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Make Clients Love You Forever

Dos and don'ts of a happy long-term relationship.

Not long ago, I found myself under the gun. A story I had assigned to a freelance writer needed a big overhaul. Because of another urgent project, I couldn't dig in and revise it myself. The quickest fix would be a brand-new article, so I turned to one of my most reliable contributors. Could she possibly turn in a story I’d assigned a little early? She agreed, and her article needed no revision. It reminded me why other editors often tell me they love her—and why self-employed pros like this writer seldom find themselves short of work. It’s not just that they’re good at the work they do. They know how to make clients want more of them.

I’ve hired many freelancers and consultants over the years at past corporate jobs and now for my two writing and editorial services businesses, Elaine Pofeldt LLC, where I handle projects on my own, and El El Enterprises, where my partner Elizabeth MacBride and I take on larger contracts together. I’ve hired writers and designers, web developers and market researchers. Some always have a full slate of work, while others operate in a state of ongoing financial desperation. Here’s what I’ve noticed about the ones who stay busy, through booms and busts.

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The best freelancers focus on long-term relationships. The writer who did the speedy turnaround for me could have said, “Yes, I can help. I’ll have to delay another client’s assignment, so can you pay a rush fee?” But pros like her recognize that there’s more long-term value in helping out in a pinch than in trying to squeeze a few more bucks from an assignment. The next time I have a great project, she’ll be top of mind.

They have a sixth sense for when clients are crazy-busy. The most successful independent pros pay attention when a client says that a new initiative is devouring all her time, or his daughter’s wedding is coming up next week. That's when they offer extra help. It can be as simple as checking on information the client will need the following week. Savvy independents also recognize that this is no time to add to the client’s workload. If they need help tracking down a lost invoice that week, they’ll get the help they need from someone else at the company.

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Folks who aren’t sensitive to clients’ time pressures are often the ones who find themselves short of work. Recently, one of my retainer clients was swamped with preparations for a big event and asked me to interview a technology consultant the company was thinking of hiring. The discussions with the consultant were progressing nicely, but two weeks before the event, I had to slow the pace of our conversations because the client had no time to talk with me. Impatient, the consultant contacted my client directly to speed things up. Not welcoming this email when he was swamped, my client pulled the plug on the hire. End of deal.



They know industry best practices and share them freely with clients. One big advantage independent professionals have is the knowledge they pick up from clients in different companies and sometimes different industries. Without breaching confidentiality, the savviest freelancers will volunteer this information to clients who are in the market for solutions. I’ve learned about many useful tools from contacts outside my organization—from great blogging platforms to social networks. Sometimes, getting an extra tidbit about a freelancer’s expertise will help me plug that person into a project I otherwise wouldn’t have known they could tackle.

They recognize that clients are individuals with personal career interests. Even a client who loves his/her company could get axed in a fast-changing work environment.The savviest freelancers I know heed the signs that one of their contacts might be leaving soon---maybe there’s been a merger or a new boss is on the way. These freelancers put out feelers to see if they can help, without waiting for their client to send up a flare. It may be as simple as saying, “Wow, Company X just opened up a lot of positions. Did you know that so-and-so came on board as a manager? I heard he’s looking for a second in command.” They might send a LinkedIn recommendation for a client unasked, or act as a confidential reference for one who is covertly interviewing. Often, if the contact does make a leap, a smart freelancer ends up doing work for the old company and the new one.

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They stay out of office politics. One busy marketing consultant I know found that as soon as she came on board to steer a project for a big company, disgruntled employees started seeking her out—to grouse about each other. “I didn’t want to be the office therapist,” she told me. To stay productive and avoid the minefield of being too closely aligned with any of the grumblers, she would quickly change the subject when anyone seemed ready to embark on a long gossip session. Staying neutral helped her remain on board long after some of the complainers departed. If she’d gotten sucked into becoming a sounding board, that probably wouldn’t have happened.

Elaine Pofeldt is co-editor of the $200KFreelancer, a website to help independent professionals make a good living.

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