Articles - 13th November 2020

Drawing the line on the extra mile

Words by Thomas Johnson
Illustration by James Merritt

Ironically, the day after I was asked to write this article, a fairly new client messaged me at 6 PM on a Friday to ask if I’d be able to write 700 product descriptions by the end of Monday.

I said yes*.

*After negotiating a higher rate than what was offered (because it was so last minute!)

Fortunately, the project ended up being split between a few copywriters and the deadline was extended to 9 AM on Tuesday. Whilst it meant I didn’t have to do the whole 700, it still took me 12 hours and I worked until 2 AM.

I asked myself, would I do this for my boss if I wasn’t self-employed? No, or at least not anymore.

Back when I worked full-time for a small PR firm, I remember the entire office stayed until 1 AM on a Friday before a big exhibition the following week. Although late nights were a regular occurrence at that company, I vowed to never do that again, and yet…

Of course, there’s a key difference when you’re self-employed because when you do work really hard, you’re more likely to see the results than when working for a company (or at least that’s my experience). When I worked until 1 AM for someone else, all I got was a free taxi home, but when I did it for myself I made almost a quarter of my monthly earning’s target and earned a few brownie points with my new client.

With that in mind, where do you draw the line between going the extra mile for your clients?

 

Setting the bar

To be frank, overpromising, overcommitting and overdelivering can, in some people’s eyes, make you look like an amateur. You risk coming across as too eager to please, which translates as someone who’s desperate for work and will do anything to secure it. Do you think the freelancers making six figures a year will give more than is required? If they do, they won’t be giving much, because they’re too busy — and they know the value of their time.

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with giving a little extra, as long as it doesn’t take too much time or effort, otherwise, you’re undermining your own worth and that of the freelance community as a whole.

If, for example, you’re working on a project with a new client then, by all means, go the extra mile and boost your chances of being hired again. However, be careful not to give too much, because they’ll come to expect the same level of service next time you work with them, by which point you might have secured more clients. If you don’t deliver to your client’s expectations, you’ll be seen as unreliable and inconsistent — you want to build trust, not doubt.

Instead, it’s much better to manage your clients’ expectations from the start of every project. This way, you’re in control and you’ve given yourself a safety net. You can still aim to exceed the expectations you’ve set, but if you don’t manage to do so then nobody is going to be disappointed (and you won’t be freaking out).

When people approach me for work I always aim to set my own deadlines. For example, if I know I can get something done by Wednesday, then I’ll include this in my email when outlining the terms of the project:

“In regards to the deadline I’ll aim to get this finished by Thursday, does that work for you? If you need it sooner, then let me know and I’ll see what I can do.”

Regardless of the above, I’ll still aim to get it done earlier, which will result in one happy customer. However, if any urgent work comes in, I know I can push it to the top of my to-do list without letting anyone down.

This is a basic example and it might sound as though I’m supporting the over-delivery strategy, which I am to a degree. But note that all I’m doing is beating the expectations I’ve set and it’s going to take the same amount of time and effort to complete the brief.

I am not offering (or planning) to produce more than was initially agreed. If the client wants more from me, it’s up to them to ask for it and I’ll decide whether or not I want to negotiate a higher rate. Whether or not I choose to negotiate depends on how much I’m already being paid, how much extra I’m being asked to do and how valuable the client/project is as a whole.

Of course, if anything comes up naturally as a byproduct of the work, then I’ll throw it in as an extra. For example, if I’ve done loads of research on a topic and I know that my client is looking to publish similar content to what I’ve already written, then I’ll send them a list of ideas that are related to the work I’ve already done. The benefit here is they’ll appreciate my proactive approach, and will probably hire me to write it — everyone’s a winner!

 

Sustaining your output

It feels good to exceed peoples’ expectations, especially in a professional capacity. If you’re able to consistently deliver more value than what was expected and continue to do right by your clients, then that’s not a bad thing — provided you’re doing right by you as well.

If you’re going to go that extra mile, remember that you’re setting yourself a benchmark that your client is going to keep expecting, so make sure that what you’re offering is sustainable, otherwise you risk losing your client in the long run and all that hard graft would have been for nothing.

What you don’t want is to start losing work because you did so much to start with and ended up doing just a little more than the bare minimum. You should always aim to produce stellar-quality work for your clients and prove how valuable you are to them, but only to a level that you can keep up.

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