Working with any client is a dance — or at least it should be. Dancing partners have to learn a lot about each other — how they move, where they move, how they communicate their moves — and working with any freelance client is much the same. Just as when you are learning to dance, there will be mistakes, missteps and a few toes are sure to be stepped upon. It is part of the nature of learning and developing any relationship.
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Still, despite the difficulties, freelancing and working with individual clients can be very rewarding. You have the ability to more directly effect the life and business of a client than you ever would in a larger, more corporate environment. You can develop personalized and unique solutions for their needs. You also learn much about yourself, your work and your own wants, needs and desires. You find your likes, your dislikes, your preferences. You’ll also learn what you do best, what you need to improve and what you need to learn.
It can sometimes feel like a harsh learning environment for you, but despite whatever stress you may feel, it will benefit you greatly. Sometimes the only way we come to understand our skills and expertise is in being forced to exercise them. We have to try — and fail — and succeed — to truly learn our own limits and where our interests lie.
This is another part of the client dance. Many will come to you with one question, but that might lead to other questions in far reaching areas of their life and business. With each question, you will need to decide how much expertise to you can bring to your answer — or, sometimes, if you have any expertise at all.
For example, In my New Media work, I am most comfortable working with the technology and the underlying philosophy of how it can be used to improve a person’s life, career and business. Due to the nature of New Media being used in all aspects of business, though, clients will often start to ask me questions about sales and marketing, business plans, billing, pricing and a host of other topics which are outside my usual areas of expertise. It is important for me to actively defer many of those questions elsewhere.
In any client relationship, I want it to be very clear where my expertise lies. I might offer my personal opinions on these questions, but I am always sure to preface my thoughts with the standard disclaimer, “I am not a (enter expert’s name here)” It is not in my best interest, nor yours, to pretend expertise in something you do not have. In fact, it can greatly damage your relationship with a client if you do. Do not put yourself in the position to disappoint your client. Be honest and clear with them the limits of your own expertise and the client dance will be much easier and more productive.
Sure, you might feel a bit inadequate or fear that the client will think less of you, but I have found over many years that people respect honesty in others and that will far outweigh any perceived inadequacies. They will see your honesty as respect and appreciate it more as your relationship grows. I never want people to feel I have taken advantage of them and this honesty about my expertise is one way of avoiding such situations.
That doesn’t mean you don’t still have a role with that client, though. I have often become a translator of sorts between the client and another consultant. Often clients can’t speak the language of a web designer or programmer. Perhaps I couldn’t help develop the program or site for the client myself, but I can help them communicate their desires to these consultants and translate the consultant’s technical talk into something the client can better understand. This focuses on one of my strengths instead of disappointing my client by claiming expertise that I do not have.
If you are considering freelancing, I hope you will see it — as I do — as a long and complicated dance. Starting the dance can be difficult and fraught with mistakes, but over time you will come to be better partners who can anticipate each other’s movements and needs. It is at this level where the best work, the best products, the best lives are created. Do the client dance well and you are well on the road to building the career you deserve.