One of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned in business is that I should never assume I understand my customers/readers/clients -- or my client’s customers.

Instead, I test.

Almost everything freelancers do, we can test multiple versions before we put more money or energy behind it. Prices we set for clients. Cold emails. Pitches. Client work.

If I’m sending an email to customers, I send one subject line to one small group and another to a second group. I use simple (free) tools that let me track open rate and pick the winner.

As a result, more people are reading my emails because I’m sending a more successful subject line to the remainder of my list. Testing allows you to discover what works best and optimize all your business activities.

The only thing that doesn’t change is….

Smart businesses test because they know that they’re not always right -- and even when they’re right, they’re not right for long. They know customer interests and actions change constantly.

An advertisement that worked last year won’t perform well this year. A button on a website that attracted a lot of clicks (and sales) last month no longer converts.

Of course you should try to stay on top of these trends, learn new things, and adapt. But as business owners, it’s hard to stay on top of best practices for your core business skills AND stay on top of best practices for email marketing, and copywriting for your website, and your Twitter account, and the thousand other things you’re juggling.

If you don’t have time to study what’s the best, use your time to test instead.

What can you test?

Testing email subject lines is a pretty common practice. But there are lots of other things business owners should be testing manually.

1. Raising your rates. This is a difficult (but necessary) thing all freelancers have to do at some point. Instead of unleashing the new rates to 100% of your customers, test 10-20% of your clients to see how they react. Or gauge your market’s acceptance of your new rates by only asking new clients first. See if your market will bear your new rate, and if they accept that rate without blinking an eye, maybe you’ll try an even higher rate for your next new client.

2. Social media. An easy thing to test because it’s hard to fail. What gives you the most retweets/shares -- a quote? one of your blog posts? a business tip? Look back over your last month of social media activity. What did the best? Now try to do more of that this week. Did your follower numbers go up? You can only read so many guides about how to get more followers on social media. Instead, jump in there and try to find out what works for your audience.

3. Pitches and cold emails. Subject line testing is probably most important here. I recommend using Mailchimp (which will probably be free for you) and “A/B testing” your subject line. Then vary the content of your cold email to various people. Think about length. Think about how you describe your services, what terms you use, how enthusiastic you are. Obviously you can get the best view of what’s working and what isn’t when you send a lot of cold emails, but do it anyway -- even if it’s just to loosen up your normal style and get you thinking outside the box.

The blessings of unsureness

When I try to guess the results of a test I’m almost always wrong.

I’ll admit, this is sometimes exasperating. But only I know about this unimportant failure (which is not actually a failure).

As freelancers, it’s frequently our role to do work that appeals to our client’s customers. Is it OK to be unsure in front of our clients about what their customers will like and buy? Shouldn’t I know what advertisement or website or copy or Tweet will perform the best? Shouldn’t I say, “Do this; trust me, I am an expert”?

The fact that I don’t know and don’t pretend to know everything is actually great for business.

The very act of recommending testing to your clients -- and knowing what and how to test -- makes you more valuable than the “I know everything” freelancer. Sometimes what a know-everything freelancer produces will do well, sometimes not. A tested product or project will always (eventually) do well. It’s much harder to fail at 3 ideas that to fail at 1.

This also means it’s harder for your client to waste money. Testing manages their risk. This is music to the ears of most clients.

If you offer customer testing as a core service, you just added a ton of real value to your freelance business. As more and more sectors turn towards user testing, you’ll be ahead of the curve.

Depending on your industry, testing is either common practice or totally unheard of. Testing may not be appropriate for your work -- but I’d challenge you to really think through if that’s true. Is there a way that you could test the market, even if it means more work for you? Is there a way that you could segment your client’s audience to do a real test? Is there a way that you could subcontract work to a market research tester who would show that product or service to a group of customers before it goes out?

Of course, you can test out your clients’ reception of your testing service by pitching it to a few first (wink wink).

Freelancers, do you test or recommend testing to clients?