How Flaky Freelancers Destroy Golden Opportunities

Getting started as a freelancer online isn’t easy.

You start by building a website, and showcasing your work. But you don’t have any traffic, so you make your way over to the online freelance boards like eLance, oDesk and 99Designs.

And finding work for decent pay is a lot harder than the online job boards make it out to be.

Sure, you’re really good at what you do, but you don’t have much of a portfolio to show, and in the online world, most prospects don’t know you from Adam.

Not to mention the enormous amount of online competition, and that most business owners are very hesitant about trying a new freelancer on for size.

But eventually, you get a gig. The key is not to blow it…

My Flaky Freelancer Story

I was inspired to write this post by a recent “flaky freelancer” experience.

I wrote a book called Engagement from Scratch!, about how super-community builders create a loyal audience. I got 30 big-name community-builders to write chapters.

Since I’m self-publishing, I needed a cover design.

I set up a design contest, and received a bunch of design submissions–some good, and some not so good. There was one design in particular that I thought had potential. I asked for revisions, and the designer agreed to make them, so I awarded the project.

That’s when things started going off the rails. The freelancer wasn’t responsive, and would take days to reply to my emails. Every round of revision, that was supposed to take days, ended up taking weeks.

After a few rounds, when we were 95% of the way there, the freelancer flaked out, and disappeared. She didn’t give me the latest design, so I was stuck with an early-stage concept, and I had to recreate all the work that she had already done (and I’m not much of a designer!).

I was able to salvage the project (as you can see), but I’d never work with her again. And unfortunately, I’m a lot less inclined to give new designers a chance, because I’m afraid of the risk to my budget and timelines.

What lessons can freelancers learn from my experience?

It’s Not About the Designs!

The biggest mistake that freelancers make is thinking of themselves as artists, instead of service providers. They believe that what matters most is the quality of their work, and the creative process that makes their work as good as it possibly can be.

Well, unfortunately, that just isn’t the truth.

Sure, design matters–but there are a lot of designers out there, and while some are exceptionally good and some are exceptionally bad, most of them are more or less the same in terms of design skills.

What differs, though, is their communication, work ethic and reliability–that’s what the client experiences on a day-to-day basis, and that’s what creates the vast majority of frustration that clients experience with freelancers.

The biggest risk of hiring a freelancer isn’t that the design won’t look good–the freelancer won’t be responsive, will be difficult to work with, and the process will drag way past the deadline.

So… how can you make sure you don’t fit the stereotype, don’t flake out on your client, and do wind up with a lot of repeat business?

It starts with attitude…

It’s Business, Not an Art Project

The first ingredient to creating a positive experience for your customers is to treat your work as a business, rather than as an art project.

This is particularly difficult for freelancers who are just starting out, because for them it really is a side project, that they do after work, and on weekends. And of course, life happens–you always have to deal with friends, family drama, the kids, etc.

But if your freelance project is at the bottom of your list of priorities, then your client will know it, and won’t be happy. They’re paying you to do a job, and they expect the job to be done–professionally, and in a timely manner. They expect you to be responsive, and communicative.

So make a mental shift–this isn’t a project, it’s a business.

And in a service business, if you want to keep your clients happy, you need to remember the 3 Cs…

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

In real-estate it’s location, and in services it’s communication–that’s what it’s all about.

You see, the tricky thing about services is that while you’re off working hard, the client sees… nothing. They don’t see you working, and they don’t see all the steps of the process that aren’t ready for client consumption.

Which is fine. They shouldn’t see any of that–all they need to see is a finished product, right?

But along the way, they need to know that progress is being made, and that their project is in good hands. The way to give them that confidence is through communication–both responsive, and proactive.

Responsive communication is about answering your clients’ emails and phone calls promptly (meaning definitely within 24 hours, and ideally faster than that), and thoroughly (answering all of their questions, addressing all of their concerns, and going the extra mile to make sure that they are 100% comfortable, and know exactly what is going on).

Proactive communication is the same, except that you don’t wait for the client to email you and ask what’s going on for you to get in touch. Email them on a regular basis (one to two times per week) to keep them in the loop, tell them how things are progressing, and what they can expect to happen next.

Assuming you do all of that, all that remains is to deliver (you can’t just communicate excuses all the time). Deadlines have to be met, and revisions have to be made graciously, and quickly.

Remember, I’m the Customer…

Some of what I’ve written here may seem a little unfair to freelancers.

After all, many freelancers do see themselves as artists, and life is happening all around them–they have jobs, and families, and all of those things are more important than the random freelancing gig that they got on some website.

But the fact of the matter is that I’m the customer, and I get to decide what my expectations and priorities are when I’m hiring a freelancer.

So if you’re serious about your work, and about your freelancing business, then I hope to have the opportunity to work with you.

And if you’re some flake whose freelancing hobby is making real freelancers look bad, then get out of the market already.

What Do You Think?

Am I being unfair? Are my expectations unreasonable? Does it matter, if I’m the customer and I decide who I want to be working with?