When it comes to retaining good clients, standing out from the crowd is important. There are a lot of editorial professionals out there. (The Society for Editors and Proofreaders has around 2,000 other members, and more all the time.) And that’s perhaps the tip of the iceberg – certainly in the UK, let alone the rest of the English-speaking world. How are those clients I would like to cultivate going to know that they should hire me in particular, rather than the twenty other editors who appear similar from a quick scan of our online profiles?
I believe that keeping clients coming back for more comes down to the application of basic common sense, and common courtesy. What amazes me, though, is how often the following points are overlooked. I say this from the perspective of a one-time in-house editor and later a freelance project manager who has hired many freelance editors in the past.
Here’s my checklist of simple ways to keep clients happy. In some cases these have the positive side-effect of giving those clients a crash course in how to treat us better, too.
1. Produce work of a high standard
This is such a no-brainer that I am almost embarrassed to write it. However, I have worked on enough projects over the years as a ‘picker-upper-of-pieces’, rather than a copy-editor or proofreader, that it bears stating. Trust that if you do excellent work, the client will notice, they will care, and they will ask you to do it again.
2. Do what you say you’re going to do
Lots of people, editors and otherwise, fail to do this. If you agree to deliver something by the end of the day on Wednesday next week, do it. Don’t let that time come and go and hope the other person won’t notice. If you can’t send it to arrive by the end of Wednesday, let the person know well ahead of time with a brief reason (no life stories necessary!) and give them a revised estimate for delivery.
This principle applies to how you treat everyone else you encounter, too. If you promise to send an editor friend a link to an article, do it. If you say you’ll pass on a colleague’s contact details for that job they’d be perfect for, do that too. Treat everyone else how you would like to be treated.
3. Don’t make problems
The thing about clients, publishers or otherwise, is that they are very likely to be even busier than you. That’s why they’ve outsourced the work.
Think very carefully about how you phrase queries to the client, and keep them to a minimum if you can. The client may have told you how they want queries to be presented. Make sure you follow their instructions if so. Don’t ask very open-ended questions; make them as specific as possible. Read through your queries at the end of a job and see if you can figure out the answers to any of the earlier ones now you know the project better.
If you find yourself in the position of making up for what you perceive to be a poor job done by someone earlier in the process (see point 1), by all means mention specific problems, but avoid personal attacks, or generalisations such as ‘the copy-editor did a very bad job’. You don’t know who did the copy-editing (it might have been the client!), and you also don’t have an overview of all the events and constraints that might have affected the project up to that point.
When I started my last in-house job, it didn’t take me long to hear about the production controller feared by everyone in the editorial department. She could reduce an editor almost to tears just by materialising unexpectedly at the end of their desk. For weeks I pondered on how I would deal with her once it was my turn to feel the heat. But I soon realised that she could be neutralised fairly easily – simply by telling her what was coming her way, and when. I didn’t get defensive, I just calmly and politely gave her the facts. It worked, and we never had any problems. OK, maybe a few death stares if things ran a tad late, but no actual tears.
As a freelance editor, I keep my clients informed along the way – even if everything’s going to plan. On a long project, I don’t wait for them to email me two days before the deadline asking if I’m still alive. I send them a progress update partway through, highlighting what’s going well, what I’ve achieved so far, and asking for specific direction if I need it. I let them know I’m on track to hit their deadline. (Then I hit it.)
On this subject of communication there is a final, blindingly obvious point: be available. Respond quickly (within reasonable working hours). If you don’t reply, you can’t blame the prospective client for moving on to someone who does.
5. Be yourself, within limits
I don’t know about you, but I fairly often have the urge to write ‘humorous’ asides on proofs I am working on. However, I never do it. Even if I know the client well, or they are actually a friend, I still don’t do it, for three reasons: 1) I don’t know if they will be reading the proofs. It might not be them who picks up the comment. 2) Even if they do read the comment, they will be busy and they may not appreciate even a small diversion. 3) It might turn out to be the author who reads the comment, and they might not find it funny in the slightest.
However, witty annotations aside, you are allowed to have a personality. Professional correspondence seems more informal than ever (or perhaps I am just getting old). Adjust your tone according to your client; this is just an extension of editing. Express yourself clearly in your own words, not in a string of bland corporate clichés. If you feel really enthusiastic about a project (especially if you feel really enthusiastic about a project!), say so.
Do I mention my personal life or my family? Not often – I don’t want to appear to be not focused on the task. If the client I am working with mentions their children, then I may briefly reciprocate. If the material is for children of a similar age to mine, or is about children of a similar age to mine, it can seem appropriate to mention this in passing, in relation to the job. Will I tell the client that I struggled to edit the last paragraph or two because my children were wrestling over my head on the armchair while I was hunched over the laptop trying to fend them off? Of course not.
6. Acknowledge receipt
If you’re busy, this can be easily forgotten, and it’s one I sometimes struggle with. I have to remind myself that it is illogical to write an item on my to-do list if I could type it out and hit ‘Send’ quicker, which is often the case. Acknowledging receipt is always worth doing, can be reassuring on all sides, and saves everyone time wasted wondering whether things arrived. When I have figured out a way of getting clients to do this without fail too, it’ll be time for another post. And to crack open the champagne …
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She tries to take very good care of her clients.