Flexibility and Accessibility
When someone is asked why they chose to be a freelance editor, quite often the response centers on flexibility — the idea that freelance editors can set their own schedule. Need time to watch a child’s soccer game? No problem. Need to schedule a doctor’s appointment? Again, not a problem.
Flexible scheduling is nice in concept but the schedules of freelancers aren’t really all that flexible. Sure we can do our work in the wee hours so we can attend that soccer game, but we still have deadlines to meet and it is those deadlines that dictate how flexible our schedule truly is.
When we focus on the flexibility of scheduling, we tend to forget that we are a business and that there are certain expectations that those who would make use of our services have about our schedule. The mistake is not the flexible schedule but the failure to make ourselves accessible as expected by clients. Flexibility and accessibility are not synonymous. Ideally, we can combine flexibility with accessibility.
One hallmark of a business is hours of operation. We know, for example, that the brick-and-mortar repair shop where we take our automobile opens at 7 am and closes at 5 pm. There are posted hours of operation and we know from experience that an 11 pm call to the business finds it closed — and often gives us the message that the business opens at 7 am. We get these same types of messages from online stores — you can make purchases 24/7 but customer service is open only during posted hours.
Granted that our business is not like an auto repair shop or an online retailer, but client expectations are similar: Clients expect to be able to reach us during “normal” business hours. Our flexibility is in what constitutes our business hours, not in our accessibility during those hours.
This does not mean that we need to be accessible 24/7; it does mean that we need to be accessible during set, established times with occasional exceptions. It also means that, depending on who our clientele are and who our target audience is — that is, what our target market expects — when a client contacts us when we are not accessible, the client should receive a message saying when we will be accessible. For example, in response to an email inquiry we might autoreply, “I am sorry to have missed your email. My office is currently closed but will reopen at 9 am local time tomorrow, at which time I will respond. However, if you believe it is vital to contact me before that time, please.…”
Clients have problems that they want us to solve. They do not want to wait to know that they can entrust the problem to us or that they need to look elsewhere — our client’s goal is simple: assign the problem to a problem-solver as quickly as possible so that it is off the client’s list and on someone else’s list. Consequently, clients want to be able to reach us during known times; that is, they want to feel assured that if they wait to contact you during what they expect your business hours to be, that they will, in fact, reach you at that time — without that feeling of assurance, clients simply move to someone else, to someone who is accessible as expected.
Accessible today — at least in my business — usually means by email; I rarely receive a telephone call anymore. In olden days, clients wanted to be polite and chat for 60 seconds before getting to the point of the call; today, they want to avoid “wasting” those 60 seconds, just as we do. (I admit that I have a certain nostalgia for those olden days when chatting with my clients let me learn how their children are doing or learn about the wonderful time they had in Paris. It “humanized” what was otherwise an isolated experience by providing a watercooler moment.) The advantage of email is that it is a 24/7 nondisturbing way to contact a client or an editor.
But there is also an expectation that when the client sends an email to me during my business hours, I will respond quickly — not in hours, not tomorrow, not when the client is not available, but nearly immediately. If I am accessible, I do make it a policy to quickly respond, even if it is to say something like, “I received your email and will give you a detailed response within the next 2 hours. If you need my detailed response more quickly, please let me know and I will address your email immediately.”
The issue of accessibility does go hand-in-hand with contact information, which we previously discussed (see The Business of Editing: A Second Fundamental Mistake that Editors Make). A reason to provide contact information is to make yourself accessible to clients. But it does no good to provide that information if the client cannot actually reach you. The counterargument is that clients who email do not expect a prompt response; clients know that the editor may not be accessible. Of course, we don’t know that as fact; we assume it is true because it fits within our needs and what we would expect.
I think that counterargument had more merit in past years. Increasingly, I receive client emails for “routine” jobs that have been sent to several editors and include the statement that the first to respond positively to the job offer (by which the client means the first who says he can meet the schedule at the offered price) will be awarded the job. If I wish to compete for those jobs, then a quick response, which means I am accessible, is required. (Fortunately, most of my work is “nonroutine” and clients seek me specifically for my editorial services.)
Clients with questions related to a job I am in the midst of editing also want their questions answered today and quickly, not tomorrow. (The Internet has altered greatly the concept of patience. Just as people wonder why they have to enter multiple clicks to buy an item instead of a single click, so they wonder why I can’t answer their email within a few minutes. Patience — meaning patience of hours rather than seconds — has become a lost virtue.)
Successful businesses are accessible to their clients and meet their clients’ expectations of accessibility. Freelance editors are as subject to those accessibility expectations as any other business. We have so much competition that clients do not need to be patient; clients can make multiple simultaneous requests and deal with the first responder, or they can internally decide to wait an hour for your response and if one is not forthcoming, seek another editor.
Consequently, we need to act like a business and set hours of operation that we mostly adhere to — and we need to let clients know what those hours are. Notice can be by posting on a website or by mentioning in correspondence; it doesn’t really matter, but it does depend on who you want to be your client — that is, who is your target audience. If I were seeking indie authors as clients, I would post that information along with my contact information at my website. With corporate clients, I try to have my accessible hours overlap my clients’ office hours and I let my clients know via email.
The key is being accessible when and how clients expect. Remember that we need our clients more than our clients need us. It is harder for us to find new clients than it is for our clients to find new editors. We need to approach this like Amazon does — by meeting our clients’ needs and expectations.
We need to avoid sending the message that we do not care or are not interested in our clients. We need to provide client-centric, not editor-centric, service. Failure to be accessible and to make known our accessibility as part of client-centric service is a fundamental mistake that editors often make.
Richard Adin, An American Editor
Related An American Editor essays include:
- The Business of Editing: Fundamental Business Mistakes That Editors Make
- The Business of Editing: A Second Fundamental Business Mistake That Editors Make
- The Business of Editing: A Third Fundamental Business Mistake That Editors Make
- The Business of Editing: A Fifth Fundamental Business Mistake That Editors Make