One problem many freelancers have when taking on a new client is figuring out if the new client is a good fit. Have you ever taken on a new client and wound up in hell? Someone you simply shouldn’t be working with?

Taking on the wrong clients can lead to a great deal of stress both for the freelancer and the client. There’s the obvious issue of whether you can do what they client needs. A client may say they need a specific thing (or things) but often, they don’t always know what they need.

Until you get to understand their needs better, if you can’t give them what they really need, they’ll be angry, frustrated, or worse. And if you give them exactly what they ask for but it isn’t what they really need, you’ll soon have other hassles, including possible legal action.

Then there’s the client who sounds great when you first talk to her but as time goes on, it’s clear that things aren’t going to work. She doesn’t communicate well. Or review the work in a timely manner but still holds you to deadlines. Or she asks for increasingly large changes and thinks you should easily fit them in under the original scope. Or maybe you have practices that he doesn’t like, like starting work later in the morning and wanting to meet by Google hangouts or Skype (he likes using the phone only).

So how do you figure out if 1) what the client (really) needs is something you can (really) provide and if 2) the client’s personality and practices will mesh with yours?

Solution: Date Your Client!

A good client match is quite a bit like finding a good friend or new partner. It takes time to see how things work. Some clients have been burned with contractors that don’t work so they take up a lot of your time asking for this and that in order to determine if you’re “the one.”

There’s nothing wrong with getting-to-know-you meetings, but if you have excellent references and examples, there’s a limit to how much you should be willing to give away. If you are giving away the store, that’s on you. But you will also want to determine if the client’s style is a going to be a problem and keep you from clients who are a better fit.

The solution is to do what you do with any potential suitor: DATE THEM. What that means is that you don’t jump into a big project from the get-go. That’s like getting married after knowing someone for a week. That’s just crazy. Instead, go out on some dates. They get to know about you. You get to know about their work and them. If it doesn’t work out, you break up at a convenient point and the drama in minimized. You both say goodbye and go your separate ways.

How: The Mini-Project

I typically recommend to new clients that we contract for a project that is about 20-40 hours’ worth of work. Often it is something that will help them with the larger project that they have in mind, such as a small share or some fact-finding. In the course of that small amount of work we will see if:

  • Work is communicated, updated, and managed well
  • Processes work well for all
  • People are happy
  • Problems are minimal and easily fixed
  • There are incentives for everyone to do their best

No blame. The issue here is whether we can work well together and obtain the best outcomes.
Let’s talk about what a perfect mini-project looks like.

What is a Perfect Mini-Project?

I do instructional analysis and design (and related human performance-oriented work) for clients. So a client might come to me and tell me they are looking to take all of their existing instruction that is in a face-to-face classroom based format and put in in an online format. Can I help them with that?

What they’ve just asked me is a huge question with many gotchas. Yes, I do know how to repurpose classroom instruction and put it online. But if they haven’t done it before there is a good chance that they don’t know that every gotcha has many more gotchas. I don’t want to jump into that huge ocean without knowing a lot more about the boat I am potentially getting into.

So I tell them I have a lot of experience with taking existing instruction in a face-to-face classroom based format and putting it into an online format (true). And there are more than dozens of ways to do this (also true).

In order for them to get to know my skills and capabilities and for us to get a chance to work together, I suggest that we select a small initial project that will give us an opportunity to work together and further their goals.

An ideal mini-project has the following characteristics:

  • The project scope is easily constrained
  • The scope doesn’t require the contractor to learn a lot of new information on the clients’ time/dime
  • The project will move the clients’ goals forward

The client can use the project results even if the client and contractor decide not to work together after the mini-project is completed
What I suggested was either:

  • A written plan on how to achieve leadership’s top five desired outcomes via online learning OR
  • A high-level design plan for the top course, describing how this course could be delivered in either synchronous (live) or asynchronous (self-paced) or blended (mix of both) format with types of activities in each format and the pros and cons of each format.

After discussing these two ideas, we settled on something slightly different. And after doing the mini project, the client had some huge ah-has that drove them in slightly different direction and the mini-project saved them from potential loss of resources.

How can you use the mini-project in your freelancing business? Take a look at the ideal mini-project and the type of work that you do and consider what you can do for your new clients that would fit. Make sure that the work will be valuable to clients. Perhaps draw up some templates for this kind of work so you are prepared to deliver.

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT is the president of an internationally recognized consulting firm that provides learning and performance consulting. She is the editor of The Online Learning Idea Book, co-editor of The E-Learning Handbook, co-author of Essential Articulate Studio ’09, and author of Be the Best Boss of You.