

1. Never forget that time is more than money. Time is life.

Once a company hires a freelancer or contractor on retainer or paid hourly, they often assume that contractor is on-call whenever, as often as needed. A contractor, on the other hand, probably assumes that they’ll put in a finite amount of time based on what the fee was.

Come to an understanding of what the projected number of hours weekly will be, based on budget. Alert the client in writing that there will be an increase in fees if the hours creep above original scope. And for work-life balance, work hours should take place within designated times.

Peer advice:

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

Show Client Support

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.

Peer advice:

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

Peer Advice Client Expectations

3. Figure out the structure and deliverables of the assignment at the outset, not as you go.

Setting deliverables tends to be far more of an issue with brand clients than editorial outlets. If a professional editor is running the ship, they’ll know basically what format they need a piece to be in, and what they want covered, and what the intent is. People from other professions who are not trained in content strategy and development have a much harder time progressing in a linear way through a story’s development, drafting, tweaking and finalization. Depending on how much they personally have at stake, they might tweak a piece of content endlessly in search of a perfection that doesn’t exist.

If you are working on a per-word or per-assignment basis, do not get stuck in an endless cycle of this. Set up your structure, figure out the scope and length of the piece, and tell the client how many rewrites/revisions will be included for the rate. 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.

Peer advice:

Create outlines of content. I do that whether a client asks or not. That way questions get answered on the front end. To define needs before crafting the copy/content etcetera really helps in nailing the execution.

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

Freelancers on assignment:  Ask which expenses will be covered

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.

Peer advice:

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.

Peer Advice Client Expectations: Start fresh threads to make communication cleaner

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.

Peer advice:

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

Share your progress with clients, even if it's not going as planned.

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 high, but communicate ahead of time that you may not hit the stars. Then, share your various attempts, and any progress on them, as it’s happening.

For example, if you’re building media lists and preparing a press release for a new client, and you plan to hit “Send” on that release in two weeks to coincide with a specific event — let the client know the plan, so they don’t sit for two weeks wondering what you’re up to.

Peer advice:

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

Freelancers, rate and weight your clients: the calculation.

7. Rate and weight your clients: the calculation.

When client relationships sour, our gut usually knows it and wants out, while our brains go into analytical mode trying to figure out whether we can afford to leave this client? Whether we really should leave, or maybe are just being too emotional? Whether we’re reading the situation wrong? This internal back-and-forth can go on for years, without any internal resolution on whether you should still be with the client. For folks who want a better formula for making a decision, business writer and author Erik Sherman has devised a way to balance gut feelings vs. logic.

Peer advice:

Writers should rate clients, formally or informally, on all the various aspects that make a difference to the writer. That might include how fast someone pays, pay rate, how much additional business the client generates, client difficulty, and more. I’ve used 11 different categories in teaching the subject. The important thing is to find the ones that mean most to you.

Then you rate a client on each of these, maybe using a 1-through-5 scale, where 1 is the worst and 5 is the best. So, one client is really fast in paying and that’s a 5, while another is often slow, so it gets a 2. Or one client is pretty easy to get deal with and is a 4 while another is incredibly demanding and unpleasant, so a 1.

You also give each of the categories a weighting factor. Maybe pay is more important and that has a 70% importance to you. Something else, like satisfaction, might have an equal weight. The main thing is to estimate how the categories vary in importance to you.

Now, for each client, take the score for each category and multiply it by that category weighting factor. Take all the numbers you get as a result and add them together. You now have an overall score than lets you start to compare different clients. If a client comes out with a really low score compared to the others, it’s one you want to replace. — Erik Sherman / @eriksherman

As a freelancer, it is up to you to ask for fair pay.

8. This is a job — make sure you’re compensated enough for the work.

The rates of pay for editorial are swirling down the drain, and have been for years. But even the digital editors often have some extra dollars tucked away for photo sourcing and rush fees… if they’re directly asked for it. Trade magazines also tend to have a bit of wiggle room. Branded content typically pays quite well for the exact same type of work — and a client will often ask the writer what their rate is, so it’s in the freelancer’s hands to determine what they’ll earn. The other common scenario is where an agency is the middleman, acting as a publisher for a custom publication or a blog.

No matter what, the key to setting a rate is to have a firm idea of how much you need to make, per work day or per hour, in order to thrive. Then figure out how much time the potential assignment will take you (be realistic, not optimistic). And from that, decide how much you need to make — and ask for it.

One other tip — be on the lookout for the casual add-ons that will greatly increase the time you spend on the project. Requests for sourcing multiple photos, creating a video, driving an extremely long distance for an in-person interview, are all additional elements to the job and should trigger a request for more money.

Peer advice:

The key to negotiating with editors is to make it easy for them to justify (or make the case to their editors) that you deserve more money. Nearly every time you get an assignment, you should ask for more money, and you’ll be more successful if you add a justification —because it requires X, Y and Z extra work, or because I’m using my extra access, or whatever. It never hurts to ask — and that goes for expenses, too.

Anything additional after the fact — from super-intense editing to video or photos — I charge for. Most editors completely understand, and I’ve always been impressed at how quickly the money appears when I ask for it.

I took a magazine assignment last year and ended up spending almost $500 of my own money in reporting (mileage, tips, travel). It was scary to ask my editor after the fact, but he said no problem and tacked it right on. I was shocked and very glad I’d overcome my fear of asking for it.

— Naomi Tomky, co-founder Write Like a Honey Badger online academy

Embrace saying "No" to clients or potential clients who don't have fair expectations.

9. Embrace the “No.”

This phrase, coined for this story by longtime freelance journalist and writing instructor Amanda Castleman, neatly sums up the attitude an empowered freelancer should have in a world where your ideas are your currency — and where not everyone will understand them. Also, most prospective clients are going to under-value you either because they don’t understand what you do, or because they’re trying to negotiate a lower budget.

It’s part of human nature to want acceptance and approval, even when chasing it might not be healthy. I can’t count the times I’ve seen freelancers spend months pitching for a $150 newspaper assignment because they wanted the byline. Or kicking themselves because a story was killed, for some internal editorial reason that really had nothing to do with them. Not only are these situations unhealthy, but you should be sidestepping them before you ever accept them, just by pre-qualifying the assignment and the terms.

Peer advice:

The most successful freelancers aren’t afraid to fail. Pitch big! Swing for those fences! There’s no growth without some fear and possibly even some failure.

Carry that courage and resilience into your negotiations. Many cultures contain taboos about money talk and the nitty-gritty of deals — and that hurdle can be twice as high for folks who feel disenfranchised like women and people of color. Shake it off! Businesspeople discuss business. And when the negotiations begin, you will be too expensive for some clients. And you should be too expensive!

If you’re not turned down 40% of the time for being too pricey, then you’re chronically underselling yourself.

— Amanda Castleman, co-founder, Write Like a Honey Badger online academy

Lena Katz

About Lena

Lena Katz's credits as a development producer, casting producer and locations manager include cable TV (WEtv, Revolt, HGTV), and digital-first productions (WhaleRock, mikeroweWORKS, Tastemade). She worked directly for major brands including Suzuki, Hormel and Brown-Forman. Learn more about her company at Variable Content.

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