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On freelance frustration

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Becoming frustrated with one's clients as a freelancer - in this economy - is like growling at the hand that feeds you. And I for one am not sure if I can afford to do that.

I can safely say that I have had my share of frustrations - a few times wanting to suggest the client ought to go play in the traffic. However, over the past four years, I have learned three major lessons about the need to gently grip this proverbial hand and shake on a good deal for the client and the freelancer.

I felt three incredibly defined emotions while working on The Freelancing Quill's first design brief: frustration, fear, and vulnerability. This three-post journey is in part a snapshot of my on-going, small business owner experience for all of you to read, and perhaps motivate you to share your own stories with me. But for the most part its a reminder to people in a similar situation that you are capable of seeing this dream of building your portfolio and helping people with your skills to fruition. In this post I focus on the feeling of frustration, and how I reminded myself that what I am feeling can be refined into something useful.

The freelancer is a diplomat. Always.

There are days when freelance project briefs are presented with all the strength and passion of tepid coffee. And then there are days when clients express their ideas at breakneck speed, where ideas are flying around the room like Harry Potter's first Hogwarts letters.

And I'm flailing about, trying to catch at least one of them.

It's a lot. And it comes with the territory.

"Be kind. They are people too."

"Be kind. They are people too." is something a trusted advisor said to me recently. And they are absolutely right. The clients are people too, each with their own frustrations, fears, and vulnerabilities. And I should think they deserve at least some of the respect and space I give to myself on a bad day. They came to me, placing their trust in my skills, so their vision could be realised. So, as a professional, it is up to me to give them time to settle into the meeting - not everyone arrives to the Zoom session with a set agenda every time.

As someone who prefers to keep the chitchat about the weekend, or the post-meeting plans to a minimum, it suffices to say that I'm learning (the hard way) to be a more engaged communicator with clients. As someone whose primary interest during meetings is to maximise efficiency by keeping to a schedule, it is sometimes tough for me to sit still and ask or listen to stories about their lives outside of their work, their values, and the personal goals they are working towards.

And as these lessons in patience, active listening, and diplomacy continue, I've picked up a thing or two that has transformed the way I work with people:

Lesson 1: Ask about their day first.

Trust me, people genuinely like talking about themselves and their experiences (myself included). And these initial conversations, especially when they are new clients, puts them at ease. Their feelings of comfort often translate into my picking up subtle cues about what they want out of this project and why they're putting their ideas out there. Actively listening to the words they use helps identify the questions I can ask about where I come in. Starting a professional conversation on a reasonably personal note shows that I care about the client as a person.

Lesson 2: Prioritise the five W's and one H.

Enquiring about the Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How helps both the client and myself stay on track and keep the project in mind at all times. This line of questioning, especially when done in a way that helps the natural conversation flow, is useful in identifying the gaps the client currently has, and where your professional skills fit in. This is also where I've sometimes plugged my skills and shown them relevant examples of work done in other projects. Such examples instill trust and elevate my skills in the client's mind at a time when the terrain new and uncertain for us both.

Lesson 3: Bring the energy.

This one is tough to do, especially when the client only shares vague ideas of what they feel the final result should be. Or keeps changing crucial project details. Or changes their entire design inspiration. Or demands an unreasonable number of changes to the design to meet a tight deadline. All of these are frustrating. And yet all of these are lessons. Two things can be true at the same time. In my experience, it is worth passing the question back to them with clarity and confidence, highlighting specific issues, and asking for other examples of their idea. This is so that they can think carefully about the solution they want reflected in the project, and convey these instructions with helpful examples. This kind of opposite energy redirection (where they sound vague and I do my best to enthusiastically ask questions in return) takes a lot, but it gives clients a sense of confidence that I've got their back.

All of these are an exercise in patience. It certainly drains my energy and dulls interest in the project, because there is a level of professionalism to be consistently maintained when one is new to the full-time freelance environment. And one that is sometimes not afforded to you as a mere freelancer. So, a few tried and tested ways to address this professional frustration are to:

  • Reconsider those angry email drafts. Or save them for memes.

  • Step away from the desk and get some air (or some food).

  • Write down three things I can fix immediately. (Fix those three things. You'll feel better. I know I do.)

  • Point out two things I need immediate clarity on from the client. I write with confidence and use clear language to express what I mean, and where the issue is. (It is also worth suggesting a solution here.)

I hope the experiences and suggestions in this post help you remember that while diplomacy is about politely letting the client know what's up, its also a reminder that active listening and clear communication on both side solves most client-freelancer issues. And as the freelancer in case, its up to me to maintain that level of professionalism for my work environment.


Thanks for taking the time to read all the way to the end!

Keep an eye out for next week's post, the second post of this three-part series, on freelance fears.

Please feel free to share this post with friends, family, and anyone who needs to read this.

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