Writers Worth: The Freelancer’s Platinum Rule

Awesome day today on the blog — we have a guest post from phenomenal writer and excellent friend, Jake Poinier, a.k.a. Doctor Freelance. Jake’s been giving out solid advice to freelance writers for years, so it’s a thrill to have his words grace this blog.

How do you communicate with your clients? That’s a question that most freelancers answer with a laundry list of all the social media tools and methods of contacting clients they use. In his post, Jake shows us why a little more consideration is required, and he assures us your clients will thank you for it.

The Platinum Rule of Client Communications

by Jake Poinier

We all know the golden rule–treat others as we would want to be treated–but that’s insufficient when it comes to cultivating relationships. More valuable in a business context is what Dr. Milton Bennett coined in 1979 as the platinum rule: Treat others the way they wish to be treated. What I’m proposing today is a corollary to that: Freelancers and their clients need to communicate in the form and volume that’s mutually beneficial.

My personal communications preference is email. Writing is an easy way for me to formulate my thoughts, and it gives me a record of what’s been conveyed and what’s expected. I know there are plenty of us within the writing world that feel the same way. I also recognize, however, that my clients may not. Some of the key factors include:

  • Channel. As freelancers in 2016, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to communicating: email, phone, IM, text, Twitter DM, Skype, and so on. If you don’t know each client’s preference, you should ask. You might be surprised. Some channels are also better for certain tasks, too: If there’s a touchy issue, a phone call allows you to hear nuances and react, rather than typing out a message that risks being misunderstood.
  • Frequency. It’s equally important to have an understanding of how often communications should take place. Some clients may want updates at each milestone, others may want a weekly summary, while still others only want to hear from you when the whole project is done. Come to an understanding, and then stick to it. 
  • Timing. I am an early riser who will take calls at 6 a.m., and I don’t mind interviewing someone on a weekend if that’s what’s needed to get the job done. You may have stricter boundaries than that, and your clients may have times that work better than others. It’s all good, as long as you develop a mutual understanding and respect for each other’s style.
  • Purpose. Back in my days as a magazine editor, it used to drive me nuts when a freelancer would pester me with endless questions. (Yes, I realize that there are clients who prefer to work more closely, or who are more patient!) But if you overcommunicate to someone like me, or undercommunicate to someone who’s expecting more interaction, you’re jeopardizing the relationship. 

Taking Corrective Action 

Your client isn’t the only one who has a say, because my variation on the platinum rule is that it needs to be mutually beneficial. If you and a client aren’t in sync, you need to address it early, because it’s going to get worse. They may not even realize they’re doing something that bugs you, or vice versa.

An example: The other day, one of my clients sent me a four-paragraph text message, which is way too much information for me to process in that format. My brain locked up. I sent her an email that said, “Hey Bonnie, got your text, but I have to confess that I’m the world’s worst text messager. In the future, if you’ve got something kinda complicated, please make sure to email it and I’ll give you a prompt response!”

Sure, I could have bitten my lip and responded via text, but I knew that would ultimately be counterproductive for Bonnie and me, because I couldn’t do my best work.

At the outset of a client relationship, do a quick check to find out the other party’s preferences and come to an agreement on protocol. Not only is it courteous, it’s smart business.

Jake Poinier blogs on a wide range of freelance topics at DoctorFreelance.com. He’s the author of The Science, Art and Voodoo of Freelance Pricing and Getting Paid, and will be publishing a book on referral strategy for freelancers in August 2016. He’ll follow you back on Twitter at @DrFreelance

Writers, have you had a client get frustrated with your communication methods?
How often do you ask your clients what they prefer in terms of updates?
What seems to work best for you?

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Comments

  • Sharon Hurley Hall May 25, 2016 at 11:19 am

    Excellent advice, Jake. Like you, I prefer to communicate in writing, but I have a few clients who are more comfortable with phone calls/Skype so I use that too. I've found it important to set boundaries for availability, though. I'm an early riser, but I value having a couple of hours to start my work day without interruptions so I tend not to take client calls before 9am (unless the client is on the other side of the world).

    Reply
  • Cathy Miller May 25, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    Great advice per usual, Doctor Freelance. ☺ I actually carried this over from my corporate days. Not just clients but colleagues as well.

    One thing I've noticed in the freelance community is a reluctance to pick up the phone. Like you, Jake, I prefer things in writing; however,sometimes a quick phone call is the best way to get a response or diffuse a potential problem. If I'd like the discussion in writing, I simply follow up with an email documenting the key points.

    Reply
  • Lori Widmer May 25, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Thanks again, Jake! Great stuff, per usual.

    Your Purpose section stands out as something rather critical. I have had clients who want you to shut up, do the damn job, and get in touch when the draft is ready. Then there are others, and you can always tell who they are, who want much more interaction. I won't say they're controlling, but they want verification that their trust in you is warranted.

    For those clients, I give them a weekly, point-by-point email of what's been done, what's being done, and what's next on the agenda. It helps them see the progress, and it gives them a chance to change up some things if need be.

    I too like email best as I can get the info in front of them accurately. Plus, it's a record of what they've agreed to.

    Reply
  • Paula Hendrickson May 25, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    I've yet to have any client text me. Two newer-to-me clients like calls way too much. One call here and there is fine, but they waste a lot of time and I don't have anything in writing. One of my clients normally emails, but every so often she'll call – maybe because she needs the answer immediately, or like Jake said, there may be nuances to what she has to say that could be misunderstood in writing. Sometimes she'll call to make an assignment because it's quicker for her.

    Reply
  • Jake Poinier May 25, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    @Sharon, I saw your comments in your post about defining boundaries, and I totally respect that–you need to run the business the way you work best! I'm probably the outlier; I just really don't care unless I'm on vacation. If I'm up working early or on a weekend, it gives me an excuse to play hooky at a future time 🙂

    @Cathy, the millennials are surely trying to change that dynamic ("no phone calls, ever!"), but I'm going to fight it every step of the way. *shakes fist like old man telling kids to get off his lawn*

    @Lori, thanks for letting me guest post! I have to confess I prefer the do-the-damn-job clients to the ones who need updates. *shakes fist at sky*

    @Paula, it's a fine line, isn't it?! I have no problem talking on the phone, and prefer it for some tasks…but inefficiency drives me nuts.

    Reply
  • Lori Widmer May 25, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    Same here, Jake. Same here. 🙂

    Reply
  • Ashley Festa May 25, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Jake, these are excellent points, and you've touched on each one perfectly. I love the response you gave to your client who sent you a lengthy text message. Polite, but you got your point across. What was her response? It's a little bizarre to me that anyone would send such a long text message anyway, much less in a professional relationship, but I guess the times, they are a'changin'!

    I prefer email because I have a chance to write out all my thoughts exactly the way I want them to come across, and I'm less likely to forget something I wanted to mention. But there are definitely times that a phone call is best, so I'm comfortable with that when necessary. I dislike Skype for the simple reason that, while I do get dressed for work, I don't always have my makeup and hairstylist on the set 😉 But if a client specifically requests it, I accept and try to look presentable.

    Reply
  • Jake Poinier May 25, 2016 at 9:08 pm

    Thanks, Ashley. She's a client I've worked with for years and we have a great relationship, so she basically said, "Oops, sorry, I'll send an email!" My guess is she was away from her desk, wanted to get the thoughts out of her head and into my hands, and happened to do it by text. I honestly don't remember ever getting a text from her before (but I wanted to steer away from it in the future, lol).

    I totally agree on the utility of email, as it seems several commenters above do, too. I don't Skype too often, but I shave my head, so no hairstylist needed.

    Reply
  • Devon Ellington May 26, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    Frequency of contact is set out in the contract. So is the type of contact. I LOATHE phone calls. They are a colossal waste of my time, 99.9%. So, if the client prefers that contact, I bill for phone time. In 15 minute increments, like a lawyer.

    I want everything in writing, because people remember phone calls different.

    Reply
  • Jake Poinier May 26, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    I like the idea of formalizing those parameters in the contract, Devon. And yes, phone calls (love 'em or loathe 'em) are not free.

    Excellent point about fallibility of memory–even after a phone call, you need to have a written followup. I will always record important conversations (with permission, of course), because I'm a slow typist and marginal note-taker, especially if someone is a fast talker!

    Reply