8.16.2009

A Freelancer's Cautionary Tale

There are a lot of advantages to being your own boss, my favorite being that I get to listen to loud music and work in sweat pants. I can also set my own hours, although I am still not as good at that as I could be. It is far too easy to get on an obsessive streak once I hit my stride on a piece, and after staring at a computer screen for 14 hours, inserting commas and improving diction and spelling, my brain feels a lot like a hard boiled egg squashed under a pair of heavy Doc Martens. But that's still my choice. The only evil overlord I have for a boss is myself, and I'm generally okay with this. Still, there are disadvantages.

 If any of you out there are thinking about starting your own freelance business, be it editing, writing, illustrating, web design, or even carpentry, it is so important to have all your ducks in order. You have to track every dollar you spend and mile you drive in relation to your business for tax and accounting purposes and just pray you don't get reamed by the IRS at the end of the year. If something goes wrong, you have no other higher-ups to appeal to and get you out of a jam. You have to rely on the practices and procedures you have (hopefully) set in place ahead of time. You have no idea what kind of potential client will end up calling on you for your services.

While many transactions are pretty straightforward, most are not, and they will put your skills as an organized and prepared business owner to the test. For instance, they may want to deviate from your standard product list and request that you do something unique specifically for them, akin to the Hollywood actor who can never order directly off the menu at a restaurant. If they seem nice enough and are willing to compensate you accordingly for any additional work you have to do, then you may feel very compelled to say "Yes!" After all, anyone who is in the business of providing goods and services will always list "Customer Satisfaction" as a top priority. Especially if you are a small or new business.

Also, if you are a business owner, you may like the risk and the challenge that a different kind of client can bring to the table. However, time and experience often teaches us lessons in regards to "Customer Satisfaction." And one of those lessons is that it is almost never worth it to change the way you do business for the whims of a particular client, unless you have a very established rapport and working history with that client. Often, when a new client is requesting you change your protocol "just for him/her," he or she can take that as a cue that you can easily be manipulated. Soon, you may find yourself in a working relationship that is akin to a dysfunctional marriage.

 If, after a time, you notice that your client is actually running your business instead of you, it's a very good idea to end that working relationship before it gets harder to make a clean exit. It is easier to do this when you have these particular ducks in order:

 1. Always, and I mean ALWAYS have your basic policies clearly listed on your website and in your contracts. Especially regarding escape clauses. For instance, one part of the Allison Edits work contract states that either party has the right to terminate the contract for any reason within a specified period of time after the contract has been signed. This time period depends on the scale of the job and the established deadline for completing it. Generally, it can range from 24 hours (for small jobs) to 2 weeks (for really big jobs). There are a number of reasons you may need or want to terminate your end of the deal. If you are the client, a life circumstance may have intervened, such as lost employment or a death or illness in the family, etc. For the freelancer, you may decide to terminate the contract because you realize that you and the client are not going to be a good match for one another after all, or you may have undergone a life-changing circumstance that will prevent you from completing the work.

2. Also in regards to clear language, it is important to have your refund policy stated very clearly. If you charge a retainer or deposit, is it refundable? In most businesses, they are not, and Allison Edits does not refund retainer fees either, unless it is clearly evident that zero work has been done on the project (like, if you cancel the contract an hour after it has been signed). At that point, negotiations can be made as to refunding a portion of the retainer, and it wil lbe unique to that project. However, this may not work if your portion of the retainer equals the portion of work already done. In this case, your partially-edited work is simply returned to you. But retainer fees go toward more than just strict work. They also ensure the editor's availability, as well as time spent doing consultations and sample work.

3. Write. Down. Everything. If you contact your clients via e-mail, make sure you save every scrap of correspondence. If you chat with your client on an Instant Messenger service, save your transcripts. Save every voicemail, and make a log of every time you conducted business with your client over the phone. I do very little business over the phone, because verbal agreements do not amount to much, especially if you don't know the person you're doing the work for. While general consultations are fine over the phone, it is better to discuss hard business matters, such as agreements in regards to payment, etc, in writing. Especially if a client has a disagreement with you or is harassing you. You will be surprised at how many people will try to backtrack on the things they've agreed on verbally if they don't think you have a written or recorded transcript claiming otherwise. Some will even try to reneg on written agreements, but when it comes to the law, it's really hard for someone to escape their own words on paper.

 If you have just those basic things in place, it will be a lot easier for you to deal with complicated client issues. You can prevent most of these situations, however, if you have a clear business plan and do not deviate from it, not matter how nice the client seems at the time or how much money they are dangling in front of you. You will soon find out that the nicest client can turn into your worst nightmare if it turns out that the special concessions he/she has asked you to make no longer turn out to be enough and they demand more.

There will always be people who try to get something for close to nothing, who will want to barter or negotiate you away from your protocol, but remember that the decision to do such a thing always rests with you. Just make sure you have your policies organized in such a way as to protect you when that happens. Keep things simple, stick to your policies, respect and command respect for the way you choose to run your business, and you will find that life as a freelancer is not nearly as complicated as it has to be.

1 comment:

  1. That's brilliant advice and, as you said, applicable to anyone doing business on their own.

    ReplyDelete