The very nature of IT can be lonely, especially so for someone working independently. As an independent contractor, you generally don't have any immediate colleagues. Often your clients want to hand over their problems for you to fix and they don't want to be caught up in technical issues they don't understand. They're happy to leave you on your own. Once you start working on projects you may be surrounded by the world of bits, bytes, code and networks, with little to no human interaction.
It's enough to make you feel like the old Maytag repairman, the loneliest guy in town. Worse than simply being lonely, your confidence, competence, and happiness can suffer if you're working in a black box with little to no communication and feedback. You need all three of these attributes to win jobs, negotiate rates, and deal with clients. The good news is that you can take proactive steps to enhance each of these.
Keep your confidence high
Practice regular techniques to maintain a high level of confidence and provide motivation.
Solicit customer feedback. If you utilize a simple feedback process, most of the time you'll get thanks and positive comments. This is not only satisfying, but will help you better understand what your clients value. At times you will get negative comments. Think of these as gifts to help you improve. After all, without feedback, no improvement is possible. Address the issues and your next clients will not have these complaints.
Set milestones and goals and celebrate achievement. Since you don't have a boss to give you a pat on the back, be your own cheerleader. Rather than waiting until the end of a major project to give yourself some recognition, do it daily. Be sure to reflect back on what you have accomplished; don't just grimace at the long to-do list remaining.
Keep your competence high
In order to be confident, you need to be competent.
Benchmark within the IT and greater business field not only for specific technology solutions, but also to understand characteristics and practices of the best IT people.
Create your own self-assessment. Using the benchmark information and customer feedback, create a self-assessment process that you can use with each project or client for honest reflection on your strengths and weaknesses, what you delivered, and how you could have done things better.
Reinvest in yourself by improving in any areas where you have gaps and building new skills. The world of IT changes practically overnight, meaning clients have constantly changing needs. Stay ahead of the curve by carving out some time to become knowledgeable in new technologies in advance.
You are spending 40, 50, or more hours each week at your job. Take steps to make work fun and rewarding.
Create your own team. If you work independently, you don't generally have the socialization opportunities that other 9-to-5 business folks have. But you can make them. Take the time and energy to partner with your customer on a personal basis. Participate in networking events. Find a mentor. Put together a team of resources that you can call on for help and reciprocate in turn.
Smile. Call center employees are routinely trained to smile while they're on the phone since customers can hear the pleasantness in their tone of voice. That same effect can work for you in IT, even if you're the only one who "hears" the smile.
Love your work. If you find that the work you do has become tedious, find ways to transition to something that piques your interest. New clients, new technologies, new approaches, and even working in a new setting can make the work itself more enjoyable.
Be assertive to meet your rights and needs. Studies have shown that assertiveness at work can help deliver happiness. Although your policy may be that the customer is always right, that doesn't mean you should let customers walk all over you.
Have difficult clients? Fire them.
Consider this situation. You have a client who:
Constantly changes requirements while you are working on his or her project
Always demands work to be done on a rush basis, creating disruption to your schedule
Asks for a little bit more when you're approaching the end of the project... and doesn't understand that a scope change deserves more payment
Rarely expresses satisfaction or gratitude
Seems to distrust you, even after you've worked together multiple times
Pays less or takes more time than your other clients
If you do all-in unit costing for this client, including your time for extra bits of communication and changes, you might find that you're getting a lot less in payment per hour of attention and generating a lot more personal stress compared to any of your other clients.
Of course, your first efforts will be to work with the client through communications and contracting. With tact, process skills, and plenty of patience, you might be able to groom this troublesome client to be as professional as the rest of your customers. However, sometimes this type of client just doesn't get it... and never will. If that's the case, you might want to cut your losses. After all, if you get rid of a "bad" client who consumes an inordinate amount of time and causes you stress, you can replace him or her with one or more "good" clients you absolutely love working with.
If you want to fire a client, you will have to be tactful. Let the customer save face to the extent you can without compromising your values or losing significant money. You don't want to create such hard feelings that your client starts a word-of-mouth campaign to discredit you.
What's the bottom line?
Until you become the next IT whiz with a success like Apple, Amazon, or Facebook, you're likely to continue to work largely by yourself and rely on yourself. But that can be quite okay. As the noted author Wayne Dyer said, "You cannot be lonely if you like the person you're alone with."
Visit Acuity Training's guide to confidence for specific assertiveness tactics to apply throughout each step of your freelance process.