How Transparent Does a Freelancer Need to Be?

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Transparency is the buzzword that everyone conducting business online seems to be focused on. We’re all supposed to be open and share even the smallest details about how we do business and when we screw up, mostly in hopes of building better business relationships.

But while I believe strongly that we should take responsibility for our work, whether or not we’re freelancing, freelancers may not need to go to the extremes of transparency.

Levels of Sharing

It takes practice to balance how publicly transparent you want to be, but don’t be afraid to limit what you share.

When it comes to being transparent, there’s a difference — or at least there should be — between what you put out on the web (via social networks and your website) and what you tell your clients in private communication.

You don’t have an obligation to tell most of the general public anything. You want to share at least some of what you do, in the interest of marketing, but you don’t need to be too detailed when it comes to your failings, medical procedures or priorities beyond work.

It takes practice to balance how publicly transparent you want to be, but don’t be afraid to limit what you share. If you aren’t comfortable announcing a piece of news to the next person you see on the street, consider what sort of online audience it’s really appropriate for.

The Danger of Oversharing

Complete and utter transparency can be as much a problem as not being transparent at all. If you update your clients on every last detail of your life, you’re going to be telling them more than they want to know. Furthermore, the important details may get lost in the mix of everything else that’s going on. Even if you’re only being transparent about your business and not mixing your personal life into the mess, you’re probably generating a lot of information on a daily basis.

The information you share with your clients needs to be limited to what’s relevant to them. While it’s probably best to err in the direction of offering more if you aren’t sure whether a particular piece of data is relevant to the client, you need to prevent your transparency from turning into a fire hose of information.

Maintaining Expectations and Advantages

Aside from my hope that clients will think I’m one of those cool people with an exciting social life, I also want to maintain a division between the time when I work for my clients and the time when I do other things.

There are details about the way you work that you probably don’t want your clients to have. For me, one of the most important pieces of information that I want to make sure my clients don’t have is that I do check my email constantly — that I will probably be available to deal with something if it comes up at 11 PM. Aside from my hope that clients will think I’m one of those cool people with an exciting social life, I also want to maintain a division between the time when I work for my clients and the time when I do other things.

On occasion, I’ll do work quite late, but unless I’m actually on deadline, I’ll wait until the next day to send that work along to my clients. I think about what the timestamp on my email says about me. Because I want my clients to have the expectation that I’m not always available, I’m not being as transparent as I could be.

You may also have some competitive advantages that you don’t want to share with your clients, lest they learn how to make your secret sauce and strike out on their own. Before you get too paranoid, remember that most clients don’t particularly care how you get results, provided you get them to where they need to be.

But when you have been working in a particular niche for long enough, you may have a few advantages that you might not want known. Being able to get the editor of a certain publication on the phone directly, for instance, isn’t always something you want to share.

Honesty and Professionalism over Transparency

I value professionalism, along with honesty, over and above transparency. I believe my clients generally do as well. For a client, why a project didn’t get done is never an important question — a missed deadline isn’t going to be changed all that much by the reason behind it. You can get a little slack once in awhile, but that should be saved for when you really need it.

I’d much rather invest my time in finding a way to meet all my responsibilities than in keeping clients up to date on the details of what I’m doing beyond their project.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by SVLuma.

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