There are so many great freelancers I admire.
And, do you know what’s the key thing I respect them for?
They’ve found a way to make freelancing work by leaving very little to chance.
Try to hire them and you’ll always go through the same onboarding process. Send them an email and you’ll almost always get a reply within the same period of time. Even the way they handle accounts has a structure.
In fact, every aspect of their business is organized and controllable.
And do you know why?
Because that’s the only way to bring order to a business and avoid making stupid mistakes that could cause you trouble.
And that’s EXACTLY what I’m going to talk about in this post – the power of business processes and how to use them to grow your freelance practice.
It’s not a secret
Running a freelance business is so difficult mainly because of the amount of tasks you are required to do.
- There’s accounting and bookkeeping to keep your finances in order.
- Project management helping keep all the balls in the air at once.
- Invoicing and accounts receivables to keep money coming in.
- Business development and strategy to help you grow and expand your company.
- Sales to bring new clients.
And that’s just what you need to do before you even get to work on projects.
Needless to say, the only way to keep it all under control is by developing proper business processes.
Why processes matter
Processes are fundamental to building a successful and profitable freelance business.
It’s actually quite simple:
In a situation where you exchange hours for dollars, every mistake, omission or delay results in a loss of revenue.
In other words, every time you have to fix silly errors, you waste hours you could have spent working on billable tasks.
Not to mention, without a process you are more prone to making mistakes, skipping important steps, forgetting minor details – and just generally doing a crappier job.
Processes eliminate chaos
Imagine you’re onboarding a new client.
Everything goes smoothly…until you realize that you forgot to attach terms and conditions with a quote. Now the client knows your rates but they don’t know that you require a 50% upfront fee.
Of course you could still send that information but it looks unprofessional and wastes your precious time and theirs.
Having processes in place brings order to your work and reduces the amount of silly mistakes you make due to plain forgetfulness.
Processes help simplify complex operations
Did you know that the very first flight of the Boeing B17 Bomber, probably the most renowned of all WWII planes, ended up in a disaster?
The plane was so complex to fly that a pilot had to continuously pay attention to many things at once. And in the case of the first flight, he forgot to release a particular locking mechanism, causing the plane to crash and two people to die.
And yet, B17 have become the most renowned of all WWII planes, how?
The simplest answer – because of simple checklists and processes.
After the disaster, pilots took it upon themselves to develop pre-flight checklists including processes and tasks needed to fly the plane.
They flew the plane 1.8 million miles without a single accident.
I know, running a business isn’t as complex as flying the largest bomber in WWII history but it’s not that far off either.
With so many things to look after at the same time, it’s easy to make a small mistake that could cost your business a lot.
Processes that define every action needed to complete a task simplify the entire procedure making your business much easier to run.
Processes provide a structure to grow and scale a business
You know, at some point you might decide to expand the business; take on more work, hire more people or simply get another freelancer to help you because have more work than you can handle on your own.
Having processes reduce the amount of time it will take for the new person to learn how your business operates and start delivering the work to the standards you are known for.
Processes reduce the amount of time spent on admin tasks, leaving you free for billable work
I think the admin work is undoubtedly the most monotonous part of running a freelance business. It’s tedious, it’s boring and what’s worse, you don’t get paid a dime for doing it.
But it’s also incredibly important.
Processes help reduce the amount of time you spend on admin tasks and free you to work on actual projects.
Processes build trust
Think about it; how likely are you to trust a specialist who gives the impression of never knowing what they’re actually doing?
They misplace information, lose tools, need to be reminded about everything and generally seem disorganized.
What about a person who seems in control all the time, and seamlessly leads you through the process of becoming a customer and purchasing their product?
Having processes means you’re going to be preceived as a professional, trustworthy person.
The Six Core Freelance Business Processes
New Client Onboarding
The onboarding process has actually just one objective:
To seamlessly transition a prospect through all steps necessary to becoming a paying client.
And the only way to do it well is by developing a step-by-step process you are going to follow every time a new prospect gets in touch.
This process could be as simple as sending an email with project estimate, terms and conditions and a timeline for approval.
Whatever steps you decide on, this structure will ensure that you never omit any steps when taking on new clients.
Pricing / Quoting / Proposals
No one likes it when you struggle to give an initial estimate or stutter when discussing project costs.
In freelancing being able to clearly articulate your price and value is often what makes or breaks the sale.
You can develop not only a set of prices you charge but also processes for communicating them with a client.
For instance, you could have a standard pricing document to send to every new client. Or a pre-set format for a proposal, including not only the financials but also any other information you want the client to know before hiring you.
Some freelancers have developed a Working With Me document. It’s a simple PDF that can be attached to emails, proposals and featured on your website. The PDF describes what makes you unique, provides a list of relevant client case studies, pricing, and samples of your work.
It can be an excellent way for customers to get a sense of how you operate.
Invoicing / Billing
Accounting and admin work is a serious time killer in freelancing. However, it may be the most important thing to get right.
But you could improve it and save a lot of time by developing processes for invoicing, billing and collecting overdue payments.
This could include defining when you’re invoicing clients. For example listing when you collect the deposit, and completion payments. Defining the terms associated with payments such as net 30 days.
Some freelancers also have staged payment plans where a percentage of the project is collected at various milestones throughout the project lifecycle.
Next, you should consider developing a process for how you communicate your terms and conditions, billing cycles, and overdue payment collections.
Standard Project Steps
You should also develop a service delivery process outlining every action you’re going to take when delivering a project.
It should include information about what steps to follow in each stage a project has to go through. This will include items such as:
- Developing a project brief
- Conducting project research or a competitive analysis
- Project planning and execution
- Network selection for media buying
- Project launch management for tasks, timelines, and roles and responsibilities.
For example, my team and I at Inbound have a project template for each service offering we provide. If it’s an SEO campaign we simply create a new project in Basecamp with prepopulated to-do lists, timelines, and files. It saves us a tremendous amount of time and ensures we don’t forget anything in the setup process.
Sales and Marketing
Marketing is one the most important aspect of your freelance business.
It’s what helps establish you in the market; drives clients to your doors and allows you to raise your freelance rates.
And yet, most freelancers struggle with marketing their services.
They get cold feet when approaching new clients, procrastinate on building their expert status and avoid networking like the plague. As a result, they miss out on many business opportunities.
But it doesn’t have to be the case.
By developing a documented step-by-step marketing process you can ensure that at least you know what actions you should to be taking every day, week or month.
A few tips for getting started:
- Identify the customers you want to work with
- Find the places, both online and offline, where they hang out
- Participate in the community by providing your expertise
Employees and Subcontractors Management
At some point you might decide to bring in additional people to help you.
Perhaps you’ve taken on more work that you could handle and need someone to offload it to. Or you want to grow your business, expand your clients’ base and thus, need to employ people.
Processes will make it easy for them to almost immediately begin delivering work to the standard you’ve become known for.
How to Develop Freelance Business Processes
Okay, it all sounds great but how do you actually develop business processes?
Here are the steps I typically take:
- List what processes need to be developed,
- Break each process into smaller, more manageable chunks,
- Document those steps,
- Test to see if they work,
- Formalize the process (typically by writing it down in a dedicated document to use by anyone involved),
- Iterate and refine over time.
Before I discuss those steps in detail, there are two things I want you to remember:
You’re far better off starting small
It’s tempting to start systematizing all aspects of your business at once. But… I can guarantee that you will just create more chaos.
Building processes is a complex procedure and you’re far better off starting with something simple. And only when that process is working, you could move on to the next one.
You must be objective to create successful processes
By far my biggest challenge when systematizing a business was being able to look at it from an outside point of view.
Look, you’re trying to grow your freelance operation. And to do this you simply must be objective about its every aspect.
There can’t be any “but I like doing it this way” situations. If a particular procedure doesn’t work, you have to change it.
With that out of the way let’s look at each step of developing business processes.
Step 1. List what processes need to be developed
The first step is actually quite simple (and most likely you will only have to do it once):
You need to list all processes you’ll need to develop.
This pretty much means writing down every single area of your business:
- Accounting and Bookkeeping,
- Project Management,
- Contractor Management,
- Customer Support and so on.
Next, look at the list and mark areas you currently struggle with. Are there any areas you simply don’t know how to work on (i.e. marketing) or others you noticed a lot of projects getting stale at?
These could be the first processes you need to develop.
Step 2. Break Each Area into Small, Manageable Chunks
Fact: Every aspect of your business is actually a collection of smaller tasks or objectives.
Take onboarding for example. It could encompass:
- Developing email templates,
- Sending clients basic information with your pricing and services,
- Communicating terms and conditions,
- Conducting consultation calls,
- Writing proposals,
- Scheduling the work and many others.
In other words, the entire process is complex but each individual part is simple and much easier to manage. Breaking it into smaller chunks will help you decide what elements you should work on first and what should come later.
For instance, your onboarding process could look like this:
- Step 1. Client makes an inquiry,
- Step 2. Send client email response containing initial terms and conditions plus information about scheduling a consultation.
- Step 3. Conduct a Skype / Phone consultation,
- Step 4. Send proposal detailing what’s been discussed during the call and invoice for a booking deposit,
- Step 5. Upon payment receipt schedule the project.
Step 3. Develop Step-by-Step Checklist Per Process
Just like with the onboarding process example above, you should start organizing typical actions you take to complete a particular task into a process.
This simply means listing each step one after the other in the order you will be completing them.
Step 4. Test the Processes
Up until now you were only theorizing about the process. It’s time however to see how well it works in practice.
For a start, I’d recommend you test a process that involves other people – onboarding, contractor management, project management etc.
It will be the simplest to see if the process is working.
If you notice many prospects dropping off your onboarding process, it might mean that it’s too complex for them, for instance or they find it too long.
You could even go back to them and ask why they didn’t move further down the process. It could help reveal potential flaws with it.
Step 5. Document the Process
If you only decide on the number of steps to take in a particular process, you’re not achieving anything. You’ll probably end up forgetting about certain steps or changing their order anyway.
The key to developing successful processes is documenting them.
Create a step-by-step guide or a checklist you will follow every time when working on this area of the business. Keep it in the format that works best for you. It could be a Basecamp to-do list, or a printer document – whatever works for you.
Step 6. Iterate and Refine
Here’s the thing about processes:
You rarely get it right the first time.
The first version of a process often includes steps that aren’t really necessary. And you can only realize the flaws by implementing the process over time. Therefore, you need to constantly monitor, iterate and refine your processes to find the most optimum way of performing those tasks.
For example, our team has about 50 active process documents for our digital marketing services. However, we have hundreds of archived processes that are not irrelevant due to changes in our business.
For many processes to work you will have to collect information from clients.
This could include anything from their business and billing details for the invoice, information that would help you develop a scope of work to assets you’d need to complete the project and a lot in between.
To ensure that all information gets collected, you could develop a set of intake documents.
They’ll guarantee that you collect the right information every time and, save you time every time you request information from a client.
At minimum, you should develop the following documents:
- Client business details form,
- Project’s scope of work,
- Project questionnaire (including goals and objectives),
- Asset checklist ensuring that you collect all items required to deliver a project.
Collecting the information
No matter how thorough your process is it can stall on a simple thing – collecting information from clients.
Clients might overlook your email requesting specific details or send you incomplete information.
That’s why on top of specific processes you should also develop ways to collect information.
I recommend using one of those two systems:
- Google Docs – Simply create new document from template and invite a client to add information to the page.
By structuring your document as a questionnaire you will ensure that they will provide you with all the information you require.
- Typeform – The alternative is to use interactive forms and send a client link to a particular one they need to fill in. Once done, Typeform will email you the client’s answers. You could also connect it with Google Drive and have those answers logged into a Google Spreadsheet.
Lastly, here are some applications that could help you run your process driven business smoothly:
Freshbooks. Personally I think there’s no better cloud service for sending invoices, managing payments, bookkeeping and anything else finance related. My favorite Freshbooks functionality includes the ability to send recurring billing and automated notifications, saving me a lot of time to focus on the business.
Basecamp. This is my project management tool of choice. With Basecamp I can manage projects, project to-do lists, schedules and give clients access to those too. Oh and it’s super easy to use, reducing the need for training clients how to use it.
Google Drive. I’ve mentioned Google Docs already. However there is more to it than just collecting information. You can use it for anything from storing project assets, planning, management and so much more.
In business nothing should be left to chance. From the steps you take to win a new client over to providing service and support, every action you take should be documented.
This way you’ll avoid making mistakes but also, free time to focus on delivering work you’re actually getting paid for.