Updated: Sep 15, 2018
Whether you’re looking to pursue freelance or contract work as a full-time career or just want to utilize a passion or skill to make some extra dough on the side, working independently is a complicated but rewarding path.
Firstly, congratulations on your decision to be self employed in any capacity. Personal businesses offer a level of freedom and flexibility that is difficult to achieve elsewhere, and with a few key lessons and best practices, you can have a level of success not just with your art but also your professional relationships.
Every professional relationship - whether a team of executives at a large corporation or an individual commissioner - deserves the same level of dedication and care.
As a former account and client service executive, I’ve compiled this list of 5 simple pieces of advice to help your client relationship be as positive as possible.
1) MAKE IT EASIER FOR THEM.
As an artist, you probably have a tried and true way of working. You know when you’re most productive, and when you like to check your email during the day. You even know the perfect amount of coffee to sugar ratio for the perfect cup of joe.
You also probably have a preferred method of communicating. However, keep in mind that it may be beneficial for you to pivot your normal processes and send updates to your client in a way that is easier for them. When working with clients in the past, I had some that responded quickly to email, where others preferred the simplicity of something as casual as texting, even though I preferred email.
Putting yourself in the mindset of your client to help them have an easy and smooth experience can provide more value to both of you in the end, with form of communication above as one example.
THE FOLLOWING ARE WAYS YOU CAN BE EMPATHETIC TO YOUR CLIENT, RESULTING IN A HAPPY CUSTOMER:
How you expect to communicate. Ask your client how they prefer to be reached, as getting quick feedback and approvals is as beneficial to you as it is to them. But again, don’t be afraid to compromise if they prefer something else.
Explaining your process can help the client understand any delays or how their feedback will play into the final product.
Give them clear guidelines for information you need from them. Often, a client won’t know what they’re wanting until you ask the right questions. In their mind, you’re the expert, so they expect a level of guidance in terms of information you need before you start. Create a blank template that you can send your client of information you have to have before you start (preferred color scheme, inspiration images, etc) and be as specific as possible. They may not know if they want something painterly or more stylized until you ask!
2) SET PROPER EXPECTATIONS.
Being honest is a good rule of thumb for any aspect of life. The word 'honesty' can be translated into a more professional term I heard often in the office: transparency. Being a transparent business person sets you up for success and avoids the tricky situation of misalignment at the final deliverable. This basically means: tell it like it is!
Expressing what the client can expect to receive at the end of your project is important. If your project is large enough to require a contract, it’s easy to outline it here: a specific paragraph of exactly what they will receive from you. Otherwise, with a small project, let them know what is included in the cost (one round of revisions, a certain number of in-progress images, etc) upfront through email and ask politely to have them approve the terms before beginning.
Often when we work, we can forget that sometimes customers or clients aren’t in our world. Many of my clients at our technology company had never purchased that type of software before, and in my freelance experience I am often the first artist many people will commission.
Treat every customer with respect, but communicating as if they know nothing about how the process of purchasing art (or equivalent product or service) goes will help avoid misalignment or uncomfortable conversations.
3) GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING.
No matter how much you trust someone (and you should if you plan on working with them) getting all agreed upon terms in writing in incredibly important.
Aside from the obvious pitfalls of someone trying to take advantage of you - which hopefully won’t ever happen - there can be smaller things here or there that someone may honestly forget. Even you!
Getting every element of the project in writing and approved (also in writing) is incredibly important to reference during or after the project. If you discuss something over the phone, be sure to send a follow-up email with all of points discussed and ask them to confirm through email.
The key here is to avoid gaps in knowledge or misalignment as much as possible, and a paper trail allows proof and validity to your understanding.
4) ADD A PERSONAL TOUCH.
The great thing about working in a creative field is that people expect this part.
Even in more traditional business practices, small touches of your personality will always help a client remember you. Maybe you sign your email addresses with just your last name is seem more casual. Maybe you like to send a personalized card on their birthday. Or, maybe you just like things the old-fashioned, hand-written way instead of typing things out.
Adding a small bit of flair to how you do business is crucial to stand out, and luckily as an artist and creative, you get to have fun with this part!
So, experiment with small things that will help your communication feel more personal. Maybe you have a fun sign-off (though try to avoid Livejournal levels of email sigs.) Try following up on a contract signature with a hand-written thank you letter.
5) KEEP COMMITTED ACTION.
The best way to leave a positive impression is follow through. Having a fantastic portfolio is great. Being able to recreate that for a customer is even better. But if you are consistently missing deadlines or needing to apologize for things being late, your career may fizzle before is begins.
"Committed Action" is a phrase commonly used in the office world that describes follow-through and the ability to commit to something you promised and deliver on this promise.
By delivering your product when you say you will and keeping to internally set deadlines, you are communicating to your client that their project is important to you and builds long-lasting trust. This will also encourage your client to re-hire you for future projects.
Not only is this important for your client, but setting deadlines will help you too! Set realistic deadlines and calendars and stick to them and avoid the last-minute rush to avoid an awkward conversation with your client.
Good luck, and remember that a healthy freelance life starts with a healthy client-freelancer relationship!