Monday, September 29, 2008

Business Terms: Are They Ever Personal?

Just recently I got an email from a client that I hadn't heard from in a while. I'd done some bulk work with them a while back, where I'd provided ten or twelve articles a month for two or three months. The work trickled out and the client and I parted ways, but just recently he got back in touch with a one-time article writing project. Following my normal business procedure, I sent over a contract defining the length of the pieces, price, and payment schedule. That's when the trouble started.

The client wrote back saying he was offended to be asked for a 50% deposit upfront, because he believed we were past the "initial stage" of doing business together. He also "refused" to define a length for the articles, saying he wanted them to be whatever length was needed to give a thorough accounting of the topic. He felt I was treating him like a first-time client and wasn't giving him the freedom he needed to get the articles just right.

This gave me pause, even though I've worked with this client before with nary a problem. For me, business terms are never personal; they're just the conditions under which I do business.

However, I do work without a deposit sometimes--only for clients I have a history with who are ordering regular amounts of work each month. A few of my clients use me as a "go-to" writer and will ask me for random work--sometimes small, sometimes quite large--consistently throughout the month. Sometimes I'll do 20 or more small projects for a single client in a month. In these cases, it's onerous to the client to have to contract and pay 50% up front for each project, and they sometimes can't predict what they need at the beginning of the month so I can't charge them up front for everything at once. When this happens, I draw up a general contract and bill at the end of the month. This client was operating on a contract like this, because for a while he was a regular. But once he returned for a single one-off project, I billed him under my typical single-project business terms--50% up front.

I would have considered waiving that requirement for him if it had been the only issue. However, the fact that he didn't want the length of the articles defined really bothered me. The thing was, I was perfectly willing to write with no consideration to length--and told him so. But if there's no limit on length, there can't be a limit on price either--and he wasn't satisfied with that arrangement. Ultimately, it seemed he wanted to contract for a longer work and pay the price for a shorter one.

Unfortunately, this client and I couldn't see eye-to-eye and parted ways. This can happen, even for regulars you think you know well. Very rarely, I've had a prospective client tell me he feels a deposit isn't a "friendly" way of doing business or it indicates mistrust, but I'm not in this business to make friends. I'm here to make money, and I tend to resist people trying to control me by telling me I'm not being nice. Nice girls don't make waves or stand up for themselves. Professional women do.


Anonymous said...

Good for you! It's ridiculous for clients to assume that just because we are freelance writers we don't take our business seriously. Business is business.

I had a client once who often talked about being a multi-millionnaire (he was in real estate investments and had written a book about building wealth in his defense). He tried to nickel and dime me at every turn. And he gave me very vague instructions of what he wanted - even when I tried to ask specific questions. Things were really becoming stressful, so I politely excused myself from the situation.

Sounds to me like the client already knew how you handled your business when he contacted you. What was he complaining about? How disrespectful.

Jennifer Williamson said...

It's funny--whenever clients mention how much money they're making or how big their business is, it's a warning sign. It means they're trying to get you to reduce costs by dangling lucrative future projects in front of your nose. Real big-budget clients don't have to talk so big.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear you stuck firm on the terms and pricing, Jennifer. I can see the deposit rankling a long-time client. If, as you said, it was all that stood in the way of a deal, I probably would have just let it slide too. But the client refusing to nail down the length of the project smacks of something shady in the works. One red flag, maybe you let it go. Two, and it's time to sit up and pay attention.

I'm working with a client right now who's driving me a little nuts. When we first met, they tried to hire me full time. I was hesitant, suggesting that we do some freelance projects for a while to get a feel for one another before talking marriage. So far they've loved my work, but now it turns out that they don't have nearly as much to spend every month as they initially let on. Perhaps it's the failing economy, but it made me wonder; if this is all the money they have, what made them think they could afford me full time?

As belts tighten everywhere, I expect we'll have to put up with even more penny-pinching. Sure, we're all lucky to have the work, but I hope most writers will remember that cutting the customer too many breaks can ultimately be bad for business, and something you regret when times are fat again.

Jennifer Williamson said...

I agree that if it had been the only thing, I would have let it go--probably not for someone I'd just met, but definitely for someone I'd worked with before. It's unfortunate to lose a client over a technicality. It seemed to come out of the blue, too--I've done a 50% deposit with this person before and he'd never mentioned a problem with it. Thinking about it later, I'd started to suspect that there may have been more to it--he may have been having second thoughts about the project for some reason unknown to me--like maybe his budget wasn't as big as he'd thought, but he didn't want to admit it. Who knows.

Unknown said...

I would've said, "I'm okay with that if you're okay with a per-word rate." Why should you be the only one conceding on things?

I had a similar situation. The client flat-out refused to sign a contract, yet wouldn't tell me how much of the per-word articles he would use. That's just absurd.

I totally agree with you on the noise they make about how well they're doing. That's either the beginning of their trying to lowball you or the signal that this is a bargain shopper. Either way, NEXT!

Kimberly Ben said...

"Real big-budget clients don't have to talk so big."

Jennifer, you said a mouthful!:)

Anonymous said...

I am going through the exact problem right now as we speak! The fact of the matter is, you really can't trust anyone, whether it is the client or the freelancer, especially when you are doing work online.

I suggest using escrow services, Tell people that it is a well established company that is registered with the Better Business Bureau. Tell people you use these services to prevent fraud to protect yourself and the client.

If a person refuses, they were full of crap anyway. I have had many "clients" who refused to use escrow services because they knew they weren't interested in paying me anyway. People love scamming writer. Be careful.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Lori--I did say something similar and originally worked a payment scale based on length into the contract. The problem was, I wasn't limiting length--I was defining length and payment, and the client saw that as "limiting." A bad sign--you can't have lower prices without making some concessions.

@Avid: It's true! I just had another client tell me they were prepared to spend over $100,000 in the first six months of marketing their new business, then balk at my web writing fee (which is far from the highest out there). It's a rule you can live by.

@Copywriters: I disagree. I do think the majority of clients and providers are trustworthy, even on the Internet. For every bad egg I've worked with, there have been ten or twenty honest and aboveboard clients. But it's those few who make it necessary for both clients and providers to protect themselves and be vigilant about terms.

Anonymous said...

You dodged a bullet, there, babe, and be grateful.

50% deposit up front isn't a sign of mistrust. It's keeping steady money coming during the duration of the project, since freelancers don't have weekly paychecks, yet still have calendar dates when bills are due.

Not specifying length of article reeks to the skies in my opinion -- if you have no idea what you need, you're not in a position to hire. Think about it some more, and hire when you've got your concepts figured out.

Because hiring ME to conceptualize for you is going to be an additional fee.

It's always jarring to part ways with a client, but, in this respect, I think it's for the best.

Anonymous said...

I have a client who asked me to write an article on spec. I normally don't do that, but thought it was a good market and I wanted to the clip for this specific topic. A month later I write to ask what the status is. Turns out they're using it, it's in production, and "I'll send you a copy". Not one word on compensation, not to mention no one showed me the final proof. That really bothers me since I heavily relied on a source and quotes. I would have liked to have fact checked it at least after seeing their edited version.

I very politely told her I was happy to hear it was running, but we needed to discuss compensation and that it was something they should have contacted me about upfront.

We'll see what they say... it's irritating and makes me feel kind of taken advantage of. But I'm trying to make the best of it.

Anonymous said...

Susan -- even when you write on spec, make sure you have contract terms in writing BEFORE you submit the article -- it saves a lot of hassle. I've also learned the hard way to add a clause that limits how long they can hold an article for the "pay on publication" terms after a publication held my work for over a year before publishing it, yet wouldn't update me on the article's status. They paid, but it was something i could have sold and gotten paid for within three months elsewhere.

And it looks, more and more, like we're going to have to start adding fact-check clauses to article contracts, since so many publications have ditched fact checkers, and now publish and edit without fact checking.

Live and learn, right?

Anonymous said...

The article was great. The sentiments on target. The best part was the last pair of sentences. It's something I've been telling my daughter for months. Go girl!