Why (and How) Freelancers and Clients Need to Partner Up

As freelancers, how close should we be to our clients? For two years, I never thought to answer that question — and it cost me much stress and money.

Imagine me hunched over my laptop, trying as hard as possible to not slam my monitor into the wall, wondering why why WHY my client keeps evading all my questions and all my requests for a meeting. Frustrated and desperate, I wonder:

“What could I have done differently? Where did this project go wrong? Isn’t my work just what they asked for?!”

Chances are you’ve been in that exact position before with a project gone wrong. It’s not an easy place to be, is it?

Here’s the deal…

Our projects usually follow a very similar pattern:

  1. You pitch a price.
  2. The clients accepts.
  3. You sign a contract.
  4. You get to work.

How much do you interact with your client after that?

In my experience running a web design and development business, I know that communication with the client changes once the project work starts. After I get down to business, our conversations are usually about:

  1. New ideas that might be fun to add to the project’s scope
  2. Some more new ideas that might be fun to add to the project’s scope

In reality, though, our conversations really should be about:

  1. Gathering resources I need, like content, images, FTP access, etc.
  2. Approving my work

Doesn’t make much sense does it?

As the freelancer, you’re excited to get to work and dive straight into Photoshop, Sublime Text, or whatever your tool of choice may be. A new client and a new project = shiny awesomeness!

Except when it’s not so awesome.

Except when, try as you might, you can’t keep the project within the original scope.

Except when, try as you might, you can’t gather the resources you need to do your best work.

Except when, try as you might, you can’t seem to get along with your shiny new client.

Wait — what’s the problem?

As a freelancer myself, I’ve faced some terrible clients and some unicorn clients. All I want for the future is to never again find myself hunched over my computer in frustration. It’s a miserable place to be, especially when I know just how awesome those unicorn clients can be!

The traditional relationship between a client and a freelancer is lopsided.

  • Clients feel like they hold the power: they decide when to approve the work and when to emit payment.
  • Freelancers feel like the little guy: they’re hoping clients will cooperate and make payment when needed.

It’s kind of a mess. It’s kind of traumatic. It’s kind of the opposite of what we envisioned when we quit our jobs to become freelancers and become independent, right?!

But there’s a solution … and it’s easy to implement. You ready?

Partner up!

That’s right, I said it. My solution is to partner up with your clients.

And no, I don’t mean find a partner / co-founder for your freelancing business. (I did that once. It sucked.)

What I mean is, partner up with your client … because if you and your client start the project acting as “partners”, the project will be as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

Recently, I wrote about “front-loading” your efforts to set the right expectations with your clients, but partnering up is about going one step further.

Partnering up is about both client and freelancer doing the following:

  • making the project’s success the number one priority
  • committing to open collaboration and cooperation
  • being open to any ideas that help the project
  • putting the best foot forward to meet both the project’s budget and goals

Do you know what happens if you don’t?

If you don’t, your client may soon leave you feeling like this:

Glacial pace

And that ain’t no fun, homeslice.

Partnering up is the way to create happier clients with more successful projects. And that’s the way to create more business.

Forevers!

So, how can you “partner up” with your clients?

In my experience “partnering up” with my unicorn clients, here are a few strategies that have worked for me:

1. Set expectations upfront

The probability of a project’s success starts changing even before you’ve signed a contract.

From your first contact with the client, you’re setting expectations — whether you know it or not. How fast you reply to emails, the kind of language you use, the price you set in your bid … everything you do is setting expectations in the client’s mind.

A few things you can do to set proper expectations from the get-go, be sure to talk to your client about the following:

  • how often you will communicate and by what means — phone, email or Skype?
  • how soon you expect to receive assets you request
  • how you will handle bugs or mishaps along the way — bound to happen, right?
  • how you will handle change requests or additions to scope
  • when you will invoice and how you will receive payment, including possible late fees
  • … and more

Whatever is important to you and your business deserves to be discussed before any document is signed or any money exchanges hands.

The trick is to always phrase it as such:

“Decision X is important to my business. I’m sure you understand that I need to _____ in order to be financially responsible with my business. I propose we move forward with Decision Y instead. How do you feel about that?”

2. Phrase the project’s success as your success

When you make your client feel safe in that you view the project’s success as your success, they will relax into the fact that you’re putting your best foot forward.

What you need to ask them is whether or not this project’s success will also be their success.

This may sound obvious, but it’s not always the case (especially when dealing with big companies). Making sure the person you’re dealing with is personally invested in the project’s success will result in a smoother project.

Trust me.

3. Prioritize progress over blame

Some of our frustrations come from our innate human desire to prove ourselves right. The client may be accusing you of going over deadline or not delivering what was agreed to, and our first instinct is to provide written proof of our innocence.

Do you think this leads to a successful project, smooth relationship, and future work?

Hells nah.

I’ve been there, and I know where you’re coming from, but I also know this isn’t the best way to handle the situation.

Instead, I’d recommend trying to say something like this:

“I see where you’re coming from, but my understanding was _____, which we decided in _____ email. That being said, it’s in the project’s best interest that we come to an agreement about how to move on and solve this issue. I propose ______. Are you comfortable with that? If so, I can get to work right away to make it happen and put this behind us."

Before: frustrating. After: a bit less frustrating.

Right?

The project’s success is your success, so peaceful execution is in everyone’s best interest.

Long story short, asking my clients to ask as my temporary partners means no more hunching over my computer in frustration.

On the contrary, it means smooth projects and awesome relationships with my clients/friends.

I’m curious: Could you and your clients act as “partners” while you work on projects together? How so?