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A Freelancer's Guide to Healthy Business Relationships

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This tutorial turns the common myth of the lone freelancer on its head. It explores the types of business relationships freelancers need and why each is important. It explains how you can make your relationships stronger. I'll also examine an area of relationship building freelancers often neglect: face-to-face networking.

Business relationships are the core of my own freelancing business. I know that I'm not alone. Most successful freelancers also excel at building good working relationships with those around them. Interpersonal skills are a key asset.

Regardless of your freelancing specialty, I think you'll agree that business relationships are important. Let's take a closer look at why you should invest in them.

Why You Need People

Your freelancing business needs people to survive. This is true even if you work from home and rarely see anyone on an average workday. 

Without clients, you're not in business. Once you have clients, you need to build healthy relationships with them so they continue working with you. If you run a business, you need clients, prospective clients, and also colleagues. 

What Freelancers Say About Relationships

I asked a few experienced freelancers how relationships factor into their business.

Alicia Rades, a specialist in blogging and content marketing, emphasizes the importance of relationships:

As a freelance blogger, I find two types of business relationships to be of the utmost importance: my relationship with my clients, and my relationship with other writers. My clients keep my business going, and I'm happy to say I learn a lot from them. I also find relationships with like-minded business owners to be valuable as these relationships have led to incredible learning opportunities as well as on-going work.

Lauren Tharp has been a freelance writer and editor for over five years. She says:

At its heart, freelance writing is a customer service industry. Without good relationships, you have no business.

Having a relationship with your clients and colleagues doesn't mean that they've suddenly become your best friend. You likely won't be hanging out with them every weekend. And you certainly don't want to call them up with the latest gossip about your next-door neighbor.

Strong personal friendships do sometimes grow out of work situations. That's not what we're talking about here. And that tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

Trust and Relationships

Your clients and colleagues need to trust you enough to want to do business with you or to recommend you for projects. Those prime projects won't just fall into your lap. If you rely on blind ads to find work, you compete with thousands of other freelancers.

Trust ranks highly as a success trait for entrepreneurs and other business leaders.

Author Dixie Gillaspie explains why trust is so important in her article on Entrepreneur.com, Why Trust Is the Most Important Part of 'Know, Like and Trust'. She explains that you earn trust when you put the customer's needs first.

In Vivian Giang's article, The 4 Most Important Relationships You Need At Work, on Business Insider, she describes "Trusted Relationships" as:

"...the most personal, valuable and often the 'longest-lasting' relationships..."  

For people to trust you, they need to know something about you. How do you get the type of trusted relationships that lead to more business? Let's start by taking a look at face-to-face networking.

Face-to-Face Networking Still Works

We live in a world that's inundated with electronic communications. It seems everyone is online. The tendency is to try to connect with anyone and everyone through social media or email. We tend to ignore face-to-face networking.

Face-to-face networking still works. It's still as important to relationship building as it ever was. Yet many freelancers dread face-to-face interactions.

Doing business and shaking hands face-to-face
Doing business and shaking hands face-to-face.

The U.S. Small Business Association (SBA) agrees that face-to-face networking is important. SBA Blogger Rieva Lesonsky's advice on face-to-face networking includes these points:

  • do your homework
  • mingle
  • follow up
  • integrate online and offline

You'll find the rest of Lesonsky's networking tips in her helpful post on the SBA blog, The Power of Face-to-Face Networking.

If you're getting ready for a face-to-face meeting I would also suggest that you:

  • dress professionally
  • schedule meetings in advance
  • bring business cards

Quick tip: Business card templates allow you to quickly create a brand new set of cards with an updated professional look. 

If you've been ignoring in-person interactions, now is the time to make face-to-face meetings part of your strategy. There are plenty of networking groups and trade show opportunities.

Build Stronger Business Relationships

We've already shown that people tend to do business with those they know and trust. Building healthy business relationships is a business strategy that works.

How do you build stronger relationships? As we mentioned, face-to-face networking is one way. But you can also take steps to strengthen any type of relationship.

The following steps work well whether the relationship is online or offline. First you need to strengthen existing relationships. Next, you should work to overcome challenges to new and existing relationships.

Strengthen Your Relationships

Here are five steps to help you build stronger relationships:

  1. See people as individuals. Your prospect is an individual. Yes, you may have an ideal client profile, as described by Ed Gandia on Tuts+. But your prospects and clients are also real people. Find out what's different about your contacts.  
  2. Add in the right mix of personal. Acknowledge significant life events to keep your name in front of the client. Send birthday cards or congratulate the client on a professional accomplishments or work anniversaries. Customer relationship management (CRM) software can help you keep up. Some social media platforms like LinkedIn also publish work anniversaries and accomplishments.
  3. Pay attention. Too many people ruin relationships by making it all about what they have to say. Listening is a vital relationship-building skill. Your contact will notice if you make the relationship all about you. In email interactions, listening means reading the contact's emails carefully and asking appropriate questions.
  4. Learn what they need. If you pay attention, you'll start to understand your contact better. You'll know what they really want and need. This knowledge will help you work more effectively with them each time you do business together. 
  5. Respect boundaries. While you should be friendly with your business contacts, there are boundaries. Your client is not the person you will call at three in the morning when you're scared or sick. Nor will you spend a Saturday afternoon gossiping with them. That's okay. You have other friends for that.

Tharp has dealt with the boundary issue:

For a while I had a post-it note up on my wall that said 'Your clients are not your friends.' It sounds ridiculous, but, if you're an overly-friendly person, you might need a reminder like that! Setting boundaries is important for both sides of the business relationship and you need to be sure you enforce them.

Dorie Clark, writing on Forbes.com, offers four practical suggestions of small things that you can do to build a business relationship. Her advice on online relationship building is particularly helpful. As she mentions, many people connect through social media and never interact with each other again. That's not building a relationship.

Overcome Relationship Challenges

Building a healthy business relationship is hard. Perhaps that's why many freelancers and business owners neglect their work relationships. For most of us, it's not like we go to the same office and see the same people over and over again. We have to make a real effort to keep the relationship going.

While neglecting business relationships may be the easy thing to do, it's also the wrong thing to do if you're a freelancer.  Freelancers need to overcome relationship-building obstacles. Here are some common relationship challenges freelancers face:

  • finding the right people
  • building trust
  • being introverted
  • being extroverted
  • staying in touch with non-local contacts

The freelancers I spoke with also experienced problems building relationships. Let's look at how they solved some of their relationship challenges.

Rades sometimes has trouble deciding who to connect with. She mentions how difficult it can be to find the right fit. It's a tough decision and can end up wasting time if you make the wrong call. She addresses the issue by getting more information up front:

One of the biggest things is to communicate effectively from the beginning. I don't sign on new clients without understanding the scope of their project, and I tend to connect with other writers who themselves communicate well on social media and in their own blog posts.

Tharp is naturally outgoing and her instinct is to befriend everyone she meets. But being overly friendly could annoy or turn off some of her clients. She works to establish healthy business boundaries in their relationship and not get too personal:

I took a cue from a misattributed quote of Joe Friday's and stick to 'just the facts.' If what I'm about to say to a client isn't something they need to know—or if it isn't about the project at hand—then I go back and erase it. I can still be friendly, of course, but the client doesn't need (or want) to know every detail about my personal life.

Personally, I'm on the shy side. Interacting with a client or prospect is something I tend to put off. I solve this problem by assigning myself deadlines to answer emails or place phone calls. I also schedule about an hour a day for client or prospect interactions. Tuts+ writer Lisa Hunter also has some great advice to help introverts connect.  

When a Good Relationship Goes Bad

If you're like most of us, you hope nothing ever goes wrong with your business relationships. But that's not the reality. As with any relationship, things can always go wrong.

Even if you do everything right, you could still face a business relationship problem. If this happens to you, don't panic. You may be able to fix things. Here are some steps to take:

  1. Stay calm. If you're upset or if the client seems upset, wait before trying to apply a solution. Let a few hours pass. Take a walk, or do whatever you can to cool down.
  2. Let the client know you care. Many freelancers don't respond when something goes wrong. Your willingness to work things out marks you as a true professional.
  3. Find the cause. Try to discover what went wrong. Was a mistake made? Was there a miscommunication? Is the client moving in a different direction?
  4. Put things right. Once you know what is wrong, you can take steps to fix it. If the client is moving in a different direction, find out what it is. Perhaps you can still meet their needs.
  5. Accept the blame. If the problem is your fault, admit it. We all make mistakes sometimes and your client knows this. Accepting responsibility for your mistakes is another mark of a professional.
  6. Change your process. Make sure that the problem doesn't happen again with this client or with another. The change may mean getting more information up front, or creating checkpoints when doing the project.

Marie Gardiner provides even more detail on how to deal with an unhappy client in her Tuts+ post, How to Handle an Unhappy Photography Client.

Of course, not all business relationships can be fixed. Despite your best efforts, the client may still decide to move on. Tharp has a few words of advice for when this happens:

Even if you can sense a relationship is coming to a close: Don't burn bridges. You never know how or when that person might come back into your life. Be polite. Always.

Conclusion

The common perception of the lone freelancer is a myth. Business relationships are perhaps more important to the freelancer than they are to the traditional employee.

With the right knowledge and attitude, you can build strong business relationships that help your business grow. By strengthening your business relationships, you strengthen your freelancing business.

Resources

Graphic Credit: Handshake icon designed by Scott Lewis from the Noun Project.

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