When freelancers talk to prospective clients, they’re sometimes so eager to land the assignment that they skip a crucial step: making sure the client is actually someone they want to work with.
“Freelancers don’t just have to take work because it’s in front of them,” says Paul Jarvis, a freelance web designer-turned-founder of The Creative Class, which educates other freelancers. “They can screen and evaluate clients to see if it’s the type of work they want to be known for and the client understands and values their expertise.”
Not only can they evaluate prospects, but they should. Otherwise, working with an ill-suited client who wasn’t properly vetted can take longer and add unnecessary stress and possibly resentment on both sides. “If you ignore warning signs early on, you’re going to pay for it later,” cautions Jake Poinier, author at DoctorFreelance.com, freelance writer and author of The Smooth-Sailing Freelancer.
Here, three experts share their strategies for screening clients.
If you’re designing a new website for a client or writing for their blog, you’ll obviously need to understand the current state of their website or blog. “I tend to just see how they currently show up online, what they’re doing now, how they show up on social,” Jarvis says. An outdated website isn’t necessary a turnoff to Jarvis, because after all, that’s why they hire him.
While you’re at it, don’t limit your research to the client’s own website. Also check if the company has unresolved complaints with the Better Business Bureau or complaints on forums or sites frequented by other freelancers, such as WriterWeekly.com’s Whispers & Warnings (for writers) or forums or professional groups focused on the specific type of creative work you do.
“Are they going thru bankruptcy? [Do they] have trouble paying their freelancers on time?” asks Michelle Goodman, longtime freelancer and author of My So-Called Freelance Life. One or two complaints (especially if they’re not recent) may not be cause for concern, but repeated posts from vendors about late payments or by unhappy customers who couldn’t get their concerns resolved could be a major red flag.
Poinier says the single most important question to ask prospects is whether they’ve worked with freelancers before, and if so, how that experience went. “You’re getting valuable information on what they might be like to work with,” he explains.
If they haven’t worked with freelancers before, they may need more hand-holding to understand how the process works and the differences between freelancers and employees. If they’ve had unpleasant interactions with freelancers in the past, try to find out why things went sour. Did the freelancer miss deadlines or turn in shoddy work? Did he or she refuse to take calls on a holiday weekend? Here you might need to read between the lines, since you’re only getting one side of the story, but “you might get an early warning that this may be a challenging person to work with,” Poinier says.
If the client loves working with freelancers and does so often without issues, that could be a positive sign.
Asking a prospect to appoint one person helps them get clarity on who’s in charge of the project. “There’s too much room for scope creep if they don’t appoint one person,” Goodman says. “If you get feedback from two or three people and they disagree, you have to figure out who you go with, and it makes the revision and review process longer.” If they can’t decide who your contact person should be, there might be a rockier revision process.
Try to agree a budget and payment process before you invest too much time and energy discussing other aspects of the project. Caginess about budget can indicate that a client doesn’t value the work or hasn’t budgeted adequately for it. “If they’re constantly bringing up budget or saying, ‘There’s not much budget for this one, but we’ll have more budget down the road,’ that can be a red flag,” Poinier says.
Goodman suggests that you “ask about budget, their accounts payable process, and any other processes/details about money; if they don’t know, tell them you need to know.” Clients who insist on glossing over payment details (“We’ll sort it out later”) or who balk at signing a contract or paying a deposit before you get started could be more headache than they’re worth.
Some freelancers communicate with clients exclusively through email or tools like Slack. But if they go silent on email or you need to follow up on an unpaid invoice, it’s wise to have other ways of contacting them, including a phone number and a physical mailing address, in case you need to send a demand letter (the contract would likely include both parties’ physical addresses; if it doesn’t include theirs, ask for it).
“All of those things [multiple modes of contact, a good contract] are safety nets, and the less safety nets that you have, the more at risk you are,” Poinier points out.
Besides the steps listed above, it’s smart to do a basic gut check before taking on a new client. As part of Jarvis’s start process, he scores prospective clients on questions like, “Do they seem interested in collaborating with me? Do they understand my work?” Even if the prospect has a pristine online reputation and a willingness to send a deposit, they could still be a bad fit if you just don’t see eye to eye.
Susan Johnston Taylor has covered personal finance and business for publications including the Boston Globe, Entrepreneur.com, and USNews.com.[/i]