As this one guy was interviewing me, he asked a question that got me thinking.
“What do you do if a freelance client wants results using a method you won’t work? Should you focus on making them happy or use methods that you know will actually work?”
I’ve noticed this question comes in many different formats. The essence is that the client might have been misinformed for whatever reason, or you disagree with the methods to bring the results.
Ultimately it is your client’s business and it is their privilege how they would like to go about it, just like your freelance business is yours and you decide which clients you don’t want to work with.
It’s challenging because most clients are different so managing their expectations is situational.
While it might FEEL great to read about 17 different types of clients and exactly how to approach each one when it comes down to the real situation it will be challenging to remember all the details in the heat of the situation.
Fortunately, there is an easier way: learning a framework for how to deal with the situation is much easier and more effective because you’ll only have to remember a few rules of thumb- and they will take you 80% of the way.
Then as you go, you can get more detailed as you gain more and more experience, and develop your own style. We all have different types of clients and work styles we prefer. For the framework generally, we can put clients into two different categories:
Someone who knows what they need done and how it should be done. Someone typically just needing an extra set of hands to free up their own time (to do more important things or remove themselves and enjoy their free time). This is typically work leaning more towards implementation.
Someone who knows what they need done or a goal they want to reach but needs help figuring out what is the best next step, what to do and how to do it. This is often both strategy and implementation.
Why is this even a challenge in the first place?
For client A, while both types LOVE stability, reliability and excellent communication, this one particularly likes it as they often know exactly what they need done, have a written down process for it and just need someone to be them and complete the task.
While that can come off as sounding like data entry-type work, it could be almost anything. With a good enough boss to guide what she wants done and enough guidelines and communication, you can even help with more complex challenges such as write in a similar voice if it is a personal brand, or create ad campaigns if that’s your thing.
In my experience, this client is often willing to pay less as it is more implementation focused work. Focusing on reliability and doing the work well, this will often be more stable long-term clients for you.
What you’ll realize if you start hiring yourself, is just how difficult it is to find good people that are reliable. I couldn’t believe this myself but as I started hiring I realized just how true it is.
Freelancers, in general, are notorious for being unreliable and disappear when they feel like, so by simply not doing that, you gain an edge.
Fortunately, you won’t experience too many situations where this type of client want results using methods that don’t actually work, as they typically figure it out on own their own (or with their internal team) first and then outsource it to someone like us.
For client type B, often clients have this weird idea of what they want to be done and it might not be the best way to do things.
With these clients, you generally focus more on the strategic part as you should be able to provide value in that area in particular. While many of them would love the help of implementing as well, they are not all like that.
Oftentimes, these clients simply don’t know, that what they’d like done is not going to give them the results they are looking for.
Sometimes you will simply be able to educate them but often they will have learned perhaps by taking an expensive online training program or worked with another consultant.
In that case, they may be emotional about the cost of the program because they don’t want to admit they made a mistake in purchasing it – it will make them feel stupid.
Either way, they have already gotten something in their head which they now have to ‘unlearn’ or tweak to be able to have room for what you want to educate them on.
So, simply just telling them that they are wrong won’t work in most situations. You’ll have some clients where it is just that simple, and that is great. Unfortunately, that is not common in my experience. Rather, you’ll have to earn their trust.
In that case, I prefer to focus on making them happy first and then educating them second – as part of an on-going thing throughout projects.
Basically, you focus on helping your clients – especially if it puts you at a disadvantage. In some situations, you’ll be able to earn more trust instead of cash short term. It might feel like a step backward, however, you are actually building a much more stable client base because they really trust you.
Wouldn’t you trust the word of your contractor if they recommended you something that went AGAINST what is best for them to make it best for you?
The point is to focus on the client’s second project (or third- or forth- you get the point), so you force yourself to think long-term and always act in the client’s best interest.
When they trust you, educating them is much easier and they will see it as an added value that you can sell to them and earn more.
You have already done the hard work of finding and pitching them, so maintaining the relationship long-term will be little work yet you could gain a lot in the future both in terms of projects, referrals, etc.
Two typical scenarios
When you focus on making your client happy, focus on agreeing on work up front as specifically as possible, so you can hold the project brief accountable, in case anything happens.
I’m not talking about getting into a he-said-she-said-situation (those are pointless) but rather sticking to the brief, clarifying any vague points (your job) before accepting the project.
If they are not willing to make things more specific, I’d strongly consider dropping the project.
If it is because they simply don’t know how to be more specific, that is an opportunity for you to provide upfront value to them by helping them understand and learn- they’ll love you for it because it makes their life easier over time assuming you do it politely.
However, when you instead focus on giving your client results, some will hire you as an expert to make themselves feel good about their decisions, so rather than them wanting to be educated, they want to be reaffirmed that they are right and how good they are.
While you will likely earn decent money, it can get very tiring over time which is why I like to use the following script:
“In my experience, [this method] is not the best way to reach goal Y. I am a team player and I support whatever you prefer but I would not be doing my job if I did not tell you this.”
What is actually going on here? Why does it work?
First, we acknowledge that we don’t agree by saying something like “In my experience, [this method] is not the best way to reach goal Y”.
Since most people are not good at disagreeing while being constructive and making progress, we need to help our client understand exactly what that means for them so they don’t misunderstand our intentions.
Surely, you will see other websites mentioning a more tactical approach but remember that when you are in the heat of the situation it can be difficult to remember all the small details, so that’s why we start out using a simple framework. When you feel comfortable with that you should tweak it and make it your own.
No one likes someone who only brings problems to them without solutions, especially not when they are a paid contractor helping bring the business forward.
That’s why I like to clarify right away that I am supportive of their ideas. When someone hires a contractor, it can be very annoying if they can’t work with the team and cause more problems than they helped solve -even if the problem they were hired to help with was an important one.
At the same, as a freelancer, it has put my mind at ease many times to mention that as their adviser I wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t tell them this.
I find that saying “I am a team player and I support whatever you prefer but I would not be doing my job if I did not tell you this.” is a polite way of letting them know, and it has worked much more effectively saying it upfront rather than later.
A quick note about going rogue
Doing something behind the client’s back that goes against what they thought, even if they want the results (going rogue is generally something you should very careful with.
You are trading results for trust. Of course, some people might value results over trust (whether you are a client or freelancer) but if you look at the long-term trust wins over everything else. And it is incredibly difficult to rebuild.
Going rouge is so situational that it is difficult to give a framework. Maybe I’ll write about one in the future.
It can easily backfire if something out of your control happens so you can’t deliver (e.g. something happens in the business so something changes) and then you may not get a good outcome on the project and the client might even blame you.