Last updated 15 November 2022
What’s your most precious asset as a freelancer or small business owner?
I’ll give you some hints.
It’s not your qualifications or professional memberships. Up to a point, anybody with enough tenacity and funding can acquire those.
It’s also not your website or portfolio. Again, however informative they are and however long they took you to build, there will be many other freelancers out there with credentials that are just as impressive.
And it’s not your social media profiles. You may have taken years (or even a decade or more) to establish a presence that perfectly captures the essence of your offering, but ultimately it only entices clients in – it can’t make the deal and keep clients coming back.
All of these things (and more) are important aspects of any editor’s brand, but I’d argue that none of them is as important as trustworthiness. More than anything else, being a trustworthy freelancer is personal to the whole package that is you. It’s based on a whole host of tangibles and intangibles, and it can’t be bought or faked.
Why trust is important
Last year, I wrote about the financial and quality benefits for businesses of giving up a little control and trusting their freelancers. High-trust environments not only remove barriers (and therefore costs) but also inspire people to deliver their very best. They encourage new ideas and a sense of shared endeavour, and thereby lead to a better-quality end product that is less likely to experience setbacks.
But trust is not one-sided. While businesses need to be open to trusting their freelancers, freelancers have to make themselves worthy of that trust.
Being a trustworthy freelancer
So how do you come across as a trustworthy freelancer and then reinforce that impression time after time, so that new clients find you on the back of an excellent reputation and existing clients couldn’t imagine going anywhere else?
Obviously, you need to do the basics – for example, deliver on time and as briefed, maintain confidentiality and not bitch about your clients on social media. But trust is not created through an easily definable list of checkboxes. Trust is ephemeral.
Here are some key contributing factors to what makes a trustworthy freelancer, based on my experience as both a project manager and a supplier of editorial services:
- Ask sensible questions – this shows you’ve absorbed the brief and are engaging intelligently with the client’s project and goals.
- Offer solutions, not problems – show your client that they can lean on you and treat you as an expert partner who sees the big picture.
- Admit your fallibility – if you don’t know, say you don’t. If you make a mistake, admit it. Perfection is not trustworthy because it’s not realistic. Your client will increasingly start to wonder when the house of cards is going to fall down.
- Don’t overreach – pushing your skills by trying unfamiliar things and flexing new skills is fine. Doing so to the point where you’re jeopardising your client’s project is not.
- Anticipate surprises – think about the knock-on impacts of your work, even long after you cease to be involved with the project (see here and here for posts I wrote about being a valuable editorial team member even if you never correspond with many of your ‘colleagues’ directly).
- Check in without being asked – but not too much. As a project manager, one of the things I value most is when freelancers send me a message in advance of a deadline to confirm they’re on track. But I don’t need to know about every little stage they finish.
- Build on the past – remembering and building on discussions in past projects has three benefits: it shows the client you’re invested in a long-term relationship; it saves time and cost by avoiding the client having to repeat themselves; and it increases quality because each project picks up where the previous one left off, building on and refining what was learned before.
- Balance deference with confidence – it’s important to present yourself as what you are: a trusted expert who knows their stuff inside out and can justify their views. But, equally, always be ready to gracefully defer to the client’s final say on their project.
- Be sensitive around relationships and contentious issues – understand who and what are important to your client, and don’t invoke or inflame difficult issues by (for example) starting a war with an author about a grammar issue the client doesn’t ultimately care about.
- Be personal, but not too much – if you become friendly with a client, never forget that the professional relationship is primary and never compromise their ability to treat you just like any other freelancer when it comes to fees, deadlines, feedback and so on.
- Be tidy and organised – how you handle the bitty stuff around each project says a huge amount about you. Inconsistent file-naming conventions, haphazard emailing practices and even an unsophisticated invoice template can make a client feel uneasy. If you don’t show attention to detail in areas like these, what is the client missing in your work?
Building a partnership based on trust
I don’t hold by the cliché which says that trust must be gained over time but can be lost in an instant. In my experience, trust can be gained in a lightning-bolt flash of inspiration that saves a colleague from disaster. And, equally, it can be steadily eroded through a series of minor errors that are individually forgivable but cumulatively disconcerting.
What is always the case is that trust, however it is gained, must be maintained. When trust is nurtured and actively co-constructed between an open-minded client and a diligent freelancer, truly great professional relationships are born.