The one goal of every freelancer should be to always act in the best interests of a client.
Or as a less formal version: always help a client.
Sure you need to protect yourself and your time from unreasonable requests.
Sure you need to pay your own bills and not give away work for free.
But you need to hold your client in as high of a regard as possible.
Clients want help
Your clients come to you because they need help.
Maybe they’re entering an area they don’t have expertise with.
Maybe they can’t get the right people or staff on a project to make it successful.
Or maybe they don’t have an idea about what they’re doing.
But they need your help. That’s why they’re here.
(And if they don’t need your help, then they really aren’t a client are they?)
You’re at the end of a long process
One thing you might not think about when talking with a client, is that they might have been dealing with this problem for a long time. They might have noticed it a long time ago but only now it’s become painful enough to address. Or they tried addressing it themselves without any success.
Just like having a toothache. You can deal with a little bit of discomfort and pain at first. But after a few days this discomfort grows and grows until you just can’t stand it anymore. Where is the phone number for the dentist?!?!
Similarly in some organizations your client might have already taken some political flack admitting that they need outside help. In large organizations (and some smaller ones) the culture is that the “organization” possess everything it needs to run. Which may be true in the strictest sense of the word but just because they can make changes to their website in three weeks doesn’t mean they are the best or fastest at making changes.
(This is why a hardened bureaucracy often hires outside help. Their culture and internal processes are so slow or screwed up that it’s impractical or impossible to get anything important done. I’ve written a short guide How to Hire Outside Development Help for my clients to make this easier.)
Help even before they’re a client
This dwelling and delay in getting outside help from a freelancer is even more important before they are a client.
They have admitted to themselves that the problem is there but they might not have admitted that they need outside help yet. But by talking with outside freelancers, they can feel like their fear is soothed without being fixed. They’re treating the symptoms, not the problem.
Tip: By making your client feel good about their decision to talk to you about their problem, you can really bond and connect with them. Something as simple as “I’m glad you took the time to talk with me today. This problem does look complicated and it’s respectable that you decided to get an outside perspective on it” can work.
Build the relationship through help
Always try to helpful.
At first you’re helping them confront their fears about the problem, save face, or any of the other thirty dozen psychological sticking points us humans have.
This empathy will help build the relationship with them. And the relationship is what you need to have if you’re going to work with them as a client.
Second, if you are able to, give them the best advice you can. Most freelancers I know have a huge amount of knowledge they can share with a client, from industry practices, norms, or even similar experiences with a past client. This advice is free in that it doesn’t cost you anything to share it, but the client will get a ton of value from it.
Not necessarily comp work
Even if you’re in the business of selling advice, the advice you can give from a 30 minute meet-and-greet isn’t going to be specific enough for most clients. They’ll like the ideas but it’s too generic for them to go around you and do it themselves. It’s not taking into account all of the differences and oddities this client has.
And if you do implementation work too, don’t feel that you have to work for free.
The key here is helping and offering some value.
You can’t always help everyone
On the flip-side, by always trying to help your client you will discover times when you can’t help.
It may be functional. They just don’t need the help you can provide.
Or cultural. They or their organization aren’t accepting or acting on your advice.
Or it might even be a weakness in the relationship. They don’t trust you enough to believe the help you give them or that they don’t believe you know about that.
Whatever the reason, if your client isn’t getting the benefit of your help, then they shouldn’t be a client. At least for this task, project, or problem.
One of the worst situations you can get yourself in with a client is where they are paying you but you’re not giving them anything that benefits them. It will poison the relationship and the repercussions of forcing it aren’t worth it (business, professional, and personal-wise).
A golden rule of freelancing for clients is to always try to help them. Act in their best interests and do everything you can.