Project management for freelancers

Why Most Freelancers Set Their Clients Up For Failure (And How To Fix This)

By Brennan Dunn

When I first started freelancing, I was focused on all the wrong things.

And these are things you’ve heard me talk about extensively over the last few years, and especially since kicking off this latest series.

My focus was exclusively on what I thought I was good at… in my case, writing web software. But for you, that might be designing, writing, blogging, marketing, or whatever it is you’re — superficially — hired for. I saw myself as a vendor. I have something to offer, code. And the client buys that code by hiring me for however long it takes me to write that code. And when I’m done, I hand it off to the client and trust that they know what needs to be done next.

Truth be told, my early portfolio is a graveyard. I’ve worked with dozens of startups and self-funded entrepreneurs, but have little to show of the work I did circa 2008-2010. I wrote the code I was hired to write, but I didn’t help the business I was hired to help.

In this second-to-last article of the Becoming A High-Value Consultant, I want to discuss some ways that you can set both yourself and your clients up for success.

How To Make Sure Your Clients Thrive

As a consultant, your clients are your best assets. Your relationship with them “intellectual property” that holds your brand up. Happy clients hire you again, refer you to others, and serve as references.

Close with a “Handoff” meeting

Early on, I made the mistake of never really prepping my clients with what comes after I build them the website of their dreams. I would do the work, deliver it, get paid, say our parting goodbyes, and occasionally I might run into my client again.

When I started realizing that a lot of my clients didn’t know what to do next, I started to think about ways that I could provide them value — even after we wrapped up working together.

  • How do you plan on making significant changes to your website?
  • How are you going to market your website?
  • What’s your contingency plan for backups, framework updates, and so on?
  • What do you want this website to be doing a year from now? 5 years from now?
  • What’s the next business goal you want to achieve?

My laundry list of questions (these are by no means exhaustive; they’re mostly reference points) works for me, but might not work for you. But regardless of whatever it is you do, you should make sure you address that last question: What’s the next business goal you want to achieve?

What you do for your client is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. If you’ve sold the project correctly from the start, you know what that puzzle looks like upfront. But once the project’s materialized, that puzzle can change. Rarely does a project and its goals look the same when I deliver it as it looked when I sold it.

I usually scheduled my handoff meetings a few weeks before we wrapped up a project (many of my projects were multiple months long). But the simple fact that you’re signaling to your client that you want them to succeed “post-you” substantially ramps up your perceived professionalism.

Create a “followup” schedule

One of my agency clients, we’ll call him Tony, once hired my team to create a “REALTOR followup program”. At the time I wasn’t quite sure why he wanted to do this, but Tony’s an experienced real estate agent who wanted to break into the wonderful and wild world of software-as-a-service.

In retrospect, his idea was pretty awesome, and one of the core concepts I baked into Sell Yourself Online: The Blueprint.

Tony realized that most homeowners sell their home within 5 years of buying it. Meaning, that home you sold today will probably be up for sale half a decade from now. So Tony had us build a pretty ingenious little app: Let agents enter in their closings, and create an calendar feed that reminds them to followup up with the buyer at given intervals.

  • 2 weeks from close: How’s the home? Any unexpected surprises?
  • 1 month from close: Have you had a chance to meet your neighbors?
  • 3 months from close: Now that you’re settled in, how are things?
  • 1 year from close: Congratulations on your 1 year anniversary!

An agent would get calendar/email notifications on these milestones, and take a few minutes to call their past client with whatever they were instructed to call about.

Can you imagine what sort of effect this has on leaving you with clients who both remember you, are willing to refer you, and will likely come back to you to have you sell their home in 5 years?

The parallel toward consulting is pretty obvious: Come up with a followup schedule that fits the kind of projects you work on. Whenever you handoff a project, open up your schedule and enter a few future entries.

Checkup on your past clients

Another thing you can do is to routinely followup with your past clients. Surprise them, and find out what obstacles they’re currently facing in their business. And bluntly ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

You’re not always going to get repeat work this way, but like the followup method we just discussed, this is a great way to show a client that you’re on their side.

By putting yourself front and center in the minds of your past clients (in a genuinely helpful way, and not by intrusively pestering them for more work), the likelihood that they rehire, refer, and reference you skyrockets.

(I chatted about this in detail with my friend Kurt Estler yesterday, and will be including some of the awesome stuff we talked about around how to write these checkup emails in a future article.)

Celebrate success

If possible, publicly celebrate the successes of your clients.

When I was running my agency, we liked to throw kickoff parties for our client projects. We’d invite everyone in our ecosystem to our office or a local bar — current clients, warm leads, prospects, fans and friends — to celebrate our ability to Get Things Done.

This was a great way to give our clients some nice free promo, but also tease our prospects with the idea of: “Wouldn’t YOU love to be the one being celebrated tonight?” These events were a whole lot of fun, and allowed us to really make a name for ourselves in our local business community.

But if you work remotely or can’t feasibly invite a few dozen people to a bar on a Tuesday night, then a simple blog post writeup can work just as well. Write up a case study of your latest project:

  • What problems were you brought?
  • How did you go about solving them?
  • What roadblocks did you face on the road to the solution?
  • How did you overcome them?
  • What were the results?

These become the case studies you’ll eventually use to win future projects, but they’re a great way to promote your clients and make your blog a client honeypot.

Happy Clients, Happy Life

It should be obvious that the more successful and attached your clients are to you, the more likely they are to rehire, refer, or reference.

But here are a few ways that you can directly use these above tactics to win more work for yourself.

Upsell retainers or productized consulting services

In Double Your Freelancing Rate, I outlined how and why you should setup high-value retainers and productized consulting offerings.

By taking a post-project interest in your clients — via the combination of a Handoff meeting, a followup schedule, and/or periodic check-ins — you’ll discover ways that you can provide ongoing benefits to your clients, either by insuring your work or increasing its efficiency.

The upsell path for an ongoing relationship is much more natural when you already have an ongoing relationship. A lot of freelancers have asked me how to go from a one-off project to selling a monthly retainer. Well, I’ve just covered exactly how to do that! Vest yourself in the businesses of your clients and their ongoing success, and you’ll create clients for life.

Solicit referrals

People are more likely to refer their friends. And whether or not it’s true, keep tabs on your client and you’re now in their friend zone. They’ll know you care about them and the product you delivered them, and they won’t forget that.

We all want referrals. Referrals are relatively easy to close. The hard work of convincing someone is often unnecessary, as the reference passed along his or her “social currency”. If you don’t maintain relationships with your clients, and make it clear as day that you can (and want to be) hired again or referred, you’re not going to get referrals.

In the last episode of the Business of Freelancing podcast, I talked with Steli Efti about how to get referrals immediately after landing a new client; this is how you get referrals on the backend of that client relationship.

You’re less likely to be forgotten

I don’t remember the name of the woman who sold me my house 6 years ago. I just remember she had big, blonde hair.

I’m willing to bet, however, that I’d remember her name had she taken an interest in my success as a homeowner, and not just the transaction. I’ve had dozens of conversations with locals about buying or selling houses, and not once did I ever name drop her.

But how do you think those conversations at backyard barbecues would have been different had she taken a vested interest in me, the person living in the house she sold me? And it’s not even that hard. She just had to setup a few notes and calendar entries that made it look like she cared, even though I’d know deep down I was just a task in her CRM’s todo list.

Are you like my faceless, nameless real estate agent, or do you take a long term interest in the success of your past clients?