How to establish and maintain awesome client relationships

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Although I’ve worked with freelance clients for years, when I left Buffer early in 2014 it was the first time I’d relied on that kind of unstable income for my entire livelihood.

It was a big shift.

But in the last few years I’ve learned so much about developing and maintaining client relationships.

Freelancing for a living means I spend more of my time looking for work than I’d expected. One minute I’m beating away potential clients with a bat, and the next I’m wondering where next month’s rent is coming from.

Since I spend a good chunk of time courting and vetting potential clients I’ve developed a process that has led me to build some great relationships with companies I respect like Crew and Zapier. When Idon’t follow the process (as I’ll explain throughout this post) I only confirm why I created it in the first place.

Having clear rules in place makes it easy to spot red flags early on and get out of situations I’m not comfortable with. I highly recommend it.

After years of experimenting, here’s what my process looks like now, and why I find each of these steps so useful.

Be clear with expectations before you even start working

If I could break this article down into one key piece of advice for all freelancers it would be to never, ever assume.

I’ve gotten myself into trouble many times by assuming I’m on the same page as my client, or that they understand how I work without me spelling it out. Expectations can often be rectified once you realize there’s a misunderstanding, but occasionally this is how I find out (too late) that a new client relationship won’t work out.

Here are some key expectations you need to set up with every client:

Payment process and fees

Be clear about what you charge, what’s included in that fee, how you invoice, and even what currency you charge in (I’m from Australia but work with many US-based clients who assume I’ll charge in USD).

rates

You should also ask clients what their payment processes are like: Do they pay once the piece is submitted, published, or regularly with the rest of their contractors?

Deliverables

Once you start discussing the work itself, set clear expectations of theformat of any deliverables (For me, this means discussing whether I’ll be sending the client a Markdown document or if they’ll create a WordPress login for me to create new posts on their blog directly?) and the timeline involved.

deliverables

Your process

Although this can seem like overkill, I like to explain to new clients howI work so there are no surprises once I get started. This includes the average time it takes me to create a new piece, my research process, and how I go about including images, approaching SEO for my content, and working with word counts.

What happens when you don’t set clear expectations

Assuming you and your client are both on the same page can lead to some serious issues down the road. For example, I worked with one client where I made the mistake of assuming my content would be published with my name in the byline (I’ve always adamantly refused to do ghost writing, so I wrongly assumed this would never be an issue). Making this assumption put me in an awkward position when the client published my work with major edits under their own name.

This was a big red flag for me. I believe my name, or ‘personal brand’, is part of what my clients pay for and part of why they choose to hire me. I work hard on building my audience and my expertise in content marketing so I can rely on my name as part of why I’m worth hiring.

I’ve since added this to my list of “Things to make clear before working with a new client”, which continues to grow with each misunderstanding I encounter.

Always start new client relationships with a trial period

Just like starting any new kind of relationship, you need to take your time getting to know a new client. I’ve learned from experience that starting with a trial period is imperative.

Although I’m flexible, I usually suggest a trial of two pieces of content for a new client which are paid as one-offs.

trial period

A trial period is the prefect opportunity to look for red flags such as:

How quickly does the client respond to your questions?

Are they clear about what they expect?

Do you understand and agree with their strategy and priorities?

How quickly does a piece move from idea to finished product?

The trial period also offers a chance for the client to get a solid idea of how I work, what I consider to be good content, and what my priorities are when creating new content for their audience.

Any issues that come up while working on the first piece can be addressed in the second. If red flags persist, or one of us is unwilling to compromise, we can end the relationship easily at that point. If I’m unsure about the relationship after working on two pieces but my client is happy, it’s usually no problem to extend the trial period while I continue assessing whether it’s a good long-term fit.

Each client has their own content strategy, goals, and audience to adjust for and sometimes those adjustments are just too far removed from my own for me to be comfortable with. A trial period lets me assess how well my style fits the client’s needs and what they expect from me.

Be open and upfront about any issues

Sometimes red flags can be resolved.

It’s always a relief when I bring up a concern and find the client is more than willing to discuss changes to their approach or our process of working together.

Confusion and frustration often come from simple misunderstandings. Being open and upfront about my concerns or why I think an alternative option would work better can lead to an enlightening discussion for both of us, and potentially help resolve the issue so we can continue to work together.

For instance, when a client insisted on inserting keywords for SEO into my work that weren’t related to what I’d written about, I was extremely uncomfortable with the end result. Through discussion we were able to find a compromise for that trial piece of content where we both felt our needs were being met.

seo email

Had I been clear about my feelings on keywords and how they fit into my content initially, I might have avoided that situation—probably by not working with the client at all, since we had very different priorities—but rather than walking away at the first sign of trouble I was grateful that we could agree on an approach that fit us both.

Take an interest in each other’s success

Relationships are two-way streets, and the best client relationships I have are the ones where we both want to see each other succeed.

This is by far the least tangible aspect of my process, but one that I try to pay attention to when I first start working with a new client. I usually find this interest in mutual success manifests itself in two main ways:

Sharing your resources

When I publish work I’m proud of for a client, I include it in my weekly newsletter and share it with my audience on Twitter. I’ve been building my own audience for a few years now and when I work with a client, my audience is one of the things they get on top of the actual time I spend working for them.

I’ll also send out requests for syndication, or introduce my clients to editors at other publications that might syndicate their content in the future (if its a good fit). When I’m creating interesting content for clients who have a great strategy and care about their audience I want to help them build that audience and get more people to benefit from that content.

In return, I’ve had editors give me references and introduce me to connections they have when I need help. Sometimes this is an introduction to a new client, or sometimes one of my clients will have a friend who can help me in some way with my own business. Knowing that my clients want me to succeed makes me more comfortable in asking for help.

Sharing what we’ve learned

Rather than just being a gun for hire, when I work with a client I offer up my cumulative experience in content marketing so far: different approaches I’ve tried, how I’ve grown my own audience, and so on. On the other hand, the best clients I work with are the ones who share their analytics so I can get a better idea of what content works best for their audience, how my content is performing, and how to create new content that will help them move closer to their goals.

This part of the process relies more on gut feeling than the others. I’ve never worked with a client who made it clear they didn’t want me to succeed. But I can definitely tell when a client does want me to succeed. It’s always a great sign when I get constructive feedback that’s focused on helping me to improve my content overall rather than just making a particular piece of content drive more traffic.

Any time clients share positive feedback about the results of my work and what’s working best I can take that feedback and use it on all of my work, for all of my clients, and even my own business.


I’m lucky enough to have the flexibility to choose who I work with at the moment, so I’d rather choose clients who are creating content and products I believe in, and who reach an audience I identify with and to whom I believe I can bring value. This process isn’t about comparing clients or branding them as “good” or “bad”. It’s about finding the clients who fit my values and my process, and steering clear of the ones who don’t.

My process is a work-in-progress and I’m continually redefining my limits. If you’re a freelancer, or thinking of becoming one, I encourage you to start working on your process as soon as possible. It will change over time, but as soon as you start building a solid checklist for yourself, you can lean on it to help you make solid decisions about who to work with.

Image credit: David Marcu

Brought to you by Aplus Plastic Box Co supplying all your #plastic storage solutions, Plastic Storage Containers, Australian Made,  Plastic Boxes, Plastic Bins, Plastic Storage BoxesFirst Aid Cabinets, Air ToolsToolsBone Creepers, Wheels and CastorsSpare Parts CabinetsParts Drawers and a Large Range of Coat Hangers.

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About pboxco

Aplus Plastic Box Co is an organisation dedicated to providing the best possible service in our field. Our reliability and quality of our products make us one of the fastest growing organisations in Australia today. We provide a wide range of plastic and industrial goods that suit a vast range of industries. Our goods are delivered to every corner of Australia, New Zealand and across the world, export is not a problem. Freight cost is kept to an absolute minimum by our innovative packing methods. We are wholesale and retail. If you are looking for volume why not ask our friendly staff for a quote or just email us at: pboxco@bigpond.net.au Web: plasticboxco.net.au

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