Clients do crazy things. There are entire sites devoted to letting freelancers vent about the most recent piece of nonsense that has come out of a client this week. But while it’s easy to get frustrated at clients who just don’t seem to understand, the reality is that there’s a fundamental disconnect between how freelancers and our customers think.
You had better believe that there are plenty of clients out there who get frustrated by what the freelancers they work with are saying. It’s that same disconnect: each side has very different priorities, experiences and even expectations for a given project.
It’s easy enough to suggest that we should communicate more with our clients, but communication isn’t really the problem. It’s understanding.
Project Briefs Versus Real Goals
When a new client brings you a project, she almost certainly has a very clear idea of what she wants that project to do for her. But it’s exceedingly rare that a client wants a project done for the sake of completing that specific piece of work. There’s usually an underlying goal: your client might say she wants a social media campaign with lots of Twitter and Facebook, but she’s really looking for increased sales. She just happens to think that social media can provide those sales.
You need to understand those underlying goals, so that you can make your customers happy.
You need to understand those underlying goals, so that you can make your customers happy. If you pull off an amazing social media campaign but the buyers your client needs to target aren’t on social media, then your client isn’t going to get the sales she wants and will therefore not actually be happy, no matter how great your work is.
Without thinking about your customer’s real motivations, it’s much harder to do the work to the client’s full satisfaction, even though you almost certainly know enough about your speciality to at least be able to tell if a given project will actually accomplish those hidden goals. You have to put yourself in your client’s shoes and think about what their overall goals must be.
What Success Means
Similarly, you need to understand the scale that your clients consider. As freelancers, we tend to think in terms of one-on-one opportunities — after all, if we’re working on one client’s project at a given time, it’s highly unlikely that we’re working for someone else simultaneously. We can think big, but it’s not the first approach we take.
That’s particularly true when discussing how to define success for a given project. You may know that the client wants a project to result in more sales, but how is ‘more’ defined? Would ten new sales be enough to mark the project a win? Or do you need closer to ten thousand? Understanding the scale on which clients operate may take a shift from your own approach.
How Time Works
While it’s not scientifically demonstrable, time seems to run very differently in a client’s office and in your own. It can take forever to get approval to move ahead, or you can be pushed up against a deadline. No matter which direction the time flow issues run in, you need to learn the schedule that your clients follow.
No matter which direction the time flow issues run in, you need to learn the schedule that your clients follow.
Most small businesses and practically all large organizations have fairly standard schedules — like those governing when checks get run for outside vendors or how staff meetings are planned to make key decisions about big projects.
As a freelancer, you probably don’t have too many people focused on what hours you’re working, as long as deadlines are met. Avoiding the standard nine-to-five work day is one of the pleasures of freelancing, after all. But you still need to be able to understand the schedules that govern your clients’ operations if you want to work effectively.
How Your Clients See You
Even when a client is happy to pay you to take on a project, there are going to be certain perceptions about the way you work, which you need to recognize. Every client is a little different but there are a few standards over the years that I’ve seen:
- This freelancer won’t understand the way our company works, so I’ll just plan to go through and make some changes after she finishes.
- I really want this project done in a specific way and I have to find a way to keep this freelancer on track to finish it my way.
- This project is no longer my problem — it’s all on the freelancer’s plate, so I’ll ignore it until the deadline rolls around.
There are plenty of other potential points of view, so you have to make a point of getting into each individual client’s head, if only long enough to figure out where the potential pitfalls of a project are.