A freelancer’s (+ their clients) guide to etiquette

Annie Maguire
Apr 8, 2017 · 8 min read
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I’ve been freelancing for about two years now, and during this time, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing clients.

But with the good, inevitably comes the bad, and man, have I had some odd, awful, and just plain weird interactions with potential clients.

Last year, I took about 6 months off to work more closely with one of my clients (the team over at Coach), and while it’s been awesome, it’s yet that time again to tiptoe back into the cold, harsh reality of finding new work.

This process is exciting, but nerve-wracking.

It’s exciting because I can’t wait to find new clients whose projects I’ll be pumped to work on, but also nerve-wracking to deal with the ups and downs of the “did I get it?”s And “are they going to respond, or…?”

It’s also tough putting together proposals that never go through, taking meetings that suck up too much time (for clients who don’t want to pay your rate, anyway), or wasting hours on the phone with people who eventually become unresponsive.

For these reasons, I’m inspired to write up a very simple “etiquette guide” for all my freelance friends (and their clients) out there. I also hope this guide reaches the eyes of my (and your) potential clients, and hopefully those who still think it’s appropriate to “ghost” people after the age of twenty-five.

Okay, here we go!

#1: Ask the hard questions first

This means before you schedule a meeting with a freelancer, you should get clear on things like:

  • Your needs: have a clear, prioritized list of the work you need done.
  • Your timeline: have a clear (and realistic) timeline ready for discussion.
  • Your budget: make sure you know your budget, and if you don’t have a set budget, your range.
  • The rate of the freelancer: this is a question that should be asked (or clarified) before a meeting is scheduled. If a freelancer’s rate is completely out of your budget, it’s better for everyone to get that “mystery solved” before taking next steps.

And of course, it always helpful to have a freelancer who’s got all the answers to those “tough questions” before you even ask them.

For example, the first time a potential client emails me, I respond immediately with my “Services overview” document, which explains a bit about me, links to my work, my rate, and all of the services I offer with loose estimates for each one:

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I also send a “Client FAQ” doc, which again, lists my rate, who I typically work with, how I accept payments, and answers to many more questions I wish people would ask before engaging me for a project:

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By sending these documents preemptively, you not only save everyone time energy, and anxiety, but you set proper expectations for how the relationship should proceed: clearly, professionally, and in an organized fashion.

#2: Come prepared

While a phone call may seem like an open invitation to expel every problem you’re currently facing as a person and/or professional, that’s not what a “free consultation” should entail.

One thing that can help “streamline the process” (ew, did I really just say that?), is sending a quick agenda to your clients before the meeting.

The trick is to send the agenda WITH the calendar invite, so the client can either fill it out ahead of time, or at least has and idea of what you want to talk about.

It goes something like this:

  • Intros: briefly tell me about you, your company, product, or service.
  • Challenges: tell me the top 1–3 challenges you’d like help with.
  • Project: tell me what work you’d like done, timeline, and budget (if applicable).
  • Discussion: let’s hash out any remaining details, discuss whether or not this project is a good fit for both of us, and next steps.

That last one is particularly important.

The goal of any consultation call is to figure out if the project is a good fit for both the client and the freelancer. As a result, you should both walk away from the call either knowing if the project is going to proceed (in one way or another), or not.

If you hang up the phone, and the above is NOT clear, either the client or the freelancer (sorry, freelancers — this one is likely on you) should send a recap email to clarify.

#3: It’s OK to say, “thanks, but no thanks.”

It may be your budget, our lack of expertise, or hell, it may even be your (or our) personality. Whatever the reason, we don’t really care, we just want a clear, “yes” or “no” (in a reasonable amount of time) so we can either move on with your project, or move on with our lives.

If you’re afraid of making someone upset, don’t be.

We aren’t going to be upset if you choose not to work with us — the thing that does make us upset, however, is when you string us along for weeks or months on end, making it seem like you want to work together, only to disappear when it’s time to sign the contract.

This applies to the client as well as the freelancer — if you don’t want to work with someone, simply say so!

#4: Give us the benefit of the doubt.

In fact, many of us feel guilty charging you for something we actually enjoy doing, which means we’ll often trim estimates and project rates down in order to “keep everyone happy.”

And if our rates seem expensive, here’s a little insight into why:

  • Compensation for unpaid time: you know that “free consultation,” coffee meeting, initial estimate, and fancy contract you got before even paying a dime? That’s about 6+ hours of unpaid time that we aren’t charging you for.
  • Compensation for unpaid overtime: you know that contract we both signed that had estimates in there for whatever work we’re doing for you? We’re almost guaranteed to go over those estimates, but a lot of the time, don’t want to jeopardize our relationship with you, so we just eat the costs instead of asking for you to pay the difference.
  • Taxes: you know how your taxes come straight out of your consistent paycheck that you get every 2 weeks? The hourly rate we’re charging you is helping us cover the Federal, state, and income taxes we pay 4 times per year. So whatever you pay us per hour, we get to keep about 58% of that (depending on where you live and how much you make, of course).
  • Health insurance: you know that 58% we get to keep? Well, it’s actually closer to 40% after we pay health insurance bills and additional health care costs some of us require.
  • PTO: you know how you get 2–4 weeks PTO? We get TO, just without the P, which means we need to make enough on every project to cover a long weekend away, where oftentimes, we still have to work.
  • Expenses: you know that cab we have to take to meet you at your office in deep Brooklyn, the software we had to purchase to view your working files, the coffees, lunches, and cocktails we paid for during our meetings (and all of the seemingly “insignificant’ costs that mount over time)? Yeah. lol.

I’m not trying to complain or claim that freelancing sucks for these reasons, I just want to give you a bit more insight into what an hourly rate really equates to, and why it’s kind of uncool when people ask us to lower it, like it ain’t no thang.

And contrary to popular opinion, “rates” aren’t just something we pull out of our asses—more than anything, they’re typically reflective of our experience level, expertise, efficiency, and sometimes, the level of demand we’re currently experiencing.

#5: Just respond.

Whatever time and effort we spend with you on the phone, over email, putting together estimates, proposals, and contracts, is to us, precious.

It’s time we could be spending on paying clients, our own passion projects, or with our family and friends, but instead, we’re choosing to spend our time on you. We’re not getting paid for it, but we believe in you and your project, and that’s why we do it.

So when you choose to “ghost” a freelancer whose already spent several hours with you and your project, please consider how utterly disrespectful that is.

Most times, we’re not just sitting around, basking in unlimited client projects, waiting for the next referral to show up, just so we can fling it aside without a second thought.

If we’ve put time into your project, it’s because we’ve already begun planning for it, both from a scheduling and financial perspective. We’ may have already begun turning down other work to take on your project, telling potential clients that we’re booked, when the truth is, we’re not — we just don’t know it yet.

So every time you choose to “not respond,” you’re putting our livelihoods in jeopardy.

Remember, we don’t have steady paychecks, full health benefits, or paid time-off, so every wasted minute is a gash in our monthly earnings, a pang of anxiety in our guts, and a painful dip into our savings when it’s time to pay the bills that’ll inevitably show up, whether you hire us or not.

And honestly, I really don’t understand the concept of “ghosting” anyone, whether it’s a potential client or someone you’re dating.

It is NOT okay to invalidate someone who has been nothing but open, caring, and kind to you. It is NOT okay to treat someone or their time like a food stand you can just keep going back to until the free samples run out.

“Ghosting” anyone, for any reason, is childish and selfish, and doesn’t belong anywhere in business or society.

How do you manage etiquette with clients or freelancers?

Do you have any processes or documents that help “streamline” (ugh there’s that word again!) the process of working with freelancers or clients?

Share your tips in the comments below or email me to chat: annie1maguire@gmail.com.


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