Your Freelancer Can Be a Low-Cost Consultant

As any project manager knows, finding good freelancers can be tough. Once you have one who efficiently delivers high-quality work, the seamlessness of the operation is addictive. Everything’s functioning beautifully, so you just keep running the well-oiled machine. That’s a success to celebrate, of course, but it can lull you into overlooking additional value that the freelancer could offer, if only you’d pause a moment to extract it. I’ve seen that value both as an in-house project manager and as a freelancer.

Where is the value hidden? It’s buried among the insights that the freelancer is constantly acquiring about your systems. Not every reliable freelancer will be able to articulate those insights in a form that can be put to practical use; that’s something you have to gauge based on your interactions with her. And even if she is a good candidate for this kind of meta-analysis, her time does mean money. But it’s a fraction of what you’d pay for a high-priced consultant, not least because the freelancer has already done the up-front investigational work. That’s low-hanging fruit you’d be wise to pluck.

Here are some small-scale assessments you can ask a freelancer to do. Different types of outsourced work are likely to merit different types of assessments, many not in this list. And, clearly, they cannot substitute for a consulting task that requires a very broad scope.

1. On an isolated job, have the freelancer keep a running catalogue of things that went better or worse than expected. Ask her to briefly explain why she thinks each outcome was unanticipated, focusing in particular on systems- and process-related obstacles.

2. Over time, have her note which parts of the work you deliver to her have become easier to handle, and which less. If she finds that the level of difficulty fluctuates, have her identify the contingencies, systemic and otherwise, that seem to be responsible.

3. If your relationship with the freelancer is especially trusting, ask her to identify one process or protocol that she uses with one of her other clients that she thinks would serve your needs. Have her explain how it might best be integrated with your existing systems, even if modest ripple effects would be unavoidable. Obviously, make clear that you are not interested in the name of, or any proprietary information from, the other client and that if either revelation cannot be avoided, she should skip this task altogether.

4. Ask her to write a one-page analysis of how your overall systems can be improved. The analysis should include both a brief narrative assessment and specific, bulleted suggestions. Encourage her to be honest yet practical in her recommendations.

Small-scale consultative tasks like these should be assigned to a freelancer only on a periodic, or even a one-time, basis. You obviously don’t want to gum up the gears of the well-oiled machine. Also, be clear about how much time you’d like the freelancer to spend. If in the end you derive value from her assessment, compare it — and the cost — with what you got from your last consultant. There’s no guarantee of comparatively better value, but the experiment certainly will have been worth the low price you paid to conduct it.

How have you managed to derive value from your freelancers, beyond the usual deliverables?

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About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

6 Responses to Your Freelancer Can Be a Low-Cost Consultant

  1. Lilith Fondulas says:

    Excellent points, all. Fresh eyes can often notice things that go unseen by workers within the organization, and if the freelancer is sufficiently removed from the system, there is less chance for her analysis to be biased as well. We’re not just grunts!

  2. Rachel says:

    I have never had a freelancer… but I am .. myself one. I will have to make these suggestions to my boss!

  3. Katharine says:

    I think that it would be appropriate to give any freelancers who provide such helpful information a decent-size gift certificate to, say, a bookstore as thanks. (By the way, I am a freelance editor.)

  4. Jeanne says:

    Great points, good for both the client and for the freelancer. This is written from the client’s perspective, but it’s really great advice for the freelancer, who ought to look at these additional tasks as opportunities to learn, to build skills, and perhaps generate more work. It also could be a stepping stone for a freelancer to eventually move into the more lucrative consulting space (in time, as desired).

  5. Pingback: Is This Freelancer a Fake? « Working for Yourself

  6. Barbara Saunders says:

    I was asked to do a task like this recently. Having written dozens of a particular kind of document for a client, I was asked to create a template they could use to elicit drafts from employees. This took me little time; I worked it into a day when I was doing another project for them. Doing this gave me a higher profile in the organization. It also meant that I would get better quality drafts to edit later.

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