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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Unreliable Redux

Yep, still sporting a bit of a head of steam over the nonpayment from a select few clients. For the record, I have a number of current clients who pay me on time and who get the best I can give them every time because of it. I have one client with whom I'm ghostwriting a book. He's terrific. Very on-the-ball, very much fun to work with and he's paid invoices on time and without complaint. I'm his biggest fan next to his family. Another client is a magazine that gives me tons of work and pays me within two weeks of my handing in the assignments, despite their contention that they pay on publication. Another company is patient with me as I slog through more work than either of us had expected their project to be, but they paid my first two invoices very promptly and they're easygoing and they communicate well with me. Amen.

Then there are those others. After years of being burned, I've modified both my contracts and invoices to reflect exactly what's expected - payment within 15 days to avoid late fees. And late fees get tacked on. Not that I've ever had anyone pay a late fee - those who ignore your bill also ignore the late fees - but it's there should it come down to litigation. And I'm related to an attorney, so I've been tutored on what needs to be done and when.

It's through my experience that I hope all of you reading will learn. Here's the system I have in place - I have an airtight contract spelling out payment terms (thanks to the last project that went on for eleven months without payment). I have an invoice that reminds the recipients of when the money is due, when the late fee will be assessed and how to pay me online should they want to. I also follow up. I check in after 30 days to make sure they've received the invoice and I resend a new one with late fees added on. After three months, we mention litigation. After four, we litigate. Luckily, the mere threat of it has sent folks for the checkbooks, but if you're in business, you have to get tough with non-payers. It's been a tough lesson for me (what after that six-month fiasco a few years back). I'm normally a bit more passive than that, but I started thinking of this in terms of property of mine in someone else's possession.

So, I say to you that if you adopt a system of collection early, you'll be much better off in the long run. No, I doubt any of this will prevent the non-payers from ignoring you, but if you put steps in place now, you come off as more professional and folks might be less likely to ignore your invoices in the future if they see what a hassle it is to do so. Also, leaving a consistent paper trail helps immensely if you're ever faced with filing suit against someone. I hope you never have to.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Relying on the Unreliable
There's one huge obstacle that is a constant threat to your freelance success - your clients.

Strange, but true. The very folks who give you work and who rave about you to others are also the ones who don't pay you on time (and in a few rare cases, not at all) and who drag out the process and the payment and create stress on your relationship. In my current situation, I'm worth a good deal of cash. On paper. The contracts are completed or nearly completed, yet here I sit wondering how I'm paying the bills this month. Why? Because a few of my clients have ignored the invoice or delayed payment on it.

From one client I billed two months ago: after waiting 29 days receive payment, I get a note asking for my SS# so she can pay me. That's all it said. I sent that and inquired as to when I might expect payment. A week goes by and the response: "by the end of the month." Uh, which month exactly?

From another client I billed recently: "I'm having some cash flow problems, but I promise to send something right away. Meanwhile, I have some more work for you." Can you guess how eager I am to take that additional work from an already unreliable source of revenue?

One client was billed in May a few years back. I contacted him once a month regarding payment, adding late fees to my bills. It wasn't until I threatened litigation in October that he called and put on the shocked-and-dismayed act: he said, "Lori, what's the problem?" I said, "Dude (not using his real name), you haven't paid me." He then claimed to have never received an invoice, when all his prior emails, including the one in August that promised the check was just sent, proved otherwise. Whatever. Just pay the freakin' bill. He did, but not the late fee. Fine. Whatever. Don't call me; I'll call you, pal.

Yes, I have many terrific clients who pay on time and without argument. To them, I give both my thanks and my best work. I'm a faithful worker bee if treated with respect. To the others - save your breath and my time. If you think it's okay to let my bill lapse for three months or more, lawyer up. In my business, that's my paycheck and I need it as badly as you avoid it. Oh, and for the love of all that's intelligent, please don't think your complaints about your own cash-flow problems means a hill of beans to someone who's worked her tail off under contract for you. You knew going in (and you signed to that fact) that once we were done, you would owe me my fee. If your boss were to decide that your paycheck was an afterthought, you'd feel the same way.

At the moment, I'm looking for full-time work. Why? See above. I have tons of work and I have some very good clients. However, a few bad ones have caused me to drain my bank account in an attempt to pay the bills while they wait for a time when they feel like paying. It's unfair, but I suspect there's not much any writer facing this situation can do beyond threatening litigation (and frankly, who likes doing that?) and supplementing the income to cover for the lean times.

As you consider your freelance career, consider just how tough your resolve is. You must have an iron-clad collection plan alongside your business plan. You have to be willing to lose clients and possibly a little money in the process in order to protect your bottom line. And you have to understand just how often this happens. I would love to say that one or two defaulted clients in a career is all you'll see, but I'd be lying through my teeth. It's more like one or two a year. While I may be searching for alternative, more traditional ways to make ends meet, that doesn't mean freelancing is not a good career. It is. You just have to plan for unreliable clients and hope they don't come in multiples. Trust me - when they do, it's damn tough to stay afloat.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Where is Fair?

Echoing yesterday's theme, just where should you set your rate? How high is too high? How low is too low? Oddly, it's not all that tough to figure out.

Let me start with an example from personal experience. I had this client who needed a website revision. I gave him a price - a low one - and he balked. Instead of losing the client, I countered. Fine so far, right? Not really. See, my rate was already so doggone low that it would cost me more to get up in the morning and work on his project than it would to just stay in bed. But, knowing that his business could very well take off and I could be handed more work, I did it.

In the end, his budget was so tight that I only wrote one page of his site - for $100. I'm not ashamed of telling you this because you're going to make a similar mistake. Okay, I am ashamed, but I figure I'm in good company. ;) So I bid the client adieu and we parted on good terms.

Then came his referral. Great! At least I was getting some work out of it. He'd sent a relative to me, so he was certainly happy with what I'd done for him. I was giddy at the thought of getting more referrals from this one, low-paying job. What a way to recoup!

My personal celebration quickly came to a screeching halt. Oh, his relative wanted a full-out website written, but because I'd worked so cheaply for the original client, there was no way this relative was taking any rate higher than, you guessed it, that original $100. I had to turn the job down. Two weeks worth of work for $100? McDonald's pays more! I was polite and professional - and discouraged.

Upon examining the situation, I realized that the problem was with my accepting the first counter offer. While this client was fabulous and while he loved my work, he also referred me and tacked on somewhere in the conversation "she's cheap and good." (Just the image my mother would want me toting around, I'm sure.)

My rate is now $100 an hour. I no longer get clients like that neat guy who paid me the $100 to write that page. But you know what? The moment I started advertising a higher rate, I began getting more clients. Better-paying clients, for sure. But now instead of working for peanuts, I'm working for corporations.

So here's your lesson for today - if you want to make more money, set your rates higher. Here's an easy test of your rates - too low is when clients regularly argue with you about the price. Too high is when even the corporate entities can't afford you. Ask other writers on forums such as About Freelance Writing to share what they charge (and they will). Look at market guides to see what the high, low and average rates are. Keep in mind where you live - if you're in Casper, Wyoming, you probably couldn't charge clients in that area the same price as say a writer working in Manhattan. While most jobs I have taken are not in my immediate area, I do structure my fees lower for areas of the country that do not have the same cost-of-living as where I am. But be smart about it. You're still living in that area. If the price you settle on is lower than it would take to work at McDonald's, either go higher or put on that apron and get grilling.

Cheap begets cheap. Don't underestimate your worth. Otherwise, you'll be stuck in the vortex of low-paying clients who have friends who need a cheap writer. Is that the image you really want to hang on to?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Asking for the Raise
Does anyone have an easy time asking the boss for a raise? As freelancers, we think we can avoid it because hey, we're self employed! Ha. Self-employment is an illusion under which we work. No, dear writers. Whenever we want a raise, we are very much employees, but our boss is now many bosses.

In a recent discussion, a writer lamented the fact that her rate hike, which still wasn't high enough for her skill level, was objected to by her best client. He thought it was "steep." So when you raise your rates and your clients object, what are your options?

First, accept that you are allowed a fighting wage. Mind you, if you're charging $500 an hour to write advertising copy, then the problem lies clearly with your expectations. But if you raise your rates $10 or even $15 an hour after years of being at the same level, that shouldn't cause such alarm in a client. Yes, the client may not expect it or even believe that you deserve it, but this is one client out of many you will have in your career. Sometimes the client in front of you is there because he cannot afford another writer's rate. Sometimes we outgrow each other in that respect. But I've found from personal experience that the moment I set my rates to compete with other top freelancers, the client base changed and the work increased.

That's not to say you shouldn't forget about those clients who have been loyal to you throughout the tough times. Kristen King says to offer an ongoing discount to regular customers, and to offer it at a rate slightly more than your old rate but less than your new rate. Great advice, as always! If your client still objects, you must then make the choice between continuing at the current rate or dropping the client. I would suggest another option - try renegotiating with the client. "Okay, I'll keep this rate for you for another six months, but after that, I really must raise it in order to make my overhead." Phrase it as a business person trying to remain in business. It gets much more notice than, "Well gee, I deserve a raise because I'm underpaid as a writer anyway." No. It's about business. Your business. Your client's concerns are considered, but in the end you must conduct business as a professional.

And that's the thing you should understand. You're not just a writer. You're a business entrepreneur. Your overhead must be met, just like any other business. As writers, we often diminish our own talents and worth because our overhead is less visible than say a storefront on Main Street. But it's there, and it still needs to be compensated for. Your electric bill may not come in as "Jane Doe Freelancing", but that you deduct a portion of the electric bill from your taxes means that yes, you had to pay it as a business expense. Please start thinking that way.

Meanwhile, it wouldn't hurt to sit down now and map out your current income versus your expenses. What will it take for you to survive and maintain a decent profit? If you see a gap in the numbers, adjust accordingly. Figure your new rate, and then in November, mail out notices to your current clients that beginning January 1, you'll be raising your rates. And offer to get some projects done now under your old rate structure. It's an added courtesy to them, and it helps you to maintain a solid working relationship with those who have been the foundation of your business.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Like Yesterday

I was fine until a few moments ago, while listening to the radio, the station played U2's "Peace on Earth" behind comments from people who were there that day. They described seeing the second plane hit, or they described seeing people jumping from either of the towers. They described all the emotion and all the anguish of families looking for loved ones, or of friends who didn't come out. I sobbed. I sobbed as I did the day it happened. And then, when I heard the voice of the President describing the reason for the attacks being our freedom, I was angry. That's too pat an answer, sir. It's also a lie to tell us that there was no forewarning - there was. The tune changed shortly after the words were spoken. So what are we to believe?

I suppose, five years later, it's not uncommon to point the finger of blame and to get angry at all that has transpired (and frankly, hasn't transpired) since that day. So allow me that, please. Allow too that we want answers. We want honest responses to what you knew, what you didn't know, and what you're doing to make sure it won't happen again. And please, don't point to the "war on terror" as proof of what you've done. I want real action - how much of our foreign policy has been re-examined? How much of what kind of controls we have in other countries have been considered as possible causes? What have we done to try to understand other cultures and respect that they are not like us, nor should they be? Has anyone at all listened to the underlying message? If so, what are you doing about it? And how exactly are you going to stop another country or faction from getting just as angry if you're still operating "business as usual"?

People don't just wake up one day and say, "Hey, I think this is a good time to start terrorizing the US." There's a reason (or more than one reason) why it happened. In all this post-9/11 planning and strategizing, has anyone at all listened to the message for the reasons?

In my most basic of PR and Communication classes, I was taught to ignore the emotion and the action and get to the point - the message. You cannot effect change successfully without finding out what the hell the other side wants. Yes, they're terrorists. Yes, they are guilty of killing thousands. No, I'm not advocating negotiating with terrorists. But before, during and after they became terrorists, they had concerns - concerns that were not heard.

Perhaps it's not a good time for me to be writing about this. But perhaps tomorrow, the message won't be heard. My guess is it won't be heard today, either. Until we have leadership's ear - you know, that leadership that is supposed to be working FOR us, not against us - things will remain status quo. And God help us if it does.

Friday, September 08, 2006

But What About Her JOB?
Warning - rant ahead.

They're bashing Katie Couric again. Awful. Boring. Dowdy. Oh no, they don't mean her ability to perform in her new job. No, no. It would seem in that department, she did just fine. No, they're talking about her wardrobe. That's right, folks. The critics, who never opened their mouths at the wide lapels or the ancient haircut that her predecessor wore are most concerned with Katie Couric's attire.

Could someone please tell me how her choice of clothing has any bearing on her reporting the news on Iraq, the election season and the news that suspected terrorists are being subjected to "alternative methods" of questioning by our government? Is it really relevant that while Katie Couric was delivering the dire news, she was doing so wearing what appeared to be a black or navy blue top under a white blazer? Are there really people out there who still believe white can't be worn after Labor Day? Is that what this is all about? No? Then you explain the obsession the world has with what this woman, or any woman in a position of power, is wearing is all about. Did anyone jump on Dan Rather for having that same nasty haircut for decades? Does anyone notice that the Monday Night Football cronies (now the NBC Football cronies) are ancient and prattle on endlessly about the same thing week after week? No? Is it because they are men and men are allowed to express opinions, or is it because we expect them to get old and to sound like men trying to remain young?

This criticism of Katie's clothing was heaped on top of a prior insult - the airbrushing of her healthy figure to make her look slimmer and younger. If we're that obsessed with youth, can someone, anyone, please spackle Ted Koppel's face? Howdy Doody has lost his youthful glow. I hate to sound bitter, but it's very difficult to sit by and watch the double standard flaunted so shamelessly. Women of all ages and shapes are beautiful. They don't have to be stick thin or wrinkle free to perform their jobs effectively. Just tell Barbara Walters that she's going to have to have that facelift or her job is on the line. If she has the kind of tenacity I suspect she has, the lawsuit would be filed instantly. For when was the last time a man's job was criticized because he wasn't "pretty" enough?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Should I Pay or Should I Go?
Raise of hands, please - how many of you have considered or even plunked down hard cash to "join" one of those job sites? Really? That many? I'd count, but my hand is up, too.

It's long been debated amongst us freelance types whether it's worth it to pay for membership in a job board. Do you really get what you pay for? And what exactly is the measurement of a good site versus a bad one? When, and how, do you justify paying for job listings?

Here's my take on it - if you're new to freelancing and you don't mind working for lower-than-average rates, go for it. I'm not saying these sites don't offer some high-paying jobs. I'm saying that on average, your typical job posting site isn't going to give you the type of gig that will keep you and your family in an upper-class neighborhood.

That's because the typical posting on any of these sites is from an employer/client who wants to get a project done fast and for as little as possible. In fact, it's not uncommon at all (all too common, sadly) to see job postings offer the dreaded "50 articles for $4" employment opportunity.

It was one of these postings that turned me from my opinion that some job boards are worth the money. I had searched for projects and turned up about ten of these "offers" in a row. I decided to write to the company and ask them to please rethink their position on posting what was obviously a crap offer. Oh, I called them spam, but they're crap, let's face it. The company's response was diplomatic, but it soured me. "While we understand your frustration, we have a nondiscriminatory policy. The fact that some writers do bid on these offers warrants our continuing to accept them for posting." Translation: If they pay for the ad, they get the space. Period. It was that day that I let my $75 subscription to this "exclusive" site expire. I also vowed to no longer pay to get work. I really don't see other professionals forced to do this - why should I?

That said, I'm a few notches up the food chain from some writers. I've paid my dues and hopefully I won't need to take the 5-cents-a-word jobs just to build a resume. The resume's been built, and the road's been paved for quite some time now. However, some of you are where I was back when I joined that site. You want work. You want paying work. You don't care if it's less-per-hour than you should be getting. It's a check and a line item on the resume.

To you, I say go for it. But please, be smart about it. By now you know crap when you see it. You know that "exposure" means your work won't see the light of day anymore than you'll see a check. So choose carefully. Avoid those sites with open-bidding setups - that's a recipe for disaster. It's like a feeding frenzy - she can do it for $50! No wait, he can do it for $5! There's no way to win at that game. Unless, of course, you're the employer.

Stick with a site that offers closed bidding or better yet offers links to work you wouldn't know about otherwise. Watch carefully your membership dollars versus your income generated from the site. If you've made up that fee in one job, amen. If you've gone through the three-month membership without one nibble, consider dropping it. The competition is still quite stiff on those sites, and while you may be incredibly talented, your low-bidding counterpart may snag the job from you despite your best efforts to wow the employer.

Always be on the lookout for free options. A few of my favorites: Craig's List, About Freelance Writing, Writer's Weekly and Media Bistro. And there's always the hard way - networking and marketing your skills to a potential client base in the field in which you specialize.
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