Nurture Your Creative Freelance Career with Good Customer Service.
As a full-time creative freelancer, think of yourself as a gardener. Your bag of seeds consists of keeping up with best marketing practices, staying active on social media, improving your skills, and generally trying to get your work visible to potential clients. You water your garden every week and hope for the best. Once in a while, a client sprouts up! If you’re really lucky, maybe even a few at once! But often times, no sooner have you harvested the fruits of your labor than the client relationships wither away.
Good customer service helps ensure that those carefully-grown client relationships stay healthy for many projects to come, sometimes even propagating into referrals that expand your business beyond what you ever could have expected.
Communication is the name of the game
In my time working in the realm of illustration, design, and marketing, I’ve been part of dozens of hirings of creative professionals. Sometimes I was the one being hired, sometimes I was the one doing the hiring, and other times I was a third party overseeing an offer. I’ve seen numerous personality types interacting with one another, spanning many different motivations and budgets. Once a contract or job offer is signed, you always hope things will go well. But in the event that relations do sour, more often than not, it’s a result of one core issue: communication.
Maybe the contractor takes five days to reply to each email, or there’s confusion about the scope of a project that doesn’t manifest until after things are already underway. Or a personal favorite of mine: you send a list of five questions and they reply with answers to only two. Communication problems like these are the “death by a thousand cuts” of a creative professional.
To prevent your creative practice from falling victim to these types of conflicts, I’ve assembled some of the things that have worked best in my own freelance career.
This sounds obvious, but so few people I’ve worked with actually do it. If someone sends you an email, try to reply within an hour. Even if they’re asking for something simple you’ll get to later that day, just drop them a quick reply like, “Great, I’ll have this to you shortly!” It seriously makes a big difference when your client knows up-front what to expect from you and when to expect it. Try it!
Establish and stick to dates
At the outset of any project, you should outline critical dates with your client. When will you deliver concept sketches or storyboards? Drafts? Print-ready final files? Do you have time allocated for revisions? If it’s the type of project with some degree of fluidity, at the very least be clear with your client about how long each phase of this type of project typically takes. Even if you’re dealing with a corporate client, never assume that the person who is your point of contact knows what your process and timelines look like.
Keep an eye out for confusion or pain points and be quick to address them
Even the best-intentioned, most clearly-communicated project will encounter points at which there is some kind of misunderstanding. Someone skimmed an email too quickly and missed a critical piece of information, or the project itself is so large in scope that it’s difficult for those involved to keep track of the finer details.
It’s okay! We’re all attuned to recognize the signs of a project drifting off course, but most of the time — for our own sanity — we choose to file them away in the “I’ll deal with it on the back end” part of our brain. Stop doing that. Politely address these problems as soon as you spot them. If the client really did have a misunderstanding, they’ll be happy to regain clarity about the project. If they didn’t, you reaching out will still show that you have a concern for the quality of work you’re making. Everyone wins!
Be clear about who is responsible for which tasks
When you’re working on a project that requires outside input — be it design feedback, copy, event dates, sponsor lists, whatever — make sure all parties understand who is responsible for what. In CPR training, they teach you not to just say, “someone call 911!” because no one will do it. You point to a specific person to designate, “you need to call 911!” There’s nothing worse than waiting for copy from a client for weeks, only to find that they didn’t even know they needed to provide it to you in the first place.
Give periodic progress updates in your client communication
It’s important to keep everyone apprised of what’s been done and what still lies ahead, especially when a project has a long timeline or is complex. I usually drop this into general project correspondence emails. “Now that X and Y are done, all that remains is Z, which I expect should be completed by this date.” Your client is probably very busy, and these occasional reminders can make a world of difference in their perception of what you do.
Honesty is always the best policy
I’ve worked with clients in all kinds of industries, some of which were so niche I didn’t realize they even existed until I was approached by them regarding a project. Much like I had no understanding of their industries, some didn’t understand my industry either. As a result of this, I’ve ended up in situations where a client is asking to spend more money on parts of a project that don’t necessitate it, purely due to a lack of knowledge. Do not ever use a client’s naïveté about your field as a chance to take advantage of them. Instead, use it as a teaching opportunity. They’ll be better informed for future interactions with creatives, and your honesty will build trust and cement you as an expert.
Own up to delays and mistakes
You have a project milestone coming up in two days, but you lost your PSD file and your backup folder is… empty. You have to start over from scratch. Your worst nightmare has become a reality!
It would be easy to decide to pull some all-nighters, load up on caffeine, and try your best to shamble together something passable in time. Or you could be honest with your client. Unless your milestone is a hard deadline (in which case, why didn’t you backup your files?), it’s usually best to tell them to shift expectations. As someone who has hired freelancers, I would much rather have someone tell me, “this project will be a week late due to some unexpected technical/personal issues” than to see them stall or ghost for a week until they hand in a panicked (and by my perception, LATE) product.
Why is customer service important? Aside from the general sustainability and health of your freelance career, customer service is a great way to set yourself apart in a very crowded market. I’m not the most creative illustrator. I’m not the most skilled designer. But I can proudly say that I make sure all my clients are as happy as possible. Frequently, when I close out a project with a client, they share horror stories of past experiences with other freelancers and mention how refreshing it was to work with me. This has brought me repeat business, referrals, and clients who not only like my work but are happy to evangelize it. It’s hard to ask for more than that as a freelancer.
Be a good gardener — don’t neglect your clients once you’ve gone under contract. Nurture trust, build long-term relationships, and enjoy a bountiful harvest for years to come!