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What you will read below are the secrets of successful freelancers. They would prefer if you didn’t read on.

If you are a freelancer using a freelancer platform (such as Upwork, PeoplePerHour or Fiverr) then you are in an extremely competitive environment. These platforms have scaled up such that, as a freelancer, your skills have been commoditized.

This is good for customers as prices are competitive and it’s easy to find a freelancer for their gigs due to the sheer volume of providers available. Being a commodity is not being awesome – it’s being a me-too provider of services.

For freelancers who wish to awesome and break out of commoditized production (probably, to increase pricing), it means that differentiation at the core of your service delivery is of the utmost importance.

Differentiation – what is it?

It’s how a seller makes their wares distinguishable from their competition, by making their product features unique. For big-brand products, this is about introducing new products that are in demand because consumers can’t find alternatives. This is a different strategy to ‘home-brand’ products you will find in a supermarket – these are made to appear almost indistinguishable from the big brands.

Differentiation for freelance service providers (who are tied into delivering to the customer brief) can come in many forms, but it generally boils down to being amazing. Amazing in these ways:

  1. Delivering to the brief. This might be blindly obvious, but it’s amazing how many freelancers don’t actually do this. A small few under-deliver because they’re lazy or committing what is essentially fraud. But I don’t mean that. What I mean is that I’ve observed where many freelancers don’t deliver against the brief because their interpretation of the brief is misaligned. Awesome freelancers are diligent in validating that their brief is unambiguous and achievable within the expected timeframe and budget. I can’t tree enough how important it is to, before you start work, check that what you think you are being asked to do is actually what the customer wants. So if you have question – ask the customer. If there is anything you’re not sure about – ask the customer. If there is a design consideration that will be critical to the function of the product – check with the customer.
  2. Delivering more than the brief. Awesome freelancers go that extra mile by giving their customers a little bit more than what they asked for, if it creates value. Before you shout at me, I am not proposing that freelancers should just simply give things away for no reason. I am really talking about the extra things that will make the integration and adoption of the resulting product easier. For example, I was amazed when a freelancer delivered a new WordPress plugin I had requested, and provided me with a freeware tool for creating the files in the required structure to upload it to the WordPress Plugin Library. He got my vote for future work, because he made my busy life that little bit easier, when he wasn’t asked to.
  3. Punctuality! Another obvious one? Not in my experience. As a gig outsourcer of many years, I have painfully experienced lateness more often than not. What’s infuriating for customers is that, often, a freelancers product is just one part of a bigger project. If the gig is late… guess what? The whole project is going to be late. This is not awesome. So here’s the thing: I know that shit happens. We’re gonna be late. There are two ways of dealing with it: 1) carry on and deliver late without telling the customer; 2) tell the customer that we’re going to be late when we first know we will be late, but here is what we can do about it and a revised expectation of delivery… Which option helps the client more? Which of these options is easier to explain to the customer? Which of these, under difficult circumstances, is more awesome? It’s better to fess up early, so that the customer can resolve against other dependencies, than telling the customer at (or after) the deadline.
  4. Commercial rigor. So we agree $1,000 but then I charge you $1,500 without telling you why. Is this awesome? No. Stick to the fee you agreed. Unless you are able to do the job quicker or cheaper. Would you offer the customer a discount? If you want to be awesome, you would do. And here’s another thing: the customer asks for a code widget when there exists one already – freeware that costs nothing. Would you build the widget anyway, and charge them for it? The awesome freelancer would point out the free option, and offer to assist in its integration/configuration for small fee. Ok so what if the scope is to change at the request of the customer? Before any work should begin, be clear on the cost/time impact and make sure the customer a) agrees to it, and b) formally accepts the change. Neither freelancer or customer wants a nasty surprise when the bill is presented. In summary, the awesome freelancer puts the creation of value for the customer first.
  5. Clear and helpful communication. Perhaps obvious again, but frequently a problem. Communication is critical to the success of a gig. My advice – tell the customer upfront what you will communicate and when. And just as important – ask the customer what communication they would like to receive. For long projects, we should always aim to provide at least a weekly report or summary of what has been done, where it tracks against the project schedule, and how much time/cost has been spent. When asking for information or a decision, always ask the customer to respond within a timeframe, and how important it is to the success of the gig. Lastly, keep ALL communication within the gig platform you’re engaged with the customer in. Platforms like Upwork provide great communication tools – so you shouldn’t need to use email or IM outside of the platform. Not only does this keep things together and tidy, it also provides a record if there is a future dispute.
  6. Documentation. Does agile working and freelancing mean that documentation is no longer important? Some freelancers I have worked with think so. Not True. Documentation is still important, and is most definitely a way of distinguishing a freelancer from the rest. What documentation? It doesn’t need to be chapter and verse, but it should cover the basics: the brief, including any agreed changes; a design or specification of the product; and a guide on how to use/install/configure/implement. My advice is to use google docs so that updates and modifications can be made without having to recompile and distribute over again. Each of these might only require a one-pager to complete.
  7. Feedback. We want feedback, right? Awesome freelancers want feedback – about what worked and what could be improved. Always ask for both, if you want to improve and maintain your awesomeness. We shouldn’t be afraid of feedback. Feedback is a gift. Even negative feedback. Awesome freelancers also provide feedback to their clients – for the same reasons. Of course, we have to be tactful, but we must also be clear. If a customer has made things difficult for themselves, the awesome freelancer helps them understand how they can be a better client (and therefore receive a better service in the future.)

How to Advertise Yourself

All the above is great once you are engaged with a customer. There is still the point of differentiation before the point of sale, in order to be selected from the morass of commodity players in the first place. My advice: state all the things above in your platform profile. The obvious starter of a profile is your skills and experience, but once that’s through, cover these points:

  • Past projects – to establish credibility
  • Endorsements – pick out a select few from all past projects that prove the impact you have on customers (and provide links to the source)
  • State that you will always deliver what is requested, or you will fix it at your own cost
  • State that you will help customers adopt and integrate your products
  • State commercial terms and how you manage change to commercials
  • State how you manage time and scheduling
  • Describe your general principles of communication
  • And describe what documentation you usually provide to customers

I hope these tips have been really helpful to you! If you have questions, then please leave a comment.

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