How to build long-term client relationships as a freelancer

How to build long-term client relationships is a follow up to yesterday’s post on finding freelance work in the summer slump, and a longer term goal to write more about freelancing in general.

I’ve written quite a bit about what I’ve learned from freelancing, but if there’s any topics you want to cover just let me know in the comments.

The next few posts that have been suggested are on winning pitches, how to close deals, freelance finances and building lists of contacts.

This post was suggested by the brilliant Zoe Amar. I severely doubt she has trouble building client relationships, but I hope some of these ideas and advice help other freelancers looking to build long-term client relationships.

Constantly Deliver Value

The number one rule of building long-term client relationships is to deliver added value wherever you see the opportunity.

If you are consistently delivering above and beyond you’re remit, whether that’s through suggesting new ideas or delivering particularly high quality work, then your client will appreciate your consultancy and keep you as their go-to consultant.

This is backed up by research, such as this 2014 benchmark of creative agencies in the UK:

"The top performing agencies in the UK are masters at delivering strategic value to their clients. They charge more for doing so and require less people to deliver it. Clients love them for it and are happy to pay the extra fees."

This may sound like simple advice, but it’s easier said than done.

When you’ve been working with a client for a number of months, complacency often sits in as you carry out the same work you’ve done time and again before.

Trying to step outside of that routine and see the opportunities for offering just that little bit more is more difficult than you’d expect.

Of course, you should always keep an eye on billable hours and charge your client fairly, but adding the occasional added value work will add dividends in the long run.

[Tweet "The more value you offer as a freelancer, the more a client will come to depend on you"]

Be Honest and Open

One of the reasons that clients bring in external support is to benefit from your experience and knowledge gained from working with a range of clients.

Working in-house or client side means that clients will get embedded in their organisation’s ways and practises, making it difficult to look outside of their own organisation and see how other organisations work.

Being honest in your consultancy, even if it means delivering critical insights, is better than covering up bad news or telling white lies.

Or, even worse, just being a "yes man" who simply agrees what the client says and carries out what they want without challenging their views when needed or offering your honest consultancy.

Be honest in your dealings with a client. The long-term trust gained beats any short-term wins you may get from manipulating the truth.

Be Consistent, Avoid Surprises

Being consistent and avoiding surprises goes hand in hand with being open and honest.

If you say you are going to deliver work at a certain time, stick to it.

If you’ve outlined how much a project will cost, stick to it. Don’t add hidden fees or extra costs at a later date.

If something has come up that may affect the project they’re working on, communicate well and keep clients in the loop. Don’t hide unexpected problems from the client and then regretfully surprise them with the news later.

No one likes surprises, whether in time or money, so sticking to the basics and delivering what you said you would, when you would, at the cost you said you would is highly valued.

Taking away your client’s worries means that they’ll prefer to work with you, a freelancer they can trust, rather than waste time looking for someone else.

[Tweet "Consistency is key in building long-term relationships with clients"]

Place Yourself At The Centre

Advertising agencies have for a long time sat at the head of the table for marketing communications (able marketing, PR, SEO, PPC, etc) because it is their big creative idea that leads the campaign, with everything filtering down from this big idea.

There may be audience insights and research behind this creative, but marketing activity across the business often filters down from this big idea.

That doesn’t mean that advertising agencies always have to come up with the big idea. Marketing, PR, Digital or Social agencies can also come up with the big idea, but they often don’t have the knowledge, experience or resources to come up with and then sell that idea to the client.

I was having coffee with an old boss of mine, who landed a major blue-chip client for what was a new and relatively-small agency.

They started with a small project of a few months that they delivered well, but nothing particularly spectacular. They did another project, then another, all going well – in the classic project management way (on time, on budget, on spec).

He told me that the real breakthrough came with the client when they asked to pitch to lead a new marketing campaign for the company.

This was a big pitch. Several 0s on the end of their current project fees.

So rather than pitching with a small project-based idea, they pitched a big creative idea. And this agency wasn’t an advertising agency, it was a mix of PR, Digital and Social.

As you might have guessed, they won the pitch – based on the strength of the creative idea, but with the foundation of the previous projects they’d delivered on to back it up.

Not only did they win the account and the large fee that came along with it, but they also got to brief in the other agencies – advertising, paid, social and digital – on the various parts of the campaign.

They were at the centre of the campaign.

They had earned the trust of the client through delivering project after project.

Then they built on this relationship by coming up with a strong creative idea for the new campaign.

And now they had solidified their long term relationship with the client by being the lead agency for the campaign, briefing and project managing the other agencies.

Having done this once with one big client, I’m sure they’ll be looking to repeat the process and win another few big ones. That kind of approach can change the future of any company – from a freelance outfit to an established boutique agency.

Anticipate Your Client’s Demands

When you first start working with a client, you’ll be so busy getting to know what exactly they need from you, how they like to communicate, how they like to receive work, etc, that you’ll be spending most of your time delivering on the work.

After a few weeks, you’ll begin to learn more about your client, the kind of questions they ask of you, and which parts of your work they particularly like.

Use this learning to your advantage:

  • Can you anticipate their questions before they are asked?
  • Can you deliver them a short report on a particular area of your work that you’re aware they’ve been interested in before?

You’ll stand out from the crowd by meeting their expectations – if not before they’ve asked, but at least very promptly when they do ask you for something.

Keep In Touch

I love this advice from an article in Smashing Magazine:

"As a project is wrapping up, one of the final things you should do is schedule a follow-up meeting — or better yet, a series of follow up meetings.

Regularly scheduled meetings between you and your client allow you to discuss not only how the website is performing and what feedback they have received from their audience, but also what changes may be happening with their company.

It is a rare instance that I sit down with a client to discuss their business where some kind of work doesn’t come out of it."

This is a great insight and a smart way to become a trusted partner to your client’s organisation.

In fact, the whole Smashing Magazine is worth a read as there’s tons of advice in there. The article is geared towards web projects, but there’s plenty of useful advice and ideas for other areas too.

By being honest, adding value and placing yourself at the centre of their business, you not only build that long-term client relationship but you can also develop new business opportunities.

How do you build your long-term client relationships? How do you add value to your client work?


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