Ever wondered why a face cream can cost as little as €5 and as much as €500 at the same time? You may say the expensive one has better ingredients. But Nivea’s €2 cream has roughly 96% the same formula as a €528 Crème de la Mer.
A better explanation? La Mer has a fascinating, yet controversy-ridden brand story people actually pay for. Consumers choose La Mer not because it’s 250X better, but because the experience of buying, owning, and using it feels more satisfying.
In a nutshell, luxury brands can command higher prices because they are good at heuristics aka leveraging psychologically wired mental models all consumers have in marketing. These include the “scarcity effect”, “sunk cost fallacy”, and many others.
But what does it all have to do with freelancing?
If you want to raise your rates and stay booked for months to an end, you may want to take a cue from brand marketers: Sell the experience of working.
Why Freelancers Should Invest in Client Relationship Management
Unlike luxury brands, we aren’t selling products (most of the time). We are in the business of services and our competitive edge is the client experience.
That’s a powerful coin because whenever you look, great customer experience (CX) makes more business happen.
According to PwC, people are ready to pay between 25%-12% of the price premium for good service. Yet, 32% would no longer do business with a brand they love after one bad experience.
Globally, brands plan to spend a whopping $641 billion to create differentiated customer experiences.
What does this mean for solo service providers?
Great service is now a given. A high level of CX is expected from vendors and third-party service providers including freelancers and independent contractors.
According to Portent, 76% of clients fire marketing agencies due to poor communication and/or unmet expectations. But 56% of agency executives believe they were fired because they were too expensive or as a result of budget cuts.
When it comes to hiring a freelancer (or letting you go), the cost isn’t always the decisive factor — it’s the experience clients get in return.
So many good things happen when freelancers prioritize client experience.
1. Easier client acquisition
Finding clients is the bane of every freelancer’s existence.
Across industries, freelancers spend three to six hours per week on active client-hunting. Then s’more hours on all sorts of “supporting activities” — from onboarding to clarifying the project scope.
Can you cut this time? Yes, by improving how you manage new clients as a freelancer:
- Clearly articulate your value proposition aka whom you can help and how. Instead of saying that you “do design for retail companies”, brand yourself as a “Squarespace UI/UX designer for DTC brands”. By selecting a niche, you’re more likely to attract your ideal clients and will have an easier time proving your worth.
- Standardize your services. Create an à la carte preview of your standard services featuring service scopes, starting/minimum rates, current availability, and other deets most new clients ask for. It’s more practical to keep this information in a shared document or on a personal website page than to spell it out every time over email.
- Personalize your outreach. Whether you are cold-pitching a business or replying to a freelance job post, do your homework. Research the company in advance, reference their past work, and personalize your proposal accordingly.
When hiring you appears easy and transparent, more people will go along with your offer.
Or as a freelance writer, Marijana Kostelac rightfully tweeted: Always focus on quality over quantity.
2. Stable workload
Trust is a huge factor in great CX.
Based on the experiences customers have with a brand (or a service provider), they form an emotional connection aka get to trust you.
Source: Eptica — The Impact of Trust on Customer Experience
When you do what you say you’re gonna do, clients can rely on you and book you out for months ahead. Your work schedule remains pleasantly full and you face fewer income inconsistencies.
Most experienced freelancers get up to 90% of new business via referrals rather than active client acquisition. How come? Because they are a “trusted provider” clients feel comfortable recommending to others.
After all, when you make a referral you’re effectively giving your “seal of approval” — show your trust in this person.
Inconsistent client experience = low trust = low repeat business and no referrals.
3. Higher income
We tend to believe that paying more will get us better experiences.
Scientists found that people found an expensive placebo more effective than a cheaper option (though neither contained any active substances). Another test confirmed that people start telling that wine tastes better once they hear it’s more expensive.
In other words: We tend to associate higher prices with better, more delightful, exquisite, or personalized experiences — and luxury brands promise us just that.
When it comes to freelancing, you should make it easy for the client to justify why paying you “that much” is actually a great deal.
For many, the justification will happen organically once they get to sample the experience of working with you. That said, paying a high price and then getting ho-hum service would make most clients feel highly utterly disappointed.
Add premiums to your freelance rates when you are certain you can meet and exceed the client’s expectations.
How to manage freelance client expectations better than a luxury brand
The ultimate rule of freelance client management: Underpromise and overdeliver.
Don’t strive to be the “best thing that ever happened to them”. By raising your client experience bar impossibly high, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
That’s exactly what happened when Chanel launched its notorious Advent Calendar in 2022.
At $825 a pop, even the most die-hard fans couldn’t squeeze out excitement for a bunch of stickers, minuscule perfume samples (akin to standard freebies), and other poorly crafted merch. The product was a major flop and Chanel brand ego got badly bruised.
Be smarter and leave yourself some “buffer” to meet (and occasionally exceed) their expectations. For example, quote a deadline 3 days later and then surprise the client with earlier delivery.
Creating such small, but impactful CX micro-moments is easier than you think. The more challenging part is making them part of your client collaboration process….but we’ve got you covered.
Here’s how to build lasting relationships with freelance clients to retain, entertain, and delight them time and again.
1. Systemize client onboarding
The first impression strongly influences how we interpret further information about things or people. For example, 95% of new products fail because consumers judge them based on first impressions alone.
The same sentiment applies to services: Would you give a salon another chance after a bad cut? No, you’ll likely go to another one.
The above is called the halo effect — and it’s one of the many cognitive biases we carry.
As a freelancer, your goal is to make a positive first impression and the easiest way to do so is during client onboarding.
Onboarding is a stage where you should channel the most efforts into figuring out the client’s expectations and preferences, then aligning them with your work process.
- Collect all project in-take information such as style guides, technical docs, account accesses, specs, to understand how work gets done on the client’s end.
- Double-approve Scope of Work (SoW) to minimize misunderstandings in service boundaries and prevent scope creep.
- Explain your work process i.e. how you’ll approach their task, what the main milestones are, and when to expect updates.
- Establish a communication schedule to inform when and how to check in with you, when to expect updates, and how you prefer to share status updates.
The above steps can be fused with the administrative onboarding your client does — getting contract work signed, exchanging business details, etc.
Helpful tools to onboard freelance clients
- Google Docs. Set up necessary project infrastructure — a folder with all client files organized. Separately, set up a private spreadsheet for tracking all work in progress and key deadlines.
- Streak. Wanna go the extra mile? Create a digital rolodex of clients with the Streak app – a spreadsheet-like (but better!) tool for organizing all incoming leads from Gmail. You can automate follow-ups, assign statuses to different clients, and collect important project deets from your inbox.
2. Perfect your timing
Being ultra-professional means being prompt.
But being prompt doesn’t necessarily mean being fast. You can’t service every client at supersonic speed and meet every (reasonable or not) deadline request.
Your goal should be to create a project management system where you can:
- Allocate a reasonable time frame to deliver the requested scope of work
- Ensure that the proposed timeline meets the client’s expectations (e.g. if they need a new logo before Christmas sales, you can’t promise to deliver it by February)
That’s no easy task as Peloton will tell you. The company first promised to deliver its $1,445+ bike “blazing fast”, but eventually mustered only ultra-slow shipping and broken equipment deliveries because of supply chain issues.
Why are Peloton customers outraged and canceling their deliveries? Because Peloton could have been more transparent about the expected delays and managed customer expectations better.
That is what you should do: Give your clients a realistic snapshot of when you can get their project done.
Several scenarios are possible:
- If your schedule is flexible, add several “padding” days before the deadline to account for all those “oops, things went wrong” types of emergencies.
- If you are booked, explain what lead time you have at the moment and how to get on your waitlist. Project lead times of 2-3 weeks are fine for most clients, but you have to ensure that they book their spot. Offer to do a discovery call and start onboarding them while you’re finishing up other tasks.
- If you are booked back-to-back, be honest and say that you’re not taking on new projects. Refer them to a fellow freelancer or offer to reach out to them when your schedule clears up (and set a reminder to do so!).
Helpful tools to track your time and manage projects as a freelancer:
- Toggl is a simple time-tracking app. It helps measure how many billable hours you clock in every day. Time-tracking helps better understand how much time different types of tasks take. Use this data to make better project timeline estimates and quote feasible deadlines.
- Simple project management app to neatly stack different client projects, mark key main milestones, and keep things cracking at the right pace. Trello is a popular choice among visual thinkers and Airtable is great for Excel lovers.
3. Create systems to maintain consistency
Systems help promote repeatability in your work process. They save you time and help create a more consistent quality of service — and consistency is another element of an amazing customer experience.
Take it from Hermès. Since 1837 the company has been in the business of making leather goods. First, saddles, bridles, and other horse riding gear, now — exorbitantly expensive handbags, belts, shoes, and other accessories.
What stayed the same across centuries? Their meticulous and systematic attention to detail. Or in the words of Hermès CEO Jean-Louis Dumas:
“We don’t have a policy of image, we have a policy of product”.
Each Hermès item is still hand-manufactured, often by only one “specialized” craftsman. For example, one Hermès scarf is said to take 24 months to create.
Because Hermès has a meticulous system for creating and quality-controlling its goods, customers feel assured that for top dollar, they’ll get top quality.
Take a cue from Hermès and create a client experience where paying you above average freelance rate means:
- Predictable, consistent results
- Dependable performance
- Great attention to details
How do you do that? Get better at your tradecraft. Follow the industry updates, soak in client feedback, seek out critiques, learn new skills, and continuously improve your acumen. Then pack your personal “best practices” into a standardized service delivery workflow.
- Knowledge management tools. Use Notion, Slite, or any other note-taking app to create a personal list of checklists, work guidelines, reference materials, and standard operating procedures (SOPs). Progressively create your own knowledge library of helpful reference materials you can reuse time and again (e.g. swipe files, style guide, social media templates, copywriting formulas, etc).
- Xolo. We can run your business admin on auto-pilot with high precision, while you focus on excelling with your core work. With Xolo, you can save hours on accounting, compliance, and tax reporting both as a registered Estonian e-resident company and as a sole trader.
4. Strive for transparency
Being transparent about how you work, what you charge, and what results to expect is the next pillar of outstanding client experiences.
Transparency helps establish trust (which you already know is important) and a common baseline for expectations.
Transparency in freelance services means:
- Providing an itemized list of included deliverables and explaining their scope
- Giving realistic project estimates and communicating constraints in your schedule
- Admitting when something is outside of your wheelhouse or not your main line of business
- Gently telling that the client’s suggestions aren’t realistic or optimal for the job at hand
- Admitting and owning up to your mistakes.
Remember: Even in professional settings, it’s more important to be real, rather than perfect.
In the 1960s, social psychologist Elliot Aronson conducted a fun experiment. He asked a group of participants to answer some quiz questions. Based on the answers, Aronson highlighted a “superior person” — someone who answered 92 questions and an average participant, answering just 30 questions correctly.
Then he asked both to share some extra information about them to further cement the idea of who’s more “professional”. Yet, the “superior” participant was also secretly asked to spill coffee all over himself at the end of the session. As a post-experiment survey showed, people liked the professional even more after the coffee accident.
This is called the Pratfall Effect. We tend to like professional people who occasionally perform a blunder.
You don’t need to literally spill your coffee over your next Zoom call, don’t be afraid of making an occasional mistake or looking silly. Goofs happen to everyone. Instead of trying to silently sweep the mess under the rug, admit to what went wrong and communicate how you’ll avoid such situations in the future.
Likewise, don’t keep all your client communication extremely corporate. Infuse some personality into how you communicate and navigate through various challenging chores!
- Email and communication apps: Transparency is all about being a good communicator. Choose your combo of favorite async and real-time communication apps to regularly check in with your clients.
- Loom is a fun way to show your face instead of doing a video meeting. Slack also now allows sending video memos.
- Miro is a convenient whiteboard app for cases where you need to show, rather than tell.
5. Add a personal touch
At the end of the day, a great customer experience is made by people (aka You) for other people (aka Clients).
Being professional doesn’t mean shoving your personality in the bottom drawer of your desk and going all-corporate. On the contrary — strive to be politely personal.
Your clients shouldn’t just feel like “numbers in your banking app” or “entries in your PM app”. Perceive them as your partners — other fellow humans with good and bad days, chaotic schedules, and occasional ups and lows.
Learn more about your clients, build an ongoing rapport and then delight them with small touches.
Delight — as in “delivering unexpected value” — is a powerful feeling because it makes people choose one option over another. Research shows that delight drives loyalty among consumers and promotes word-of-mouth recommendations. Therefore delighting your clients is a shortcut to recurring work and higher income.
How can you add a personal touch to double down on delight? Be a genuine, pleasant, human being.
- Learn about the client’s interests, passion, and motivation for their work. Then cheer up on their accomplishments, send congrats, and give feedback when warranted.
- Help promote the big company updates, and advocate for them if you enjoy what the company does.
- Connect your clients with other people in your network who might use their products or help their business in another way.
- Share an occasional personal update, cheer them up when things go amiss, crack a joke, and otherwise be a pleasant “virtual” company.
- Go the extra mile with an important project or sneak in a quick “freebie” once in a while.
- Your amazing personality. Don’t be afraid to make it visible in your work!
As the freelance economy gets bigger, some freelancers might be threatened by mounting competition. But remember: you’re not just part of the global talent marketplace — you are also in the “business of you”. This is a competitive advantage no one can take away.
To attract, retain, and scale your client base, focus on creating a distinctively delightful experience of working with you (above the competition). You now know a bunch of tips and tricks for how to make that happen!
Elena Prokopets writes content for tech-led companies & software development businesses, marketing to them. Her empathy for the customer, expertise in SEO, and knack for storytelling help create content that ranks well and drives industry conversations.
Elena uses Xolo Leap so she can focus on her solo B2B content writing business without stressing over the compliance and admin overhead.