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When you work for a company where you go to an office, professionalism is a lot of things. The way you present yourself physically: how you carry yourself and what you wear. The way you speak: word choice and tone. How you express emotions in different circumstances: how you react when you get frustrated, or things don’t go your way. But when your client relationship is 100% online, sight unseen, professionalism takes on a whole new meaning.
Professionalism is an essential trait for any top-notch freelancer to have. But how do you keep things professional when your relationship is only online? It boils down to two key things.
- Your online presence
- Your communication skills
That’s not a lot to work with, so you need to be sure to dial in those two things. If you lack in either of these areas, it can be the difference between getting the contract or not, between a happy, five-star, repeat client, and a lame, one-star review. This article is going to cover in-depth how to manage your online presence and communication skills to make sure your next freelance client is yours before you exchange the first message.
Your online presence
This includes any profiles on freelance sites, but also your portfolio of work and the content you make available online. It can also include your social media presence if you have one. (I recommend keeping any personal accounts private to take that out of the equation).
Creating a powerful profile
As a freelancer, you’ll want to be sure your profile is a reflection of you. Your profile on each site should showcase your unique abilities and skillset, but also offer a hint of your personality. While clients are hiring you for your ability to perform the work, it’s also nice to remind them that you’re a real human behind the screen and not a robot. There are a few great ways to make sure the profile you’re presenting to potential clients is top-notch.
- Include a welcoming photograph – You always want to be sure to update from the default image and use a clear photograph of yourself where your face takes center stage. Make sure the lighting is good and you’re smiling. This photograph is likely the only image the client will have of you as a person, so if you don’t have a great shot in mind, get a friend or family member to take an up-to-date photo for you.
- Add a personal touch – It’s a great idea to add one, maybe two personal details about you to your profile in addition to your work experience and skillset. Wrap up your profile with a quick sentence about what you do when you’re not freelancing. The important thing here is to keep it short. The point is to remind potential clients that you’re human, not to offer your life story.
- Showcase your talent – Put several samples of previous work or client reviews in your profile. If you’re especially proud of a website you designed that’s receiving 25,000 hits a day, list it on your profile. Clients want to see successful projects that make them feel like you can handle theirs. (If you’re not comfortable putting up projects on your profile, make sure you keep a portfolio of work handy to show clients when they ask.)
Using your portfolio
When you do freelance work for a lot of clients, it can be challenging to keep track of all the work you’ve done. Try keeping a single document that contains samples of your work. Or if you’re more creative, start a website or blog to specifically showcase your work. The most important aspect of keeping a portfolio of work is knowing specifically what you’ve done and having it readily available when you need it.
I do freelance writing for several clients, some of which post to a single site, and some of which have multiple clients themselves. Since I often don’t know to which sites my work is posted, I check in every few weeks to find my articles online and add them to a running google document. I do this by searching for a specific sentence in a google search that I know is unique to my work. I also organize my document by category, (personal finance, fitness, healthcare, etc.) so I can quickly grab an appropriate article for the potential client I’m conversing with.
As I mentioned in the do’s and don’ts of client relationship management, treat your clients like you want to be treated. If you’re unsure if something is professional, ask yourself, “Would I be satisfied with this level of professionalism?” If you think even for a second the answer is no, take a step back and reassess before interacting.
Your communication skills
Client communication starts the second you respond to a client inquiry for a job or submit a proposal. First impressions are everything, in real life and online, so it’s critical you start off on the right foot. The following are some ways you can lock down your communication to keep things professional online.
Use standardized greetings and sign-offs
Whether it’s via email or messaging on a platform like Upwork or Fiverr, I always use a professional greeting and closing. If I know the person’s name I’ll start with “Hi Joe” or if I don’t have a name or I’m not sure, I keep with the safe time of day greetings, good morning, good afternoon, or good evening. I also close out each message with “Thanks, Brooke.” I know this seems redundant on a messaging platform, but it’s another way I keep structure and consistency in my messages.
Check spelling and grammar
Nothing will cause a client to reject a freelancer quicker than a message with blatant spelling and grammar errors (especially true if you’re applying for a job that commands knowledge of the English language!). I highly recommend signing up for Grammarly’s free version* to review your text and correct basic errors before sending anything external. By not taking the time to check for errors in your client message, it may send the impression that your work is sloppy too.
Since I do an insane amount of writing and proofreading every week (around 100,000 words checked weekly), I opted to upgrade to the professional version, and it’s one of the best choices I’ve made. Either way you choose to use Grammarly, it’s imperative that every freelancer make sure spelling and grammar are on point when conversing with clients.
When you work an office job and someone assigns you a task, it’s pretty easy to recognize if you’ve understood it or not. You’re either going to be typing away, pulling up the appropriate programs, or otherwise doing what you should be doing, or you’re sitting there twiddling your thumbs looking confused. When your entire relationship with a client is online, it’s more important than ever to clarify everything before you start This means making sure you know the answers to questions like:
- What is the deliverable on this assignment?
- How will we both know when the job is considered done?
- What are the client expectations surrounding quality?
- When is the latest this assignment can be delivered? (of course, you’ll strive to deliver it far before then, but this puts in perspective if assignments are a rush job or not)
A good client will never be upset with you for clarifying instructions before a project starts. Where you run into issues is when you wait until a day before the project is due to confirm if the voice for the assignment is professional or casual.
In my first job out of college, a boss told me to “communicate until you puke.” Not only has this stuck with me as it’s a pretty harsh visual, but it’s been my constant reminder that even if you think you’re communicating enough, you can probably do more. That could not be more true in the freelancer/client relationship. Especially for ongoing projects or those with multiple milestones, it’s imperative to keep the client informed every step of the way. Even an update of “no update” is better than nothing at all.
Keep your personal life out of it
One reason clients hire freelancers is because you’re not their employee. They don’t need to know your life story or hear about your weekend over at the water cooler. I’m not saying you can’t develop a personal relationship over time, but don’t expect it. Clients want freelancers who provide excellent work promptly with a professional demeanor. Make sure you keep communication as concise and professional as possible, especially when it comes to more administrative aspects like payments or deadlines that aren’t directly related to the quality of your work.
If you can’t hit a deadline, say something like, “I won’t be able to deliver by Wednesday. Does Thursday morning work for you?”
I guarantee that will be more well-received than “Aunt Sally threw out her back again and she needs me to drive her to the chiropractor, but it’s across town so I’ll probably end up being there all afternoon with the traffic because you know how it gets this time of year in the city so that means I’ll have to do the assignment Wednesday night and I can probably get it to you Thursday morning.”
Pro tip: Let the client lead the conversation into personal matters. Some clients are more chatty and want to understand more about you personally and some clients are strictly business. Until you can differentiate and understand the client’s wishes, it’s best to keep things all business.
The main thing about professionalism in client/freelancer relationships
Professionalism is a two-way street. While you always need to maintain professionalism, you should expect your clients to do the same. If you end up working with clients who are disrespectful, degrading, or otherwise straight up rude, drop them. One of the best things about freelance is that you pick your clients as much as they choose you. You should feel good about your interactions and that you’re providing exactly the service your client wants. At the end of the day, you want that client to feel good about recommending you to others, and keeping things professional online at all times is a way to ensure that happens.
Have another tip on ways you keep your client relationships professional? Tell me about it in the comments.