Things I learned about freelancing 5 years later
I’ve been freelancing for over 5 years now and have come across all sorts of situations. If you were to introduce me to a new freelancer and ask to give them some pointers, here are my top takeaways:
If it feels wrong, walk away
If for some reason you feel uncomfortable about the prospect of working with your lead, just walk away. Your intuition is likely correct. I’ve only gone against my intuition once and had it work out. 99.9% of the time it did not work out well.
If the lead haggles on price, walk away
Haggling is usually a sign of a window shopper. This is a type of lead / client who is looking for the lowest bid and will often be talking to 2-5 other people besides you. They’ll waste your time talking about the possible project, and then hit you with a reduced offer at the end.
Not only is the offer going to harm you, but you’ll find that the client is particularly difficult to work with. Hagglers are a sign of difficult clients. Do yourself a huge favor and walk away.
But, I need the money!
Even if this is the case, unless you are about to starve, I’d recommend walking away. The thing with bad clients is that they’ll keep you on as long as they need you, but you’ll suffer tremendously the entire time. Stress is going to eat away more years of your life than anything you gain by working with these people.
Lead dictates terms of communication
As a freelancer, you are offering a service and the person coming to you is buying your goods. All leverage is in your hands and you have complete autonomy. The moment the lead breaks this dynamic, you can be certain they will continue disrespecting your autonomy.
If a lead starts dictating how you will communicate, when you’ll meet and when to “jump on a call”, this is a sign that they will see you as a subservient service provider - a commodity to choose from.
You are not going to be seen on equal footing going forward, which puts you in a disadvantage throughout the working relationship. This is also a sign of a demanding client, who may end up being unreasonable and cause you a lot of stress.
Lead asks for example work
You might think this is standard and there’s nothing wrong with asking for samples, but from my experience this almost always points to a window shopper. Good leads will already be familiar with your work - either through referral or by some other means (doing research on you). Asking for samples means that person did not do their homework - either lazy, or shopping around (also lazy).
Window shoppers will email around anyone they can find and get quotes, usually with samples. They then make an unqualified decision based on all the wrong factors. If you happen to be “the winner”, you will suffer greatly over the course of your relationship. Window shoppers are not only stingy, but they are also demanding and often disrespectful. They see freelancers as tools to an end, no matter the quality of the work. Your knowledge and experience will hardly matter to their end goals.
In my experience, most agencies are window shoppers and are usually the most difficult to work with. There are occasional exceptions, but they are rare.
If the lead is a marketer or an agency
This may sound harsh, but I’ve rarely had a good experience working with a marketer or an agency. These are people in competitive environments, who often deal in bulk and could care less about the outcome of a single project. On paper they care deeply, but in reality their business is to get people through the door, on the conveyer belt and get them out asap. Helping a client, unless on a retainer, is not profitable.
May, Could, Might red flags
If anyone approaches you using words may, could, possibly, might, this is a red flag. This means the business on the lead’s end has not be committed yet and could (most likely will) fall through. You may hear phrases such as:
”I’ll need help next month…” ”I’m talking to a prospect about X, and they also need Y” ”I might have something for you”
There’s nothing wrong with you waiting for their commitment to be met, but be warned that these people will most likely waste your time. Most business is committed to within a week. If your lead is taking more than a week to get firm commitments on a project from their prospects, there’s a 90% chance it will fall through on their end. All this will do is waste your time.
Your best rate / best quote
“Could you give me your best rate?” ”Could you give me your best quote?”
Both of these are huge red flags which may indicate a window shopper, or a scrappy individual with a low budget, who will typically have unreasonable expectations and will want the world handed to them on a platter. You may as well not reply.
Asking for a quote in the first email while providing you with all the requirements
Courteous, good clients, will first introduce themselves and give you a quick summary of why they are contacting you, followed by asking if you are interested and available.
Red flags will usually give you the entire summary of what they are after “hey, I don’t want to waste your time!” They will also ask for a quote right away. This is yet another sign of a window shopper, non-committing flakes.
It’ll be very tempting for you to start researching their requirements, providing them with detailed quotes, and spending 2 days of your time making sure you cover everything and make a good impression.
This will be a complete waste of time.
How to filter leads like a pro
Here are some things you can do to filter terrible leads:
- Increase your rates. If your industry’s average rate is $70/hr, make yours $100+. If your competitors quote $10k, quote $15k-20k. The higher up the ladder clients you target, the easier it’ll be to work with them. People with money who are not hesitant to get things done will usually not mind your rates. To them, the outcome of your work is more important than what it costs (within reason). There are exceptions to this rule, as with anything in life. Another way to look at it is as a mindset of abundance, vs the mindset of scarcity. Abundant mindsets see possibilities, while scarcity-based mindsets have a host of issues too wide to discuss here.
- Show a range of prices up front. Unless your sales process depends on the art of conversation or upselling the offer, you can filter many terrible leads just by listing prices up front. You could list a range, or a fixed package. The downside is that it may limit your ability to provide ongoing support unless you discuss a retainer following the main project.
- Consider all of the above takeaways. Walk away from non-committing window shoppers, hagglers, marketers and agencies (if you can help it).
- Mention your rate as quickly as possible. This will eliminate 90% of bad leads. If they reply “sounds good” then you can proceed. But if they point out that the rate / quote might be problematic, watch out!
- Require an up front payment. Even if you do hourly work, quote a number of hours that you can reasonably expect to put in, and take half of that, send an invoice. Require that the lead pay it up front. For fixed projects, consider a 50% up front payment or a 33% payment depending on the size of the project. This process does an excellent job of filtering bad clients. It’s not 100% effective but still does a great job.
- Say no to rude and inconsiderate people. Occasionally there will be some misinterpreted tone based on the other person’s culture, or if English is not their first language. (I found this to be the case with most European cultures, where a direct style of communication can often be misinterpreted for rude tone. The joke I tell myself - “are they rude, or are they European? 😂”). If you suspect this is the case, you can still proceed with caution. But if this person is from a similar culture and English is their first language, rudeness and being inconsiderate is a major red flag.
- Give referrals a priority, but still proceed with caution. If the referred lead seems easy to talk to, doesn’t haggle, and is generally receptive to your advice, this is a good sign. But if the said lead does any of the things mentioned at the beginning of this article, be very cautious. Even if they come from a close friend or a co-worker, red flags should be taken seriously.
- Avoid hard deadline projects. If someone approaches you with a hard deadline or some increased urgency, proceed VERY cautiously. There are times where the lead might be great and it could work out, even given the deadline, but often this just means a difficult client.
- You are in control - keep this in mind. You are not an employee and do not have to provide the same level of obedience and compliance. You are a business partner at this point and your partner should be respectful of everything you say and do - as they would expect of you.Great clients will work with you on equal footing, showing respect, listening, and providing constructive feedback.If for some reason your leads feels like they are taking charge of the situation somewhat forcefully, this could be a red flag. There are exceptions with people who naturally lead, but
- Be a great person, do great work. How will this help filter leads? By being a great person, diligent, honest, hard working, providing a great service - you attract other great people. When you work with great clients, they can often refer other great clients. You establish a reputation and a sort of “aura” that attracts great people. It’s kind of like when they say you are the average of the 5 people you keep around you. The clients you keep, reflect on your status in the freelancer community and attract other similar clients. If you hang out with terrible clients, you will keep getting terrible clients. It’s a virtuous cycle - hence why it’s so important to avoid bad leads and clients.