I hate when people start their blog posts with I’m gonna let you in on a little secret, but… I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. Experienced freelancers can tell when a prospective client doesn’t understand how the market works. I’ve had a couple of nightmare clients in the decade I’ve been doing this, and they all had one thing in common: they thought they understood what hiring a freelancer meant, and they really, really didn’t. Whether you’re looking to hire someone for the very first time, or having a hard time retaining experienced contractors, let me tell you how to be a client freelancers want to work with.
I’m directing this post at new clients who want to:
- get the best results for their money, and/or
- build lasting business relationships with contractors.
But newbie freelancers should take note as well. Every seasoned freelancer you meet has a few “learning experiences” under their belt — those clients that made us reconsider doing this for a living. Reading through this post might just help you spot a bad client from a mile away.
Also, it’s worthwhile to note that I’m speaking primarily from the perspective of a freelance writer and editor. This advice will largely pertain to people looking for freelance copywriters, ghostwriters, content editors, etc. The situation may be completely different in STEM fields; I’m not familiar enough with that scene to know. What I can tell you is that a good client is a good client, period.
How to Be a Client Freelancers Want to Work With
So let’s dive in here, shall we?
Most experienced freelancers will go with their gut instincts and pass on clients who don’t stand up to their initial smell tests. But the tells that give bad clients away upfront often resemble innocent mistakes rookie clients make. For this reason, newcomers can easily find themselves working with green-to-middling contractors — and paying for subpar work in the process. The most effective way to avoid this pitfall is to be the best freelance client you can be, right out of the gate.
1. A Good Client Relies on Freelancers’ Expertise
This can be one of the most difficult concepts for clients to accept. When you’re hiring a contractor, you’re paying for their expertise. Assuming they’re qualified to provide the service they’ve advertised, they know more about their field than you do. That’s why you’re hiring them and not the other way around.
I recently had someone reach out to me about “proofreading” their manuscript. Now, proofreading is not synonymous with editing. It’s a type of editing, sure, but it only corrects surface-level errors, like spelling and punctuation. That’s why a proofreading pass is the very last stage of the editing process; it cleans up all the little mistakes that have been made along the way.
This client went on to list the services they wanted, all of which were part of much deeper editing stages. I explained the difference between proofreading and editing and gave them my rates for both. And that’s where the trouble began.
You see, they’d used an AI program to proofread their work already — a process they called “editing.” The client assured me there were no major errors in the text; all it needed was a proofreading pass. When I reminded them what proofreading entailed, they insisted that wouldn’t help them, because all those errors had been corrected by the AI. They just needed someone to point out the plotholes, problems with narrative flow, etc. — a.k.a. editing. But because the AI had corrected all those grammatical errors for them, they argued that this wouldn’t be a difficult job, and therefore they shouldn’t have to pay for an edit, just a proofread.
We’ll get to financial matters in a minute. What’s worthwhile to note here is that the client didn’t understand how manuscript editing works. They didn’t know there was a difference between proofreading and editing, and they’d put the cart before the horse by proofreading first.
That happens a lot in my field. It’s not the end of the world, even if it does end up costing the client more in the long run.
The client’s cardinal sin here was not that they didn’t do their research or consult with an expert before performing self-edits. Instead, it was that they didn’t actually trust the freelancer they offered the job to. They’d trusted me enough to hand over their manuscript, but that trust didn’t extend to my expertise.
Now, I’m not saying that this client should have trusted me unconditionally. There are shady contractors out there who will take advantage of clients; that’s a risk in any field. But you can verify most contractors’ claims independently. You can say, “Hey, thanks for your time. I’m going to get a couple of other opinions and I’ll circle back.” No freelancer worth their salt is going to complain if you do that.
But at the end of the day, the fact remains that there’s a reason you’re hiring someone else for this project — because you’re not the expert here. So please don’t tell us how to do our jobs or refuse to take our professional opinions into account. Good contractor-client relationships are built on a foundation of mutual trust.
2. A Good Client Realizes They’ll Get What They Pay For
There’s a time and place for haggling, and it’s called Saturday morning at the flea market. You don’t walk into Starbucks and announce that you’ll only pay $3 for a venti pink drink and not a penny more. CVS isn’t taking offers on acetaminophen or Band-Aids. These companies set the rates they expect customers to pay. If you don’t like it, you take your business elsewhere.
That same logic applies to clients and contractors. Freelancers set their own rates, and there’s someone out there willing to work for any kind of budget. If you can’t afford someone, then they’re not the right person for you to do business with. It’s as simple as that.
Haggling isn’t the only red flag a client can wave in the discussion process, however. Here are a few more lines that will make good freelancers run for the hills.
Any sentence that contains the word exposure.
You want to know how to be a client freelancers want to work with? Then remember this: people die of exposure. Pay artists and writers what they’re worth.
“I offer steady work.”
Look, you can try as hard as you like to dangle the promise of “steady work” like a carrot, but that’s not going to fly with a contractor who has even an iota of experience. The first rule of freelancing is that nothing is guaranteed — especially not work. This line immediately tells us that you’re looking to pay far below a standard rate for beaucoup work. No thanks.
“I don’t pay anyone that much.”
Yes, people really do show their hands like this. If a freelancer’s rates aren’t within your budget, that’s 100% okay. If you like their samples and your conversations have been pleasant, ask if you can keep them in mind for future projects with more appropriate budgets. But don’t waste your time or theirs trying to make a bad fit work.
“That’s more money than I make doing [job].”
If you’re taking home an average salary for your area, every person you meet has a one-in-two chance of making more money than you. That isn’t relevant to whether or not they’re fit to do their jobs. When clients say things like this, they come across as misers who don’t want to treat contractors like business equals. Again, no thanks.
“Can I pay you in [service]?”
Disclaimer: I’m not knocking the bartering system here. More communities should be able to trade eggs for transportation or laundry services for tutoring. Those are great, mutually beneficial partnerships!
What I’m talking about here are clients who advertise lucrative contracts or approach freelancers with high rates, only to pull a bait and switch halfway through the conversation.
For example, I spotted a job posting last month asking for someone to edit a self-help book. The client initially appeared to have a decent budget. But right in the middle of the listing, they said they’d prefer to pay their contractor in — get this — $400 of free counseling sessions with the author.
Ignoring the major conflict of interest there, this kind of language tells us you’ll fight tooth and nail to avoid paying for our services. Unless you’re posting on a community trading board, keep these advertisements to yourself.
“We can discuss money later.”
This goes for both clients and freelancers: anyone who dances around the question of payment is not to be trusted. Money doesn’t have to be the first thing you talk about, but it should come up sooner rather than later. Avoiding the subject isn’t how you become the client freelancers want to work with.
“I’m talking to several other people, so we’ll see what they say.”
Here’s another line that can be completely innocent, but often isn’t. Like I said before, the freelancers worth doing business with won’t care that you’re weighing your options before making a decision.
This line can easily come off as passive-aggressive, however. Clients whip it out when they want to strong-arm contractors into less-than-stellar contracts. That only makes us want to work with you less.
“Is that your final offer?”
A freelancer’s rates are a freelancer’s rates. You’re free to find someone else to do the job if you don’t like what a contractor charges. Saying things like this only serve to make you sound like a cheapskate and a bully.
3. A Good Client Respects Freelancers’ Time and Boundaries
A lot of work environments have this problem. In fact, it’s probably one of the reasons your contractor has chosen freelancing over a nine-to-five. To be a client freelancers look forward to working with, you have to be able to respect our time and boundaries. Here are a few green flags in this department.
Not Asking for Free Work
I once had a prospective client send me a 50,000-word manuscript less than twelve hours before a scheduled call and ask me to edit it for free as an “audition.” I politely declined to work for free and sent over my editing rates, including the cost of a sample edit. When we finally spoke, they were “shocked” that I asked to be paid and likened their request to a job interview. (We’ll get to why that’s a problem in a second.)
We did not end up working together.
This is obviously an egregious example of a client asking for free work. But it’s part of a larger pattern of behavior that’s become common on freelancing platforms. Bad-faith clients will split their projects up into tiny pieces and ask a contractor to complete one as an unpaid test. If they rinse and repeat enough times with unsuspecting newbies, they can finish their projects piecemeal without paying a dime.
Now, this kind of request is one clients who haven’t worked with contractors before may think is 100% kosher. Asking for an unpaid test does happen in nine-to-five job interviews. Experienced freelancers aren’t going to bite, because these requests come across as shady and manipulative. The clients freelancers want on their roster pay contractors a decent rate for tests.
Having Clear, Measurable Goals in Mind
Listen, sometimes you don’t know what you want, and that’s okay. Deferring to the expert you’ve chosen to hire is often the best option. The type of client freelancers want to work with is usually open to collaboration.
A client’s lack of vision becomes a problem when they decide to shift gears halfway through a project or cannot accept a finished product. If you need to request changes from a contractor, do so. But you need to know what those changes are and be able to articulate them. “I don’t like this” is not feedback. “I like the color scheme but not the font” is.
Avoiding Scope Creep
Scope creep is the client-contractor version of moving the goalposts. It happens when clients continually ask for services that fall just outside the original scope of the project. Some clients will ask for additional revisions — or overly complex ones — for free. Others will tack on an, “Oh, by the way,” as in: “Oh, by the way, could you format the manuscript according to these guidelines while you’re in there?” Pretty soon, what began as a ten-hour project has taken twenty hours or more.
Let me be clear: deciding to change the scope of a project is annoying, but it can be workable. To avoid becoming a problem client, you need to discuss any changes to the project with your freelancer ASAP, be willing to pay them for the increased workload, and be respectfully understanding if they decline.
Not Asking Contractors to Jump Through Hoops to Apply
Back in the day on Neopets and GaiaOnline, it was common for OPs to hide a password on the front pages of their threads. Usually, they’d make an official rule — such as: Put “broccoli” in your first post so I know you read the rules. — and ban or ignore posters who didn’t follow it. Other, more annoying OPs would change the requirement further down the front page: Actually, put “chicken” in your first post so I know you REALLY read the first page. The worst kind would send you on a scavenger hunt around the site to find their password. It was a nightmare.
Unfortunately, this is a fairly common practice on certain freelancer platforms. Yes, those platforms are riddled with bots and spammers, but it’s not difficult to filter out their replies. You don’t need a password to do it.
It doesn’t do you any favors in terms of hiring talent, either. Many experienced freelancers will avoid applying, simply because the clients seem difficult to work with. This goes double for clients who also happen to have unreasonably high expectations for their budgets. There’s no way you can be a client freelancers want to work with and have ridiculous stipulations like these. Just don’t do it.
Accepting That We Take Nights, Weekends, and Holidays Off
Some freelancers respond to clients at night, during holiday periods, or on the weekends. Others don’t. If you only want to work with someone who is going to be accessible 24/7, the best thing you can do is lower your expectations and respect that contractors need to take time off just as much as nine-to-fivers.
The second-best thing you can do is be upfront about your dealbreakers. If 24/7 accessibility is absolutely critical to your project, discuss those expectations with your freelancer. And if a contractor takes you up on the offer, be prepared to pay a premium for their service.
4. A Good Client Recognizes They Aren’t a Freelancer’s Boss
If I had a nickel for every time a client acted like I was their employee, I’d have three nickels. That isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it’s happened three times.
The type of client freelancers want to do business with understands that both parties are equal partners in the relationship. Our business arrangements are built on mutual trust and understanding.
Many inexperienced and problematic clients tend to view contractors as their employees. They expect to set their freelancers’ hours, monitor their social media activity, etc. These are the clients who liken pre-contract conversations to job interviews. In their minds, they hold all the power because they’re offering us jobs. What they don’t realize is that freelancers are interviewing them just as much as the other way around.
Other bad clients seem to think they’ve walked into a Starbucks whenever they approach a freelancer. Having an entitled, “the customer is always right” attitude toward a contractor is a great way to get a bad reputation. That remains true whether you’re dealing with service-industry workers or independent contractors.
I once had a client get frustrated with me because I was working on their project on the weekend. Another talked all about themself and how successful they were for sixty minutes straight — after asking me to do hours of work for free. A few weeks ago, a prospective client rescinded an offer because I didn’t tell them I was stepping away from my computer at dinnertime.
Treating contractors like this pretty much guarantees you’ll be cut off from confident, high-quality collaborators and their products. Once you’ve got a reputation for being skeevy, the only freelancers who’ll work with you are those without much choice — newbies, low-performing contractors, and content farmers.
There you have it, folks: four things you can do to be the client freelancers will want to work with again and again. If you want more advice on client-contractor relationships, drop your questions in the comments below. And if this guide has helped you in some way, consider buying a coffee to say thanks.