I recently read Never Work For Free by Paul Boag and I have to say that after being an independent contractor for over five years now, I have to agree with his central premise: (almost) never work for free. I’ve fallen for the false logic of doing free work a few times in the past, and I’ve always regretted it. It can never be the basis of a good relationship with a client, because you are telling the client from the start that your services are worth nothing. They never will respect you, or value your work. As a result, they actually become the most demanding “clients” you will have, and they will never be happy with the service you provide no matter how much you do, no matter the quality of your work.
This blog post made me reflect on some of the other lessons I’ve learned over the years, and a close corollary of “never work for free” is: never do business with a client you can’t trust or who doesn’t respect you as a professional.
I’ve heard horror stories of contractors who have devoted months of work to a project and got stiffed. I’ve been fortunate in this regard, and I think one of the reasons for my good fortune is that I won’t do business with someone I feel I can’t trust. Once I was with a prospect on a sales call, everything seemed to be going well, and I was ready to close the sale. Then the prospect took a phone call and I heard him lie to the person on the other end of the phone. I saw his true character, and I saw myself someday being on the other end of a similar phone call, and I walked away from the sale.
Another prospect called me, anxious to start a new project. We were to meet at a local restaurant so I could begin to get an overview of the project to eventually provide an estimate. I waited for a half hour in the restaurant before I gave up on him. Three days later, he called me with a half-hearted apology and the non-excuse of “something came up,” but he was still supposedly interested in meeting.
Now I know things come up, and I don’t have a problem with that, but he obviously didn’t have a true emergency, so he could have let me know he wasn’t going to show up well before I started out on my way for the meeting at the restaurant. He also could have called my cell phone or the restaurant while I was waiting for him, to say he wasn’t going to make it. He certainly could have called later in the day, or evening. Two days later, with no reason given, was beyond the pale.
Obviously, if this joker wasn’t professional enough to keep a scheduled meeting, or even properly follow up with an apology for his behavior, why would I think he would be professional in any other area of his business? Why would I assume that someone like this would pay his bills? Needless to say, I declined the offer for another meeting.
In these situations, it’s hard not to get frustrated. But I’ve learned that a certain number of people you encounter in business are going to flake out on you at some point. (This seems to happen terribly often when people contact me out of the blue for work, say, through this blog!) I think the key is to spot this behavior early enough that you don’t waste too much time or effort on these people. When a prospect flakes out on me, I don’t get angry, I simply tell them that I think they should look elsewhere. I’m just too busy to waste my time on flaky people.
A few years ago, I could make a decent amount of money designing and implementing CMS backed sites for small and medium sized businesses. But over time, the margin on this type of work began to collapse. It seems that people increasingly expect you to do six months of work in under a week, and they want to pay next to nothing for it. When someone gives me a laundry list of specially customized features they want on their site, and their timeline is: “unfortunately, I need this IMMEDIATELY” my flake-o-meter goes into the red zone. This is another early warning sign of a no-win situation. Again, I try to tell them to look elsewhere, without being rude.
Yet another soul-draining experience–and a clear sign of professional disrespect–is chasing after slow payers. I have better things to do than try to convince some dead-beat to pay the bills they promised they would, after all, I have paying customers waiting for my time. I don’t get angry–I give them a second chance, and if it happens again, I stop work, try to collect full payment for the work I’ve done, and after I get it, I wish them the best, but I won’t work for them again.
Just because you’re in the business of providing a service doesn’t mean you have to go begging for work. And clients aren’t doing you a favor by hiring you. If you are good at what you do, you will have plenty of clients to keep you busy, and these clients are lucky to get YOU. Demand to be paid well for your work, and demand to be treated with respect, as a fellow professional. Your clients will be happier with you and your work if you adopt this attitude.
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