Most freelancers learn pretty early on that good branding wins gigs. First impressions count, particularly when you’re a lone writer for hire and constantly on the lookout for fresh opportunities. But success as a freelancer isn’t just about the adrenaline rush of winning new work. It’s also about nurturing existing client relationships.
In fact, for many freelancers (this one included), that slow burn of building up a long and productive association with a client is a lot more rewarding, financially and emotionally, than the highs and lows of competing for new work.
There are endless resources out there on how to better brand yourself, from logo design to body language, to social media — and everything in between. Yet for all its potential significance, it’s surprisingly difficult to find detailed advice on how to build a good reputation.
Honesty and integrity are a good start, obviously … but then what? What are we supposed to do with all those good intentions?
So let’s take a closer look at reputation — branding’s less alluring but more steadfast cousin. How can we build a good one? Why is it important? And what are some simple ways to be sure we’re investing as much energy into our existing professional relationships as those shiny new clients dangling just out of reach?
Most freelance writing work is solitary. Sure, we may be pulled into a remote marketing team, or be asked to glean information from subject matter experts, but for the most part, teamwork for a writer is abstract and occasional. When the rubber hits the road, most freelance wordsmiths spend the majority of their time alone, wearing track pants, slurping coffee, and quietly doing their thing.
And it can work really well that way!
Being unfettered from team meetings, constant negotiation and the endless onslaught of staff birthday parties frees up a lot of time for pure, unbridled productivity. And let’s face it, for those of an introverted persuasion, being a lone operator can be a Shangri La of solitude. Heck, it may well be the reason many of us sought out freelance writing work to begin with.
Unfortunately, from a relationship and reputation building standpoint, however, working out on your own limb isn’t ideal. Trust is about relationships, and the more solid professional relationships you can forge throughout your client company’s ranks, the more the team as a whole will regard you as a permanent fixture.
So, one simple way to build up your reputation with a repeat business client is to embrace teamwork.
This may rub against the grain at first, but consider actively asking to be included more. A few ways you can achieve this are to request to be part of regular staff meetings, to make a point of approaching people across the company with questions about your content area, and to invite those same people to reach out to you if there’s a way your content can better support their priorities.
If you want a reputation as someone who adds real value, step outside your writer’s citadel of solitude and embrace the (sometimes exhausting!) joys of being a true team player.
Set Realistic Expectations
Winning freelance work often boils down to a willingness to say “yes” when others say no. Whether that “yes” is to a difficult writing brief, tight deadlines, challenging work conditions, or some perfect storm of all the above, one big reason why freelance writers are so in demand is that we’re willing to take on tough work.
You know how that Zoom conversation goes: “So you need an article about the use of plastic pultruded parts for neurocontrolled prosthetic devices? For an expert C-suite audience? By tomorrow? Oh, you mean tomorrow morning? … Sure, I can make that happen.”
And chances are, if you’re here on nDash reading this you can make this kind of minor miracle happen. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve had a similar conversation and said yes, often at great expense to my sanity.
There’s a sting in the tail to an overly yes-happy approach, however.
The problem is, once you’re set up with a long-term client, pretending to be a miracle worker will eventually lead you in one of two directions. Either you’ll burn out (we’re all human!), or you’ll eventually fly too close to the sun and take on work that you simply can’t deliver — and then you’ll disappoint your client.
And just like that, instead of being the great and powerful Oz, you’ll just be a tired-looking freelancer in coffee-stained pajamas standing behind a disheveled velvet curtain.
From a relationship-building standpoint, a much better long term strategy is to build “no” and “yes, but” into your vocabulary, and to use these words right from the beginning of your journey with a client. If you know a deadline is going to eat you alive, it’s far better to fess up to not being a wizard and to try to negotiate something you’re confident you can handle. If you know you’ll need more information, say so.
If you feel daunted, own it — because an important step in building your reputation is to establish trust, and you can only do that if you’re honest about being a human who occasionally has limitations.
Might you lose future work? Well, possibly. But burning out or failing to deliver will get you to the same destination, except that the journey will be slower and more demoralizing. Your best bet is to work with clients to set realistic expectations.
Change How You Charge
Then there’s money. Isn’t there always?
No client in the history of freelancing has not looked twice at a freelancer with rock bottom fees and wondered if they might — just maybe — be good enough in a pinch. And similarly, every client has gulped at least once when presented with the fee an experienced and capable freelancer knows they’re worth.
There is, and always will be, a friction-filled expectation gap between the amount an employer would like to pay and the sum a freelancer would hope to receive. But building a long-term relationship with a client can present an opening for changing that relationship for the better.
Opening up a conversation about a regular basis of payment, whether in the form of a contract, a retainer, or simply an agreement to carry out regular work for a client on an ongoing basis, can be a powerful way to build trust with a long-term client. In exchange for forgoing premium single-piece writing rates, you stand to gain a more predictable income (never a bad thing in this plague-ridden new normal of ours) and less time outlay securing new work.
Changing how you charge can be an important step in building a relationship with a client because it’s sending a message, both ways, that you’ll be writing for the company on a long-term basis. It may not be as exciting as scouting out new projects with colorful new clients, but there’s a lot to be said for the freelancing equivalent of “putting a ring on it.”
Reputation or Branding First?
Real talk: Branding and first impressions aren’t going to become less important for freelance writers any time soon. The annals of freelance glory are not written in Comic Sans.
But reputation and relationship building are important too. After all, the real job of a freelancer isn’t to be smarter, faster, shinier, or more filled with boldly branded bravado than the next person. It’s to be someone who gets the job done — it’s to be that person with a good head on their shoulders whom a client can rely on to deliver to the best of their ability.
Even though we’re paying our bills out here on our own, perhaps the simple truth of it is that, ultimately, no freelancer is an island.
About the Author
This post was written by nDash writer Mark Lambert, who specializes in writing for clients in the business, lifestyle, and technology categories. To learn more about Mark — or to have him write for your brand — check out his nDash profile page.