Want to Stop Floundering? Focus on Long-Term Clients
If you’re like most freelancers, you’re spending a lot of time and effort trying to find new clients. And you’re probably stressed out and frustrated. There’s an easier way to succeed as a freelancer: Build trusting relationships with your clients and nurture them into long-term clients.
Make More Money, Do Less Marketing with Long-Term Clients
Freelancers who have long-term clients, like Katherine (Kathy) Molnar-Kimber, PhD, make more money and do less marketing than other freelancers. Kathy provides reliable and professional medical writing services for foundations, medical communication companies, biotechnology firms, medical societies, and other clients.
About 80% of Kathy’s business as a freelance scientific and medical writer comes from repeat clients and long-term clients. Repeat clients have hired Kathy for a second project and long-term clients have hired her for at least three projects.
Like Kathy, about 80% of my business comes from long-term clients. I call these my anchor clients, extra-large clients that I can count on for steady, high-paying work.
Having long-term clients means that Kathy and I know that we’ll make a certain amount of money every year. And it’s easier for us to get new clients with less marketing.
“Long-term clients are happy with your work so they are more likely to provide testimonials and referrals, helping you to expand your business,” says Kathy.
Testimonials and referrals are both important because clients want to do business with freelancers they trust. Testimonials on your freelance website and referrals from clients (and other freelancers) are proven ways to quickly build trust with clients who don’t know you yet.
Reduce Stress, Do Less Administrative Work with Long-Term Clients
Less stress and less administrative work are other benefits of having long-term clients.
Not knowing whether you can make enough money is very stressful. Long-term clients are basically a guarantee that you’ll have enough steady work to make a certain amount of money every year. Long-term clients also reduce the stress of needing to learn how each new client does things, and the amount of administrative work you’ll need to do.
Since you’re using each long-term client’s process over and over, it takes you less time. “You already know your clients’ preferences and you can be more efficient in producing the type of documents they want,” says Kathy.
Non-billable administrative work, like developing and negotiating contracts, also takes less time when you have long-term clients. Instead of having to do these tasks for many freelance jobs and many clients every year, you’ll do them for a few long-term clients and occasional other clients. Often, you can use an annual contract with long-term clients.
Long-Term Clients: A Win-Win for Clients and Freelancers
Clients are looking for freelancers they can work with again and again. Having long-term relationships with competent, dependable freelancers makes things much easier for them.
So long-term relationships with clients are a win-win for both clients and freelancers.
Choose the right clients to turn into long-term clients. The right clients are your ideal clients: Clients who pay you well, give you steady work that you enjoy, and treat you with respect.
Here are 7 ways to turn your clients into long-term clients.
#1. Make Life Easier for Clients
Everything that Kathy and I do to win and keep long-term clients meets the key need of all clients: making their lives easier.
Clients need freelancers they can trust to get the job done right, and to do this on time and on budget. “Freelancers who do this are often rewarded by repeat and long-term clients,” says Kathy.
Take Keith D’Oria, one of my former clients. We worked together when Keith managed freelancers at Physician’s Weekly, a medical news and information service for healthcare professionals.
“I only trusted a few freelancers completely, meaning I could trust them to get it right the first time and turn in work that fit the exact specifications we needed,” says Keith. “When the workloads got heavy, I knew I could trust Lori (and several others) to get me what I needed in a timely fashion.” Keith and I worked together until Physician’s Weekly hired in-house writers.
#2. Identify the Goals and Requirements of the Freelance Job
To meet—at a minimum—or exceed the client’s goals and requirements for the freelance job, you need to understand those goals and requirements.
Some freelancers, says Keith, didn’t do a good job because they didn’t understand Physician’s Weekly’s audience or the type of content that was necessary.
“Newer freelancers sometimes are reluctant to ask enough questions to nail down the specifics of the actual project,” says Kathy. “They may feel that they look inexperienced. Actually, it’s the opposite: asking detailed questions shows that you have done it before. Identify the specific goals and target so that you can meet them or preferably exceed them.”
While asking questions is good, don’t be a pest. Review the freelance job carefully and make a list of your questions. Don’t continually send the client one question at a time. When new questions come up as you work on the project, ask the client to ensure you understand what you should be doing.
#3. Do More Than Expected
Clients always know when a freelancer does the minimum on a freelance job. They appreciate it when we do more than expected, which Kathy calls providing exceptional value.
“As freelancers, we always want our clients to look great to their reviewer, boss or client.,” says Kathy. “Then they’ll want to work with us again.”
Offering suggestions for improving the freelance job is a great way to do more than expected. When Kathy makes suggestions to her clients, she starts with “Consider. . .” One of Kathy’s suggestions helped a client turn a manuscript that had been rejected at least four times into a published journal article.
Initially, the client was reluctant to accept Kathy’s suggestion. But after journals repeatedly rejected the manuscript, the client took her suggestion, which involved creating 3D models showing the genetic changes described in the manuscript. Kathy referred the client to a colleague who could develop the 3D model, and then helped the client write the section and revise the manuscript to address the prior peer review comments. “The next submission was accepted,” says Kathy.
And I always look for ways to do more than expected, like referring clients to other freelancers or vendors who can help them and sending weekly updates on long-term or multi-part projects. This lets the client know that I’m working on the project and helps me stay on schedule to deliver the freelance job on time—or a little earlier.
#4. Set Yourself Up to Deliver on Time
Clients count on freelancers to deliver projects on time. “Think about what it does to a company when you’re on tight deadlines and a freelancer doesn’t deliver. The work still needed to be done, which meant it fell back on my lap,” says Keith.
Kathy suggests making sure that your contracts give you enough time to complete the work after receiving resources from the client. “Sometimes, newer freelances assume that the resources will come quickly but sometimes they don’t. If at all possible, indicate in the contract that the deliverable is due xx days after receiving the resources,” she says.
And my work involves a lot of interviews with doctors. I usually have to wait two or three weeks before a doctor is available for the interview. So I make sure that my proposals and contracts state that my deadline is contingent upon the source(s) being available for the interview(s). If the client is providing the contract, I add this to the contract.
# 5. Be Upfront About Your Experience and Expertise
Never lie to clients about your experience and expertise. Instead, show how the experience and expertise you do have qualify you for the freelance job.
For example, when a new client asked Kathy about her experience writing about a specific disease, she explained that she had written about processes involved in that disease but not the disease itself.
When the same client asked about Kathy’s experience with a specific type of grant proposal, Kathy was honest about not having written that type of grant proposal. But she mentioned that she had written and reviewed other types of grant proposals.
“I explained that if they would send me a template, and answer a few questions along the way, that I was sure I could deliver. We agreed to several interim milestones to ensure that the write-up would match their expectations, and it worked very well. The project was funded and this led to additional projects with the client,” said Kathy.
Not all clients are as willing to let a freelancer try something new. If you know you can deliver but the client won’t hire you for the freelance job, try again with another client.
And if a freelance job is truly beyond your experience, offer to help the client find a qualified freelancer. The client will remember your help and your honesty, and may come back to you with a freelance job that is right for you. The other freelancer will be grateful for the referral and will think of you when she/he has a freelance job to refer out.
#6. Be Accessible (Within Reason)
Lack of communication is a major turn-off for clients. Keith says that some of the freelancers he hired simply “went dark”; they failed to respond to repeated emails and phone calls. “Some actually took an assignment but never completed it or reconnected with me regarding updates on status of the project,” says Keith. These freelancers didn’t get more work from Physician’s Weekly.
Freelancers need to be reasonably accessible to clients. That means responding promptly, but also setting boundaries with clients.
For example, I reply to emails within two hours and answer the phone during normal business hours (8 AM to 5 PM). But I NEVER respond to emails or phone calls (except for previously scheduled interviews) outside of normal business hours—because I don’t want clients to expect me to always be available.
Kathy tells her clients that she usually checks her emails at 9 AM, 12 PM, and 5 PM. “This arrangement gives me some uninterrupted time to write,” she says.
#7. Be Grateful for Your Long-Term Clients
Showing your gratitude is a great way to build trusting relationships with clients. And trusting relationships lead to long-term clients.
Most freelancers don’t show that they’re grateful for their clients. Keith found that many freelancers “made us feel like we were being given a favor to have their assistance (it happened a LOT). These people didn’t get repeat business,” he says.
There are many ways to show your gratitude. Kathy thanks clients for the opportunity to work with them in emails and on her invoices. She also looks for opportunities to give “genuine compliments on some aspect of their management style.”
Like Kathy, I thank clients on my invoices. I also send holiday cards and gifts (cards to all clients and gifts to my best clients).
Along with helping you turn more clients into long-term clients, showing gratitude can also make you happier and healthier. Studies show that being grateful can:
- Increase your energy and happiness
- Boost your self esteem
- Strengthen your resiliency
- Improve your immune system.