We recently talked to half a dozen WordPress freelancers and entrepreneurs about how to improve freelance processes. Efficient systems and processes can make your work more productive and profitable, but putting those systems in place isn’t always something freelancers know how to do.
“My business really started to grow when I started regularly and intentionally taking time to focus on improving my processes and systems,” says Nathan Ingram.
The exact system to focus on first varies. Our pros mentioned a number of priorities, including marketing, client onboarding, project management, time tracking and invoicing.
In general, their suggestions fell into two categories:
“A way to get work and do work,” says Daniel Espinoza. “What I mean by that is a system to consistently market themselves to their target customers to keep a stream of leads coming through the door. Then a consistent system for doing the work. If one of these gets out of balance then things devolve into a feast or famine type situation.”
1. Freelance Process: Get the Work
Managing the marketing funnel and keeping new work coming in is an important process for freelancers. Otherwise you’ll slip into a feast or famine freelance cycle (best case scenario) or be out of work.
“Freelancers should always be finding new targeted prospects and converting them into leads (which can be done on autopilot with the right marketing funnels),” says Tamala Huntley.The reality is that marketing is more important than ever.
“Today the market is flooded with freelancers and competition for customers is much higher,” says Rebecca Gill. “This means prospecting is harder and the quoting process is much more critical.”
One important freelance process that isn’t so easy to manage is networking.
“Every freelancer needs to manage their contacts,” says Chris Lema. “So rule number one for me is making sure I have a way to keep track of people, learn their stories, take notes and connect with them.”
Chris uses his own CRM to track customers, and before that he used Outlook. But the system you choose doesn’t really matter. “Just keeping notes is the work,” adds Lema.
“[A marketing funnel] helps avoid feast-or-famine mode and provides consistent cash flow,” says Tamala Huntley. “Once in the funnel they should have a follow-up process in place to turn those leads into clients.”
More than the exact process, doing the work is the challenge for networking and marketing. Other freelance processes like invoicing or time tracking are important, but they tend to take care of themselves. If you don’t send out invoices, you don’t get paid. Whether you have a good system or not, it’s going to get done somehow. But marketing never feels quite as important and it’s one of the first things busy freelancers put off until later. That’s why having a system and doing the work is so important.
“As someone who’s been doing freelance work for more than 15 years (on the side of my day job), I learned quickly that people rarely appear on my doorstep with immediate demand,” says Chris Lema. “So it’s a process of building rapport and consistently connecting to people—keeping my name in their brain—that eventually leads to a great consulting gig.”
2. Freelance Process: Do the Work
Many more of the systems and processes our pros mentioned had to do with how to actually do the work.
One of the first steps of doing the work is the client intake process.
“Put this in place to make onboarding smoother and less stressful for both the freelancer and their clients.” says Tamala Huntley.Most freelancers just jump straight to the work, but onboarding is an important opportunity to set the tone and manage expectations going forward.
“I try to set expectations early on and I over-communicate so the prospective customer understands their obligations and our deliverables,” says Rebecca Gill. “The more I communicate in the sales process, the better the project goes in execution.”
Rebecca shares more about her sales process in our project scoping and contracts webinar.
A simple way to start is by creating standard emails that welcome new clients to the project and get them going on any project management systems you use with clients, such as Basecamp, Teamwork or Trello.
Then it’s time to get to work. Often it doesn’t feel like we need systems and processes to do the work—you just do the work, right? But there are a lot of ways that freelance processes can make your work more efficient and productive.
“I think the single most important thing a freelancer can do to be more productive is to have a consistent process in place for every project,” says Nathan Ingram.
For Nathan that means having a consistent setup to make build out faster:
“We have a single theme that we use for all of our custom website projects. This approach has allowed us to create a starter theme stack with all the normal CSS, functions, plugins and settings ready to go. Instead of setting all of these things up for each project, we simply restore the backup of our starter site with everything in place. This saves hours of time. Also, by using the same plugins and theme repeatedly, you can quickly become an expert at the items in your stack.”
Using a specific set of themes and plugins can speed up a project. It can also help to create standard systems and services you offer clients, like using a WordPress backup plugin like BackupBuddy to migrate sites and start a backup procedure, or using a WordPress security plugin like iThemes Security and iThemes Sync to manage multiple WordPress sites for ongoing maintenance and security.
TimeWhether you bill by the hour or by the project, it’s still important to track your time. You need to know how long it takes to get something done.
“My current approach to time tracking has worked really well for more than three years, and it’s about as simple as you can get,” says D’nelle Dowis. “I use a Google Sheet to track billable and non-billable time. Each fiscal year is a new sheet and each billing period is a new tab.”
Whether you use a simple spreadsheet or one of the many available apps, you should have a system for tracking your time.
It’s also important to use your time wisely, and yes, there’s a process for that.
“As for processes, I think the one I use the most is called time boxing,” says Chris Lema. “I regulate how I use my time by carving out and planning my priorities so that I run my schedule and not the other way around. It’s what helps me get a lot done in each day.”
One of the easiest areas to set up a process is tracking money and getting paid. There are so many different options for online accounting software out there that you can easily find something that works for you.
“I use Freshbooks, but I don’t think there’s anything magical about it,” says Chris Lema. “It could be anything. But it helps me monitor who’s paid, who needs a reminder and who I need to call.”
There are tons of options and automated services out there, so there’s no excuse for not finding something that works for you.
Even if your accounting is pretty simple, creating a system for invoices and tracking payments can save you a lot of time.
“I don’t like ‘chasing’ people for money, so I’ve always let my systems and processes get my money for me,” says Tamala Huntley.
CommunicationA standard process for communication can help improve any project. Even if a project is going off the rails, there’s a chance you can save your reputation and the relationship if you communicate well.
“Communicate even when there isn’t anything to communicate,” says Daniel Espinoza.
Clients need to know what’s going on, even if nothing is going on. Often clients are the holdup and you need to consistently—and carefully—communicate that the ball is the client’s court. Reminding them that they are the holdup—sometimes repeatedly—will keep clients from blaming you for the delay. Sometimes that’s not even a conscious thing, but consistent communication will keep it from happening.
“A simple update email once a week can go a long way to providing an excellent experience for your client,” says Nathan Ingram. He recommends the three-sentence email for better client communication.
Another strategy to streamline and improve your communication is to create a system of canned email responses.
Creating some processes for communication can be especially helpful if you’re the kind of person who would rather be coding than talking to people. It’s a way you can force yourself to put good communication skills in practice.
Reevaluate Your ProcessWhatever processes you do come up with and put in place, it’s important to revisit and evaluate those processes so you can continue to improve.
“I think you have to find something that works for you, embrace sticking with it for a significant chunk of time and plan to reevaluate consistently,” says D’nelle Dowis.
That should include considering new software and apps, as well as looking at your own process and see if there are ways you can improve it.
“If we do run into an issue with mismatched expectations, I modify our process so it doesn’t happen again,” says Rebecca Gill. “This means more details in our proposals and project plans so everyone is on the same page. Every client question can be shifted into better communication for on-boarding and ongoing project management.”
General Freelance Process
Implementing a solid freelance process can save you a lot of time and sanity.
“I’m a strong believer in using software to drive tight processes,” says Rebecca Gill. “The money I spend monthly on these services are returned 10 fold in customer satisfaction, on-time projects and timely payment of receivables.”Pay attention to repeatable tasks in your freelance work and find ways to create processes and automate as much as you can.
“Every time I’ve gone away from my procedures or contract it’s bitten me in the butt,” says Tamala Huntley.
You can learn more about the freelance process from the full interviews with each of our freelance pros: