Client-side experience is by no means mandatory for freelancers and consultants.
But I’ve found it to be beneficial.
I spent seven years on the other side of the desk, in marketing and brand management. I started my career on Airheads candy, and, years later, accepted an offer to join a client, Farley’s & Sathers, as their VP-Marketing. F&S had revenues of $600 million-plus, and a portfolio of brands like Brach’s, Trolli, Now & Later and Fruit Stripe gum.
(Everyone gets excited when I mention Fruit Stripe gum, but as our sales reports made clear, almost no-one actually buys Fruit Stripe gum.)
In those seven years, I hired partners in market research, brand identity, package design, pricing, advertising, promotions, web design, social, public relations, and other disciplines.
Some of these partners were very large, some were mid-sized up-and-comers, some were shops of 10 people or fewer, and some were independent experts.
Most were at least competent, some were absolute standouts, and some I’d be happy to never work with again.
I’m a better consultant for those experiences, and today, I’d like to share some of the most important things I learned.
So here are 10 vital lessons from the client side that helped me to become a better freelancer:
1. Build Credibility and Authority
Out of morbid curiosity, I once tracked the number of unsolicited sales pitches I received when I was a VP. It was about 25 per week.
That’s one about every 90 minutes, or over a thousand per year. I’ve heard similar (or higher) numbers from other execs.
If you do cold outreach, that’s what you’re up against. Responding to all those inquiries would be poor use of time, so the default response is none at all.
Besides, if I needed an expert, it was almost always a proactive situation, not reactive. And I’d look for:
Credibility. Who had I successfully worked with before? Who did my staff recommend? Who did my colleagues recommend? There’s much to be said for doing exceptional work when given the chance, and people pass along the names of people they trust.
Authority. Who’s an expert in this space? Authority can be signaled by a compelling presentation at a trade show, or a thoughtful opinion piece in an industry magazine, or intelligent use of social media. A newsletter can also build credibility with a prospect who’s interested but not quite ready to buy.
Any of the above will serve you better than copy-and-paste, impersonal, undifferentiated emails.
2. Act Like You Want the Gig
Here’s a lesson I was lucky to learn early in my career.
Back in 1995, I led the search for the first broadcast advertising agency for Airheads candy.
After narrowing the field to three agencies, I sent identical information packets to the finalists, with an offer: “If you have any questions between now and the pitch, just let me know and I’ll make time for you.”
(I continued this practice throughout my client-side career. It provides a good read on both thinking and initiative.)
Two of the agencies called me once, each for a conversation of less than an hour.
The third agency – GSD&M, in Austin, TX – called me once or twice a week, for six straight weeks. The account team, led by Jenny Buschhorn, asked thoughtful questions and followed up with intelligent probes. By the time of the pitch, they knew my tastes in music and the name of my cat.
GSD&M was by far the largest of the three contenders; the Airheads account was about 1% of their billings at the time. But they made it clear that they wanted our business, and by the time of the pitch, it was theirs to lose. (They won easily.)
So now, when I get a new business inquiry, I reply as quickly as I can – within a few hours whenever possible, often faster. Several clients have reported that this was a factor in their decision to hire me.
Clients want to feel like they matter. Let them know that they do.
3. Burn the Boilerplate
Continuing with this idea: It’s rare that you’ll find a client that doesn’t want to discuss her business and its challenges. (And it’s a red flag when they don’t.)
So ask. Burn the boilerplate and develop a sharp list of questions. As a rule, I don’t talk about my services – even if the prospect asks – until I’ve had a chance to learn more about their challenges. If we have a half-hour intro call, I want them talking for at least 20 minutes.
I’ve also been delighted by more creative approaches. For example, one design firm presented me with an audit of the package design trends in my category – which was rather more persuasive than a standard portfolio review.
I always appreciated those partners who spent less time talking about themselves, and more time learning about my business.
4. Understand the Power Dynamics
When I was a brand manager, you would have made a mistake by thinking it was my approval you needed – even if I had hired you.
You needed the approval of my VP. And waiting until the final presentation to make his acquaintance would have been another mistake.
So, before work begins, ask questions like these of your primary point of contact:
- Do you own the budget for this project? If not, who does?
- Who else will be on the core team? Who will be involved in final approvals, checkpoints and report-outs?
- Who will approve this project?
- Who will approve the outputs of this project? (This is not always the same as the person who gives project approval.)
- Can I meet these people before we begin?
Nothing bad will happen if you understand the internal dynamics – and they’re never the same from one org to the next.
5. Lead the Thinking
If I hired you as my partner, it’s because you can help me to achieve a desired outcome. Now I want you to reinforce my good decision.
So be a leader, not an order-taker. (Hat-tip to Todd Sebastian, who wrote a terrific book on this topic.) Own the process. Keep us on track. Have a clear point of view, even when it differs from mine. Challenge those obstacles that will keep us from getting to the best possible results.
When you confidently say, “Here’s what needs to happen, and when, and how, and why,” you send powerful signals of expertise. And that’s exactly what I hired you for.
The corollary: If you always adopt the client’s opinions as your own, they’ll quickly lose respect for you.
6. Do Good Work, Accept Fair Feedback, Do Better Work
If you grew up in a certain time and place, you may remember Brach’s Pick-A-Mix – the retail displays where you could fill a colorful paper bag with your choice of candies, sold by weight.
Believe it or not, Pick-A-Mix still existed in 2010, when I was the VP-Marketing for the company that owned Brach’s. And since we’d just paid a large design firm a tidy sum to update the Brach’s brand identity, we now needed to extend that identity to over a thousand of these retail displays.
This was about translating brand guidance, not creating it, and it was not a line of business we were prepared to spend a lot of money on. So we needed a design partner who was “skilled but not pricey.”
A member of my team recommended her roommate, Lauren, who was maybe 24 years old at the time. Lauren didn’t have a deep well of experience, but good people tend to know other good people, so we took a leap of faith.
How did that go? Here’s an excerpt of the LinkedIn recommendation I wrote for Lauren:
“She’s a pleasure to work with – she designs from strategic objectives, not from her ego, and she receives feedback extremely well. I didn’t have the chance to hire Lauren, but if you do, you should take it.”
Lauren worked within the creative brief and presented several solid design solutions. But just as importantly, she listened to our feedback and responded to it. No dying on tiny creative hills, no prima-donna outbursts.
The combination of quality work and emotional maturity may sound like a low bar, but it’s less common than you might think. And it will take you pretty far. (We went on to hire Lauren for additional projects.)
7. Keep Your Promises
The worst thing you can do is give the client a bad surprise.
As a client-side marketer, if I missed my monthly budget – even on a single line item, even by a little bit – I was inviting an unenviable conversation with the finance department.
One agency I hired put me in that position way too often. Surprise invoices kept crossing my desk; several were small potatoes.
Most clients would rather pay more upfront than receive an unpleasant surprise later. Remember this when you price your projects.
Same goes for timelines. It’s better to anchor the client to a safe set of dates. Hit your deadlines and you’re a hero. Miss them, and you’re an unreliable provider who may have just created knock-on problems.
8. Mind Your Mindset
There’s some drudgery on the client side. Lotta meetings. Lotta paperwork. Lotta explaining to Steve in accounting exactly how marketing works.
As an outside expert, you get to break up that drudgery. In most cases, you’re the most interesting part of the client’s day.
So lean into that. Be a bright spot. Clients will pick up on your energy. They’ll appreciate your ability to stay positive when they’re overwhelmed, or to paint a clear vision when they’re in the weeds.
We have bad days ourselves. But that’s not the client’s problem. Be mindful of how you show up, and always bring your best self to your client interactions.
9. In Fact, Clients Do Owe You Something
I’m empathetic to the challenges faced by client-side executives and marketers. They’re often juggling ill-conceived meetings, miles of red tape, shifting priorities, and maybe a boss that is out of his depth.
But I have zero tolerance for clients that can’t reach a baseline level of professionalism. It’s not a partnership if there’s not mutual respect. Missed deadlines, frequent tardiness for meetings, snide comments, raised voices – these are all out of bounds.
And there’s never, ever a reason to ghost a proposal. If the client has time to request the proposal, they have time to reply to it. I have a long memory for the few people that have ghosted my proposals.
Clients owe you the same level of professionalism they expect from you. And you’re well within your rights to fire clients who can’t meet that reasonable standard.
10. It’s Okay to Get Personal
Read the room, of course. For some clients, it really is “all business.”
But for most, work is more tolerable and more enjoyable when we inject some humanity into it.
We’re all spending a lot of time on Zoom these days. If circumstances allow, take a few minutes at the top of the call to ask the client how their weekend was, or what they have planned for the next one. Pay attention to their answers. Reference them when you speak again.
Remember when I said the team at GSD&M knew the name of my cat, before I had even hired them? That was a sign that they gave a damn about me as a person, not just as a decision-maker. They were fundamentally good people, and decades later, I’m still in touch with most of them.
One of the real joys of this line of work is when good clients become good friends, too.
Your time is valuable, and I hope I’ve rewarded it. If so, your shares are greatly appreciated, as I try to spread the gospel to as many freelancers as possible.
Curious about how to create happier clients & longer-lasting relationships? I have a limited number of slots available for 1-1 coaching. Click here to find out more about how my customized coaching can help you level up.
Copyright 2022 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the footer section.