Best Practices/Worst Clients
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Editor-Client Relationships
Forum organized by David Couzens
South Bay Forum Notes by Karen Horwitz
July 15, 2008
In July, South Bay members, mainly freelancers, engaged in a roundtable discussion on how to proactively avoid and reactively deal with difficult client situations.
Establishing the scope and terms of a project, clearly and precisely, helps to avoid miscommunication and provides freelancers with documentation when problems do occur. Most attendees said they do not use formal contracts but do obtain agreement from the client in writing, usually by e-mail. The amount of detail in a written agreement varies based on the type of project and type of client.
(1) setting rates and deadlines contingent on the project being within the agreed scope
(2) specifying in advance that the estimate will be revised if any of the project parameters change.
Talk with the client directly to set expectations, even if you are a subcontractor. To scope an editing project, ask the client for a representative sample from the middle of the project. Other questions for the client might include the following:
- When will the material be delivered for editing?
- In what format will the material be delivered (for example, MS Word, PDF, FrameMaker)? For Word documents, will the document be saved in a format that is compatible with your current software?
- How will the material be delivered (for example, e-mail, CD-ROM, flash drive)?
- What is the page count? Is the client using a standard 250 words per page?
- How many rounds of editing are expected (that is, how many times will you send feedback to the authors and get back a new version to edit)?
When setting deadlines, consider specifying "business days" so that the client doesn't assume you are working over weekends or holidays. Also, consider specifying an exact time of day (for example, is it due at 5 p.m. or 10 p.m.?). Attendees recommended specifying their own turnaround times based on the project parameters and specifying fees in the written agreement that will be invoiced if the client needs you to expedite the project or changes the project scope or deadlines. California labor laws can be useful guidelines in deciding how much to charge for "overtime" hours.
If a client is eager to get started but has trouble scoping out the project, provide your best estimate based on what you know and also provide a "not to exceed" number that gives you a cushion (attendees recommended 10% to 50% over the project estimate) and that gives the client a number to use on the purchase order. For large, loosely scoped projects, attendees recommended giving the client a status report at the halfway point in the project to let the client know how much work is left to finish and to reaffirm project deadlines and budget.
Laura Singer has written an article describing how she estimates editing projects. With her permission, we have posted it.
Some clients will ask freelancers to sign their standard contracts, including nondisclosure agreements. If a client requires something in the contract that seems unreasonable or irrelevant for the work that you are doing (for example, business liability insurance, or excessively large auto liability insurance), talk with the client's lawyer to discuss your concerns. Sometimes the lawyer will be willing to strike the language from the contract.
For more information about negotiating contracts or setting fees, attendees recommended the Rate Survey and the notes from the May 22, 2007 BAEF meeting on contract negotiations. Boilerplate contracts are also available on various editing sites.
Make sure you have a billing number (PO number, reference number), especially when working with large companies, so that you can get paid even if your original contact leaves the company. Also, consider setting up direct deposit to facilitate payment. Contact the firm's accounts payable department if you are unable to resolve billing issues through your usual contact.
If you plan to charge late fees, specify in the written agreement what the charge is. Be clear about what is considered late (for example, must be paid within 30 days from the invoice date). Also, put this information prominently on the invoice.
It is OK to send periodic invoices throughout the project if you are working on a long project or working with a client that has a long review cycle. Typically the frequency of invoices will depend on how much money is involved. If you don't know the client directly, consider requiring 50 percent payment up front as a deposit before starting any work. If the client does not pay, it is an indication that seriousness is lacking.
If a reliable client stops paying, talk with the client. There may be something going on that has nothing to do with you. If the situation seems uncertain, consider stopping work until the client can start paying you again. One attendee continued working for a client who was up front with her about their need to delay payments for a period of time. When the client had money again, not only did she get paid, but she also got a bonus and a raise in her hourly rate.
A few attendees shared stories about clients that systematically cheated dozens of freelancers out of thousands of dollars. (We have names if you want them!). While it isn't always possible to get paid by such clients, attendees have had some success by going to the client's office or taking the client to court. Small claims court has a $5000 limit and may be most useful when suing larger companies because neither party can have an attorney. Usually corporate executives would rather settle than have to show up in court, and if they don't show up, you win the judgment. Remember: If you are subcontracting, you may not be able to sue the client directly if something goes wrong, so be sure that the person you are working for has good client-management skills.
Of course, the best way to handle worst-case scenarios is to avoid them. Attendees noted that the American Society of Journalists and Authors lists deadbeat employers in their publication. If someone doesn't seem on the level, doesn't seem professional, doesn't seem to understand how much work is involved in a project, or just seems kind of crazy, just say "no." At our next South Bay meeting, we'll talk about how to find good clients.