Working with clients as a freelancer can be tricky. It's unlikely you'll actually meet any of your clients in person, but instead, you'll rely on an endless stream of emails and the odd phone or Skype call to talk through your latest project. There is definitely an element of trust that needs to be built up, and thankfully 9 times out of 10 you'll have a positive experience with your client.
But what happens if you don't get paid for your work? And is it ever fair to be asked for a discount on your proposed services?
This is quite possibly every freelancer's worst nightmare, so I've got some tips on what to look out for to prevent this from happening to you.
Being promised 'exposure' in return for your work
This can be a difficult one. If you're just starting out as a freelancer, you’re in a quiet period waiting for work to come in, or wish to secure a new client, it can be really tempting to be lured into the promise of exposure if you agree to work for free. But how do we actually define 'exposure'? This could be through social media, being credited on a website, or earning a link back to your own website.
Don't fall for it.
Whether you're offering a physical product, a service or your expertise, you need to be able to cover your costs - after all, time is money and you have to make a living. According to a survey conducted by the Association for Independent Professionals and the Freelancer Club, freelancers in creative industries lose around £5,394 every year through working for no pay. Unless the client is a charity you're close to or you're comfortable helping out an start-up company for example, always be open and honest, and ask for a fee. If your prospective client doesn't agree to this, walk away. It simply isn't worth your time.
Not receiving a clear brief
Like anything, you need to know what services are required from your client well in advance so that you can charge a fair price for your work. You might need to travel or you may need to do some additional out-of-hours editing. Knowing how many hours you need to put into the project requires a clear, well-structured brief with objectives and any additional resources required to help get the job done.
Now here's the tricky part.
If your client doesn't provide this from the get-go, then realistically how are you expected to meet the objectives of the project? Before you start work on anything, ask your client to provide you with a detailed brief - the more information they include the better. And use it to create a contract before you begin any work. That way you'll protect yourself further on down the line.
It will help to create your own document that you can send to all clients before a project is agreed on and started. That way, you can ask for exactly what you need to start the work, and your client is less likely to change the goalposts by giving you a new brief; leaving you with additional work that will put you out of pocket. You also lessen the risk of your client being able to argue that you didn't fulfil their brief, as you will have everything documented in one handy place to protect yourself. As long as you can demonstrate that you met the objectives of the task, your client will have no choice but to pay you what you're owed.
It's also a great idea to have a list of key questions that you ask every client. The answers will always be different, but the questions will be relevant for every project and will enable your client to think about what they really want to achieve from your services. Feedback all of the collated information to the client before you begin, too. This will ensure you're both on the same page and will speed up the process.
Your client does a disappearing act
Now this is something I haven't personally had to face yet (thank goodness), but I do know of freelancers who have unfortunately had to deal with the stressful fall out from their client failing to reply to any emails or messages, and eventually becoming impossible to get hold of.
If this happens to you, the first thing to remember is not to panic. Difficult I know, but thankfully your rights are protected and there are routes you can go down to reclaim the money you're owed. I'd firstly suggest setting some dates for you to send out a polite reminder reminding them that payment is due. If you don't get a response from any of those, then try to call straight through to the person you've been dealing with. If this leads to a dead end, then it's time to get serious. If you're owed less than £10,000 then you can submit a claim to the Small Claims Court. You can also issue a Statutory Payment Demand, which gives the client 21 days to claim before you take the issue to Court. While this is certainly not ideal, sometimes the threat of Court action is enough to spring them into gear.
If you'd like more information on how this works, Real Business Rescue has some handy advice and tips.
Unrealistic payment terms
Some business have company policies that set out payment terms of 90 days. That means you'll be waiting for payment for around 3 months, and you might not be in a position to be missing money for that long. This just isn't fair. Plus, if anything goes wrong with the finance team (i.e. you don't get paid), everyone's memory will suddenly become pretty hazy. Trust me - I've been there and it's not fun.
When setting out the terms for a new project, ask for a payment term of 7 days. There's absolutely no reason why a client can't arrange this for you, and if they can't then again, walk away. It's really not worth the headache further on down the line.
Another HUGE tip is to ask for a deposit beforehand of around 50% - especially if this client is new. You need time to build up that trust and while they may seem perfectly pleasant on email, when it comes to payment many people flake out.
Not getting work to clients on time
This one's pretty obvious, but we can't always blame the client for everything. Bottom line; if we don't meet deadlines or let the client know that work may be a little late (you should always ask if this is okay), then it's totally fair not to be paid. We enter into a contract the minute we begin work, and missing a deadline essentially breaches that agreement. Communication is key so if you need more time, be honest about it. Chances are your client will understand and allow you a short extension.
The bottom line
The most important tip I can give is to trust your gut. If something doesn't 'feel' right or if a client isn't being reasonable about your terms then it's best to walk away. While it's annoying to miss out on new work, it should be quality over quantity every time. Building up solid relationships with clients should be your number one goal, so focus on setting out your terms early on so you can continue strengthening the relationships you already have, and creating new ones that will last. If you need some further advice on what do you if you don't get paid, visit the UK Government's website for more information on your rights and industry regulations.
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