• Advice

3 stages of client relationships and how they impact your profits

I’m a firm believer that you can remain a freelancer as long as you want, and that you don’t have to grow into an agency, or “switch to an entrepreneur mindset” or whatever the buzzword du jour is, to have a fulfilling and profitable career.

We’re freelancers because we want to be, not because we’re not able to figure out a different business model. So let’s be the best freelancers that we can be.

Your current stage of evolution as a freelancer affects your rates, profits, income stability and earning potential more than anything else.

The 3 stages of evolution I describe in this article are defined by your relationship with your clients. When you grow as a freelancer, your client relationships will deepen, and this will enable you to provide more value to them, while also getting more value in return.

Here’s what each stage is like, and what you can do to move forward through them.

Stage 1: The Technician

Other terms people use for this stage are order taker, pixel pusher and code monkey.

Typically, the job of a technician is to implement the client’s strategy, exactly as the client prescribes. Even if the client is not proficient in the freelancer’s line of work, they will act like they are, thus driving the freelancer’s impact on the project to the very minimum.

If the freelancer proposes a solution that’s better than what the client initially had in mind, they will likely be ignored, because the client doesn’t take them seriously.

This stage has a limited earning potential because you’re treated like a commodity. Clients are constantly questioning your rates and asking for itemized pricing sheets on your invoices to make sure they’re “getting their money’s worth.” Since your impact on the project is limited to doing what the client tells you to, anyone with the technical skills you possess can take your place. Freelancers in this position are well aware of this, and agree to ridiculous terms the clients push on them in fear of losing the gig.

In the very beginning of your career when you’re still learning your craft, this stage is pretty much inevitable, and I don’t know many (if any) freelancers who were never technicians at some point in their career. There’s no reason to be ashamed if you currently find yourself in this phase, but it’s in your best interest to get out of it as soon as you can.

It’s important to note that even if you graduate to the next stage, you’re still at a risk of slipping back. This often happens when you take on the wrong type of client who doesn’t have sufficient respect for your expertise, because you’ve missed the red flags in the sales conversation.

In an effort to rush to the project finish line and get rid of the client as soon as possible, you fall back into the technician mode. We often do this to protect our emotions and sanity when the client starts having unreasonable demands. Doing what they want without complaining expends less energy than trying to educate them to getting them on board with your professional process.

To avoid this trap, be prepared to walk away from the client who keeps trying to push you into the technician role, even if this means losing some money in the short term.

Stage 2: The Expert

The expert is the consultant who advises the client on the strategy, as well as the implementation.

Strategy can bring disproportionately more value to the client than pure implementation does, so as an expert you can charge higher prices from your average technician freelancer.

In order to keep your status as the expert, you cannot take on just about any client who comes your way – you need to be discerning and selective, only taking on those clients who perceive you as an expert and are open to listening to your ideas and proposed best practices. This requires a thorough vetting process using your sales page copy, inquiry forms and questionnaires, sales conversations and proposals. Some clients don’t play well with experts, and are just not worth taking on.

The way I’ve made sure that my clients see me as an expert instead of a generic designer, is by demonstrating how I can add more value with my specialized skills:

  • I offer brand strategy as a part of my logo design services, because it takes more than a logo to build a great brand.
  • I offer content strategy consulting and a content writing guidebook in my website design package, because creating content is the biggest stumbling block for clients

When the clients learn that there are aspects to their project that they haven’t even thought about, they’re more inclined to trust (and hire) the person who took the time to educate them on that topic.

Most freelancers stop here, and you can certainly do that – but if you’d like more income stability and repeat clients who are thrilled to recommend you to their network, a great way to achieve it is to evolve into the next stage.

Stage 3: The Partner

True partnership begins when the client includes you in their own business model. This means that they actively seek out projects that your services are an essential part of, and see you as an asset to their business.

You might not want to work continually with the same clients all the time, but if you run into the right client that’s kind, respects your process, pays on time and does interesting things in their market, a long-term relationship with them can pay off both financially and emotionally.

When I say partnership, I don’t mean just any kind of repeat or retainer services – I mean the type of repeat services that are directly tied to the client’s own offers. If you’re providing services that do not lead to the client making money, they might start looking at you as an expense, instead of an investment.

Bookkeepers are a great example of this: each time you issue an invoice for a service or product, they need to perform administrative tasks to make sure your business runs legally. If you make money, they’re making money as well.

Event organizers operate the same way: every time you want to put on a conference, they help with all the details that help the event run smoothly, and get paid for their expertise.

In both of these cases, it’s not a service you do once, and then the client is set for the rest of their life. But how often do freelancers like designers, writers and developers operate this way? You write that copy for a website, or set up the webshop, or design the brand, and that’s it – the client doesn’t need you anymore.

Still, it’s possible to take a leaf out of the bookkeeper’s and the event manager’s book and see how we can encourage repeat business.

For a graphic designer, it can be designing a presentation every time your client has a speaking gig. For an editor, every time your client self-publishes an ebook or a course, you’re making sure that the written content is on a professional standard. Developers can get involved with companies whose business model relies on apps (and updating them).

I’ll show you how this partnership works on the example of one of my clients.

The client is a small publishing company. Our relationship started like all my other client relationships: I’ve designed their logo, brand and website. At their level and publication schedule, they’re not able to hire a full-time graphic designer for their books, so they outsource this part to me. **Every time they create a new product (book), they need me to design it. **

Without my design, the book is not ready for print and distribution, and they can’t profit from it. (I don’t offer book design a la carte as this is not my core service and something I want to be known for, but I’ll gladly keep my existing clients engaged and happy using my wide range of skills.)

Not every repeat client will turn into a partnership, but you only need a few to get more stability in your income, and a stellar word of mouth that will get you a more engaged and higher paying clientele.

If partnership sounds suspiciously similar to employment, I assure you it’s nothing of the kind. Partnership is based on mutual respect, and the understanding that you each bring essential value to the project. The client-partner is aware the whole time that they’re not the only one in your roster, and won’t put up unreasonable demands on your time. If you maintain a limited number of partnerships, you’ll still have plenty of time to work with new clients.

If you decide to go in a different direction, just maintain honest communication with the client, and if you can, assist them in finding someone who will replace you and document your process thoroughly, so the new person can jump straight in. That way, you’ll keep the great relationship you’ve had, and get the benefit of referrals from your former client.

You don’t need to dilute your portfolio

If you’re worried that changing your focus from your core service in order to retain clients long term would make you look like a jack of all trades, worry not.

Don’t broadcast everything you can do on your website and in your first client interaction – wait until the end of the first successful project (your signature service), and then talk to them about the potential opportunity to work on a long-term basis in a way that would benefit both of you.

Which stage are you currently in?

And what will you do to move to the next stage, if it’s your ambition to do so?

If you’re still in the first stage, don’t worry – it takes just a little courage and some fine-tuning of your own client intake process to rise up to the Expert level. I explain how to do that in my talk called End Design Revision Hell.
If you want to start creating partnerships, the first step is to find the clients you really like and get along with great – you’re going to be talking to them a lot.

Because what’s the point of freelancing if you’re not enjoying the process?

Nela Dunato is a freelance brand & web designer. She helps service-based businesses and creatives evolve into premium brands and connect with their dream clients. Get her free course Revamp Your Brand In One Day and discover what makes your brand unique.

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Nela Dunato Nela Dunato is a freelance brand & web designer. She helps service-based businesses and creatives evolve into premium brands and connect with their dream clients.

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