Beat the Competition: 12 Ways to be a Better Freelancer

All of our reviews and recommendations are completely impartial but some posts may include affiliate links that can earn us a commission. Click here for details.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: there are a lot of REALLY BAD freelancers out there.

It sounds harsh, but it’s true. And it also presents an opportunity: If you nail the basics that many freelancers fall short on, you can immediately rise above the pack.

In this article, I present 12 ways to be a better freelancer. And being better means more work, and more money.

Why Listen to Me?

I’ve been both working as a freelancer, and HIRING them, for nearly 20 years.

In that time, I’ve encountered so many freelancers who really don’t help themselves:

  • The ones who enthusiastically apply to a gig and then disappear off the face of the earth when you reply.
  • The ones who apply to jobs they’re not suitable for.
  • The ones who miss deadlines.
  • The ones whose work quality steadily deteriorates, and never matches the standard of the first work they do for you.
  • The ones who fall short on attention to detail.

Often it’s highly frustrating to watch these freelancers let themselves down with such basic things – especially when they’re so easily rectified.

In this article, you get to benefit from my experience, and move yourself into the category of freelancers that gets hired again and again.

12 Ways to Be A Better Freelancer

1. Meet Your Deadlines

When you miss client’s deadlines, they often forgive, but they don’t forget.

Missed deadlines aren’t just a source of irritation – they can have far reaching implications: They can hold up other projects, or cost a client in time or money.

Life does happen. The past couple of years have really put that into sharp focus! My wife and I have both had to renegotiate a few deadlines ourselves – for the first time in our freelancing careers.

But even the renegotiation of a deadline should only happen in extreme circumstances. For us, that means “I’m still not going to get this done if I stay up until 3am.”

The key to not getting yourself in hot water with this is to always agree achievable deadlines, with plenty of leeway to allow for things going wrong. If you think you’ll be able to get something done by Wednesday, agree to Friday.

This is the wise, responsible and assertive thing to do – and it gives you the chance to consistently “under promise and over deliver.”

Let’s use the above timeline as an example, and say you end up delivering that piece of work on the Thursday:

  • The freelancer who said Wednesday is a day late, and has an irritated client.
  • The freelancer who said Friday is a day early, and has an impressed client.

It really is that simple, but I see freelancers get this wrong over and over again.

2. Respond Consistently

Almost all of us are glued to our smartphones. We see emails within seconds of them being sent to us.

Despite this, some freelancers respond quickly and consistently, while others take days, or sometimes fail to respond at all.

Which type of freelancers do you honestly think clients prefer to work with?

Some people seem convinced that this kind of inefficiency is just viewed as a quirk: “oh, yes, Fred’s awful with email,” or “oh, no, Sue never answers quickly.”

That’s just fine if you’re the client (well, it’s fine, but it’s still annoying). It’s really NOT OK if you’re the freelancer. You’ll constantly be shown up by the people who are organised enough to respond quickly.

There’s no excuse for not making professional use of technology that allows you to efficiently communicate in a matter of seconds. Typing “I’m fully committed this week but will get back to you on Monday – best wishes,” is something you can do waiting in a supermarket queue or sitting on the toilet!

Stop leaving clients hanging – they don’t like it.

3. Keep The Quality Up

Don’t start “phoning it in” because you feel that your position with a client is secure.

Not only is is disrespectful. It’s also noticeable – and you can be certain that there are plenty of other freelancers waiting in the wings to become that client’s next “shiny thing.”

All too often, I’ve seen freelancers allow their standards to slip over time. Clients often won’t waste their time trying to address it – they’ll just move onto the next freelancer instead.

4. Get Partnerships – Not Gigs

Networking is a tricky thing in the freelance world, especially the online freelance world. Bidding sites like Upwork can make everything feel very transactional: do job, get paid, move on.

But that’s not how the best business relationships work. The exciting stuff happens when you really work with clients to see how you can best serve them – when you share new techniques and tactics you’ve learned elsewhere.

Be ready to demonstrate what you can do; Suggest other ways to help beyond the obvious. It won’t always lead to great things, but it often does. Be useful to your clients beyond the specifics of each individual job.

5. Be Honest

“Well of course I’m honest,” I hear you say. And I’m sure you are 🙂

But I’m not talking about integrity or a moral code. 

Be honest with yourself; Be honest with your fellow freelancers, and be honest with your clients.

The freelance world can feel rather polarised at times. At one end of the scale you have many people on forums and Reddit threads working hard to make their first $100. At the other you have the sites that seem to exist for people to show off their “six figure” incomes.

What about the vast majority freelancers who are somewhere in the middle? The freelancers who have periods of struggle and anxiety, and then periods when there’s plenty of work and life’s all good?

This is where the honesty comes in. There’s no point in bravado. Freelancers face unique challenges that those in “regular” jobs will never understand. So, first off, share the ups and downs with the people who DO understand – whether you find them through real-life networking or on online platforms such as our own private advice group.

Next, be honest with your clients. Have you reached a point when the rate one used to pay is no longer enough to justify your time? Be honest with them. Are they not paying at the frequency and speed you agreed? Be honest with them.

Freelancing’s not a poker game or an episode of The Apprentice. With honesty at the core of all you do, things can become much more straightforward.

6. Tighten your Invoicing and Credit Control

I’m sure there’s no need for us to dwell too much on the epidemic of late payment in the freelance industry. It can be a massive problem.

However, it’s also down to you not to be a pushover, nor to be haphazard around issuing invoices. All too often I see freelancers bring late payment problems on themselves. Key examples include freelancers not issuing invoices on a regular schedule, and freelancers not providing adequate information, lining themselves up for queries and disputes.

We have some related articles on this around effectively issuing invoices and on how to chase late payment

It makes a huge difference if clients are left in no doubt that you treat credit control seriously. Invoices should be sent promptly, to the right person, and always detail exactly what work they are for. If you think these things sound obvious, I can assure you that plenty of freelancers get even these basics wrong.

When invoice payments are a day late, get in contact. If you get to the depressing point where you have to make legal threats, follow through on them. 

This isn’t about being money-grabbing, annoying, or anything other than polite and professional. Just make sure that if a client or a finance team don’t make a promised payment, they can be pretty sure you’ll be on the phone at 9am again the next day.

There’s a real irony here, but which freelancer do you think clients have more respect for?

  • The one who always invoices on the same day of the month, in indisputable detail, and follows up every late payment.
  • The one who’s friendly and likeable, but “slapdash” about even issuing the invoices in the first place.

If you know your credit control and invoicing needs levelling up, a free trial of FreshBooks is worth a go. You can get one with this link

7. Know when to Fire a Client

We’ve talked in detail about firing clients in this previous article. 

It’s not something that happens a lot, but sooner or later in freelancing you find yourself in situations where a certain client relationship isn’t working out. The longer these situations go on, the more toxic they become and the more time you waste.

The key to avoiding a lot of heartache is to learn to spot these situations early. As a random example, sometimes I’ve decided against a gig purely based on the manner and tone of a couple of emails. In these matters, your gut instinct is usually a very good guide. 

Obviously you can’t go canning every client that doesn’t make you entirely happy. There are lots of factors to consider, least of all that need to pay your bills! But remaining in a bad client relationship can rob you of the time and space to find the next good one.  

8. Cherish the “Small Acorns”

I’ve had several fierce debates about those smaller freelance jobs – those first little tasks for a new client, often worth $50 or less. 

It’s easy to be black and white about this, and to separate clients into “the big ones” and “the small ones.” Clearly you have to give much more time and attention to a $10,000 client than you do a $100 client.

But it’s not that simple. In reality, many of the big clients start out as small ones. And you never know which ones it’s going to be.   

Yes, some clients come along, you do a small job and you never hear from them again. But the best ones can build and build, until before you know it you have a relationship that’s created regular work spanning years.

So don’t “phone it in” just because a client is small. Don’t make them feel like bottom priority. Sometimes when it feels like work has “dried up” from a certain customer, it hasn’t really – they’re actually trying or using somebody else. 

9. Keep Learning

Did you add a significant new skill to your resume last year?

If you didn’t, I hope it doesn’t sound too harsh to say that you need to step it up if you want to be a better freelancer. Because hundreds of thousands of other freelancers DID do the studying.

The modern, connected world moves FAST. In everything from blogging to social media there are tactics and techniques that are all the rage one year and obsolete the next. 

The good news is that it’s extremely easy to learn new things, and it needn’t cost anything. There’s lots about free and cheap training options here

10. Diversify

We talk a lot about slashies and portfolio careers on this site. As far back as 2017, Forbes spotted a trend towards freelancers getting involved in more than one activity. 

This has MANY benefits. If one type of work you do goes quiet, you can often be rescued by another one. Furthermore, it gives you a chance to indulge other work-related personal interests and hobbies.

Just be careful not to spread yourself too thinly, or start a bunch of unrelated projects all at once and never finish any of them. It’s easily done.

11. Think Passive Income

At the time of writing, it feels like “passive income” has gone truly mainstream as an objective. 

I personally remember starting to think about the possibilities when I read The Four Hour Work Week back in 2009. Back then it was internet marketers and techies who seemed most interested in the possibilities. Nowadays it seems to be everyone.

Thankfully there are plenty of options, but the golden rule to remember is that passive income is usually what you get only after you’ve put a ton of UNPAID toil into a project.

But it’s totally worth it, and there are many ways to achieve it. Self publish a book, start a blog, design T-shirts and sell them on Society 6. Just START a background project that may one day see income trickling in with little or no effort. 

12. Remember the Freelance Lifestyle

This last one is really important.

If you’re going to put up with all the highs and lows of being a freelancer, PLEASE don’t forget to take advantage of the good parts too.

I see far too much of this. People forcing themselves onto a strict nine to five, doing work that doesn’t fulfil them because it’s what they know, or never taking advantage of the ability to grab a duvet day or an impulsive afternoon of slacking off.

The fact you can do those things is half the point! Work at night if you want, or find ways to combine work and travel, or exercise and learning. At times it does seem that people go freelance and then become their own nightmare boss!

Important: When Clients Walk

If you fail to meet your clients’ expectations, there’s a good chance they’ll never actually tell you about it.

When clients hire freelancers, they have no obligation to keep them in work.

While jobs coming in fits and starts is perfectly normal (listen to this podcast episode for more on that), work “drying up” doesn’t necessarily mean that client has no work to give out. They may have simply decided to work with somebody else.

Often this is through no fault of your own. Many clients constantly look for cheaper options, and “radio silence” could mean they’re trying out a new “bargain freelancer.” Those clients often reappear, as cheap rarely equates to good… Sometimes they don’t.

But clients can also sometimes “go dark,” because they’ve decided they’re not happy with your work, your speed of response, or your ability to handle feedback. Most will avoid the confrontation (and the required time involved) in telling you this – and simply move on to the next freelancer. After all, there are millions of them out there looking for work.

If you’d like more guidance on becoming a freelancer, and enjoy my…direct approach to providing honest advice, check out my Freelance Kickstarter course.

Leave a comment