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What freelance and consulting clients look for and why it isn’t price

When I phone corporate clients for freelance and consulting assignments (in my case, writing and research in the insurance and asset management industries), surprisingly often they ask a certain question:

What can you do for me that I can’t do myself?

I call marketing executives in my industries. Often they have been on the job for a decade or longer.

The first time someone asked the big question, my gut reaction was “nothing.” Fortunately, that wasn’t the answer that popped out of my mouth.

Over time the question has been asked again and again and I have a great answer all ready to go.

Here is what I can do that you can’t do yourself: I can give your assignment top priority.

People with full-time corporate jobs tend to be very busy. Their days (and evenings) are packed with meetings, preparing for meetings, following up after meetings, fire fighting, ad hoc requests from executives, supervising others, goal setting, planning, personnel issues, networking, giving feedback, professional activities, training, and a million and one other activities that steal time from writing. The same is true for research assignments: too many responsibilities to actually carry out the research and write the report.

Not only can I devote the majority of daytime work hours to their project, but I can work with them in various ways that allow them as much or as little input as they desire.

If they prefer, they can tell me their thoughts so that it almost seems like dictation—though I put a great deal more thought into it than merely transcribing their words. Then they are free to wordsmith as much as they want.

Others want minimal participation, giving me the name of a coworker who will provide direction or directing me to supply subject and treatment ideas.

Either way, it’s less work for them.

However, from their perspective there is a catch to working with someone not on payroll: they have less control over the day-to-day process.

When the person doing the work is a full-time employee, you can stop by their desk to see how work is progressing. You can set up mini-meetings along the way to discuss details. You have a say over how it is done, not just the final result.

Quite the contrary with a freelancer or consultant working off-site. Generally there is a tight deadline and the hired individual is not heard from until that date, when the final deadline is imminent. Sometimes there are meetings or deadlines along the way for corporate input or clarification, but working with a freelancer or consultant is still far less hands-on than doing it all in-house.

Further complicating the challenge is that an outsider is obviously less aware of the corporate culture, company expectations, work flow, products, and anything else you can name. The skilled freelancer or consultant streamlines communications to clarify the assignment without burdening the corporate contact and (or!) proceeds with confidence, whether real or staged.

Companies are trusting people they hardly know. So it is more important than ever to hire the best.

The best freelancers and consultants are extremely competent. The best work is done by someone with a background in the industry in question and the skill to work independently on a project and for a company to which he or she is completely fresh.

Yes, it is depressing to see the low rates on Elance and the low-price providers listed on Craigslist.

But these people do not have inroads on the best corporate assignments. Executives and directors cannot risk their own job performance on unknown people who lack relevant experience.

Too low a price can be perceived as a problem: lack of confidence, lack of competence, or lack of familiarity with corporate processes and expectations (including typical rates of pay).

Because ultimately the question is: what can you do that I can’t do?

If the hirer has to re-do the whole project against a tight deadline—or worse yet, do it from scratch because the freelancer falls down on the job, the assignor may have to do just as much work as he would have on his own—with the added stress of an even shorter timeframe.


Originally posted 8-11-09

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