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How to manage client expectations as a freelancer

Did you know that in the US alone, 35% of the nation’s workforce are freelancers

Whether you prefer the term “freelancer,” “solopreneur,” or “self-employed,” the only way you can realistically thrive and pay your bills is by maintaining solid client relationships. How? It all starts with managing your clients’ expectations, especially if you’re juggling a few at a time. 

This means providing them with a realistic overview of what they can expect and the process you’ll undergo to deliver whatever it is they’ve hired you for. Let’s say you’re a website developer and while you might be creating WordPress designs for one client, you’re also managing another’s social media output. Whew! No wonder you need a set process in place. 

Truth be told, clients often have very different ideas of how end results are supposed to look. That’s why properly managing their expectations from the outset can help build relationships, saving you and your clients a few headaches along the way.

Here’s how to effectively get the end result that you BOTH want, leading to long and fruitful relationships with a variety of clients. 

Be upfront 

When you’re new to the freelancing world, your goal is just to land one client — any client, really. However, as time goes on and your business grows, you’ll undoubtedly become more selective about who you work with and when. 

So if you’ve already established your reputation as a seasoned pro, don’t accept any project unless you’re positive you’ll be able to meet all the criteria laid out for you by your prospective client. This is especially true if you’re already in the midst of other freelance projects. 

See this as your time to ask questions, which allows you to get a good picture of what your clients are looking for before you agree to start working together.

These questions can run the gamut, but they might sound something like this:

  • How often does your client want status reports or review your progress? (Keep in mind while some clients expect to see a finished product once you’re done, some may expect to see every step of the project.) 
  • Is your client flexible or more rigid in terms of the finished product? (Are they willing to accept your professional input along the way, even if it goes against their original idea?) 
  • What communication platform do they prefer to work with? (This could be Skype, Slack, Basecamp, email, etc. Our advice is to stick to one platform to ensure all your communication happens in one place.) 
  • Does the client plan to pay you upfront or after you’ve completed the project/agreement? (We’ll delve into payment terms in the next section.) 

All of these questions should be discussed upfront, never during or (gasp!) near the end of a project. When you ensure that everyone is on the same page at the beginning, you immediately smooth out any kinks in the prospective client relationship. 

After all, happier clients = a happier working life for you. 

illustration of a contract

Put it in writing (and agree to it)

Contracts are essential to managing client expectations. They’re legal documents that spell out exactly what both sides (you and the client) have agreed to. 

So, once you’ve nailed down the details about what your client expects from the finished project/service, this is where you can start drafting your Statement of Work (SoW), which should define your specific tasks, deliverables, schedules/timelines, changes to the scope of work, and yes — your payment terms. 

Even if it feels slightly uncomfortable, don’t be shy about discussing payment. You should know exactly how much you’ll be paid, your expected payment date(s), and your preferred method of payment (direct deposit, international wire transfer, etc.). Handling your payment details beforehand keeps things transparent and helps avoid any dreaded payment delays. If you happen to be doing different types of work for your client, which might fall under different payment rates, make sure that these different rates are reflected in your SoW. 

Wondering how to price yourself as a freelancer? Check out one of my previous articles.  

OK, so once you’ve got your SoW in place, have your client review each page, initial it, and sign it. We recommend a legally-binding electronic signature service such as HelloSign, which is a brainchild of Dropbox. 

Are you curious as to why out-of-scope work should be included within your SoW? Sometimes a client will come to you with a last-minute request, on top of what’s already on your plate, and ask if you can take it on. If something is requested out of scope, and you’ve got something existing in your contract that addresses this, all it takes is an additional signed agreement between you and your client to move forward. Otherwise, a client may very well try and take advantage of your time, all because you didn’t factor ad-hoc work into your signed agreement. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification

Even if everything is running smoothly with your client and the project(s) at hand, sometimes there comes a point where you realize you have a question or two. 

Perhaps something that was crystal clear to you before suddenly becomes unclear. Whatever it is, don’t assume you know the answer. This can be a costly mistake. 

Instead, get in touch with the client directly and clarify with them. By doing so, you’re making sure you’re doing exactly what your client wants and that you’re confident enough to admit you may not know everything. Remember, humility goes a long way. 

Series of checkpoints

Stay on track and establish boundaries

Your client expects you to finish a project on schedule. This means it’s your job to stick to that schedule, right?

While it’s not always easy, it’s definitely possible. Often what helps is to break the respective project(s) down into manageable segments. 

For example, let’s say you’re a UX designer. You might inform your client that you’ve finished the research phase and have now started on sketching wireframes. By letting them know, via the communication platform you’ve both agreed upon, your client will feel confident that you’re making progress and will meet the upcoming deadline. 

You might also benefit from establishing some professional boundaries. Let your clients know the time of day you check your email (or whatever communication platform you’ve agreed upon). This could be first thing in the morning, in the mid-afternoon, or right before you wrap up your day. So if they want to reach you, they know when you’ll be able to respond. If you constantly respond right away to your clients, you’re ultimately conditioning them to think they can expect this urgency all the time. Establishing boundaries helps to foster respect between the client and you, recognizing that your time is money. 

You could also consider giving yourself personal deadlines to finish part of (or the entire) project before it’s actually due. This lets you review your work before your client does. Who knows? You may even spot something that you want to adjust or change. This way, you’ll have enough time to make those adjustments/changes before your client sees it. 

To keep things extra productive when you’ve got a lot on your plate, check out some of the best digital tools we’ve found. 

Make honesty the best policy

OK, so you’ve had a crappy week. Maybe your Internet was up and down, your power went out, you’ve had to take care of your sick child and/or partner at home, or you’ve been juggling too many ad-hoc projects for one of your clients. 

Whatever the case may be, it’s important to inform your client ASAP if your work situation has changed. Just like with every meaningful relationship, honest communication is key. By coming clean with your client, you’ll find you’ll be in a much better position than if you just tried to wing it. 

And don’t beat yourself up if mistakes are made along the way, either. How you respond to these mistakes is what’ll keep your solo business afloat or underwater. Being transparent with your clients and owning up to any mistakes is paramount to your long-term success as a freelancer. 

If you’re just setting up your business website with WordPress, check out Namecheap’s EasyWP, which gets you up and running within minutes. 

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Erin Huebscher avatar

Erin Huebscher

As a born-and-bred American who now resides in Germany, Erin brings her love of digital storytelling to Namecheap. With nearly 10 years of international copywriting experience from her time in Stockholm, Sweden, and an MA in Creative Writing, she has a penchant for all things fashion, film, food, and travel. More articles written by Erin.

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