The good news about working as a freelancer for multiple customers is that your customers know up front that other people have a call on your time. And I’d have to say, for the most part, they respect that reality. However, the work is the work, and when the work is due, it’s rare that you’ll get that deadline to change. How, then, do you keep all your tasks juggled safely? I’ll share my approach. Your mileage may vary.
My freelance customers have varied over the past five years. Originally I was supporting more small businesses and entrepreneurs. Now most of my income derives from large organizations with more than 50 people. In general, larger organizations will have larger projects such as longer proposals or larger technical documents, which reflects the scale of their operations. However, as I noted above, both large and small businesses will still have deadlines.
Sorting out the various “urgent” requirements can be a challenge, especially if your customers have concurrent projects pending or even simultaneous deadlines. One thing you can do is sort out your priorities by sheer dollar amounts: who’s paying you more? Given the answer to that question, you can usually identify how to budget your time. I don’t explain it in quite those bald terms when I’m discussing concurrent work with customers. However, I am likely to explain that Customer A is my primary client and so must get first call on my time/resources.
Budgeting Your Time
Prioritizing my customers does not necessarily determine the order in which I handle tasks. Confusing? It’s not, when I sort out my work by amount of time spent. For example, I might face a situation where a small-business customer has a proposal due the same week as a larger customer has a much larger/longer proposal to be done.
I do my best not to say no to conflicting requests. What I might do, however, is break out the larger proposal in chunks: I’ll work on one or two parts of the work for the larger company, take a break, work on the smaller proposal, then go back to the larger one.
Other times, I will budget my time by the size of the task rather than the customer. If I’ve got a short document for the smaller company and a longer one due for the larger company, I will take care of the shorter document first. This allows me to get the shorter item out of the way so I can free up the rest of my time for the larger document.
If neither of these approaches is immediately acceptable, I will speak with each client and explain the conflict. I will then work out what content they will send to me when and see if I can work on the deliverable in stages, alternating between the two until both are completed. Sometimes an editing or review cycle in one company will free up my time to work on something else.
Knowing Your Limits
I’m trying to recall a situation when I’ve had to say no, and fortunately it’s been rare. Usually begging off an assignment occurs only when I’ve got large, time-consuming projects coming in from two or more customers. For example, if I was on site at one customer’s location and expecting to work overtime, that would consume most if not all of my available working time.
Other variables that can affect my work velocity (besides length) are the types of tasks involved; the complexity of those various tasks; and their uniqueness (have I ever done this type of work for this client before?).
The trick, as always, is to stay on good terms with your customers, even in situations where you can’t assist. I know some go-getters who never say no and will put in the extra hours (there’s no overtime in the freelance world) to “make it happen.” I respectfully disagree. If I’ve already put in a 12-hour day for one customer and another one wants another 6-8 hours of my time, I can do it, but I don’t believe I’m serving the second customer as well as I could given sheer fatigue. I’ve done it, mind you, but I’d still prefer to refer someone to another writer rather than kill myself trying to make everyone happy.
Assuming you know what you’re doing, you can balance multiple clients at once with minimal friction, even if they have simultaneous deadlines. I try to set expectations up front with new clients by explaining how much time I (usually) allot to each of my current clients. When necessary, I work weekends or odd hours to ensure that all my work is completed on time. When even those options won’t work, I need to get creative and discuss things with my clients, and then sort out the best way to handle my schedule. One way or another, the work will get done.