Contracting for Freelancers:
Building Client Relationships

See also: Top Tips for Freelancers

The key to good client relationships is to set and manage expectations effectively. There should be no surprises for either of you: both of you should know what you have promised, and what you plan to deliver by when. What is delivered should also be what the client expects, even if it needs a few tweaks.

How can you set up expectations? This requires a process of contracting. This does not have to be formal, but it does have to be clear, and include certain information. This page is designed to help you through that process, and ensure that you set up good client relationships from the start.


Setting Up a Contract with a New Client

Essentially, the contact between you and your client that discusses how you will work together forms a contract between you. It may be informal, but it is still effectively a contract. It does not matter whether it was by phone, email or other means, it sets out how you will work, and therefore sets out expectations for the project or relationship for both of you.

When you first make contact with a client, or they get in touch with you, you need to set out how you will work. This should include:

  • What you expect to provide, and by when. Be absolutely clear about how you will work, what the client will receive, how you expect to communicate, and what they can expect. Include the arrangements for revising work if it is not quite right, and your usual turnaround time.
  • Your working hours and days, and also how quickly you expect to respond to emails sent during working hours.
  • How you can be contacted, including out of hours (or not). It is not unreasonable to rely on email, and you do not have to give your phone number or agree to Skype if you do not want to. On the other hand, it can be easier to build a relationship with phone calls, rather than emails. You may have to play this one by ear.
  • Your prices, both in principle, and what you expect the job to cost. If you charge by the hour (or part-hour), explain that. If you can, give a reasonable idea of how long you expect the work to take, and therefore how much it might cost.

    TOP TIP! Overestimate costs at all times


    It will take you a while to work out how quickly you can work. Until then, make sure that you overestimate the likely time, and therefore cost. Clients are always happy to pay an invoice that is smaller than they expect. One that is larger than expected, however, may be challenged.


  • When and how you will invoice, and how you want to be paid. You might, for example, say that you will invoice immediately for a deposit of 10% of the estimated cost. That will need to be paid before you start work. You might also want to invoice each month for work done to avoid a big bill at the end, especially for long or ongoing jobs. You should include information about how you want to be paid, especially for clients from other countries, as this could be tricky to organise. It can, for example, be difficult to arrange direct bank transfers from and to certain countries. It is worth being flexible in how you are prepared to accept payment.

If the jobs you receive are relatively small, you can probably keep your contract informal. For larger or more expensive jobs, you may want to create a formal contract or statement of services.

Always get your client to confirm in writing (even if just by email) that they agree your conditions, deadlines and prices before you start work.


A Thought On Deadlines

Deadlines are essentially a negotiation.

Your client has an idea of when they would like the work. You have an idea of when you could get it back to them. Hopefully the two will fit together.

If you really cannot deliver the work by the client’s deadline, it is best to say so, and turn the work down.

The quality of your work will suffer if you try to do it too quickly. It is better to hold to the standard of quality you want to achieve, and turn work down occasionally. Remember that clients do not necessarily know how long work will take: they only know how quickly they need the finished product. It is up to you to manage their expectations.

If you cannot do so, it is unlikely that the work you provide will satisfy them, either. You may be better to stay away.

Assessing Potential Clients, or Don’t Be Afraid to Turn Down Work

Learning to assess clients and jobs, and decide which are for you, is an essential skill for freelancers. Essentially, you want to work:

  1. For organisations or individuals who share your values and will treat you well; and
  2. For a price that enables you to live on what you earn.

When you first start work, you may have to take a few jobs that are not perfect. While you do not have enough work to fill your time, this is OK, because any income is better than none. Once you have a steady stream of work, however, you can afford to start being a bit picky.

Fundamentally, you should be able to achieve both the ambitions above as a freelancer. If you are at all worried that a client does not fit the bill, then you should consider turning down the work.

For example, you may find a potential client who demands a trial piece of work for free, and also seems to expect you to work at weekends. It is perfectly reasonable NOT to provide anything for free—after all, if they ask 10 freelancers to do each write a free article, that is 10 articles unpaid. It is also quite reasonable to set out your working hours, and stick to them. If you set out your reasons politely, and they are still demanding this, then it might be time to walk away.

Always be polite, of course, and remember that you do not have to tell the truth.

For example, you could say that you are sorry, but you have too much work at present, so you will have to turn down the opportunity.

Alternatively, quote a much higher price than usual. You can easily justify this by the potential wear and tear on your temper and stress levels of managing a difficult client.


Building relationships takes time…

…but you do not have much time when you first contract to work with someone as a freelancer. Setting out expectations clearly can help to make the situation clearer, and avoid surprises later.

This, in turn, will improve the relationship, and make it more likely to develop further, or result in your client recommending you to someone else. It is well worth taking the time for this.


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