Excellent Service: The Key to Freelance Success

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For my first post of this year I’m going to start with some brutal honesty; There are some terrible freelancers out there. What’s more, plenty of them think they’re delivering excellent service to clients, when in actual fact they’re falling far short of what’s expected of them.

Hopefully, after reading this, you won’t discover you’re one of them!

How do I know all this? Well, as well as being a freelancer myself, numerous jobs over the years have required me to hire, fire and manage them. I’ve frequently been left speechless by just how flaky and inept people can be.

While it may be possible to get away with this in a traditional job, it’s not a recipe for freelance success. Excellent service is crucial, and it’s surprising how few individuals manage to truly provide it.

The inspiration for this article was from a reader who emailed me recently asking for tips on what clients are really looking for when they hire freelancers. As someone who does hire them, I’m in a position to answer the question – so let’s get started:

The Main Key to Excellent Service: Consistent Communication

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen freelancers go “off grid” and stop communicating. This usually means they miss out on work. This isn’t excellent service – it’s crap service. Often, by the time they get back in touch, the work has gone to someone more reliable.

Many of the examples of this happening have been mind-blowingly daft. For example, I’ve seen writers send detailed pitches that have clearly taken them lots of time, only to fail to respond when I’ve replied and shown an interest in working with them.

At this point, it’s well worth pointing out my computer essentials for freelancers article. It gives you everything you need to ensure your technology is up-to-scratch for running a freelance business from home.

In this day and age almost everyone has a smartphone, and it’s easy to set them up for email and social media. There’s therefore no excuse “not to see” a communication from a client and respond in a timely fashion.

This doesn’t mean you have to work 24/7/365 – but if you’re not around, you should communicate that to customers.

This means letting regular clients know well in advance if you’re planning some time off, and setting up voicemail messages and out-of-office responses in case people try to get in touch when you’re away. It doesn’t matter whether you make cupcakes, run an ironing business, or manage public relations for a blue-chip company – if you’re not going to be available, communicate it to your clients.

If you don’t do this, your customers may well have switched loyalties to another freelancer or company by the time you return.

My wife and I both work freelance for a number of clients. We recently took three weeks off over Christmas because we had a new baby due. Ensuring all of our clients were looked after, and that they knew they could continue to experience excellent service while we were away (and as soon as we were back) was an enormous task. The planning for it started months before we stepped away from our desks.

If you run a busy freelance business, this kind of planning goes with the territory, and is essential for keeping customers happy and loyal.

Reliability and Adherence to Deadlines

I’ll let you into a little secret here: Being unreliable and missing deadlines doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to get fired by a client – not in every case anyway.

But some of the time, companies do carry on using freelancers who are a bit flaky. However there are plenty of things they don’t and won’t do with and for those freelancers. These include:

  • Getting them involved in any interesting or time-sensitive new projects.
  • Considering them for more exciting and lucrative work when it comes up.
  • Increasing rates or handing out unexpected bonuses. (And, yes, plenty of clients DO do these things when they work with reliable freelancers!)

The truth is, plenty of people are unreliable. I’ve even got the statistics to prove it:

When I carried out a survey on suitability for freelancing on this website, I asked participants to rate their own self discipline. Only 30% of people said that they “always finish what they start and don’t get distracted from their goals.”

While another 50% admitted to procrastinating but not to missing deadlines, almost 20% of people admitted to not getting things done when they plan to.

If you think about this, it tells you exactly what you have to do to provide excellent service to your clients – simply do what you say you will do, exactly when you say you’re going to do it. Immediately you’re more reliable than around 70% of your competition. It’s that simple.

Now, it IS fair to say that nobody can be 100% reliable. Nobody can deny that life gets in the way, something I’m perfectly aware of as a home-worker with a toddler and a baby! However, 99% of the time, you can mitigate any disruption to your clients with honesty and planning.

Some examples:

  • Always negotiate deadlines that give you plenty of margin for error.
  • If you’re never going to be available until 10am because of the school run, ensure your clients know this.
  • Manage expectations – if a deadline might slip, discuss it with the client with plenty of time to go – not on the day they expected to receive your work or your products.

While clients may sympathise with difficulties you experience in your personal life, in most cases they don’t really care – and it’s not their job to.

The great thing about providing this kind of excellent service is that it builds a great level of rapport and trust. This trust comes into play on the 1% of times when you simply cannot do anything other than change your plans at the last minute.

As a recent example of this, my wife, who is never off sick, was truly struck down by “Aussie Flu” just before Christmas. She could barely move on one day and certainly couldn’t work. However, every one of her clients was understanding and helped her work around it. As one of them said, “if you say you’re ill, we know you must be really ill!”

Excellent Service means Fair Pricing

Note here that FAIR pricing doesn’t mean CHEAP pricing! But fairness is crucial to providing excellent service.

One thing I’ve seen many times in my career is companies and individuals trying (sometimes successfully) to charge way over the odds for goods and services because they think they can get away with it. This is short-termist and dishonest.

By charging fairly and honestly, you build the correct relationship with clients – and it’s a relationship well worth developing. If you’re being fair and honest you can say when you’re planning to charge a bit extra because something is complicated or last-minute; You can be up-front if you need to increase your rate because other clients are willing to pay more; And you can “lay your cards on the table” in terms of costs, rather than feel you’re trying to get away with something.

Client relationships don’t have to be about “us and them.” Honest partnerships work better and are far more productive and lasting.

Are you providing excellent service? Ask!

The best way to ensure you’re providing excellent service to your customers is to ask them.

There’s a reason all the big companies continually request customer feedback – they want to know how they’re doing and tweak their service accordingly.

It’s worth emphasising that there are plenty of reasons why people will sometimes continue to use a freelance worker or small business even if they’re not entirely happy with the service provided. Sometimes it’s too much effort to switch to somebody else; Sometimes clients will just take the work they’re getting but not offer out anything more exciting or well paid; Sometimes the client will just quietly shake off a substandard worker when someone better comes along – and they always do come along.

So if you seem to have a problem retaining clients, find you need to regularly respond to complaints, or merely feel as if your relationship with certain customers is more like “going through the motions” than having a dynamic business relationship, have an honest think about where you may be falling short on providing excellent service. The chances are you may be missing out on some of the basics mentioned here.

Recommended Reading: Take a look at this very readable book from the former Executive Vice President of Walt Disney World!

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