One big challenge of running your own business is having those difficult conversations with your clients. It’s easy to get stuck in that mindset of… they’re paying you, so they’re in charge of you. But you’re your own boss now. And that means you get to set your own rules – to some degree. You do have to come to an arrangement with your client. But that comes from strong communication. And that communication is important – always. Hopefully, you’re setting boundaries before you even start the job, or the project, or the working relationship. You want to have everything outlined so it’s clear for both sides, what your expectations are, what their expectations are, and how you can best communicate with each other throughout the process.
And one of the important rules to remember is to keep emotion out of it. When we’re dealing with business, we are dealing with people – and people have emotions – but it’s important to keep that out of these conversations. When you’re discussing the more difficult and intricate parts of business, you need to come from a logical even-keeled perspective to make sure that it’s not coming across the wrong way.
A lot of times we’ll work with contracts, and that contract should list everything – it sets your rates, your office hours, where you’re working from, what the payment terms are going to be… all of those details. You want to make sure that the entire scope of the project is outlined in that contract, so both sides have a very clear understanding of what’s expected.
And I find that it’s really important to have these contracts, especially if you’re working with friends or people who you already know. It’s very easy to get stuck in that thinking like, oh, well, we know each other, we’re going to work together fine. But then something happens, and somebody doesn’t pay on time, and it causes this conflict. And that gets really tricky when there’s a friendship involved.
I love to work with my friends. I do it as much as I can, because those are already people I like and I know that I’m going to work well with. But we always establish rules and boundaries ahead of time. And I’ve even had conversations with these clients where I’ve had to say, or they’ve had to say – okay, we’re taking the friend hat off now, and now we’re putting on the business hat. We have to have a serious conversation about this one particular thing. And then it’s fine. It’s just making sure that everything is clear from both sides throughout the whole process.
If you’re in an industry that doesn’t work with contracts, which happens sometimes, my advice would be to follow up with an email that outlines everything you’ve talked about when you agree to take the job. It’s just a paper trail to help protect you in case there’s a miscommunication down the road.
In my conversation with Danny J a few weeks ago, we talked about this briefly, but I wanted to bring it up again because it is so important. I see this complaint from freelancers all time and it starts with “My clients don’t respect me. My clients don’t value me. They’re calling me at all hours of the day. They’re bugging me at night. They’re sending me constant texts. They just don’t respect my time.” I understand how that feels. I’ve been on the receiving end of that, where I’ve gotten a text from a client at nine o’clock at night and thought, that’s a little bit inappropriate. I’m not working right now. But we had never had that discussion before of what my office hours are.
Now, office hours don’t mean times when you’re literally sitting at your desk working, although it’s kind of similar. It’s just setting that expectation of… during a typical week, these are the hours that I work. So if you communicate with me during these times, you will likely get a response. If it’s after these hours, it might be delayed. I include my office hours in my contract with all of my new clients because I want to establish those boundaries from the very beginning – because I don’t always work your standard Monday through Friday 8am-5pm work schedule. I keep most of Fridays reserved for myself for my own projects. It doesn’t mean that I won’t work during those times, but I want my clients to understand that it’s best for them to communicate with me during those other times that I’ve already established. Because if they don’t know that, I can’t get annoyed if they text me outside of those hours.
When you’re working as a freelancer or an independent contractor, you set your own hours. If a client wants to dictate your hours and location for you, they have to hire you as an employee. So don’t be afraid to push back or try to establish things that work more for your schedule. I mentioned location because that’s one that comes up a lot, where sometimes the client wants you to go to their office to do your work. Sometimes you might like that, but if you’re like me, I don’t. I don’t work as well in another office. Plus, it takes me extra time. So I actually charge people more if I have to go to their office to work. Sometimes I met with resistance about that, but I explain why it is that way.
If I have to go to a place, I have to spend extra time getting ready, getting there and back… and then when I’m there, I have to be focused 100% on that client, which sometimes they want. But part of my flexibility in offering rates and different things comes from the fact that I can work with a lot of different clients at the same time, I can prioritize and juggle my schedule around as needed. If I’m at a physical location, working with one client, that’s extra work that I can’t be doing for anybody else. And that comes at a premium cost. Sometimes they just don’t know, or they don’t realize just because they work better in their office and they think it’ll be easier if you’re sitting right next to them. That doesn’t always mean that’s the way it works. Sometimes you have to kind of politely educate them and give them the opportunity to learn a different way of doing things.
Something else to consider is communication style, because we all have different preferences. Some people love to talk on the phone, others are text only, some people only want to deal with email – that can get really complicated when your style and your client’s style are not the same. So sometimes there has to be a compromise. It might be a simple solution, where if there’s something that requires a lot of conversation, you have that conversation on the phone. But if you just have a quick question, send it via text or via email. You just have to talk to each other to make sure nobody is resenting the other for not doing things the way they want them done – especially when they don’t know how they want things done.
It’s okay to push back against your client. You do want to remember though, that they’re paying you, so you want to be very respectful in the way that you handle it. One area where I recommend just going with whatever they want is when it comes to accounting. You want to make it easy for them to pay you. So if they want separate invoices for different things… maybe that takes a little extra work on your part and you don’t want to do things that way. It’d be easier if you could just send everything on one invoice. But if that’s what their accounting department needs, make it easier on them. You want to get paid. Don’t push back on that one. That’s just my advice.
If they aren’t paying you, that’s a problem too. And that’s a big one. And it’s one that sometimes people have a hard time bringing up because it is hard to talk about money sometimes. But you provide a service, and that service is valuable. You already have an agreement about what you’ll do and what they’ll pay. So if you’ve done the work, they owe you the money. You don’t have to be afraid to ask for it. You want to be respectful, as always. Give them that grace period – if terms are net 30, you don’t necessarily want to start hounding them on day 31. But when you do follow up, do it in a friendly manner. You’re going to get better results if you’re nice to people than if you just start yelling at them. You might be validated in the fact that you deserve that money – you’re owed it, and they’re late. But the way that you approach it with people can make a big difference, too, because they’re not going to go out of their way to help you if you’re mean to them. That’s just not how people work.
It’s great when you can get paid up front for your work. Or if you can at least get a deposit to cover your time up to a certain point. That’s not always possible though – depending on the nature of the business, sometimes you can’t invoice until the job is done. But if they’re late, and they’re asking for more work, or they haven’t made that next installment that’s due, it’s okay to have a conversation and tell them you can’t do any more work until that past due balance is cleared. Sometimes they don’t know. Sometimes there are a lot of different people in a department, and the person you’re working with directly might not be responsible for your payment, so they don’t know it’s late. But they can then talk to that person and say, “Hey, I need this work done. You really need to pay that invoice.” Again. It’s really all about how you talk to people that makes the biggest difference. And not to be afraid of having these money conversations because you worked hard for that money, and you deserve it. But don’t assume the worst of people and think they’re trying to pull one over on you if they haven’t paid you yet. There are all kinds of reasons why that might be happening.
There’s another thing you might have heard of called scope creep. And this is when you have an agreement based on certain parameters and then the client keeps adding more, and adding more, but they don’t want to pay anymore. They might want to change work you’ve already done. They start nitpicking little details. They want to increase a little bit more. And, “Can you do this one other thing?” and, “Hey, would you mind doing this?” And before you know it, you’re spending way more time than what you agreed upon. That’s another time you have to have one of those conversations. Remind them, politely, what your agreement is. Say you’d be happy to help them with these other things. “Here’s the rate for that” or “Let’s talk about the rate for this additional work you’re asking for.” Sometimes, again, they don’t realize how demanding they’re being. They’re not looking at it through the same lens that you are. They think, “Oh, this person is great. She’s willing to help me. I’m gonna ask her if she can help me with this thing, too.”
I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. Just because they’re asking for more, it doesn’t mean that they’re disrespectful. It doesn’t mean that they don’t value you. It doesn’t mean that they’re trying to take advantage of you. They might be looking at it from a completely different perspective than you are, where you’re taking things personally, but they don’t mean it that way. Sometimes you’re just really good at what you do, so they want to ask you to do more – because it makes them look good, and it makes their lives easier. But if you don’t talk to them about it and let them know when they’ve stepped over one of those boundaries, they don’t know to do anything differently.
Sometimes you can find that perfect compromise. Other times, you have to walk away. You can make that decision based on what’s important to you. But if you feel that your client is constantly abusing you, or disrespecting your boundaries, why would you want to work with that client in the first place? Is the money really worth it? Is there some kind of status that comes along with working with that client that’s more important to you than your own mental health? If it doesn’t feel right to you, and you’re not happy… you’re dreading doing that work all the time… have the courage to walk away. You can tell them “I’m sorry, I’m just not the right fit for you.” or “I’m just not the right fit for this project.” Don’t waste their time, and your time, if you know that your working styles just aren’t compatible. There are plenty of people out there who can work with them. And that frees up your time to work with somebody that’s a better fit for you.
When it comes to taking a job in the first place, it’s easy to say, “I need to take this because I need the money.” But let me tell you one thing that’s happened in my experience – and I’ve talked to a number of people in different industries for many years about this phenomenon, and it seems to be universal. The people with the lowest budgets tend to be the most demanding and unreasonable. People who are paying full price, or paying your higher rate… those tend to be a dream to work with. They don’t nitpick every little thing. But for some reason, the ones who are super focused on every little penny and want to know where it’s going… they’re going to make your life miserable.
So while you’re mulling it over, think about how much it will cost you to take that job. How much stress are you going to be under knowing that you’re doing all this work for that little pay? How much time is that taking away from opportunities to work with other people who will pay you more, and you’ll align with much better, and have more fun working with? There are different types of cost, and taking a job just for the money isn’t always going to help you as much as you think.
No matter what you decide to do, please don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, to charge what you’re worth, to value your own time as much as you value the time of others, and have the courage to have these difficult conversations with your clients. Communication is so important in everything we do. So if you learn to do it effectively, you’re going to be much happier and you can focus on the more fun parts of your business.