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Looking back on my 8+ years of freelancing, I feel very fortunate because I can’t think of an instance where I didn’t get paid fairly. I think some of the factors that influenced this outcome were out of my control (read:luck) but others were in my control. I hope someone will benefit from what I have to share.

Stay calm

I remember the first big job that I really, really wanted to get. The harder I tried to squeeze down on the opportunity, the more I could feel it slipping through my fingers.

I took a deep breath and let myself calm down. This allowed me to project the stability and results-oriented approach that I needed to win my bid.

I didn’t need the work to survive due to my full-time job, so I had it easier than most when it came to staying calm and collected in my discussions with potential clients.

This benefited me, I believe, by projecting an image of competency and authority. Clients take a risk with any contract that they make and being a calming influence during the whole process can help close more deals.

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Listen, and then listen some more

In my view, no client has a project that you have seen before. Even if the technical implementation and design were exactly the same for two different projects, the temperament and background of the client will influence the level of satisfaction that the client has with the same interactions and deliverables.

I believe that more important than working on a project is building a relationship. Relationships are full of intangibles.

When I think I understand all the requirements of a project, I try to take the time to restate the requirements as I understand them.

My experience has been that listening isn’t just about processing the information they are giving you, it is also about creating space for them to remember forgotten details that may have been left out.

Clients appreciate a magnanimous style that keeps you both looking good.

Don’t delay crucial conversations

Let’s start with the assumption that a client is acting in good faith. Before things go bad, I like to anticipate potential problems as soon as they come up. It can be hard to do, but it gets easier with practice.

I am guessing everyone has their own pet issues that they like to put off but most of these conversations circle around compensation, timing, and project description.

One conversation that got put off and snowballed out of control comes from a friend of mine who got in deep with one client.

On paper he was earning a lot, but the client kept making future work a requirement for getting paid on an invoice for past work. I imagined the conversation went something like this.

Contractor: “Did you get my invoice for $X? Do you have any questions about the work we did?”

Client: "I did get your invoice. I have a couple other things that I need to get done as well. While I am getting your payment together, can you start on the next phase of the project?”

Contractor: …

The client was essentially getting a 0% loan on the money that they owed. The larger the dollar amount gets, the more egregious this practice is.

My friend had obligations to employees and subcontractors. He wasn’t just hurting himself; he was wearing down relationships with people he depended on.

Instead of nipping it in the bud, my friend talked about it to everyone that would listen except with the one person that mattered. In the law there is a “reasonable person” standard, but sometimes reasonable people have misunderstandings.

I try to communicate at the level of “there is no way anyone could have misunderstood me”. Address issues head on. Don’t let them fester.

Don’t assume your client is on the same page

Setting clear expectations about payment up front is a sign of professionalism and will never be off-putting to a legitimate client. An in-person conversation may not always be possible, but I don’t relegate crucial conversations to email only.

There is power in talking with your client and having them verbally agree to most important details of the project: cost, deadlines, and scope.

Email is useful as a record of a crucial conversation but, in my opinion, they should never replace them. Clear communication also feeds back into my sense of calm.

Each new client needs to be taught how you expect to be paid.

Be excellent to your clients

In all your work and communication, hold yourself blameless. I have found that removing client wiggle room helps if they somehow came into the job looking to dodge any of their obligations.

I got to repeat more business and benefited from a word of mouth network effect because I always did my best. I was more confident and firm in enforcing terms because I knew that the work was delivered as promised.

I continued to hone my craft and learn new skills even after I was getting plenty of business from the services that I already offered. I tried to give every new client more reason to be delighted than the last.

An abundant supply of referrals meant less need to go outside my network to find work. Developing a reputation of excellence can lead to better business leads.

Diversify clients to minimize risk

When you get most of your revenue from just a few clients, you tip the power of the relationship in their favor.

I never took the leap into being an agency so my bandwidth was limited to 10-20 hours/week plus the parts of the project I could farm out to my network of fellow freelancers. I tried to keep a mix of new and existing clients.

Pushing off a project for a loyal client to a reasonable, future date has the curious effect of making them more, not less, loyal. Scarcity creates the perception of value. Clients also appreciate when you don’t overpromise on timelines.

Being dependable puts credit into your relationship piggy bank for when the overseeable happens. Don’t put all your time in one client’s basket.

Get paid upfront

I never, ever do work for a new client without some sort of retainer. This is probably the single most important factor on getting paid. If you always get paid ahead of time or get paid a percentage up-front, your rate of non-payment goes to zero.

Other benefits include getting faster turnaround time on feedback. When someone has already started paying for something, they are going to be more eager to get whatever it is that they paid for.

It is nice to give clients the benefit of the doubt, but when it comes to making rent, you are going to go further paying with cash than with promises. Speak softly and carry a big retainer!

Shameless plug

I started doing consulting work for ZipBooks in July and made the jump to full-time in September and haven’t looked back. ZipBooks is free accounting software that helps freelancers get paid faster.

Brad Hanks got his start in marketing consulting after dropping out of a PhD program in Economics. He has worked with enterprises like Lucid Software, small businesses and everything in-between. Brad is currently helping build ZipBooks, a free accounting software program for contractors and small businesses. Brad is the proud father of three daughters who love math and science. He blogs regularly at ZipBooks sharing small business marketing tips.