Not hitting them, beating them.
I hate missing deadlines. I also hate not having clear deadlines because I am a procrastinator. Fail to give me a looming due date and I have an excuse to put your project aside. But I’ve developed my own deadline system and it is key to my success as a writer and digital marketer.
Most freelancers want to be busy. When you start out, finding business is your primary challenge. The Catch 22 is that it doesn’t take a lot to be busy when you’re one person, because we have limited bandwidth. There are only 24 hours in a day and they include sleeping, eating, social and family time, in addition to work.
Set your own deadlines
I’m not a workaholic, nor do I aspire to be one. What I do aspire to is being efficient. Efficiency in my world means working fast without sacrificing quality. A lot of that comes down to experience, but metrics are what tell you how you’re doing. Before I get into that, a little more about deadlines as a tool. I always set deadlines for myself that beat the deadlines my clients request. But I go further. I tell the clients my projected deadline. If they need it next Wednesday, I tell them ‘end of day Monday’. But I qualify it. I’m a writer so my qualification is that they are getting a draft so they can check progress against their requirements.
This early delivery has the added benefit of the client correcting any misconceptions I might have about the deliverable. Maybe their instructions were unclear or I interpreted them wrong. Either way, the early delivery means I gain some time to make any required changes while still hitting their deadlines. Pretty basic, but my number one client retention process is delivering faster.
Tip: Writing intimidates many people. They struggle with it because they don’t do it everyday. So, they usually have unrealistic ideas of how long things take. They almost always overestimate the time required because they are basing it on their ability to do a similar task. Use this to your advantage and don’t underquote your work.
Don’t show your hand
The point here is that beating your deadlines is a balancing act. Deliver too soon and you show your hand- they start to learn how fast you are. Honestly, in my opinion, that is none of their business. It’s my trade secret. When it’s something like a press release, that I bill based on two hours of my time (or my minimum), it may actually take me 15 minutes. I’ve written hundreds of the things and they follow a formula. So, if they accepted my two hour quote and I can beat it, that’s the benefit I get from being experienced.
The problem here is if they know it takes me 15 minutes they will want it cheap, which means they devalue my experience. This is why my cardinal rule of freelancing is not revealing how fast I really work. So, my deadlines can’t show my hand. Which brings up the subject of rush jobs.
We need it yesterday…
When I get a rush job I have two responses. First, if I am completely jammed and completing it on the rush timeline is unrealistic, I tell the client I do not have the bandwidth right now. Then I ask them if they can give me an extra day (extra twelve hours, extra whatever). They almost always can.
The second response is ‘I can do it but there will be an up-charge or rush charge’. This is typically a 50–100% increase in cost. This is common and usually when someone needs something in a big hurry someone has messed up. You’re getting them out of a jam. If they are really in a jam and you have the time, consider offering them a ‘one time I’ll do this’ option: ‘Normally there is a 50% upcharge but this time I’ll take care of it for my normal rate’. This is simply a marketing bet that they will appreciate it and send you more work. ‘Relationship marketing’ is what the pundits call it. One warning: if they constantly ask for rush jobs, you have to immediately start charging the premium. This is called ‘customer training’.
Your personal performance metrics
- How well are you doing, moneywise? This is your longer-term metric. For me it is total monthly billing.
- How much do you really make per hour or per word (I prefer per hour)? Remember that fifteen minute press release job I mentioned earlier? If I charge $100 for it (my minimum) and it took me 15 minutes, I made the equivalent of $400/hour, but only for that hour. If you keep a timesheet on a day by day basis you can start to understand what you are really making on a more regular basis by averaging jobs by hours over time.
- How much actual time and thought are you putting into the project? You have to consider time spent communicating, researching, and simply thinking through your approach. I usually accumulate what information I can get and let it ‘cook’ for a while until it comes together. You should account for some of this time. Writers and most creative people don’t create on-demand. If we are asked to (the dreaded brainstorming session), the results usually don’t stand the test of time. Don’t be a performing seal.
Metrics are for yourself. They can be strictly monetary, but you should be checking your general happiness with the path you’re pursuing. Over time, this will be the most important metric, the one that truly determines success.
Finally, I know some will be put off by this methodical approach, watching the numbers and playing games with client expectations. Freelance writing is a business. You can do it as a sideline but if you’re treating it as a career you need to develop discipline. In addition to my marketing work, I write novels. When I started the process was mysterious and it still is, but not because I wait for inspiration. The mystery happens when you make writing a process and things come out that are unexpected. When I started experiencing this I did research on the writing processes of my favorite novelists. They all had metrics they followed daily to motivate themselves. Page or word counts, etc. And they all set deadlines for themselves for each day’s work.
The point is that creativity comes out of discipline, not staring at the stars (though that does help!). When you’re working to pay the bills, discipline keeps the cash flowing. And as any successful business owner will tell you, cash flow is king.
Note: I write frequently about the business of freelance writing. You can see a list of the articles here.