Over the next ten points, you’ll learn how to ensure your freelance projects are successful, profitable, and enjoyable.
Why? Freelancing can provide much more than a commodity exchange; it can be an amazing collaboration in which you’re valued for your expertise, paid well, and hired repeatedly.
So, let’s jump right in and start at the very beginning: proposals.
The first thing to keep in mind is that your proposal needs to be clear. Leave out the legalese, lawyer-speak, or anything that isn’t phrased in clear, plain English. We will deal with the legal elements later down the line.
Landing projects from your proposals depends more on the why than the how (i.e., technical specs).
Answering these two questions will set your work apart from most other freelance proposals because you’re not just sharing what you’re going to do but also why you’re doing it and how it will help their business.
Define the problem. What’s wrong, broken, requires an update, or needs fixing? If it’s a redesign, map out why the site is being revised (in the same words and phrases the client used to describe the problem). You only need a few sentences.
Outline your solution. How will you fix the problem? Answer the two “whys” we covered earlier (why your solution and why you) as briefly as possible.
Offer proof. Do you have a testimonial or case study that shows how you solved a similar problem? Share it. If you don’t have a parallel testimonial, provide a general one that speaks to your ability to help clients achieve results.
Clarify deliverables. Use line items to describe exactly what the client will receive, in what format, and how many revisions/changes you’ll provide. Include as much detail as you can.
Attach a price to each deliverable. Don’t list your hourly rate and how many hours it will take you to complete each deliverable, because that punishes your own efficiency. Instead, attach a value to each deliverable based on your skills and problem-solving abilities. Pricing by value emphasizes the quality and benefits of that deliverable without commoditizing your work.
Set a schedule. What’s the proposed start date? When will the client receive each deliverable? Beside the date for each deliverable, list how much of your fee is due at that time so the client knows when they need to pay your invoice for each deliverable.
Describe your process, ownership rights, and bringing the relationship to a close or continuation. If you’re doing anything that requires steps, revisions, and feedback, clarify all those details in your proposal through a Client Service Agreement (CSA).
Sign and date. Enough said!
Next steps. Offer scenarios with clear actions. If the potential client has questions, what should they do? (e.g. contact you by email? schedule a phone call or demo?) Make this clear. People are far more likely to follow instructions if you give them an easy way to do so.
That’s it. No fancy legal bits, no expensive software. This can come later.
Typically, proposals are two to three pages. A template helps, so you can simply open the template and fill in the blanks for any new project. A freelance proposal isn’t just a document to show what you’ll do, it’s also your chance to drive home the value of your services.
In the next point, we’ll talk about onboarding processes for greater efficiency.
So, now that we’ve talked about proposals, let’s move onto the next phase in the typical freelance process: Why You Need Effective Onboarding and how to go about it.
Onboarding processes are important for two reasons:
It seems like a silly test, but we’ve found that if someone can’t read instructions and provide clear answers to questions, the project is destined for failure. For example, if you ask them to share one favorite website and you get 27 examples, warning bells should start to ring.
At a high level, your onboarding process should include things like:
How to Make Onboarding Effective: Key Tips
Here are important things to keep in mind about your onboarding processes:
Even if costs are discussed in a call and you’ve talked about what services you’re providing, how much it will cost, and how long it will take to finish, it needs to be documented.
Legally, it’s good to have everything in writing, but it’s even better to ensure both parties understand and accept the project terms so you never reach the point where lawyers are screaming at a judge about witness badgering (like in a scene from Law & Order).
It’s also a good idea in case the client starts pushing for more work: You can easily refer back to the signed agreement and project terms.
It’s a good idea to build out templates and replicable processes around your onboarding work to help you save time.
Rather than re-writing a process document for each new client, think about creating a document you can quickly customize for each new client. Ask yourself: Are there pieces of the onboarding emails you send that you can reuse over and over? If so, use them to build out templates that make the onboarding process more efficient.
Onboarding is all about getting the client up to speed, so the information you send to a client should include your:
This ensures that you’re both on the same page about expectations for the process—and it shows you’ve got your ducks in a row.
So, is onboarding the most exciting part of freelancing? No, but it’s ultimately what sets your project up for success.
While it might seem smart to quickly accept money for a new project (especially when you’ve got an eager or paying client), it’s definitely in your best interest to set clear expectations about deliverables, costs, and timelines before the work begins. That way, there are no alarms, no surprises down the road and you ensure a positive relationship into the future.
In the next point, we’ll talk about establishing clear payment processes.
The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed: The Only Personal Finance System for People with Not-So-Regular Jobs by Joseph D’Agnese, Denise Kiernan
Let’s talk about getting paid.
How often we hear of stories of freelancers being shorted owed funds. Being repeatedly promised the money as long as they “just finished this one thing.” By the time they finally put my foot down, the bill was huge. Luckily, there are strategies you can apply to significantly reduce your number of non-paying clients.
Use a Net0 Policy
Larger companies typically have time-based invoice payment terms, like Net30 or Net90. This means the other party has 30 or 90 days to pay. Many freelancers automatically adopt this practice too, and while net payment terms might be wise for big companies, they’re not a good idea for freelancers. Here’s why.
If you’re hired for a project and spend your time finishing each deliverable, you should be paid right when the deliverable is complete and approved—not 30 or 90 days later. The whole project could be done by then. If there’s no lag in your work for the client, there should be no lag in their payment. That means Net0.This should help cut the number of late and non-paying clients to zero by clearly stating your expectations upfront.
In order to instantly collect client payments, they need to pay you online through a reputable payment processing system. These systems skim about 3% from each transaction to process the money and transfer it into your account. That cost is worthwhile for many as it provides the peace of mind that comes from seeing the money in their account and knowing they can move on to the next deliverable.
No Payment = Stop Working
As a rule of thumb, if you don’t get paid, you shouldn’t keep working. This rule becomes non-negotiable. It should be in all your proposals, and you should be up front about what it means. As soon as a deliverable is finished and approved, you immediately send an invoice that includes a link to your payment processing system.
Here’s an idea of how to break down your project payments:
Only 10% of the total fee remains at launch because by the time you’ve finished doing your part to this point, the job is basically finished.
Things to Consider Before the Start of the Project
Projects don’t start unless:
Ensuring that you get prompt, timely payments can be uncomfortable. You might feel like making such specific demands will turn off your clients, but we’ve found that the opposite is true. Set polite, firm, and enthusiastic boundaries, allowing the client to understand and respect those boundaries.
In the next point, we’ll get into how to effectively communicate within your freelance work.
Creative, Inc.: The Ultimate Guide to Running a Successful Freelance Business by Joy Deangdeelert Cho, Meg Mateo Ilasco
You know, the key to any successful freelance project isn’t the quality of your work, it’s how well you communicate with your client. Don’t believe us?
Communication Is Key
Think about it like this: You’ve just written an “about” page for a client. The work draws on all your skills, expertise, and knowledge. But you show it to the client … and they hate it. Even worse, they say it isn’t even close to what they wanted, it needs a complete overhaul, and they want to have a call in three minutes to discuss the problem.
What happened? Communication fell short.
Regardless of how amazing your work might be, unless you can communicate effectively with your clients, understand their needs, and express why your work will help accomplish their goals, you’ll end up transforming that amazing work into something awful—or worse, making misguided changes that go against your expertise and best practices.
Now that we’ve established why communication is basically the most important thing ever, what can you do to make sure it’s effective?
How to Better Communicate with Clients
Here are the key recommendations that you have to apply regardless of the type of work you do:
Too many talented freelancers fall short in their client interactions. They pay too close attention to their creative skills at the expense of communication, which ends up ruining what could be an amazing project. Unless you can understand your client’s needs and explain what you’re doing to help them, you’ll end up biting your nails down to the cuticle.
In the next point, we’ll go over a few productivity tips to ensure that you’re working efficiently and making the most of your time.
Let’s talk about productivity.
Productivity is not about finding the right app or website blocker tool, it’s about setting up the right systems and processes to be more efficient. Our big goal around productivity is to find out how we can make the most of our time.
If we can make the same amount of money in fewer hours, then we’re technically earning more: We either take on more work or have the choice to not work as much and make the same amount (which is worth a lot).
Let’s look at four different ways you can increase your productivity as a freelancer.
Track your time over the course of a week or so to find out how much time you truly devote to different work/life activities. (Your assumptions might be off.) You’ll probably be left with three to five hours where you can focus on your core work.
Are you a morning person, a night owl, or a mid-day monster? Whenever you’re the most tuned in, block that time off to do your core work. That means: no distractions or interruptions.
It also means that if you’ve got a few hours to do the work, you’ll do several “sprints” of work, with several breaks in between.
Add these blocks of time for core work to your schedule or calendar (because things that don’t get scheduled, don’t get done). Make sure you stick to this plan unless it’s completely not working (then revise). It really does mean that no client calls, no emails, no ANYTHING but work happens during these time slots.
What’s the single most important task you have to do today? Focus on that, and only move onto anything else when it’s done. Do it no matter what and feel accomplished when it’s finished.
Make sure it’s achievable in the amount of time you’ve got. Otherwise, break it down into a smaller task or group of tasks. If you can’t accomplish a task in a single period, it’s too big, which can lead to stress or overwhelm (like adding “write a book” to your to-do list).
Schedule the hardest tasks first, as they require the most concentration and energy.
Have a “reward” for the end of your focused work period, like a nice snack or a coffee or anything that makes you feel good. Make sure the reward relaxes you, even if it’s for five minutes.
Rituals work because we can focus on what we need to do, not how or when we need to do it. By creating set rituals (processes) for every client project, we don’t have to worry or think about what’s next, what’s still left to do, or what’s missing. We stick to the process and focus on the work at hand.
Think broadly: Even things like having a “deep work playlist” that you only put on when you’re doing your core work can help ritualize getting into the flow of work. (Only listen to it when you’re doing deep work.) The same thing goes for what you wear, where you work, etc.
Remember that being busy isn’t a badge of honor. You work for yourself so you can have more control over your day and your time, not less. Flexibility is one of freelancing’s biggest perks—so don’t forget to take advantage of it.
“Productivity has nothing to do with how much you do, and everything to do with how much you accomplish.” —Chris Bailey, author and experimental productivity expert. That’s all for this point. Below, we’ll go over how to deliver drafts to get positive feedback from a client.
When you’re ready to hand over a first draft to a client, it’s important to use the right language to set the feedback process up for success.
Consider these two client feedback scenarios:
“I’ve designed this new homepage. What are your thoughts?”
“Here’s my vision for your homepage based on our discussions. I chose fonts and a color palette that feels warm and inviting, instead of cold and harsh. I’ve placed the shopping cart icon and navigation button in their current location because this placement created a 20-30% sales increase for another client I worked with in a parallel industry.”
Which is more likely to get approved? Number 2 most probably!
How you present your work is just as critical as the work itself. You need to share your vision and explain your decisions. Whether it’s writing, programming, design, or illustration, you’ve created the solution for a specific reason. Don’t assume that your client understands your reasoning or thought processes. Freelancers always need to sell their work, especially to the people who are already paying them to create it.
We’ve found that leading clients through a discussion of the solution—including how it meets their needs, why we’ve made specific decisions, and how it functions—means they’re much more likely to understand and promptly approve the work (rather than requesting arbitrary changes that don’t serve the project goals).
So, how can you increase the odds that clients will approve your drafts and mockups?
Here are a few recommendations that help make the draft delivering process successful and effective:
Next, we’ll go over guiding clients through an effective editing process.
Let’s talk about effective feedback.
Every project needs revisions. It’s just part of the process. How you receive those revision requests, however, and what you do next, that’s what will set the project on a successful, enjoyable path or send it down a dark, twisty, and stressful road.
Sometimes, clients just don’t respect your opinion, your work, or your reasoning; you should not get defensive but rather be proud of your work and listen to their needs to see how you can adjust it. If you’ve integrated all the points to date and your client still ignores your expertise, then you’ve got one last chance to make things right.
Teach Your Client to Provide Feedback
Feedback makes or breaks projects. But with that said, you have to teach your clients how to give proper feedback. You tackle projects like theirs all the time, but this could be their first or second interaction with a creative freelancer. Translation: They might not know how to critique your work.
So, don’t be shy about telling your client (before the project starts) how to share feedback and request revisions. In order to ensure feedback works for the project and not against it, you have to show your clients how to give good feedback. Be clear—it’s their job to suggest what isn’t working, but it’s your job (as the hired expert) to suggest how to fix it. You and your client both want a successful end result, so asking for a certain kind of feedback isn’t bossy or arrogant, it’s smart. It promotes success.
Additionally, guiding client feedback doesn’t mean you don’t listen or consider their perspective. The opposite is true; you’re listening in a specific and complementary way in order to dig out the root of the problem and make it go away.
Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Feedback
“Change the blue to green.” This is prescriptive feedback.
“This is the same blue that our competitor uses. How can we make our color palette stand out?” This is descriptive feedback.
Scenario two describes the problem (and why it’s a problem), instead of telling you how to fix an arbitrary “issue.”
If your client hasn’t worked with a creative freelancer before—or worse, they worked with someone who didn’t properly direct their feedback—they may have acquired some bad habits, like micromanaging, but it isn’t the end of the world.
Instead, it’s the perfect opportunity to do a little teaching. If they ask for something that won’t work or doesn’t serve the project, it’s up to you to respond in a non-confrontational way. Here’s how to do that:
Overall, you are the only person who can stop bad, prescriptive feedback. It’s not your clients’ job to know how to provide effective critiques, it’s yours to communicate. The end result, for both of you, will be infinitely better. We’re talking less stress, fewer change requests and more savings for them.
Next time, let’s talk about finishing projects and helping clients succeed.
Let’s be honest: There’s no magic genie in a shiny, antique lamp that can guarantee your clients will succeed. There are, however, steps you can take to help a client move toward their goals. Sure, it takes some extra work, but it’s not difficult—and the payoff can be significant.
Outlining What’s Next.
When you finish a piece of client work, you need to show the client how to use and apply it. Even though you’re primarily a freelance writer, designer, programmer, etc., you know what should happen once the client receives your final product. You’ve seen what’s worked and what hasn’t for other clients.
Where should they submit their press releases? How can they use their new copy in a newsletter drip campaign? How can they lay out website pages that convert new visitors to subscribers or paying customers?
Even if it’s just a quick call or a PDF outline that you share when the project is complete, it’s worth your time to provide next steps. For example:
Keep in mind the following:
It’s in your best interest to create happy, successful clients.
Like a parent giving the car keys to a teenager, you can’t just say, “Here you go—have fun!” when you hand over your finished work. You need to set the ground rules, do some careful teaching, and explain their responsibilities.
Create a Follow-Up Schedule
You should also create a personal follow-up schedule to check in with each client—not because you’re the nicest freelancer on the planet (which I’m sure you are), but because those check-ins lead to more work.
Yes, you’re making sure everything is on track and functioning properly, but it’s also a reminder that you did some great work and you’re available for more if and when they need it. Checking in can simply mean sending an email that says, “How is [the project] going for you? Is there anything else I can help with?”
If you get into the habit of doing a little extra work at the end of each client project, they’ll keep you in mind for something awesome down the road. And it’s much easier to work with a previous client (who already knows your process, deliverables, expectations, feedback requests, etc.) than to “train” a new one. You’ve already taught these people how to be great clients.
We’re not quite done on this subject—let’s circle back to go over gathering feedback and social proof to leverage in future opportunities.
Let’s continue the conversation we started above and talk a bit more about gathering feedback that can be used in future opportunities.
How to Gather Feedback
We’ve found that social proof (think testimonials, case studies) is a secret to freelance success. Many freelancers depend on it for the long-term sustainability of their careers. Social proof validates your personal brand and your skills—and they help convince others that they need to hire you RIGHT NOW.
But here’s the thing. We see many freelancers who aren’t actively collecting those testimonials and showcasing the ones they’ve gathered. So, here’s an action plan that can keep you from making the same mistake:
Setting Up Testimonial contributions
When gathering social proof and testimonials, keep in mind that it’s not enough to say: “Hey there, would you be willing to write me a recommendation?” You have to set them up to write a review and make it easy for them to say specific things about you that other clients need to hear. Here’s how.
When writing your request, remind the person you’re writing to about the amazing results you helped produce (so they are fresh in their mind when they go to write your testimonial). A tailored message subtly hands the testimonial writer exactly what you want them to write. You not only provide the hard numbers/results you want featured in your testimonial, but you’re also reminding them that you did it quickly and efficiently. Smart.
Where Should You Feature Testimonials?
The short answer: everywhere. You should be showcasing your testimonials on your website, within proposals, on social media, and on landing pages (to name a few).
Social proof is powerful, so once you have some solid testimonials, put them to work. Don’t let them gather dust in a file on your computer. Let them do the legwork of telling everyone how good you are at what you do. After all, people can only stand hearing you say that for so long.
In our final point below, we’ll get into what should happen after your freelance projects wrap, so you can develop long-term relationships with your clients that most often lead to referrals.
Looks like we’re nearing the end of our journey into freelancing. Let’s wrap things up with a point on the importance of following up.
The Importance of Following Up
Not every freelance client who hires you is going to need you on a long-term or retainer basis. That’s okay: We’re often specialists who come in to help clients accomplish a specific project. That doesn’t mean, however, that once you’re done working with a client, you should let the radio silence creep in between you two.
In fact, keeping in touch with past clients (yes, even the ones you haven’t worked with in a while) is important to the health of your business. When you maintain those connections with the people you’ve worked with, you open doors for future opportunities—even if they’re with another company. Data shows referrals are the top way freelancers get new work.
So, from referrals and recommendations to general introductions, staying top of mind with your clients new and old means you’re more likely to get connected with others more frequently.
How Do You Follow Up (without Being Annoying)?
Here are a few tips:
We’ve now reached the end of this explainer, and you should have a well-rounded strategy in place for making your freelance projects more profitable, efficient, and enjoyable. We hope you’ve learned a lot and wish you the best in your freelance career.
Thanks again for learning with us and feel free to share your stories with us.