• Advice

Why honesty and criticism are good for your freelance business

Are you leading an open, honest business?

An honest freelancer doesn’t just not lie about their skill level or their resume. An honest freelancer also sets reasonable expectations, isn’t afraid to share an opinion when it’s asked for, admits when they make a mistake, and is open about their process.

In your freelance career, even more than in most careers, your reputation is your livelihood. A reputation as an honest, trustworthy, forthright freelancer is the best marketing you’ll ever do.

Offer criticism

“Nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery.”

― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sometimes our clients have terrible ideas. They hire us for projects that we know won’t work well, but we keep our mouths shut because they’re paying us.

You may get money from it, but in my experience, there is nothing less fun than working on a project you know will be a flop.

Some tips for honest criticism:

  • A freelancer should not just be hired to mechanically carry out a project; you are also an expert in your field, and your client is probably looking for your opinion and guidance on how to make a project a success.
  • Chances are the client will at some point as your opinion about the project in the initial stages. This is not the time to be shy. If they’ve asked, tell them what you think.
  • Remember: unlike school or your awful corporate job, many managers don’t like yes men and actually want you to speak up.
  • Don’t just stop at criticism. Be prepared to offer solutions to each of the problems you’ve presented. If a client is interviewing several freelancers, which one do you think they’ll take: the one who just sits there and nods, or the one who sees the holes and knows how to fill them?
  • Your negative feelings about the project aren’t good enough. You need to provide tangible proof that something is not going to work. Reference your experience with other projects and share that experience with your new client.
  • Don’t wait until after the project is complete to offer your criticism. This is not dishonest, per se, but your low parting shot will not win you any praise.

Hear it from the horse’s mouth

“She says he says, but she could be lying to me, and he could be lying to her, so I can’t believe her, even if I could believe her.

― Jarod Kintz, This is the best book I've ever written, and it still sucks

Projects can get messy.

Sometimes you have multiple touch-points in the same organization, the decision-making structure is unclear, someone quits or gets hired, etc. You never want to get into a situation where you relied on information you heard from one person that’s later contradicted by another.

Some tips for honest communication:

  • Ask for one point of contact in the organization you’re working with, if possible. Make sure that person knows they are the “funnel” to you and the default project manager, not you.
  • If the people you’re working for are very disorganized and you can’t get a single point of contact, choose someone you’re working closely with on the project and develop a strong, honest relationship with them. Often they will fill you in on important details.
  • If you hear something from someone else in the organization, double check it with your point person.
  • Never gossip about one person in the organization to another.
  • If you have a complaint to make about the way things are working, make them to your point-of-contact first, and to no one else. Don’t go to their boss or colleagues with complaints before you have addressed your point-of-contact.
  • Never, ever complain about a client on social media. Even if they’re awful. It just makes you look backhanded.

Clean up your mess-ups

“It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.”

― George Washington

How you communicate with a client after a mess-up is a crucial time in your relationship.

In fact, studies show that customers are more likely to rate service highly after a problem if it has been resolved well, than if there was no problem at all. This is even more true for freelance clients, where problems are generally bigger and the relationship lasts longer.

Some tips for honest resolution:

  • Admit that you made a mistake.
  • Deal with the problem immediately and without a lot of overblown apologies.
  • Call them, don’t email about the problem. Plan exactly how you’re going to resolve the issue, and talk them through it.
  • Elevate the quality and quantity of your communications after the incident, to reassure them of your commitment to the project.
  • Don’t over promise. Many times, after a mistake, a freelancer will promise the moon in order to get back on the client’s good side. And this isn’t dishonest: you may actually give them the moon, but you’ll kill yourself doing it. Be honest and reasonable about your availability and your ability to resolve the issue.

And if the mess-up wasn’t your mistake, be forthright about that also: tell them your perspective about where you think the problem originated. Offer help to resolve the issue if you can.

Freelancers, how else has honesty helped you in your business?