Freelancing as a career can be rewarding and fruitful. You finally are your own boss, you set your own schedules, and you have the opportunity to take on lucrative and interesting projects.
But it is not without its challenges and hurdles to overcome.
Armed with more than a decade’s experience of freelancing, IoTalents’ Featured Freelancer Dean Loh has seen it all. As a full-time freelance web designer, Dean designs and builds websites, helping his clients establish their web presence.
We sat down with Dean for some coffee and insightful conversation. Here are some advices that Dean has for aspiring and fellow freelancers alike:
For Would-Be Freelancers
Build up formal work experience as a salaried employee before setting out on your own. For Dean, the on-the-job learning and relatively stable income were plus points.
“Before you decide to embark on your freelancing journey, it is important for you to work for others for at least couple of years. The experience helps. You need to learn how to work for people before people can work for you.”
“I learnt things like client communications and proposal creation from my previous work experience. These helped greatly in my freelance career! I had to create a proposal for my very first freelance client, so I applied what I learned to that.”
A salaried work experience also gives you the chance to build up a portfolio, either from doing company projects and/or side-freelancing projects.
“The best time to start freelancing is when you still have a full-time job,” Dean advises.
For Aspiring and Beginning Freelancers
“The start is scary,” Dean warns. “If it does not scare you, you are not doing it properly. It will give you sleepless nights, thinking about when the next payment will come in.”
“This is because of the nature of our work. Projects can extend beyond their projected end date by a few months, but we cannot take new projects because we are busy with current ones. We know that we get paid once the project is completed, but in the meantime, how? This moment is bound to happen.”
Do your due diligence and pick the right projects for you!
For Fellow Freelancers
Over the course of our conversation, Dean frequently brings up the importance of communication and honesty and how they contribute to his success as a freelancer. This is especially true when things do not go as smoothly as expected. Be it bad news or good news, Dean makes it a priority to inform his clients, always.
“Always be in touch with your clients,” Dean says. “Sometimes we are too overwhelmed and we don’t reply emails from clients, because we do not know what to say to them.”
“But that should not give you reason to stop communicating with your client. You need to tell your client that, you know what, I screwed up, I took on too many jobs, and there is no way i can deliver every single one until i sort them out.”
“I tried that, and surprisingly, the client wanted to work out the issues together. Good news, bad news, communicate with your client. Treat them like family or a partner.”
Why Being Honest Is The Right Way
“I’m very real with my clients. I don’t always say positive things, sometimes, when it is necessary, I tell them negative news too. ”
“This honesty and desire to achieve the best results for the project in turn makes clients appreciate me more. They tell me, ‘This is why I hired you, I don’t want someone who says “Yes” all the time!’ This is one of the things that has gotten me this far.”
“(Communication)… builds trust between the client and you. Once you have trust, the world is your oyster. Thus, it is important for freelancers to note, you do not have to make yourself look big, have certain credentials, get as many certifications before even bringing in their first deal.”
Getting clients and marketing yourself
Dean believes in the power of sincerely getting to know people. Do not be too excited to share what you do; instead, share with people who you are, and focus on building a relationship.
“One rule: keep meeting and talking to people, put yourself in front of as many people as you can. It may not be people who will eventually give you business, because surprisingly, sometimes you get business from people you least expect from.”
“It is often said you have to be at the right place at the right time. But you do not always know what is the right place and right time. So, visit every place, every time. That is my strategy.”
Dean has built his business to the level whereby he gets most of his clientele from organic search listings. Still, he makes time to meet potential clients face to face instead of sticking to email.
“People still find me through my website today and send me a request for quotation (RFQ). I meet them, and start the whole relationship going.”
Retaining your clientele:
It is often said in the business world that the best customers to have are the ones you already have. Dean wholeheartedly agrees.
“I realised it is important to keep in touch with your current clients. I started with this aluminum company, and they were very happy to see me again. It was then I realised, if I had done this from the very beginning, I would probably not have to search so hard for clients anymore.”
“Thus, my strategy now is based on client retention. I have a retainer-based contract with them. I have also reduced my clients to a few good ones. The 80/20 concept, so to speak. I keep the 20% of clients who give me 80% of my revenue. I wished I started this right from the get go. But no, it took me 10 years to realise this. So, take care of your current clients, and they will help you take care most of your revenue.”
But for bad customers…
Dean minces no words on this one.
“Be nice and respectful to your client as a default, but at the same time, do not hold yourself back. Do not just straightaway fire them, but communicate with them, talk to them. I make sure they understand how I feel, and whether we could meet halfway. After that, if there is no amicable resolution, then the relationship ends.”
Be honest and communicate with your clients, even the bad ones!
Listen and ask the right questions:
Empathetic listening is a key part of strong communication. While it is important to get your message across clearly to your clients, Dean emphasises that listening is a critical skill every freelancer should possess.
“From my observations, most people rush to say what they want to say. They listen because they want to wait for you to finish so they can say what they want. Granted, sometimes you might be too excited, even I make that mistake! But to be able to slow down and just listen, it is wonderful.”
“Be empathetic. Listening and asking the right questions has a lot to do with this. You want to see beyond what the client says. Listening more, that’s how you get more data.”
Dean has a little tip for listening well:
“The next time you meet a new or potential client, try this: let them talk. Remember the little details your client mentions. Mention the details the next time you see them, and you’ll see how impressed your client will be. When you earn that, your client will listen to whatever you say.”
Listening intently also helps you understand your client better.
“If the client comes in blazing and starts talking about pricing etc., you know that the person might be tough to work with.”
Listening well also helps in asking the right questions, especially with regards to what you do not know or are not too sure about. “If you do not know something, ask away,” Dean says.
Dean’s wealth of experience and knowledge makes him invaluable to his clients and fellow freelancers alike. When we asked Dean to share one final piece of advice, this is what he had to say:
“Love your clients. Always show your clients you care for them, from day 1. Take care of them, build your 80/20 from day 1. Finding clients will be a struggle no more.”
Golden lessons from a true professional, indeed.