Manage Clients Like a Boss!

10 simple habits that will positively impact your interactions with clients, colleagues, family and friends!


Not having a boss in your life is one of the key attractions of the freelancer lifestyle, but even a freelancer is working for someone. Your employers will have less control over your day-to-day workflow than a traditional boss would, but they're still essential, and communicating with them can be trickier than talking with a traditional boss that you know well and see every day. Expectations can become confused, details can be hard to hammer out, and feelings can get hurt when you're dealing with someone who doesn't know you over time and with whom you have little or no face-to-face interaction. Your ability to manage client expectations will be a key part of your success strategy. Here are some tips to help you keep those channels of communication open, productive, and working for you.

In Every Interaction...

These things may seem simple - but when you're communicating only online, they're still vital.

Be prompt - Respond to communication within 24 hours. But that said, be careful about being too eager. Take time to think about your responses, and keep in mind that when you get in the habit of responding instantly, you're setting client expectations at an unrealistic level: they may expect that you'll always be right there to answer.

Use appropriate language - Be aware of keeping a professional tone. Not every email has to start with "Dear Sir or Madam," but they shouldn't start with "Hey Dude," either. You can mirror your correspondent's form of address: when they start using first names, so can you. Chat and Messenger programs can be very helpful communication tools with customers, but they aren't the same as a casual conversation, and your language should reflect that. Also, keep in mind that writing doesn't convey emotion. Think carefully about how you phrase anything negative. Don't be too brief, and it's best not even to attempt humor.

Write well - Effective writing is partly about professionalism, but mostly about clarity. Especially in critical or complex situations - like setting initial expectations or responding to feedback - take the time to make sure your message is concise, clear, and well-organized. It can make the difference between an effective, productive relationship and a hostile, muddled one.

Use your customer's preferred platform - Whether that's email, Skype, or a messenger service, you'll get faster response times on your messages.

Confirm, confirm, confirm! - Never start work or make a change until you've positively confirmed it with the customer. Rephrase what they've requested and ask them to confirm that it's what they want. It may seem unnecessary, but better safe than sorry.

When Things Get Tough...

In traditional work settings, you can usually take for granted that you'll know the expectations for a project before starting, or will at least get the feedback you need to course-correct early on. That can't be taken for granted as a freelancer, though. Understanding your client's expectations, and communicating your own, is something that requires specific effort.

Unfortunately, sometimes just asking, "what do you expect" doesn't lead to answers as useful and thorough as you would like. Sometimes you think you understand client expectations, and are surprised when they're unhappy with what you turn in - but aren't clearly stating why. When communication seems to be breaking down or not even getting started, there are a few strategies you can take to get things running smoothly.

Listen carefully

Sometimes the problem is the customer, but sometimes it's you. With constant, daily contact, understanding what your employer wants isn't hard. With less contact, it's easy to let your expectations and assumptions color your ideas about what you should be doing. Read messages closely and objectively. If what they want seems like a terrible idea to you, you can gently, constructively explain why, but don't fight it if they disagree with you. It is, in the end, their product. Listen carefully to understand what they mean, and adapt yourself as best you can to that. You need to manage expectations and provide effective guidance at the same time, and that can be a tricky combination!

Communicate your needs up-front

Avoid headaches later on by giving clear specifications on timelines, drafts, feedback, and the scope of the project before you accept a project. Clarify things like how often you'll communicate, at what stages of the project you'll have something to show them, exactly what you will and won't be working on, and how many revisions are needed to be done, even if you aren't asked to do it.

Be persistent

If it seems like a client doesn't want to make time to outline what they want from you, don't give in to the temptation to just guess, or assume they don't care. Be mindful of your client's time and keep your communication focused, but if it takes a lot of questions to know what's expected, you should ask a lot of questions. Customers who are unwilling to take the time to let you know what they want will be trouble down the road.

Explain what you do

The client doesn't have to understand your field thoroughly-but giving them a general sense of what you can help them to know what you need from them to do your job. If you're having trouble getting project information, letting them know why you need the information you're asking for may help them to understand the question and respond usefully.

When you're sending in first drafts, explaining what you've done can also help clients provide you with useful feedback. When customers understand why you've made the decisions you did, and what might be affected if you change one part of the project or another, they'll be better equipped to engage in productive collaboration and conversation with you.

Ask for examples

Asking for examples is often the quickest and easiest way to get a sense of client expectations from those who have trouble articulating what they want. Ask if they can show you an example of the kind of thing they're looking for - whether that's work previous freelancers have done for them, a style guide, or work that's just out there which they admire.

Ask binary questions

Open-ended questions can lead to frustratingly vague answers. If you ask what changes the customer wants and they tell you just to make it different, one of the best ways to get a more definite sense of what they want is binary questions. Do you want it shorter or longer? Brighter or more neutral? Should the interface be more minimal or more complete? Enough binary questions can often get you to a better sense of what the client means by what they say.

Be open to changes

You and the client may have different ideas about the best direction for a project to go in. By explaining what you've done (as mentioned above), you can often get far in persuading your client against changes for the worse. However, don't fight it. It's their project. Be open to making changes, and willing to do the best you can within the parameters you've received.

Freelance work offers much freedom, but it doesn't mean you can use this freedom to simply make your decisions about a project without maintaining a good relationship and collaboration with your clients. These useful tips will surely help you to enjoy the perks of being a freelancer without compromising the structure needed to have successful working relationships with your clients!