As a freelancer, you tend to need to have multiple clients on the go to keep things afloat, right? Besides that, relying on one or two big ones is a risky practice, one that can see you in periods of boom or bust, especially should they ever decide they no longer require your services.
If you’re concerned with maintaining good cash flow, you probably do end up with at least a few clients on the go at a time.
For many freelancers, this can end up being a bit of a hair-raising juggle. What happens when three clients want “urgent” work at the same time? How do you handle it when one is always messaging or calling you, even at the most inconvenient times.
How you manage your clients is a key part of having a successful business. You need to be in control of your time and free to make your business work.
What to do? Here are a few ideas:
Setting boundaries can be a huge issue for freelancers. If you talk with anyone who has been freelancing for a few years, many will tell you horror stories of their early days, where they felt they had to be a constant “yes” person and almost worked themselves into burnout.
This can often come in the guise of the “never-ending project” or the “just a small tweak” client.
It’s understandable why many people struggle with this; you want to please your clients and e go above and beyond, so you worry that putting boundaries in place will put the customer off. Guess what? For most reasonable people, it doesn’t. In fact, setting boundaries (within reason) communicates that you are a professional person who takes their job seriously.
Boundaries you should consider include:
Hours of Work
Have you ever been in the situation where a client has sent you an email at 8pm on Friday night and you’re thinking “oh, I wonder if they’re expecting that I reply to this before Monday?” If you don’t specify, many clients simply send requests whenever they feel like it and expect a quick response.
It’s better to set boundaries on this before they get offended. If you have set hours for yourself (or at least when you will respond to clients), make this clear at the beginning of the relationship. If you don’t work weekends, tell them! Explain that if they email you outside of your work hours, you’ll respond at the earliest convenience within work hours. This avoids a client getting snarky over the weekend because they didn’t get a response.
This is another potential point of contention and piggybacks off the set hours you have outlined; how quickly will you respond to messages during your work day? This is really something to put consideration into. If you’re head-down in the middle of a project and getting some crucial work done, you probably don’t want to have to change focus to respond to a message because you’ve set a short response expectation.
Setting that expectation could be as simple as something like: “I will always respond within 24 hours to your email during work hours, but will try to do so more quickly. If you don’t get an early response, I am writing/designing/working and I only check my inbox after 4pm.”
Most of us have had, or will have at some point the “everything is urgent” client. The one who tries to make lack of planning on their part an emergency on yours, often falling at the weekend or during the evening.
Being clear on work hours can help with dealing with this, but you will still find the client who is asking for a “favor.”
This is where it is important to be clear about how much notice you consider for “urgent” work and whether you charge extra for it. Sometimes having that urgent fee is enough to serve as a deterrent so that only those who really do need things urgently make the request.
Revisions or Modifications
Ah, back to the “never-ending project” mentioned earlier. If you don’t set boundaries around the number of revisions or outright changes you’re prepared to make, you’ll almost definitely strike clients who make endless revision requests.
Be sure to set expectations about timing whenever you do get a change request from a client, particularly if they’ve added something significant to the project. If it’s going to shift the deadlines out, make that clear!
It’s important that your clients feel comfortable and know how to provide you with feedback, so make it clear from the start. Let them know that it’s important for them to tell you of anything they don’t like at each stage. This means that (hopefully!) they provide you with clear feedback to get on with.
As far as how to communicate all of your expectations, some of them may be included in your contract, but otherwise, we know of freelancers who set up a business handbook of some kind to give to new clients. This works if your guidelines will be the same for all clients and means you can easily send out a saved document, rather than have to rehash things for each new client.
Clear (and Simple) Communication Systems
There’s always going to be some give and take in the interests of healthy freelancer-client relationships and you may find that you need to accommodate the form of communication that works the best for your client.
This is something that you should set an agreement and expectations around at the beginning of your relationship with the client. For example, if you’ve agreed that all communications will go to a project management system, make sure that this is what happens in practice. Clear communication is at the heart of successful client relationships and you don’t want things going missing.
Your clients should all understand exactly how to get hold of you, where to find files they might need to review and when to expect communications from you. Along these lines, it might be appropriate for you to set up a weekly check-in call with them, where you can give a progress report and they can ask any questions they have.
How effective is your communication with clients?
Managing the Work
If you’ve set up good systems and expectations with your clients, the rest is up to you in terms of how you manage the work. How do you balance the workload and manage your time well?
You’ll find theories for time management everywhere, but one of my favorites is simply to chunk tasks into blocks for one client. Why? Well, it’s about focus. Unless your work is extremely similar for each, you need to get yourself in the right mindset for each client who you are working with. Chopping and changing can be less than productive because it may take time to refocus on the work.
Manage your calendar
A key to managing multiple clients successfully is to really hone your own calendar. As Kate Hamill points out in a post for Freelancer’s Union, you need to write down everything in your calendar and preferably carry an electronic version of it everywhere with you.
It can be easy to think “I’ll remember that” when you’re in the moment with a particular client, but it’s easy for those kinds of things to get away from you later on, when you’ve switched to work for another client. Keep a note of conversations and preferably note any action points immediately into your project management system where the client can see them too.
Do You “Own” Your Business?
That’s what successfully managing multiple clients comes down to really; you have to think and act as a business owner.
Take charge, set expectations early and be sure not to fall into “employee mode”, especially if this is what you have been used to prior to freelancing. Communicate well and often, and use a system that is easy for your clients.
Every client likes to feel like they’re the “only” one, even if they’re not, but it is possible to strike a balance so that they still feel that their needs are well looked after. When you think about it, your expectations of your mechanic or a tradesperson are that they have other clients too, so why not you? Importantly for you, your clients are kept happy and you still have some time that is not spent on work!