How I Helped a Client Screw Me

Freelancing is not for the faint of heart. And if you ever wanted a fast-track education in business and human behavior, become a freelancer.
There are a lot of free resources out there to help freelancers of all flavors, but there is one thing that they cannot do for you, and that’s cover. your. ass.

Last November I was referred to a new client and I was so excited! It was going to be my second paying job. So I drafted a proposal, chatted back and forth with the client and answered all their questions. I sent the proposal that I thought was clear about the cost, payment terms, and scope.

So here I am, four months later, trying to collect my final payment for project completion. Naturally, they want to dispute the final invoice. I had written this project to use their $1000 budget; not a large project, mind you. I presented it as value-based pricing (now I realize it was actually a fixed bid); but because I did not come straight out and say, “This entire thing is going to be $1000,” they assumed I was going to charge hourly. Unfortunately, since I was shy about talking about money, the terms did not come out as clear as I thought they were. And it didn’t raise a red flag to me when after I sent the proposal, the client asked about my hourly rate and how long it would take.

Now I am out a couple hundred dollars because of poor contract writing. No, actually, I did not have a contract at all. All I had was the project proposal. There were no signatures. It was basically, “The proposal looks good, board approves, lets do this!” And of course, being a complete noob, I was hung-ho. They found and exploited every last loophole that I left gaping in my proposal. The fact that I didn’t have a contract was a big enough loophole in and of itself.

I also declined a new contract this week. I met with a potential client, worked out a few ideas for their project and everything seemed dandy – they even agreed to meet in a public place! This client seemed to want to base the agreement off of a literal hand-shake. When I asked for an agreement or contract, and they seemed a little taken back. But they got it to me that Friday. I had just been burnt literally the same day from the other client, so I wanted someone to check it out for me. I couldn’t get it turned around with signatures until Monday because of the weekend. When I finally got it to them on Monday, they seemed upset that it took so long and further taken back that I had someone look at it. Granted, I should have told them I was going to get someone to look at it. But upon talking it over with my spouse, decided to decline the contract.

What have I learned this week (it’s only Wednesday)?

  • Be incredibly explicit talking about money*. I know it’s awkward, especially the first few times. It will leave an opening for people to try to dicker after the fact if you don’t.
  • If you’re doing the work, you should get paid. You have an obligation to yourself to make sure you are paid for your work.
  • Your proposal is not your contract!
  • If having a contract “scares off” a potential client, or they don’t want a contract, you are better off without them as your client.
  • You shouldn’t have to ask for a contract, it should be offered or you should have one ready.
  • If they don’t want someone else looking at the contract, you don’t want the contract (but let them know that’s what you’re doing in case there is a delay).

*Honestly, be incredibly explicit when talking about everything to avoid confusion as much as loopholes.

You are the only one looking out for you, so have your ducks in a row and don’t be scared of having a great contract that protects both parties!

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