I discovered early on that working as a freelance writer was half about writing and half about networking. As a sole proprietor, I wear all the hats in the business, covering areas like marketing, business development and accounting. Over the years, I’ve honed my craft as a writer — a challenge in and of itself — but I’ve also mastered key skills that keep me employed. One of the most important is continually nurturing business relationships.
Maintaining strong business relationships is like making sure you always have wood on hand for the fire heating your home (picture a cozy log cabin in the snowy woods). Even when the fire’s roaring, not stocking the pile is risky. These days, due to the pace at which technological innovation and other forces in the working world upend our lives, it’s unlikely your freelance fire will burn on its existing logs forever, so you should prepare for the future.
What does it mean to maintain strong business relationships? First, understand that there are two types of relationships: a professional network and a client network. For many freelancers, these two networks may overlap.
Build Your Professional Network
Nurturing your professional network relationships can prove even more important for freelancers than full-time workers, as we’re more independent by nature and often removed from traditional workplaces and colleagues. Without ties to others in the same boat, it’s hard to stay on top of what’s going on in our local industries and support each other through the challenges of independent work.
Because we’re constantly engaged in activities to win new work, the more people we know and the wider our professional circles, the greater chance we have of connecting with a new client. If Sarah, for instance, is approached about work for a client but doesn’t have time to handle it, she may pass along your name. Sarah benefits, because she’s seen as a valuable resource for the company, and you benefit, because you’ve just won new work. Freelance work thrives on personal relationships, and most work that materializes isn’t advertised on traditional job boards. Nurturing your professional network is even more important than building marketing materials, like a website.
Sustain Your Client Relations
Remembering to nurture your client network is an often overlooked but incredibly valuable activity. This network includes your current clients, previous clients or clients you may have chatted with but haven’t worked for yet.
It’s tempting to think new relationships are better than old ones, but in the freelance world, you just never know where the next opportunity may come from. Looking at old clients in a “been there, done that” fashion ignores all your hard work in forging the initial connection. When you’ve already done the legwork of establishing a connection — even a connection that hasn’t led to work just yet — don’t suddenly neglect it.
Keep in touch with your old clients. Even if you prefer not working for that client again, they’re part of a network you’d be cutting off. Some of my work has come in via old clients who know of another company or individual looking for services I can offer, all because I reminded them of my existence in a friendly email that said little more than, “Hi, how are you doing?” Forging new relationships is much more labor intensive than nurturing existing ones, so prioritize your time and effort accordingly.
Quick, Practical Tips for Nurturing Business Relationships
- Schedule catch-up emails with clients and colleagues on a regular basis. Use your calendar app to schedule regular email follow-ups. Even if you stick to a standard message, personalize each email with a sentence that draws on your individual relationship with this person.
- Attend local professional networking events to expand your network. Join professional associations in your industry to find out about networking events, or check out sites, like Eventbrite, for industry-specific events in your area. Your university or college alumni network may even hold events worth checking out. Inviting others to come with you to events is another great way to nurture those professional ties and make it more likely you’ll be invited to other events.
- Reach out to your networks to ask for recommendations. This is a great way to reconnect with people who you may have worked with or known but lost touch with. Explain how much you enjoyed and valued working together, and ask for a recommendation on LinkedIn. Offer one in exchange, as well.
Nurturing business relationships is almost more important for my business than the “actual” work I do. It’s a key aspect of business development I’ve learned to get good at and enjoy. Remember: You never know where the next opportunity might come from, so treat every relationship as an important one for the health of your business and the longevity of your career as a freelancer.