How to retain freelance clients

Conventional business wisdom tells us that it’s a lot easier to retain an existing client than to find a new one. Retaining clients (as opposed to finding new ones) allows you to amortize the time you put into finding the client in the first place, the time and effort you put into learning a new client’s style preferences, terminology and payment procedures, and so on. In scanning a few articles before writing this post, I found that large corporations estimate that it costs up to five times as much to land a new client than to hold onto an existing one.

Long-term clients are also more likely to make you a true part of their team, which is always satisfying. In my mind, the only exception to the client retention rule relates to rates. If you have a salaried job and you want a 25% raise, it’s unlikely that your current job will provide that, but a new job might. Likewise, as a freelancer, you don’t want to be tied forever to the rates that your legacy clients pay; when you want to make a big income leap, you need to move on.

But let’s say that you’re mostly interested in retaining clients: other than providing them with excellent translations, here are some tips to holding onto them once you’ve landed them.

  • Send a handwritten thank-you note after you receive their payment for the first project. It doesn’t have to be gushy; just “Thank you so much for the opportunity to work together on your recent (annual report, press release, patent, etc.). I really enjoyed it, and look forward to working with you again in the future.”
  • Ask for feedback on every single job, and explain why it’s important to you. “My goal is to develop a long-term relationship with you; in order to do that, I really welcome your feedback on every translation. This is an important part of my quality process, and any feedback, even if negative, is a huge help in tailoring my translations to your needs and expectations.” Send that with the first job. Then, after every subsequent job, refer to it. “As I’ve mentioned, your feedback is always welcome and appreciated; please let me know if you have any comments on the translation.” I’ve also seen at least one freelancer who includes a link to a short, anonymous “satisfaction survey” on every invoice.
  • Send something for the winter holidays. I send a handwritten New Year’s card (you be the judge of what’s appropriate for your clients’ cultures: some may expect/welcome a “Christmas” card, others may not) to every client for whom I did even one project over the course of the past year. I send my A-list clients a tangible gift: sometimes a wreath (again, judge the cultural appropriateness), or some food that’s associated with where I live (Colorado-roasted coffee, Colorado honey, etc.).
  • Send them news items that might be of interest. This could be as simple as, “I noticed this article about changes in the US patent filing procedure and thought it might be of interest.” Or, if you want to go the whole nine yards, set up Google Alerts on your A-list clients’ names (especially if they don’t speak your target language and thus won’t notice press items that you might notice), then send them the mentions if they seem interesting.
  • Don’t nickle and dime them. This is a personal preference and applies primarily to direct clients. Personally, I prefer to charge a higher rate overall and do really small jobs for free, rather than impose a minimum charge on a client who needs 10 words translated. In general, I do not do minimum charges for direct clients if the job is under about 200 words; I just translate it for free, surmising that in the course of what the client pays me in a year, it all evens out.
  • Ask about the impact of your work. Again, this applies mainly to direct clients, but it’s a good tip for everyone. When I translate something that is intended for a specific impact or goal (university applying for international accreditation or recruiting students for a summer program, international development entity applying for a big grant, etc.), I always follow up with the client and ask about the result. Did they get the accreditation? Did the summer program fill up? Did they win the grant? This shows the client that a) I care and b) I want the translation to have the desired impact. These types of clients are investing in translation to improve something, not to maintain the status quo, so I want to know if that happened.
  • Pick up the phone. I don’t love the phone, and many of my big clients are in Europe, so the time difference is a factor. But, I find that with a client who I’ve never met in person, just being able to put a voice with an e-mail address is a huge help in personalizing the relationship. Likewise, if there is ever anything even minorly tricky that I have to work out with a client (what did they mean by “a more formal tone”?), I always call instead of e-mailing, because a sticky situation can very quickly escalate via e-mail.

Readers, any other client retention strategies to share?

7 Responses to “How to retain freelance clients”
  1. יעל כהנא-שדמי December 1, 2015
  2. Chakib Roula December 1, 2015
  3. lukegos December 9, 2015
  4. Anna Lycett (@keycheck_t9n) December 9, 2015
  5. lukegos December 11, 2015
  6. Petra Wagner December 15, 2015

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