How to manage time and your clients’ expectations as a freelancer

I recently got the chance to host the fabulous #ContentClubUK for the first time. Listed at number 5 in Awario’s “10 best Twitter chats for digital marketers”, it’s my favourite way to start Tuesdays.

If you’re a copywriter, designer, marketer, social media expert or anyone else working in content marketing, in-house or freelance, you’ll find something to love.

It’s pretty simple: beginning at 11am UK every Tuesday, a different content pro poses three questions on Twitter with the hashtag #ContentClubUK. And all kinds of smart and talented people from the world of content post replies.

As a freelance copywriter, I often don’t meet or even speak to clients, so I decided to ask the group how they handle time and their clients’ expectations. Here you’ll find the ton of ideas, tips and thoughtful conversation that followed…

Q1: How much do you tell clients about when you’ll work on their content project? Do you commit to a deadline and keep the specifics to yourself, or offer a schedule?

Lots of responses fell into the “deadline, and the specifics are mine” bracket, with some relaxed about their approach if clients want to know more.

Jake is similarly unfussed, “I like to commit to a realistic deadline. Unless they’re particularly involved, I don’t really share my schedule. If they want to know more, though, I don’t mind sharing :)”

Then there are those who, like me, guard their schedule more closely. Because part of the gift of freelancing is the freedom to work at 2am, somewhere your phone doesn’t work, or at the weekend, right?

Jas agreed, “Deadlines, with the rest left to me to decide how/when to reach said deadline”

But it gets more complicated with bigger projects and several pointed out the need for multiple deadlines.

Stephen said, “I don’t schedule unless it’s several months long or I’m bringing in other copywriters. Day-to-day, I’ll say when to expect it, and it’s unwritten that we’ll just make revision timelines up as we go because they’ll be slower than they promised.”

Ed also creates milestones, “I generally agree a final deadline with the client when the project starts. On really big projects we may arrange a phased delivery, but that’s not too common for me.”

And then there are dual deadlines. I’ve never managed to make this work for me, but there was lots of enthusiasm for working to an internal deadline ahead of the client one.

Masooma at Ink And Copy agreed: “I usually discuss deadlines with my clients. From there on, it is on me – how I work and the schedule I set up. Re: deadlines, I mainly set up false dates for myself so that I don’t miss the original ones & can complete work before time or by the due date.”

For the ultimate in transparency, several people use scheduling tools their clients also have access to. Trello, as always, proved popular.

Tom at TOG Marketing is also a Trello fan, “Yes, Trello is great. I use it to keep regular clients informed, when we’re working on long-term stuff. Checking off those boxes is satisfying indeed.”

And, unsurprisingly, the super-organised Jo of Lean Content has a system too, “I’m open about timelines – shared content calendar with exact dates about when I’m creating, when they need to review and when the final deadline for each piece of content is. I love a good nudge. I find the more open you are, the smoother the project goes.”

Of course, pricing structure has a big impact on client communications. Craig and Dave point out that charging by the day needs absolute clarity on scheduling. And a retainer means Louise has regular time commitments.

Craig at Stray Goat notes, “Schedule. I charge per day, so they buy blocks of days or half days and their days are booked into my calendar. If I were ever to do a fixed price job, they would have no info about the schedule, other than the deadline.”

Louise at The Copy Prescription says, “For projects, I set a schedule with deadlines for milestones & keep the client updated on progress as I go. That usually builds in flexibility ICE. For retainers, there’s a regular flow to when things are delivered, but not necessarily a strict timetable.

Q2: What time commitments do you make on turning around revisions, given they’re largely out of your hands?

Like me, not many of the content crowd have contractual commitments on when they’ll turn revisions around. Meg and Andra buck the trend.

Andra also has formal terms, with hers depending on the type of project, “My turnaround time is 2-3 days, depending on the project. I include in the contract the expected timeframe for feedback (2-5 days, depending on the customer) & make it clear that this affects the deadlines. So far, customers understood why this is important.”

Lots of people responded that they don’t have a commitment on how long revisions will take, but it’s probably not going to be today…

Gareth commented, “ This is the same for me. Around a couple of weeks. I typically try to make any revisions as quickly as possible, but it’s not always possible if I’m working on something else.”

Revisions are a two-way street, though. Plenty of feedback centred on how well the client feedback process is going.

Dee at Top Content noted, “It really depends on the extent of the revisions. Once I have received the request & glanced over it, then I give them an estimation based on what they need. They attitude towards the revisions goes a long way towards how quickly I will do them too!”

Claire at Copy Content Writer sums up my approach, “This can be a bit tricky. I want to get them done ASAP, before the acquired information floats out of my brain. So I do aim for same/next day. It depends on quantity. Always done in clear discussion with client. Ie: they can’t just wait a week & then get it by the end of the day!”

Tom brought up a word we don’t often use as content marketers: print. Because the press waits for no one.

One surprising tip to keep clients focused on speedy feedback came from Louise. Her all-you-can-object fortnight plan might well be worth pinching.

Q3: When you really can’t take on more, do you refer clients to friends or sub-contract? And why?

 Lots of people responded that they always, always refer, because it’s easier from an admin perspective and it’s a chance to make content friends more contented.

Andra is thrilled to be able to step back, “I’ve only been freelancing for 5 months, but I’d rather refer clients than subcontract. I used to manage a content team & it was exhausting for me, even though the team itself was really good. Now I’m focusing on getting as much done by myself as possible.”

Craig is kind and helpful, and a fan of Culture Club…

Gareth commented, “I always refer clients to other writing friends that I think are suited to the job. It saves me having to deal with the client and gives another freelancer work.”

Stuart of WritersBlick believes in cosmic goodwill too, “My attitude is that there’s plenty of work out there. Rather than take on too much, there will always be someone happy to take on the job if you can’t. Plus, I’m a firm believer that what you give out will definitely come back to benefit you in other ways”

Sometimes it’s a client you love whose project you can’t take on. Maintaining your relationship, keeping an eye on quality and getting to have some team mates for a while are all good reasons to sub-contract.

Jonathan takes cares of his regulars and refers whenever he can, “Longstanding clients I know intimately esp. where I will need to edit, I will sub-contract and act as account handler/quality controller. Otherwise hand it over and sleep soundly.”

Stephen mixes it up too, “I’ve done both – referring when I can’t add value, and sub-contracting when there’s a major tone, style or approach element that I can do before sharing the execution with other CWs.”

A big win for me in joining the lovely #ContentClubUK gang is that I instantly have a group of committed and talented content pros I can refer clients to. Jo sings the praises of virtual colleagues.

Jake reminds us to choose who refer clients to carefully, “Have done both in the past. Usually only sub-contract if I’m still involved in some capacity. Otherwise, I’m happy to hand stuff over if I know they can handle the work. Don’t want it to reflect badly on me, so I only go with someone I know to be top-notch”

Of course, not everyone is in a breakneck hurry. It always pays to check a client’s timeline and see if you can fit them in another week.

And Jake doesn’t mince his words, “If the client can wait, you better believe I’ll still book ‘em in”

Bonus (for Amazon) Q: is there a book that’s rocked your business world recently?

I saved my favourite nosey question for last, because one thing all us content marketers love is a good read. The crowd didn’t disappoint.

André: “Lean Content Strategy by the one and only @JoDuncs”

Masooma: “I’ll add Paul Jarvis’s Company of One here!”

Louise: “Just read The Coaching Habit by Michael Stanier – it’s about leading/coaching a team but the questions work brilliantly in sales calls with clients to find out exactly what they need!”

Ed: “I’m just starting out with @allgoodcopy‘s The Art of the Click. Great stuff so far!”

Andra: “This is not directly related to #contentmarketing but still very useful. I read a lot about psychology and decision-making and The Wisest Man in the Room is a really good read”

But Jake wins for this thorough and revealing insight into his literary world.

Come on and join us for #ContentClubUK

#ContentClubUK has changed the way I manage clients, price, write, research and deliver content. There are some big brains and decades of experience packed into the deceptively short 30 minutes.

Don’t miss out on the chance to share your wisdom and up your game. Follow the hashtag from 11am UK time every Tuesday, and get stuck in.

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