The ranks of freelancers are growing. An October 2016 report by Upwork and Freelancers Union puts the number of independent workers at 55 million–a whopping 35% of the workforce.
But the same things that make freelancing an attractive career option–flexibility, income opportunity, and even job security–lead to some drawbacks. The report found that among full-time freelancers, the second biggest concern behind being paid a fair rate was unpredictable income.
One way to stabilize revenue ebbs and flows and reduce the effort needed to line up new business is to form long-lasting relationships with clients who regularly hire you, says tax expert and preparer Eva Rosenberg, the TaxMama, who has had some of her clients for more than 30 years. “My problem is getting them to leave me,” she quips.
Independent contractors who keep clients for years or even decades operate differently from others who have more churn, she says. She and other freelancers with long-term clients weighed in on how to develop these relationships.
Prospect For Fit
When Leah McCloskey, owner of LM Studio, a graphic design and branding consultancy that has had some clients for more than 10 years, is considering a new client, she looks for more than “a walking dollar sign,” she says. She promotes her firm as a “conscious marketing practice.” She wants to know that the customer’s values and hers will work together. “Some people think that’s touchy-feely, but it really does work,” she says.
She’ll interview the client to be sure they understand the process of branding and graphic design and that she believes in their work. And while some projects are one-offs, she looks for the potential for a long-term partnership where she can help them grow their business. New clients don’t need to tick all of the boxes, but more they fit that profile, the more likely they are to be a long-term clients, she says.
Rosenberg adds that when you find the right clients with long-term potential, you can focus on quality over quantity. A few good clients who value your work and are also looking for long-term partnerships usually lead to a better work environment than lots of clients who assign only one or two projects and then look for cheaper options. If you’re competing on price alone, you’ll always lose to the cheaper option.
Get To Know Them
Freelance creative Meg Matteo Ilasco, co-author of Creative, Inc: The Ultimate Guide to Running a Freelance Business, says that getting to know your clients really well is essential for keeping them long term. “Learn about their values, interests, aspirations and goals–and figure out ways to help them meet them,” she says.
That goes beyond doing the initial research to land the client, she says. Instead, truly understanding your clients and their needs is something that happens over time. “Follow the client as they grow and evolve. Ask them questions. Learn why ideas get rejected. This level of care and interest will help you pitch ideas of value, offer opinions that are well received, and will make you a trusted partner and team regular,” she says. Make yourself as indispensable as possible to secure your relationship.
“I’ve been on the freelance-hiring end for magazine editorial and art and it’s so easy to spot a story pitch that is generic or shopworn, where someone is just looking to see if something sticks. It’s clear when a person hasn’t taken the time to understand the magazine,” she says.
Deliver Added Value
Once she has some insight into the client, freelance writer and marketer Megy Karydes, who has had some of her clients for more than five years, looks for ways to add value. How can you use your contacts, talents or resources to bring benefits that other providers can’t? Karydes uses her professional network to look for opportunities that will benefit her clients and her contacts. For example, two of her clients are organizations of scientists. She makes introductions when it’s useful to those clients and looks for opportunities that can benefit both of them.
“That’s when you become part of the team. You start looking at it as if you really are a team member because that’s what makes you more valuable. That’s why they want to keep working with you because you understand their business,” she says.
Know Your Numbers
To have staying power, clients need to pay you a fair rate on time. To understand what that is, you need to have a good handle on your revenue goals, expenses, and the bottom-line rate you need to meet in order to be profitable. And you need to be comfortable adjusting your rates throughout the relationship, McCloskey says. That’s easier when you’ve become part of the team and contribute ideas and value beyond your immediate role, she adds. When it’s time to up her rates, McCloskey explains why–costs and pay rates go up for everyone–and demonstrates the impact she has had on the organization.
Ensuring you’re paid fairly also prevents the resentment that feeling nickel-and-dimed fosters. In addition, it gives you the space to be more creative and a better team member because you’re not always hustling for business and working on projects to make ends meet, Karydes adds.
Establish Good Business Practices
Don’t reinforce the “flaky freelancer” stereotype. Treat your business like a business and you’ll already be ahead of the game. “Be consistent and be on time. Create consistent high-quality work and submit your deliverables on time or early if possible. If there are any hurdles, communicate them early on in the process. Avoid being that person that’s always asking for extensions or providing excuses for late deliveries,” Ilasco advises.
That also includes getting help when you need it, Rosenberg says. Look for ways that you can affordably build an infrastructure to support you and ensure your time is free to do your best work. As your business grows, you may look to subcontractors, virtual assistants, or even an in-person assistant who can take rote tasks off your plate and leave you free for higher-value (and billable) tasks.