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Red Flags For Freelancers: How to avoid working with the wrong people

I love working freelance. It gives me more time with my daughter, I get to choose my hours and workload, plus I generally feel more valued than I ever did as an employee. Of course, that largely depends on your clients. I’ve learnt a lot since I became a freelance copywriter and web designer but my biggest lesson has been in working with the right people. It’s taken a while but the business I now attract comes mostly from people I really enjoy working with and I’ve learnt to say no to people I know I won’t.

red flags for freelancers

Here are some of the red flags for freelancers that make me question whether to work with or continue working with some clients:

  1. ‘I don’t have time to talk so can you just get this done?’

As mentioned, I always insist on having at the very least a ten-minute call with a new client prior to onboarding. For one thing, freelancers are often targeted by scammers and this is unlikely to be done (though not impossible) if you’re insisting on a video call.

An unwillingness to take time to discuss the work also suggests a lack of care. If the client cares about the quality of the work then surely they will want to know who is producing it. Plus, if you don’t have all you need to do the job then will they have time to send you this considering they don’t have 10 minutes to speak to you and make sure you’re the right person for the task?

freelancer meeting with client

2. I can do it myself, I just don’t have time’

This one I absolutely have no time for. It may be said to protect ego but really, egos only get in the way of good business anyway.

If a client feels they are outsourcing something they’re able to do themselves then they aren’t going to respect your expertise. VAs may be the exception but, even so, you need to start from a place of respect. It’s not respectful to tell somebody that you can do a job they’ve likely spent years training for and have real experience in.

3. ‘I can get this cheaper elsewhere’

I was once told by a client that they would be paying me less than my rate because they could get my services cheaper from a marketing student. I advised them to hire the student. I did not spend years learning through experience to be paid the same as someone still studying. That’s not to say outsourcing to students isn’t useful or ethical. It's a fantastic experience for someone and they too are likely to be able to do the job better than someone who isn’t trying to make a career from it. Still, you get what you pay for.

Similarly, there will be other freelancers out there who are more expensive or less expensive than you. You have to set a rate you believe is fair and in line with your expertise and experience. Then you have to stick to it. Unless you are hearing consistently that your rate is too high or low, then it may be worth reconsidering. If this happens, consider if those saying this are your ideal clients. If not, then perhaps you need to stick to your rate and instead refocus your marketing. However, if those saying your rate is unworkable then you may need to look again at your target market and work out what it is they can afford and what they expect. Perhaps you are including services they don’t need and removing these would allow you to reduce your rate.

The key is to do your research and then go forward with integrity. Also, be ready to justify your fee if need be. But, don’t spend too much of your time doing so. Underestimating what a freelancer is able to contribute is not the best place from which to establish a good working relationship, so clarify but don’t compromise.

4. ‘It won’t take you very long’

This one makes me suck my breath in, but I do understand it. For an outsider, they see the finished product and not the work that’s gone into it. For example, somebody hiring a social media manager may assume posting only take a few minutes. They do not consider the research that has gone into creating the post. Or the time taken to source the perfect image. The time it takes a good social media manager to check the hashtags and create the right links. It is important to set these elements out in your proposal because a client won’t always consider what goes into the work. To be fair - they’re outsourcing so it’s not their priority.

Tips for freelancers

‘It won’t take you very long,’ is an expression commonly heard in the design world. Minor changes, such as colour or text edits may not take much time at all, but opening up a large photoshop file and the saving process can take 20 minutes or more alone. Plus, it’s software you are paying for and storing on your hard drive (or cloud) and there is a cost that comes with that. Small edits also often mean switching from one project to another so it is causing disruption in your workload management.

If a client utters these words, presuming they are wrong, it is essential that you clarify the actual time it will take so they don’t get a nasty shock at your invoice.

5. ‘It’s not paid but you’ll get lots of exposure’

Do I even need to..? Ok. Well, this one should be a straightforward ‘no’.

Red Flags For freelancers

‘But what if it’s a well-known publication/producer/organisation?’ I hear you say. Then, they can afford to pay you, can’t they? With the exception of charitable causes perhaps, you should never work for free. Not only does it use up valuable time you could be using to find paying clients, but it damages your field for everybody in it. If you’re underselling yourself then you’re not valuing your work and you just won’t make it as a freelancer. Even if your role is creative, you need a business head to succeed as a freelancer. Have a business plan and work out how much you need to make per month and work out how many hours you have in the day to work. When you know how much you need to be earning er hour to cover your bills it will be much easier to turn down unpaid work - I promise. There is something about the words ‘freelance’ and self-employed’ that to some people seem to mean ‘desperate’ or ‘side hustle’. People who don’t take your job seriously are not worth your time. Wish them well and strut away. And, if they say it will help to build your brand, tell them your brand is XX years of knowledge and experience, XX values and it costs £XX. Really good brands make money and so should you.

Tips For Freelancers To Avoid Client Issues

NEVER charge for more time than anything has taken. In fact, occasionally overestimate and then let the client know the invoice will be less than expected since it took less time. This goes a long way to cementing trust so that when projects and tasks take longer than expected, they know you’re being genuine. ALWAYS send clients your terms and conditions and insist on their agreement in writing.

ENSURE your terms and conditions cover every eventuality from cancelled projects to delays in the client providing the information you need to complete tasks/stages. ALWAYS be polite and respectful, even if you don’t feel you are being respected. There are times when all of us are less thoughtful or tactful than we might be because we are seeing things only from our point of view. So don’t take anything personally and if you do turn down work do so with grace and dignity.

ASK ‘What would Dolly Do?’ Early on in her career, Dolly Parton wrote a little song called ‘I will always love you.’ It wasn’t a huge hit at the time but Elvis wanted to record it. Dolly was ecstatic - she idolised Elvis and this meant she was going to meet him when he recorded it! The evening before she received the paperwork for her to sign over the rights to the song. ‘Elvis won’t record it without the rights,’ she was told. Dolly stayed up all night wrestling with her decision but ultimately broke her own heart and took a big risk by refusing. She never got to meet Elvis but a few years later Whitney Housten would make the song legendary. Dolly Parton has made a fortune as a musician but even if she’d done nothing else, ‘I will always love you’ would have made her a millionaire. She stuck to her guns, stayed true to herself. She was brave, acted with integrity and it paid off. Whenever a decision feels sticky or too much like I would be compromising my values or ambitions I think of this story and ask myself, ‘what would Dolly do.’


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