The Seven Important Soft Skills Every Freelancer Needs
By Jena Kroeker
What are the ingredients of successful work? Like any recipe, freelance projects include a balance of ingredients: hard skills for proper functioning and important soft skills for flavor and style.
In a recent Virtual Office Hours session, Freelance University co-founder and instructor Craig Cannings discussed the difference between the two:
• Hard skills are related to your technical competencies. They allow you to get work because you are able to fill a technical gap for clients.
• Soft skills are necessary for developing and sustaining long-term client relationships. They enable you to retain the work you’ve started with a client.
To show how hard skills and soft skills work in tandem, consider the following fictional scenario:
Flora Freelancer enjoys her work. She’s been freelancing for over 20 years and is happy that her Windows 98 computer is still functioning. Sadly, though, people no longer respond to her handwritten faxes.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a local restaurant owner approached her for help pivoting his business. Flora suggested he receive takeout orders by phone and write them in pencil on a pad of paper. He mentioned that he was interested in adding online ordering to his website. She said she thought a phone, pencil, and paper should work just fine. He seemed upset, and she wondered why he couldn’t just get over it.
Another client asked her to lead a virtual team on a project. Flora procrastinated, neglecting to contact the team in time to reach a deadline. Once connected, she micromanaged every aspect of the project and refused to delegate key tasks. Team members were often confused by her emails, which were full of typos and incomplete instructions.
One of her clients suggested she take courses to update her computer skills and learn how to use social media. But Flora is content with Windows 98 and her trusty fax machine.
This is an extreme example, but shines a light on the importance of developing soft skills along with hard skills. Below we’ll take a closer look at the key skills that were missing from Flora’s freelance work.
The Seven Important Soft Skills Every Freelancer Needs
In an article titled “High-Demand Soft And Hard Skills For Freelancers And Other Professionals,” Jon Younger shares the results of LinkedIn’s annual survey, listing creativity as one of the top five soft skills needed most in 2020.
I’m sure you’ll agree this prediction turned out to be true, given recent events that have impacted businesses. As LinkedIn explains, “While robots are great at optimizing old ideas, organizations most need creative employees who can conceive the solutions of tomorrow.” And not only employees, but freelancers and virtual assistants require creativity.
That’s what’s missing from Flora’s approach in the story above. Her client needed to discover innovative ways of pivoting a restaurant business from dine-in to takeout. Flora was using the solutions of yesterday and failed to imagine new possibilities.
One of the most important soft skills is empathy. This means you seek to better understand your clients’ needs and challenges by putting yourself in their shoes. As Brené Brown explains in this RSA Shorts video, “empathy is feeling with people.”
What Flora is missing in the story above is the ability to feel with her client. She neglects to recognize the stress of having to suddenly pivot a business. And she’s dismissive of her client’s emotions when she rejects his idea of implementing online ordering. Her client relationship would have benefited from a better understanding of his needs and a keen awareness of his challenges.
As I mentioned, the Flora Freelancer scenario is extreme. She’s using a Windows 98 computer and a fax machine. This example illustrates a lack of adaptability. She doesn’t respond positively to change and adjust. She’d rather hang on to her older technology than go with the flow and embrace new tools.
In a Freelancers Union article, “The only skill freelancers need for the future is adaptability,” Krystel Leal says,
“Constant adaptability is what will make a worker successful no matter what the work landscape looks like. Critical thinking, understanding, and the ability to quickly accommodate the challenges ahead are all elements of adaptability.”
4. Clear Communication
Especially in a virtual world, clear communication involves the ability to write and speak clearly, simply, and professionally. There is no room for confusion that will hinder productivity or delay the beginning of a project. In a recent FreeU blog post, “Your Guide to Writing Effective Emails to Your Clients,” we use the 5 Ws and 1 H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How) as a basis for giving your clients complete information. Whether you’re speaking or writing, it’s a good idea to think through your message before sending it:
• Who is your audience? (Understand how your client likes to receive communication.)
• What words are most appropriate to use? (Avoid ambiguous words and use specific ones.)
• Where are you composing your messages from? (Are you in a place where you can concentrate fully?)
• When is your message going to be received? (Be aware that your client may be in a different time zone or have a different schedule.)
• Why are you communicating? (Consider communication as a way to build and nurture trust as well as find out information.)
• How should you format your messages so they are clear and effective? (Use short paragraphs, careful punctuation and simple sentence structure.)
Above all, follow the advice of Aditi Tandon in her article, “15 vital soft skills for VAs in business (to get hired and re-hired).” She recommends keeping the tone businesslike and appropriate, adapting to the personality of your client’s brand.
After being asked to lead a virtual team, we see that Flora Freelancer neglects to perform an important aspect of that duty. She fails to contact the team until it’s too late. This mistake would cause her client stress and put the project in jeopardy.
Service involves a relentless commitment to providing the best experience for your clients. You must be prompt, efficient, and provide the best quality work possible. In addition to performing assigned tasks in a timely manner, good freelancers make every step of the client relationship easy. For example, when you’re onboarding a client, quality service involves making it simple for them to sign a contract and receive a checklist of what you need to get started.
6. Project Management (Team Building, Team Management)
Another one of the most important soft skills is the ability to plan, observe and oversee your clients’ projects. And you must know how to do this remotely. In “The Virtual Team Builder” workshop, instructor Craig Cannings discusses common virtual team mistakes and shares eight steps to a winning virtual team.
In our scenario above, Flora Freelancer micromanaged the team and refused to delegate key tasks. In contrast, good project managers define key roles and responsibilities, indicating specific tasks for each role. They determine who each team member reports to. And to avoid any future confusion, they make sure none of the roles overlap.
As Craig Cannings says, “The world needs more effective project managers.”
7. Skill-Proofing (Future-Proofing)
I used the example of Windows 98 and a fax machine to serve as a stark example of how fast technology changes. For some of us, 1998 doesn’t seem that long ago, yet so much has changed since then. If we remained stuck with the same technology skills, we would never be able to keep up with the speed of innovation.
To remain marketable and competitive in the freelance or virtual assistant industry, you must ensure your skills are up to date. Clients will make their choices based on who they think can deliver the most current services. Having the skills your clients most need will turn into income for you. It will increase your assets and give you greater longevity so you can be “future-proofed.”
• At regular intervals, assess your current skills and determine whether it’s time to update them.
• Seek courses, resources, workshops and virtual events that will inform and educate you.
• Showcase your newly updated skills on your website and social media profiles for all to see!
So, how is the balance of ingredients in your freelance or virtual assistant business? In addition to hard skills, have you developed and nurtured important soft skills like the ones above?
The good news is it’s never too late to start honing these skills. Others may come to mind as well. They all contribute to sustaining long-term client relationships, helping you retain the valuable work you’ve started. Please share your thoughts in the comments below and let us know what other soft skills you’d add to the list!