Freelancers: Stop Thinking About Yourself

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Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the kind of approaches different freelancers use, and how they brand themselves. I've often been in a position to hire a freelancer – either for myself or on behalf of my clients – and while there's quite a bit of variation, most people fall into one of a few categories. I'll talk more about that later, but for now I want to focus on one particular category: the self-centered freelancer.

What is a Self-Centered Freelancer?

It should be pretty obvious that basically all of us are doing this out of a desire to help ourselves. We're not working for free, after all (aside from the occasional pro bono project). What separates the regular, money-driven consultant from the self-centered consultant, though, is the way they pitch and interact with their potential clients.

A typical freelancer says, “Here's what I can do for you.”

A great freelancer says, “Here's how I can help you achieve your goals.”

A self-centered freelancer says, “Please let me do this for you because I need money | am broke | have a sick kid | lost everything in a fire | really want this job | really need this.” 

Do you see the difference? The best freelancers and consultants connect what they can do with what the client needs. The average freelancer doesn't specifically draw the line between the two things, and the self-centered freelancer is too busy thinking about what THEY need from the situation to put themselves in the potential client's shoes and think about what their needs might be.

What's wrong with self-centered freelancers?

There's so much wrong with this approach that I almost don't know where to begin. I understand WHY people like to throw their misfortune out there when they're trying to get work. You want someone to hear your story and recognize how hard you're trying, in spite of all the obstacles. You want them to think, “Wow, he (or she) is dealing with so much and he's still out here hustling. I should give him a break and award him the contract.”

The problem is that this almost never happens (especially not with high-quality, large clients). Let's talk about why.

You're getting your business strategy from homeless people and panhandlers.

It's great when business can help someone, and I don't think there's any better form of charity than helping someone help themselves – but as a general rule, it's a bad idea to act in a way that makes your potential client think of you in the same light as the dirty guy who asks for money every time she steps outside her local coffee shop.

It's a jerk move.

The person hiring you has a job to do. Whether they're employed by someone else or running their own business, their job is to hire the best person for the task at hand. Other candidates may have similar need, but they don't all resort to emotional manipulation. For you to try to subvert that process and imply that your need for money is greater than their need to choose the best candidate…that's just rude.

Because of that, it's likely that in many cases, your attempt to get sympathy and preferential treatment will backfire. People don't like being put in awkward and uncomfortable situations. I've talked with a lot of people who greatly resent it when someone does this – so don't do it.

It doesn't exactly radiate success and prosperity.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, people like to be around those who are successful. They're generally more positive and upbeat, and that helps us feel happier. They almost always  have better connections, which can be useful. The fact that they're successful makes it feel like they've probably done a good job for others in the past (and that as a result, they're more in-demand). When you bombard your potential client with sob stories, it has the exact opposite effect. The client thinks, “This person isn't successful. Nobody else wants this person, or they wouldn't be begging to me.”

Yes, people fall on hard times. No, a cash crunch doesn't make you a bad person or a bad freelancer. Virtually anyone in the United States could be bankrupted by medical bills, so none of us really have room to feel like we're above financial disaster (which is an entirely different rant that doesn't really belong here). Life in general is outrageously expensive in some parts of the country, and it's getting more expensive every day. I get that. When it comes to your business, though, you need to project something other than desperation. Success, possibility, excitement, hope – those are all much better and more appealing alternatives.

It screws up the power balance of your client relationship.

Even if your sad sack routine does somehow get you the job, it's not going to do you any favors when it comes to negotiating your fees or guarding against scope creep. If your client feels like they've done you a favor and you really need the job, they're not going to treat you the same way they would if you were projecting success and confidence and limited availability. If you ask for more money, they can easily say no because they know you need the job either way. While they might be timid about requesting little extras from other consultants, they'll do it confidently with you, knowing you're not likely to kick them to the curb.

It can make them think you're unreliable.

Nearly everyone who's ever outsourced anything has had some bad experiences with freelancers disappearing or drastically missing deadlines. In some cases, the delays can cost more than the job itself. As a result, most people look for providers who are likely to be reliable. When you lead with a story about your sick kid or pending foreclosure, they're going to feel bad for you, but they're also going to be wondering if you'll disappear when they need you most.

Yeah, it sucks, and yeah, it's unfortunate that people have to think like that, but the world is a harsh place.

Focus on your client. Period.

If you want to get more clients, you need to turn the focus to them. Frame everything in light of how you can help them. Get excited about the potential for growth and improvement in their business. Leave your troubles at the office door (whether that's a real door or metaphorical one). Ultimately, the only way you're going to improve your situation is to improve someone else's – so focus on that.

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