We often think of interactive agencies as the model for efficiency, as businesses that deliver high quality solutions to clients as varied as they are.
However, while on the whole, clients benefit from working with outside agencies, the agency model is fraught with problems, often produces mixed results, and frequently fails to add real value to the business in question.
We’ve passed the phase when industry experts believed that companies with names like Scient, Razorfish and Sapient could help a business succeed in the new economy just because they sounded like they were on the cutting edge. We’re now realizing that the new "new" economy is all about the consumer, and the creation of products and services that these people need.
Freelance designers and developers have the opportunity to avoid the pitfalls into which the big agencies plunged by combining:
- business sense,
- professionalism, and
- a strong desire to add value through their contributions.
Nearly every reason clients cite for commissioning the services of external interactive agencies can also be met with one or a team of freelancers. Interactive agencies promise clients a proven methodology by which they provide expert advice and consultation to deliver on-time solutions that improve their client’s performance and productivity.
Freelancers, as I’ll explain here, are just as well positioned to deliver with equal success on this promise. I’ll describe several reasons why businesses would be wise to choose freelance help instead of agencies, and explore the ways in which freelancers can add value and win repeat business by focusing on the client’s requirements and customers.
Why Should A Potential Client Use You?
If you’re going to compete with agencies for work, be prepared to justify the perceived risk of choosing a freelancer. Here are some points you might use to convince potential clients that they should choose you over an agency:
Value For Money
For various economic reasons, it is significantly less expensive to go directly with a qualified freelancer than paying for an agency’s overhead and indirect. Freelancers typically charge a quarter of the average agency rate for a similar position (less markup), cover their own expenses, and are less prone to surprise clients with unexpected fees for additional related work.
Speed of Delivery
Because there are less contractual details and expenses associated with hiring freelancers, they are able to begin projects much faster than agencies, with lower ramp-up time to quickly begin making a contribution and completing the project.
Ability to Work Onsite
Many projects require the onsite presence of a staff member from the interactive agency to augment the client company’s own project team. In this scenario, it is nearly impossible to find an agency who’ll assign one resource to one project for an extended period of time, without charging extra fees at a higher rate. However, by being onsite, freelancers can increase the rate of development, iterations and testing, which ultimately creates better end products more efficiently.
Improved Client Collaboration
Overall, the agency model involves little client collaboration. Agencies typically treat clients as just that: external parties, divided from the agency by an invisible wall that stops constructive collaboration from taking place.
As a result, agencies fail to examine and understand the business of their clients, and end up trying to solve the wrong business problem. To avoid this pitfall, there must be a commitment from the agency to work closely with people within the client company who are intimately involved with the challenges, requirements and history of a particular project. Freelancers can bridge this gap by working within the existing team structure as a neutral third party, providing project-specific leadership, education, advice, and ideas that cannot be generated within a traditional agency approach.
Hand Picking the Professional
Hiring freelancers is very much WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). If you’ve agreed on a proposal, most likely you’ve also hired the person who will perform the work. Within the agency model, it is rare indeed for a client to hand pick the person they’d like to work with. It is more common for agencies to assign the resource who is currently under utilized or in between projects, often with experience that has little relevance to the particular project in question.
While accountability is often cited by managers as the reason for going with agencies, freelancers can provide professional and personal accountability — a level of trust that’s often stronger and more reliable than anything written by legal departments. Legal contracts can also be structured to increase accountability by addressing a client’s specific concerns, and creating incentives for the freelancer to meet detailed requirements.
Outperform The Agencies – In 10 Steps
Now that you’ve landed the job, here are some practical guidelines for outperforming agencies at their own game:
- Be Customer-Focused
Whether you’re dealing with a site redesign, a Flash animation, or a system re-architecture, ensuring that you’ve met the needs of end-users is fundamental to your success. This can only be achieved by setting customer-focused criteria to evaluate what you do. This can be as few as three tangible criteria based on the business objectives. An example would be to ask yourself: will making this change 1) gain more users, 2) be easy to understand, and 3) increase usage? If it can’t meet those criteria, it’s probably not a good idea.
- Be a Team Player
Freelancing, like consulting, is about relationships and building trust — proving that you can effectively work within a project team. Part of assisting companies is being a team player and increasing the performance level of those around you.
- Do your Homework
Before, during and after a client engagement, it’s important to be prepared for things, both planned and unplanned. When you start a new project, work to gather as much background information on the project and company as possible. This might reveal the motivations for the client’s hiring you in the first place, and help inform your approach on what lies ahead. During and after a project, keep a list of lessons learned — outlining ways you can constantly improve your work.
There is no greater asset for a freelancer than the ability to listen in a meaningful way to what the client says. The client’s feedback is your raw material for the work you’re about to perform, and it’s them whose praise you seek. But it’s also essential to listen to those intimately involved in the project, from stakeholders to sponsors, for much can be gained from seeing all these perspectives.
- Make a Weekly Plan
Create a list of specific tasks you plan to complete for the week, and prioritize these based on urgency. A good formula you can use to establish priority is to compare two tasks among the list, and select what’s most important between those two. Then do the same for all tasks, matching one against every other one. This approach will eventually give rise to a ranked list of items based on priority. By approaching each task in small chunks, you’re more likely to complete them, than by tackling everything that comes across your desk at once.
- Make Yourself Easily Available
It’s surprising to see, despite the digital age we live in, how difficult it is to reach people. As a freelancer, responsiveness and availability are keys to delivering on what you’ve set out to do. If you’re seen as readily available, they client’s more likely to defer to you for critical issues that come up.
- Provide Options
Few clients look to freelancers to provide only one answer. Instead, they hire freelancers to provide reasoned advice and recommendations, with an array of solution options to choose from. This gives the client a level of comfort, and the decision-making authority to select the best possible solution option for the job.
- Communicate Effectively
Your effectiveness and performance are closely linked with your communication skills. You can develop the best design or idea to solve all your client’s ills, but without effective communication, your message and contribution will likely drift among the chatter of others.
- Be Proactive
Being proactive means you must be prepared, think a few steps ahead, and act on impulses or ideas that will help a project succeed. The life of a freelancer is somewhat like a smokejumper, whose job it is to parachute in the middle of a fire for the purpose of putting it out. If he sits around and waits for cues, he’ll fail, but if he’s prepared, he’s capable of quickly beating the flames back.
- Be a Neutral Third Party
Clients aren’t looking to hire someone who agrees with them. They’re often looking for a person they can trust to provide expert advice on an area that needs help, with an emphasis on objectivity and neutrality.
During these lean economic times, where expertise and value are paramount, freelancers can be a real asset to clients who want to improve their bottom line. Freelancers finally have the opportunity to compete with agencies that once seemed untouchable, many of which have failed to deliver measurable results, despite the best intentions of both client and agency.