10 ways to avoid becoming a commodity freelancer

OldCo is a well-established company that uses only freelancers to maintain a website that drives 35% of all its revenue. Whenever the current workload exceeds capacity, it hires a few more freelancers. Work begins, and all of a sudden priorities change. The freelancers are dropped and are told they will be contacted again once the company figures out what’s best for the business.

Sound familiar, right? Do you hate having your time wasted? Do you feel like your client only cares about what you can do for them? Are your skills treated like a commodity?

Here are some ways to fix that.

1. Stop being readily available

You want to make your client happy, so you make yourself available all the time, whether it’s 8:00 am or 9:00 pm. This makes them respect you and your time less. Set the expectation that you will communicate with them during normal business hours. You have a life of your own, too. Don’t bend over backwards for them. Otherwise, you’ll be expected to always do this.

2. Stop compromising on price

Your client is trying to cut costs and asks you to reduce your rate from, say, $125 to $90 an hour. The rationale is that you’ve been doing business together for a while, so they should get a discount. But what’s to stop them from finding another freelancer who will work for $60 or $50 an hour? Don’t do it, or else you will send them a signal that you’re a commodity. Compete on quality, not price. If your client really wants to pay less, then scope down the project instead — so, less pay, but less work, too.

3. Stop doing proposals for free

Proposals are time-consuming. You have to spend hours understanding the client’s business goals and detailing how you will accomplish them in the proposal. Clients often don’t know what project to work on next. They’ll have you create a proposal just to see the pricing, and then decide whether it’s worth the return on investment. This is really unfair to you because the client doesn’t understand the time you’ve put in.

4. Stop doing anything for free

Clients will try to maximize your output. All they need you to do is add a ‘Like’ button? Integrating it will take only 30 minutes, so you do it for free. Trust me, they won’t ask this only once, and the time will add up. They will keep expecting this from you and will not value your time.

5. Stop caring only about the money

When you care only about the money, you don’t care about the client or project. In turn, the client will only care about the project, too. They will think they can hire any freelancer to do the same thing. Demonstrate the value that you will be providing. Let them know how you plan to put their business on a positive trajectory. Make sure they understand why you are the best person to accomplish this.

6. Stop doing everything clients ask

Turning down work might feel unnatural, but a client will make a lot of feature requests, many of them useless. They will assume you will just do anything they say. You need to understand how each feature relates to their business. Force them to explain it. Ask them how they know that users want it, and if they don’t, then encourage them to drop it. Doing this will create a better product and will show that you care about their business.

7. Stop letting clients lead useless meetings

They will want you to join meetings — meetings that don’t have an agenda, meetings that are scheduled for an hour, weekly update meetings. They will waste your time. It will send a signal that you are willing to be a part of their corporate and inefficient work culture. Call a meeting on your terms, and let them know what resolution you want out of it. Or start billing them to attend their meetings. They will start valuing your time more.

8. Stop waiting for clients to ask you for an update

Proactively communicating goes a long way in establishing a relationship. It shows that you are a professional and can execute independently. Communicate at least once a week. Tell your client what you’re currently working on, what you’ll be working on next and when you expect to finish. If you have something visual to show, then show it. The more you communicate, the more they’ll trust you.

9. Stop letting clients pay you later

Demand payment before beginning any work. Weekly deliverables are best. Define what you will accomplish for the week; the client would then submit payment, and then you would complete the work. Repeat for the next week. It’s a good way to show that you mean business.

10. Stop being just a freelancer

Freelancing is running a business. Being the best coder or designer around won’t necessarily make you a good freelancer. To be successful, you need to generate client leads, market yourself, build strong relationships, understand business needs, demonstrate your value, give accurate project estimates and deliver on what you promise. These are all things that clients take for granted. Follow these steps and position yourself as a business partner, not a commodity freelancer.

Sherman Lee is the founder of Good Sense. He is an entrepreneur, high-end consultant and blogger. He writes about productivity, freelancing, user experience, customer development and marketing. Learn more about him here, or follow his updates on Twitter @sherm8n. More articles by Sherman Lee
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