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Friday, June 29, 2012

The Process

What's on the iPod: You Wreck Me by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Super day yesterday. I finished a case study, an article, and got the sidebar nearly complete. Also, I took two client calls -- one that sorted out future payment arrangements and another that outlined ongoing work and potential retainer arrangements. I was so busy I worked through lunch and well past 5:30. Today, I hope, will be much slower.

I was talking with a client recently about how we would communicate best with each other. Have you done that yet? The idea is to discuss with them what your process is, but more importantly how they'd like you to approach communication with them. In this case, we were on the same wavelength, and this time, they brought it up first. I'm always glad when clients outline what works best for them. I can easily adapt or I can offer up slight alterations so that we can get the most out of every communication.

Here's how I typically handle building a communication process with clients:

Outline a typical communication scenario. For me, this usually includes much of the drafts and revisions expectations. For example, this client and I will have an initial conversation, then there may be follow-up conversations with experts or company sources, then the first draft will appear (if I've not asked a bunch of questions), then we make room for, at most, four revisions. I say four because even the little tweaks count. Most projects are done within one revision, but I leave room for more so they get the sense that there will be back-and-forth collaboration.

Explain the "It depends" exception. The client yesterday asked how long it would take for the revision process. I said, "It depends on how many people are revising." That allowed me to explain how sometimes companies have six or more people contributing and how often that leads to messages being lost in "committee." It also gives us both the opening to discuss who exactly will be involved and at what point I need to push back harder on changes that shouldn't be made.

Define a regular update procedure. I like to give clients a weekly or biweekly email or phone update on what I've done and what I'm working on. By deciding it at the outset, I'm able to better organize what may be several projects at once. Plus it doesn't hurt to keep the client informed so they don't think you've forgotten about them.

Set realistic deadline expectations. Part of my job is made easier when clients understand and honor their own time commitments. I know companies get busy. So do I (I'm a company, too -- just on a smaller scale). I need to know that I'm not going to work my weekend through to get a project done on time only to have them take a month to get back to me with revisions. While they can take all the time they want, they need to allow me a similar luxury. I like to let clients know that I need a 48-hour notice on most projects, and that the delivery date has to match up with the work involved. In other words, I'm not going to be able to give them a 10-page customer case study in three days. Well, not if they want it to be any good.

Define my level of involvement. Am I going to be involved at the writing stage, editing stage, or planning stage? If the goal is to maintain a consistent voice and focus, I say the planning stage. It's my time to explain to the client how much time we might be able to save if we partner at the conceptual stage of projects, not just after someone has written something that needs polishing.

To me, setting these processes in place at the very beginning really puts everyone on the right footing and to my mind increases the odds of a great outcome.

What goes into your collaborative communication process? Do you often outline it in detail to clients, or are you more of a "Here's how I typically do things" operator? What has worked best for you?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Forging Ahead

What's on the iPod: Farther Down by Neon Trees

What a nice birthday! I didn't stay off the computer entirely -- in fact, I spent more time on it than planned thanks to an unauthorized install of a Conduit search engine onto my computer when I downloaded an MP3 file converter software program. I uninstalled immediately the program that "introduced" this particular brand of malware onto my machine, and I sent them a note telling them how "stupid" they were to think that was going to make anyone a paying customer. Then I wrangled with how to remove it from my machine. It's still not gone, I'm sure of that, but I reinstalled Google Chrome so that they weren't tracking my every move, especially where my passwords are concerned.

I finished a smaller project, too. I'd promised, and I don't break promises easily. It took me an hour tops, then I was able to head out for the day.

"Out" started with Starbucks in the morning, lunch with my daughter, and then a baseball game between the Pirates and Phillies. Pirates won 11-7, and it was a back-and-forth, fun game the entire time. The night was clear and warm and just perfect. I was happy with the game outcome (would have been happy either way, but was silently hoping for a Pirates win). I took full advantage of the birthday, too -- we pulled in the driveway at midnight.

Today I have two projects to finish (no way I'm putting them off another second) and a conference call with a client. Also, I have some follow-up on other projects in hopes of keeping projects coming in. I'm a bit spent thanks to our late night, but if I write all morning while the caffeine is still in the system, I should manage both projects. One is nearly finished and the other is a small one that shouldn't take an hour (I hope).

Tonight, we actually continue my birthday. How's that for neat? We didn't have time to do the cake and presents, so we're "extending" things. And husband says he wants a day with just us, so dare I dream for three days of birthday? As long as I'm not getting older each time, I'll take it.

How was yesterday for you? What projects are on your schedule, and what marketing are you doing in order to get more in?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bring on the Cake

What's on the iPod: My Fault by Imagine Dragons

Today is a holiday for me -- it's my birthday. My intention is to do no work whatsoever, but that may not be possible entirely. Still, I'm going to enjoy the sun and the summer before it disappears entirely. I've been stuck inside working so much I feel it's halfway gone already.

In my absence, I'm leaving you with one of my favorites.Hard to believe this wasn't their song originally, though the original is terrific, too.

See you all tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

When Words Repeat

What's on the iPod: Helpless by Neon Trees

I had a slower paced day yesterday and was glad for it. Since returning from Canada, I've been on fast forward. It was nice to have things to do, but not so much that I had to chart it all to remember it. I picked up a client press release project and a resume consultation, plus I put the polish on the second of four articles due. On to the third today, I hope.

I opened an email from a writer friend who posed a disturbing question. She'd seen a blog post by another writer and was struck by what she said were very similar thoughts to a post I'd written a month ago. I read it. Sure did sound familiar. Do I think someone stole? Let's just say I hope not.

But it is a sad commentary on what Demand and other content mills have introduced to the profession. It's not a change in journalism, but a skewed shift in ethics -- some people, even those who are higher up on the career food chain, think nothing of reworking someone else's original content and calling it their own.

It's true that ideas cannot be copyrighted. However, I will say this particular instance mirrors another one a year ago in which the same blogger used not just the idea, but comments from my readers, and incorporated those notions into a post and then called it original. While there may or may not have been an outright theft of my words verbatim, the rewriting is decidedly not cool.

So just so we're clear on when you're crossing an ethical line:

Rewriting does not make it original. Let's think about this for a minute. Suppose New Yorker presents an article on the changes in the housing industry. You come along and think "Oh! I could get so much mileage out of this!" so you rewrite it to show the changes in the housing industry in Poughkeepsie or Grand Rapids, using the same points in the original article, but changing up the wording. Then someone else sees your article and does the same thing, and so on. Who's the victim here? Clearly New Yorker and not you, for it's not yours originally. Worse if that next person in the food chain repeated your article verbatim. You'd have to prove it was yours to begin with, and if that person has a copy of the original, well, you've got some 'splainin' to do, Lucy.

Misinformation is being passed on. You don't even consider this, do you? What if what you're parroting is false information? For example, if I write an article on the wonders of recycled paper, and I make points like "ink sticks better" or "ten thousand trees live for every page recycled" you don't know if I've tested recycled paper against traditionally manufactured paper, nor do you know if I've quoted a reliable source on how many trees make up one page or if I've even quoted someone at all. Hence, if I've written an opinion piece and you're presenting that as a rewritten fact, you're going to lose all sorts of credibility, as you should anyway for lifting someone else's work, but also for being too lazy to do the homework.

Intentionally omitting credit to the original article is theft. Oh, you know you went cruising other blogs to get ideas for yours. You know you liked her post because it generated a lot of commentary. You know you used hers as a template for yours. You know you pulled her post up beside yours as you wrote and made sure to avoid the same wording. And you know you didn't provide a link because you wanted the traffic. So guess what? You've now intentionally lifted the original content and left out any mention of where you first saw the idea. Way to be a bad neighbor. Remind me to hide my purse when you come visiting. Better yet, just stay home.

Combining several articles into one is a smashup, not a mashup. A while ago there was mention of this  practice on some forum somewhere. Mashup is a term used to describe the combination of various media forms into one representation. Plenty of software applications are the result of mashups. However, doing the same thing with written documents is not "creating" anything original. It's a dangerous practice, and it's not journalism -- it's cheating. Don't think so? Try writing a "mashup" term paper and see what your grade is once the professor realizes how many different papers are combined.

Lying to your readers is unethical. I remember hearing people lose their minds when they found out that James Chartrand of Men with Pens wasn't a man at all and was posing as such in order to gain some perceived competitive advantage. There were readers James lost forever even though her stated intentions were to better provide for her kid by demanding a higher salary. While her intentions seemed to be noble, the trust was gone for many of her followers. Ironically, it would be even worse for you on a smaller scale. If you're found to be simply rewording someone else's content, your readers are going to feel cheated and they're going to drop you because hey, why not just read "your" content where it originated?

Where are you seeing ethical boundaries being crossed?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Creating Client Partnerships

What's on the iPod: Better Together by Jack Johnson

There's something about that song on a summer day, isn't there? Well, there's something about Jack Johnson on a summer day -- any song. His island life just rolls like waves through his lyrics.

The start of a busy, but not crazy week. I have an article to finish, the third to start, and the interviews to line up for the fourth. Plus there's one more interview for the second article today and one more on Wednesday. And Wednesday is my day off -- I always take my birthday off. I can. I'm self employed.

I was pondering over the weekend some of the new clients I've secured this year and how that may have happened. While it was in large part due to my having a specialty in their area of business, it didn't hurt that I went into the introductory conversations with one thought in mind -- I'm their partner.

Even before we are hired by them, clients should get a sense that we are on board and ready to make a difference for them. We all know about showing them the benefits of working with us (or do we?), but sometimes clients want to know they're more than just a source of income for us.

Here are some ways to create a client partnership:

Replace "I" and "you" with "we." This was the biggest change I made in the last 24 months. I started using collaborative terms. "We could do this with the website" or "If we target your company's product benefits, we could get you better brand awareness." The minute you start treating your client as a partner, you create in their minds a need for you to be the one to help get the job done.

Assume you're already hired. I used to fret each new client contact, being too enthusiastic (I suspect) and letting my eagerness for the job lead the conversation. Now I assume we're talking because they're hiring me. It takes the pressure off, even if it's not true yet, and it allows us to get to know each other. I'll make general suggestions (never specific until the contract is signed) and I help them work out a timeline for the project. That too sends a message -- here's a contractor who's ready to get down to business.

Insert the business persona. Here's one of the most powerful tools a business person can use, in my humble opinion. I'm an enthusiastic person by nature, which can often read as "desperate to please." I've learned to tone down the enthusiasm when the client is asking how I might help them solve a problem or get their message out. My voice and pacing winds down, not up, as I explain what I've done for others or present a game plan I think would work for them.

Listen. Really listen. It's their nature -- clients are going to push back, challenge, want more explanation, or question your background. Listen. Hear not just what they're saying, but what they're not saying. I had a client once who said "But how do I know that your background fits with what we need?" The translation --show me how you'll help me.I sent over samples of other similar projects and I offered to work the first two projects at a flat-fee rate as a test (it worked - I was hired for more). When you listen, make sure to repeat back to them what they've said and ask if you've understood their words and concerns. Everyone wants to be heard -- show them they were.

How do you create client partnerships?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Things That Make My Head Explode: Part Nine

What's on the iPod: Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd (oh yes, it is!)

What a hot day yesterday! I'd love to say I was able to get outside and enjoy it, but as it happened, I had an interview at 2 and I spent the morning researching a sidebar for an article. It took two hours to confirm everything (I do not trust compiled information on the Internet -- it's too easily dated). So now I have an up-to-date chart listing the insurance adjuster education requirements for all fifty states. And you thought your day was exciting...{yawn}

After the call, I got a client NDA notarized and sent back, which means I'm ready for our conversation next week. We're talking about their workload, my role, and what retainer may fit. I'm eager to get going for them on a more regular basis. I've done a few small projects and they're just great people to work with.

Today I have a call with a client to discuss his website revisions (if any) and to interview him for an article. I'm multi-tasking here -- I need the invoice to be settled and I need input from him on this story. We'll get both sorted in one call.

As busy as I've been and as much as I've loved it, it's been a really frustrating week. Here are the things making my head explode:

Selfish attitudes. I can't say who the thoughtless one(s) is/are, but a reaction this week by one(s) I thought would be more thoughtful left me agape with shock. It's also made me realize no matter how much someone claims to be friends, I'd have no support if I had to present my own problem, which I still regret not doing. I've resisted the urge -- although only temporarily -- to just drop out of that particular orbit. I'd rather hang around with more evolved, caring people.

One-sided conversations. I had plenty of lovely conversations this week, but all too many one-sided ones. If I would have asked one more person this week how they were and heard the ten-minute monologue, I was going to scream. What kills me about this behavior is there is never a single question directed back to me that would indicate any interest in me other than as someone to listen to how freaking special they are. It's not a conversation if it's just one person talking.

Unpaid invoices, stone-deaf clients. This one has me absolutely baffled on top of thoroughly disgusted. The invoice was sent and only partially paid. Yet three weeks later, I can't get an explanation as to why that is. I'm a week from attaching late fees and ignoring reasons since my three notes have gone unanswered. It's unacceptable to me to have someone promise, then not deliver. They wouldn't put up with it. Neither do I.

Poison ivy. The itch is a bitch. Touch it and you're in for two weeks of crazy-making itch and a rash that looks like burns when they start to heal. It makes me want to move to Europe just to escape the damned stuff.

Pretension. Maybe I hate this more than arrogance, but they're both pretty high up on my list of Worst Personality Traits Ever.Pretension leads people to believe they are better than others, that they're intellectually superior, that they know ALL the right people, and that they have all the answers. They'll argue to death every point and then if they're right, God forbid, you'll hear no end of how wrong you are. And any time I hear someone say "I'm excellent at blah blah..." forget that. I'd rather be mauled by a passel of skunks than listen to deluded people.

Religious visitors -- on a Tuesday morning. Are you kidding me? Just because I work from home and the other Jehovah's Witnesses who visited once told you that does not give you the right to be knocking on my door at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning. You gain no sympathy or attention from me if you're interrupting my work day, and you damn sure won't be invited in if you continue to do so. Stop knocking because I'm not answering.

What's making your head explode this week?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Truth in Your Own Advertising

What's on the iPod: Unbelievable by Diamond Rio

Today is absolutely one of my favorite days. I look forward to it every year - it's the longest day! That sun will be out (and in this case, blazing hot) until late. So will I. Once I get this work pile whipped under control, I'm giving myself a time out.

Yesterday was a mishmash of work not completed, but much-needed communications sorted and scheduled. I got in touch with a few clients about upcoming and ongoing projects, and I cleared up at least one invoice issue. Another invoice issue is proving more troublesome as the client has gone silent on me. No worries -- the late fees are about to kick in, as they were informed, and I don't collect my own late bills. I let collection agencies do it. I give that time to worthy clients and their projects.

I was helping my daughter with a few proofing/editing tests I'd given her (she's my intern, remember?). It got me thinking -- she's doing this work to earn the line item on her resume so she'll get the next job. I won't allow her to list any more work than she's done for me, and maybe that's the better lesson -- she's learning not to embellish her own experience.

I love when professionals, especially writers, know their own worth. Still, there's a fine line between stating your obvious value and overstating it. It can be tempting to the new writer (or even to the veteran writer who's got a bit of an insecurity) to overstate the portfolio. Sure, you have to show the work, but sometimes by stating it, you think it makes it fact.

How are you overstating? By not being clear or by deliberately calling a spade a club. Some examples:

I'm a business writer. True you write about businesses, but if you're writing from the consumer side, you should be stating that quite clearly like so: "I write consumer-focused business content." It's one thing to write about Apple's newest products, but quite another to write about the management processes and financial strategies that helped the company achieve its current superstar status. One is only loosely a business article -- the other is clearly one.

I have over eight years of experience in writing for consumer magazines. Do you really? Or have you written for "consumer"-read local newspapers for four years, stretching that credit out further than it should go? Tell the exact truth. What I tell my clients is what is true: I have over 15 years of writing experience, 12 of which are in the risk management and insurance subject areas. I have been writing since 1988, but there's no way I'd claim I've been writing in specialized areas for 22 years. It's not true.

A word about understating: Beginner writers, you have a difficult situation in that you tend to exclude any credits that you could be claiming. For example, you worked for three years on the college newspaper, yet you weren't paid so you think that doesn't count. Or you have written six proposals for local businesses or charities, but think because you volunteered, you can't list that. Yes you can. Clients don't need to know that you've not been paid -- only that you can handle the job.

I'm an award-winning writer. Please. Unless you've been handed a prestigious, well-known award from a legitimate publication or organization, don't think that "Top Bloggers That Jen Likes" award is enough to add that to your credentials. When the client asks what award, you're going to appear foolish and amateur. Plus the line has been used so often it's become a throw-away line, almost cliche.

I've published countless articles. Just because you refuse to count those ten or twelve articles doesn't mean you can claim they were "countless" in number. Be as specific as possible when listing credits. It's better to say you've published "a number" of articles, or simply not mention number at all.

What overstatements have you seen?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Things I Learned from Movie Mistakes

What's on Pandora: Put Your Records On by Corinne Bailey Rae

Yesterday was another day of loads of work and loads of prioritizing. I framed in the next article, conducted two interviews, worked on client communications plans, collaborated on another client project, researched client blog ideas, and signed a NDA for another client project. Yet I didn't feel rushed, so I'm guessing I'm catching up with the workload.

And the poison ivy is clearing up. It looks awful, but that gawd-awful itch is dissipating. I've come to find that despite the myriad of products promising to dry it up, heal it, or make it stop itching, the best you can do is just let it alone. I used Zanfel on the wrists for just two days (they did clear up much faster than the rest), but when it started appearing on the arms and legs, I just took Claritin for the itch (it worked, oddly), and tried my best to ignore it.

I was watching The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni) with my husband the other night (his choice), and I noticed a pretty large hole in the story. The character wakes up one morning -- Christmas morning -- to find himself no longer single, but married to his college sweetheart and the father of two children. As the plot progresses, there's mention of an unplanned pregnancy that prompted their union. They mention the daughter by name, a girl of about five years old. That worked until the couple went out to celebrate their 13th wedding anniversary.


Obviously the editors were busy doing something else that day.

But mistakes have lessons built in. This one is obvious -- make sure to check that timeline for accuracy.

Here's what else I've learned:

Time travel must erase memories. Sure, Michael J. Fox went back in time to save his parents from not going on a date (which seems odd since hey, they were married and had kids already), but isn't it ironic that no one in the present remembered him, that Calvin Klein did eventually make underwear, that Chuck Berry was someone he predicted, and that they had a son who looked just like that Calvin Klein kid, whose name they conveniently forgot? Insert reality and for gawd's sake, check your story for holes before you commit to it.

Sometimes the idea is just wrong from the start. Take Jurassic Park, for example. The entire series of movies was based on the premise that one can extract DNA from from the blood of a mosquito dating to dinosaur days. If only you could get DNA from blood.... then there's that little problem of knowing which DNA is from a dinosaur. Test your idea against known elements.

Actions speak louder than words --words that could save your hide. In The Hangover, the missing groom, later found on top of a hotel roof, sat for two days in the blazing sun nursing a hangover. At no point did he attempt to shout for help, signal anyone, or do anything to save himself. Apparently, his friends weren't as stupid as their missing buddy. Keep true to your clients' words and actions.

It's a wonderful life -- for crooks. Sure, George Bailey is saved by an angel and bailed out of certain ruin by the entire town of Bedford Falls, but what about Mr. Potter? He stole George's money and no one seemed to care. Clear up all the details before declaring any project done.

What have mistakes taught you?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Following Directions

What's on the iPod: Beautiful Day by U2

One article done! Amen. It was the smallest of the four, but one that had the most limitations. Two vendors, two parts. Ugh. That ties my hands, but hopefully I was able to keep it somewhat vendor neutral (not sure how that's possible!).

I sent out a note to another client with ideas for upcoming newsletters, and I interviewed a source for one of the remaining articles. Now I'm in full-on writing mode -- I want to frame in article number two and then get the first interview sorted. Also, I want to research a bit more on the subject to see if I'm getting all the input I can for it.

One thing I've been noticing lately is just how many writers are demonstrating with disturbing frequency their inability to follow directions. I received a forum notice where someone posted a job notice. The directions were simple: to be considered, send an email to the poster. While I have plenty of issue with applying for jobs instead of actively seeking out new clients, I will say that the problem with the ad wasn't the content or the request: it was with the responses. 

The poster was clear on what he wanted: emailed responses. Yet there were dozens of writers piling onto that thread, giving their names, background info, and email addresses. Hate to break it to you, kids. He's not calling. 

Let's do a little exercise. Here's the ad, which for our purposes is appearing on a forum thread:

Writing professional with overflow work looking for a writer with experience in the sales and marketing industry. Must have at least three articles published on the topic or a related topic (convince me!), and must show some familiarity with the topic area and jargon. You don't have to be a master; you simply have to understand the needs of the industry. To be considered, please send your CV and two writing samples (related, if possible) to Email AT mydomain DOT com.

If you're responding, what are you going to do?

Send your CV. Try not to listen to those writers who think resumes are so yesterday -- I've had to send mine out three times this year, and I use mine to capture business while at trade events. What's "so yesterday" is the traditional resume format. I prefer a list of published work, a list of where I've been (traditional jobs, and only short blurbs), and a list of client projects I've worked on. Forget the job you had in high school and those college internships (unless they were mighty impressive or you're fresh out of college). My resume is a PowerPoint presentation, but I'd recommend against that for these blind ads (they won't open the attachment if they don't know you). Instead, direct them to your website or paste your CV in the body of the email.

Send two writing samples. Which ones? If it's a job in the marketing and sales industry (it is), you're going to send clips that are most relevant to that industry. For instance, that article you did on how to deliver good customer service or that piece on top ten reasons people buy. What you're not going to do: send three or more samples. Why? Because the ad asked for two. If they need to see more, they'll ask. If you send more, you're also sending the message that you can't follow simple instructions. You're also not going to send fiction pieces. If you don't have nonfiction samples, make them up. A blog post, an editorial, another client project....all are acceptable to this particular job poster.

Send it to the email listed. Don't answer the ad right there in the forum. Three reasons for that -- 1) it's not what the poster asked for, 2) the poster may never return to see the responses, and 3) it makes you look like you're begging for work. I conduct my negotiations without an audience. So should you.

What are some of the more heinous missteps you've seen?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mondays and Marathons

What's on the iPod: Swim Until You Can't See Land by Frightened Rabbit

It was another busy weekend for me. Saturday I hopped in the car with my daughter and we headed to the nursery. We made the mistake of starting at Lowe's. She wanted to buy window boxes and plants, and I know they have both.

After walking around for ten minutes trying to find a cart, I decided the plants I was seeing paled in comparison to those at my local nursery. Plus the prices seemed a bit steep. So we abandoned the big box store for my favorite kind of shopping -- local.

Great choice made even greater by the unexpected half-off sale on market packs. I took home marigolds, pink petunias, and coleus. The perennials weren't on sale, but were quite affordable, so I got two more coreopsis (different variety this time) and two white phlox. Daughter picked up vegetable seeds and more herbs. We came home and planted.

I found my mint I'd planted last year and gave up for dead. It was big and bushy, so I see mint juleps in my near future -- probably Wednesday or Thursday, when our temps are to spike from these lovely 78-degree days to over 95.

Yesterday was a nice day, as well. We took my husband out for Father's Day to a local bistro. We waited 30 minutes, but it was so pleasant outside we didn't mind at all. Brunch was ho-hum and took longer than our wait for the table. Unacceptable given the limited menu. The waitress was busy, but it slowed down considerably after we were seated, so there was no reason why she couldn't have offered us more drinks or acknowledged the long wait. I found it quite ironic that our to-go order arrived at our table a full 15 minutes or better before we got our food. Her tip reflected her concern.

We spent much of the day puttering around the yard. I took sheers to the dead daisies and coreopsis tops (removing dead stuff allows the plant to refocus the nutrients on the living parts -- true of most plants). He took the chain saw to the dead parts of the Japanese maple in the back, mowed the lawn, and started digging a hole for our new tree. His children gave him a Franklinia for Father's Day, which he's been enamored with for a while (I married a botanist). Halfway through digging, he turned to me and said, "Isn't it ironic that children will give you a tree for Father's Day that creates more work for you to plant it? It's like buying you stuff to wash your car but not offering to wash it for you." He was exhausted -- our backyard is clay and rock.

We saw a nice movie on Saturday -- Monsieur Lazhar. It was a beautiful Canadian movie done in French, one of those quiet little wonders that leave you with more feeling and warmth than any blockbuster out there.

Today I start one more marathon week. The work is still streaming in, piling up around me, and threatening my weekends, not to mention my sanity. I've not marketed much because I'm a little concerned someone else will want something NOW instead of in three weeks. I've already priced one job out of existence (partly on purpose) because I just don't have time to do it.

Also working to get word on an unpaid invoice. I'm not liking at all that the client promised a call and hasn't, and has avoided two emails since. It's paid this week or I'm done with them. There are too many other clients needing my attention to have to mess with whatever issue is affecting my payment.

How was your weekend? What's on your desk this week?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Interruptions and Time Management

What's on the iPod: Medicine by We Were Promised Jetpacks

TGIF, Amen, Alleluia.

I don't know if I can keep up this pace. I had a good deal of work to do yesterday despite thinking I would finish the article in front of me. Instead, I wrote another one, conducted an interview, scheduled another one, arranged a webinar guest, gathered email interview info for yet another article, sent over questions to another interview subject for yet one more article, and ran to Staples for more ink for the printer.

Today looks pretty much the same. I'm not herding cats -- I'm juggling them.

One of the things I fend off on a typical day is a slew of phone calls. Most of them are sales calls (no message is a clear indicator, as is a quick Internet search), but occasionally someone I know will call and want to chat. If it's family like my mother or my sister and I can't talk, I pick up and tell them so just in case it's something important. All others go to voice mail.

I have one friend in particular who works a 9-to-5 and is in the habit of calling me whenever she has a day off or a few hours at home. The calls come in whenever the mood strikes her. I'd love to say that I'm flattered she wants to talk to me, but I'm not. I really, really don't like the assumption that because I work from home, I have ample time to chat. It's not an assumption I've fueled, either. In all the time I've known her to call me like this, I've actually answered her call once, and that was because I wasn't working that day.

Worse, she and I have talked (at my prompting) before about people assuming I'm free because I work from home and how much I dislike that assumption. And yet, there's that phone ringing.

There are a few people whose calls get answered no matter what -- family mostly. Very few beyond that are answered every time. I have close writer friends who will call, and if I can, sure. I'll talk. If not, they understand the call won't be answered and why. Why do I answer those calls instead of my chatty friend's call? Because writers respect the boundaries on our time much more than people who aren't writers do. And they know that if it's going to voice mail, I'm super busy or not around, and they won't call six more times just to make sure I heard the phone.

It's why of the three phones in the house, only one has the ringer turned on.

Interruptions can suck up a ton of work hours if you don't put some boundaries in place and actually enforce them. Here are mine:

No conversations or favors during work hours. I've been known to threaten bodily harm to children wanting rides, favors, or just wanting to talk. Even coming in to say "Hi, what's up?" can throw off my concentration and cause a 15-minute distraction. If they want me, they can talk to me when I emerge from Mission Control (a.k.a. the study). And that means no rides to the mechanic's or train station unless I have free time and willingly volunteer it.

No phone calls. I've let my daughter's calls go to voice mail because she's what's known as a Serial Caller. Her M.O. -- leave the house and five minutes later, call me to ask me something like "Can we go on a cruise sometime?" Seriously, if I could have reached through that phone.... When the threats no longer worked, I simply stopped answering. If she's in trouble, the cops can leave a message. ;-)

No requests for help. I don't care if you have your car up on ramps and you need someone to help you get that bolt loosened on the oil pan -- it's not happening during my work hours. Nor will I pick up laundry at the dry cleaners, mow the grass before it rains (unless it's a foot high and we're expecting a monsoon), plan vacations, or perform any other errand that I'm not compensated for. If they need me to be their personal assistant, I'm going to charge them for it.

No Internet searches. My mother is extremely guilty of this. She'll call to have me look something up for her. I've trained her to call before 9 am with these requests, so it's not as disruptive as it used to be, but if she wants to know where her auction is and it's in the middle of the day, either she's missing an auction or she's waiting until I have time. I'd get her a computer, but then the phone calls would triple in frequency and would be of the "How do I work this?" variety.

No games until break time. This rule is meant for me. No Spider Solitaire or Bejeweled Blitz until break time. And no Facebook after 9 am and until I get a project finished or in decent enough shape to take a short break.

How do you curb the interruptions? How many hours do you think you save by enforcing your boundaries?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The "Nothing Better" Fallacy

What's on the iPod: Ten Thousand Words by The Avett Brothers

It was apropos to have that song appear on my iPod yesterday. With the article halfway completed, the dozen emails I dealt with, project revisions, and research, I burned through about that many words before 3 pm. Two days of headlong, intense work. I'm actually loving it.

I took a break yesterday long enough to check out a few forums. On one, someone was relating her story of turning down low-paying work. Nearly everyone agreed with her decision and shared her frustration with the  prolific nature of these jobs. Almost everyone.

One writer went there. You know the scenario "There's nothing better, so get used to it." Then he told his story. It was of someone who used to earn big bucks. Now he couldn't stop from saying how writers need to "suck it up" and accept the ridiculously low rates. When pressed, the real story came out. He's a successful writer-turned hobbyist doing this to supplement his retirement, and he really doesn't care to run a business anymore. He makes decent enough cash and doesn't really want to do any more than what he's already doing.

So isn't that like comparing apples to oranges then?

If I hadn't pressed him for why he wasn't doing well now, and had others not also wondered aloud about it, his words would have stood as a state-of-the-industry assessment that is nowhere near clearly depicting the state of anything other than his own commitment. And no one would have known differently, which to me is where the real harm would have occurred. Writers who are highly suggestible or new to the game would have accepted the veteran's words as fact and may have started behaving accordingly.

Clearly, he misrepresented his own case as the truth for all of freelancing. And that, my friends, ticks me off.

Any time I hear another writer saying "There's nothing better out there" I want to get physically aggressive. Walls and pillows are not safe, I tell you! That's because as most of you know, that thinking is nothing more than a steaming pile of hog spit. And it's self-defeating, so if you're prone to that particular whine, stop it right now or I'm coming over there.

This guy's story was one of the rare ones in which the writer says something like that and it turns out he's just not interested in doing it differently. His exact words were 'the bottom line here is that I don't really care that much." Oh, but you do care, or you wouldn't be complaining about it and making such sweeping generalizations on an Internet forum. But that's another issue.

So when you hear the words "There's nothing better out there!" here's what I hear:

I have no idea where or how to start! Pretty common newbie fear and assumption, and if you're the newbie, take heart in the fact that you aren't alone. Many of us have thought the same thing at one time or another. Allow yourself that momentary "Ack!" and then get back on track with building your business.

I'm too lazy to do it differently! Oh yes, you are. You think if you whine all over the Internet that someone will take pity on you and give you work. Or is it your excuse for not looking or building a career the right way? Probably that. Stuff a sock in it and grow a backbone. Writing careers take work, and if you read up on it, research what you don't know, and ask the right questions of your peers, you'll manage just fine.

I lack any ability to run a business! When did you realize that writing was only part of the job? Maybe when you realized it's not a career but a small business, you balked. Maybe when you heard the word "marketing" and responded "Ew!" was when you realized this clearly wasn't something you'd intended to be doing. Either learn how to do the simplest of business functions (and it's not all that difficult to start up a business) or find a different career path.

I don't really want to be a writer! Oh, it was your dream for about five minutes into that new career, wasn't it? It died for you the minute you realized that editors weren't going to praise you like your mother and your high school English teacher did. You thought it would be much easier, and now it's just not any fun. So you need an excuse, and the low-paying stuff is your out, right? Do yourself and the rest of the writing community a favor -- admit it's not for you (nothing more -- no need to expound or embellish) and move on toward your real passion.

Writers, what do you hear when you hear that statement? What has been your experience with those who say such things?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

S is for Service

What's on the iPod: Love Interruption by Jack White

Yesterday was a full day of work. I had one interview, two blog posts (on technical topics, so research was involved), and some invoices to send/chase. Along with that, I started a third of the four articles I'm writing this month. Plus I sent out a draft to a client on an article proposal. All before 4 pm.

Like I said, a full day. And today is much of the same.

As I was tactfully following up on invoices, I was thinking yesterday about the one thing we all have in us to perform one task that can instantly set us apart from the masses. We have the ability to communicate. We can use that to deliver the most powerful business tool there is -- customer service.

But that should be part of everyone's business model, you say. And you're right. It should be. But if you've ever had to argue with a clerk or a customer service rep just to get your issue noticed, you know how absent real customer service is.

That's where you come in. You can make your business stand out just by shifting the focus from how many clients you reach to how much service you give each one. Here are some ways to do that:

Thank them. Seriously, when was the last time you thanked a client for a project? If you have to take any time to get to the answer, then you're not thanking them enough. Get in the habit of thanking them at the assignment, at delivery of the project, and a few weeks later when you...

Follow up. You think you did a bang-up job, but how do you know unless you ask? Part of giving good service is making sure your impression matches the actual result. I usually follow up in a week or two and ask if everything looked okay, if there were questions, etc.

Write it. Emailed thanks is great, but why not boost the impact of your words? Send your client a written note of thanks. Put a stamp on it (remember those?) and make your thanks more personal by handwriting the note. You'll be remembered -- how many written notes do you get these days?

Suggest improvements. You finished the web copy, but the brochure needs an overhaul, too. Say so. Point out to your client how they can improve their image. You'll increase sales, sure, but you'll make them look good.

Act like a partner. Tweet their successes, repost their blog posts, brag about them. Show your clients how invested you really are in their success. Service that includes your enthusiasm and support sends a powerful message.

How many ways do you provide service? Are you consistent with it?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Knowing When to Push Back

What's on the iPod: Mercy by Duffy

Happy anniversary, husband of mine. The best decision I've ever made. :)

Yesterday started busy and ended the same way. I had newsletter copy to compile/chase down, a conference call, two blog posts to start, and an article to frame in. Not a bad start to a week. I have too many projects to not get ahead of things a little. I'm feeling fortunate that the largest project is delayed. That gives me time to get the bulk of things done and done correctly.

I was talking with the stepson about a particular client whose project I delivered per instructions. It came as a surprise to get it back with a chastising note saying it is not what was expected. I had to redo it to what turned out to be a completely different set of parameters. Yes, there was a contract, but this is a subcontracted job, and I'm being paid per hour. I'll jump through that hoop a few times. I'm told this is a common occurrence with this particular client, so I didn't take it personally.

Stepson asked how one would break it to the client that the project was delivered as promised and prove one's case. I said that sometimes -- like this time -- arguing who's right doesn't matter and would end with the writer being replaced. It was a minor thing, in my opinion, because even if there is wheel-spinning going on, I'm being compensated for the additional work. Plus I have the additional buffer of the contractor. And the client is a genuinely nice person, just somewhat indecisive.

Then I told him that letting it go isn't always the best choice; that sometimes we do have to prove there's been no misunderstanding because there isn't a per-hour payment to "fix" what isn't broken. It happens occasionally that clients are as clear as a chocolate milkshake on what they want, and if they don't see their "vision" spelled out as they see it in their heads, we're getting blamed.

No, we don't have to take it. Instead, we can assert ourselves in non-confrontational ways. Here are some things that have worked for me:

Forward the original agreement. It's okay to send it back and say "Please help me. Here's what I saw and how I interpreted it. Did I miss something?" It could be that after you and your client agreed, the client did some additional thinking, but forgot to include you on the changes to that agreement. That doesn't mean they can say "I changed my mind and now I want this" without your being compensated, but you'll be able to satisfy their needs better, which is the goal. (Make sure to draw up that new agreement and let the client know there's still an amount due for the first agreement.)

Understand the motivation. If this argument is coming months out when you've added late fees to the invoice, that's an attempt to avoid payment or at least delay it indefinitely. If you even suspect this, halt it by resending the original terms and a new contract, and reiterate that any additional work comes under that new agreement.

Ask for bullet points. Just as I've used bullet points to clear up client confusion, I've asked for them so I can be doubly sure I'm understanding. It's okay to ask for clarification at any point in the project. It's not looking stupid -- it's looking thorough.

Admit defeat. It's okay after a few rounds of He Said--She Meant to pull the plug. You're okay to say "Unfortunately, it appears as though we're not communicating well enough for me to continue working with you. I regret this, but I think you'd have better luck with someone who matches more closely your communication style." You may forfeit your pay (if you breach the terms of the contract), but if it's not working, why prolong it? I've dropped clients after project completion, which means payment is still due, but I've also dropped them in the middle when the hostility levels went too high. I won't engage in verbal warfare with people I'm working with/for. I simply won't.

How do you deal with the client who doesn't say what he/she wants?

Monday, June 11, 2012

That Familiar Itch

Did you ever have a weekend staring at you that had you tired just by looking at what was planned? I did. Too many things -- birthday for the stepson, meditation, writers' group meetup, breakfast AND lunch dates, shopping for the aforementioned birthday, gardening, etc. I did what any sane person ought to do.

I scrapped most of it.

Actually, I scrapped the lunch and the writers' group. I just knew I couldn't make either. So I shopped for the birthday, waited until stepson finally made up his mind when he'd like to celebrate with us, and gardened and meditated in the meantime. It was a busy weekend and one where I'm glad to be back in front of the desk to get some rest.

I picked up a little something in the garden -- poison ivy. It could have come from Carl (the neighbor's cat), but I'm suspecting it came from the piles of weeds that grew while we were away. One spot on the ankle (not bothersome) and the other on the inside of my left wrist. It makes typing a joy (insert sarcasm).

Another project came in over the weekend (is that eight now? I can't remember), so I have to get going immediately on it as it's due next week. My big project is stalled because of problems getting info from the professors, but that may be a blessing with all the other work I have in front of me.

Short post today as I have to get going. A breakfast out, then a conference call and some emails sent. Then I want to hunker down and get an article started. There's some trouble getting promised feedback from one of the only two sources for the story (planned by the editor), so I have to shake that tree again.

How was your weekend?

Friday, June 08, 2012

What I'd Rather Do

What's on the iPod: Summer Sun by Jukebox the Ghost

We've made it -- it's Friday. Don't ask me why, but all day Wednesday I was under the impression it was Tuesday. I don't suffer jet lag -- I suffer life lag. It was a somewhat busy week, but not too bad. I was glad for the slightly less bumpy re-entry post-vacation. I can't take those hit-the-ground-running starts these days.

There are plenty of projects staring me down today, but after two weeks of rain and snow and coming home to more rain, I'm looking at a sunny day and a red convertible just itching to go out with its roof down. It will be a shorter work day. Guaranteed.

Since it's Friday, I thought it might be fun to list some of the things we'd rather be doing on a Friday other than working. Clients, if you're reading, we love working with your projects. We're simply normal people who crave time off just like the 9-to-5ers.

What I'd rather do on a Friday are some things I've already done on other Fridays:

Cream soda, iTunes, and convertible. One of my newest, best memories shared with my mom was driving down a back road in Ontario last year sipping cream soda and listening to The Eagles. The sight of her sitting there sipping, tapping her toe and wearing that red baseball cap to keep her hair down is right up there with my best memories ever. We were happy as clams. She's requested another top-down ride this year, too.

Faulkner, a beach blanket, and the sun. A good book on the beach? You betcha. Who wouldn't want that?  Now that it's warming up, it's back on my to-do list.

Tea with a friend. It's how I'm starting today and how I've started many a Friday morning. Today will be no different.

Gardening. Okay, other than the angst I have over being away from the garden in two weeks and coming home to a jungle (and both mowers conveniently broke right after we left), I love getting outside and putting my hands in the dirt. My grandfather owned a nursery and landscaping business, so every time I'm in the garden, I'm seeing him and grandma and remembering how I "worked" for them when I was younger.

Fishing with my dad. I have no idea how it happened, but I'm my dad's fishing buddy. When I get to their summer place in Ontario, he and I are in the boat two or three times a day. We go out at 6 pm and come in near midnight, always with stories, sometimes with fish. And we sit on that boat and solve the world's problems and gossip like hens.

Writing and journaling. Okay, it's an occupational hazard to love to write and be a writer, but I switch to paper and pen. I have one journal dedicated to my poetry scribblings, and I love taking time to fill it.

Eating this. It was the meal I'd waited for the entire week we were in Vancouver, the one our friends/B&B owners made for us a year earlier. I was jonesing for it. It's sockeye salmon and poached egg over a croissant covered in hollandaise sauce. And that was just one of three courses that morning. Oh my. It's going to be a long wait for the next one!

What would you rather do if you had a free Friday?

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Freelance Truth: Being Worth More

What's on the iPod: Untitled (Love Song) by Counting Crows

A nice, unexpectedly slow day yesterday. Since most of my assignments this month are magazine articles, I have some lag time while the sources get back to me on dates and times. I spent the morning futzing with a small project, then the afternoon was personal writing time.

Those magazine articles are great assignments, but they're not all I do. Paula brought it up yesterday, saying she's reached the top rate at most of the magazines she works with. And it's not enough, so her search for other work begins.

It's true for most writers whose careers evolve thanks to hard work and time in the trenches. If you want to make more money, you either have to look for publications that pay more than the ones you're currently writing for, or you have to go beyond magazines. And frankly, you should.

Magazine work is great, and I know there are probably people out there who specialize in it. Still, unless you're writing for The Atlantic or similar pub that pays through the nose per article, I don't see how it can be your sole source of income. Please feel free to prove me wrong if you've had a different experience.

So what happens when you're at the top of the rate scale and it's still not enough to meet your goals?

Ask for more. Just because it's their published rate doesn't mean they can't/won't go higher if you're delivering what they want. Ask. If they say no, you're not out a gig. You're simply out extra cash. And your asking may clue them in that it's time to raise the pay scale for freelancers.

Negotiate a retainer. I know a writer who managed a sweet retainer deal from one of the most tightwad-run magazines in the industry just by asking for it and promising exclusivity. He wrote for them exclusively and they rewarded him with a deep five figures every year. See if they're interested in giving you a more steady check for your loyalty or for a set number of articles annually.

Move up the food chain. Sometimes you outgrow your clients. It's okay to move on to higher-paying venues. Most industries have a multitude of publications, so finding better pay rates could be easier than you think.

Cut back on the old, increase the new. I've done this a few times. Basically, keep writing for the first pub, but decrease how often you work with them as you transition in newer, higher-paying pubs. Once you've cut your teeth a little in the new pub, you can phase out work at the older one.

Look elsewhere. If you're making 75 cents a word with magazines and can't get them to go higher, try ghostwriting articles for experts and corporations. You can charge per hour or per word and increase your income while providing companies with basically the same work you'd be providing for the magazines. The only differences -- you lose the byline and you have to work through revisions with the clients. Knowing that, make the rate worth your while.

How do you ensure you're paid what you're worth? Have you ever become more expensive than the magazine you're working for? How did you resolve it?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Writer and the Raise

What's on the iPod: The Graveyard Near the House by The Airborne Toxic Event

Good day yesterday. I finished an editing job and started two articles. These are ones with short deadlines, so I made sure to get those going first. Today I'll arrange interviews for the next two articles. Hopefully one client will soon start feeding back some of the copy I provided him a few weeks ago. He's promised to go over it this week.

I saw a great post over on Susan Johnston's Urban Muse blog where poster Sarah Rexman takes on the topic of the raise. It got me thinking about how I've been able to raise my rates without the angst of telling clients about the raise.

I simply raise them for new clients.

That doesn't mean the current clients get me at a different rate. In fact, many of my current clients were paying per-project rates, so I simply worked the small raise into those projects. I'm fortunate to work with clients who are used to paying a strong rate for contractors. My little raise didn't make a single ripple in their ponds.

I decided in December that it was high time I had a raise. I hadn't given myself one in three years and it was long overdue. That's also when new clients started showing up, so it was easy to say "My hourly rate is $XXX."

I lost just one prospective client who said flat out I was too expensive for them. That's not so much a loss as a mismatch, in my opinion. It wasn't a good fit for us both. Nothing more.

Back when I started writing, I used to get all clammy and nervous (almost apologetic) when I would state my rates. Actually, that's too strong a word. I didn't state anything. I nearly whispered my rates and then added quickly that it was negotiable.

Wrong. Rates are negotiable only when you feel like they are, not as a general rule. But we all live and learn.

So what happens when you get a raise?

Some clients won't really care. It's true. If you have a client who has never argued your rate and with whom you work very well, your small hike in rates won't matter. And if you're working higher up the food chain, chances are they'll wonder why you bothered telling them.

The cheapskates will disappear. Before you think your world will come to an end if that cheap client who argues every invoice will go away with his wallet, remember this: for every cheap client you detract with your higher price, you'll attract another client who will see you as a serious professional. Think of it this way -- you wouldn't hire someone to work in your company for $50 a week if the going rate for professionals in the same position is $4,000 a week. You want to be competitive.

You raise the bar. Now you'll be working with people who are used to paying professionals. You'll open yourself up to work for companies and clients who expect a higher rate from a contractor. It's a super way to increase your value and get taken more seriously.

You start taking yourself more seriously. I remember back in the $35-an-hour days when I was doubting my abilities and fearing every deadline like I was writing with a noose around my neck. I didn't take myself seriously enough to present myself as someone with value and skill. I attracted clients who thought pretty much the same thing -- I was cheap and able to be pushed around. Now with the rates over $100 an hour, I know I'm worth it because I put my all into every project and I work to make sure the client's needs are met and my own professional needs, as well. I take myself seriously, and that's projected in every client communication. They agree by hiring me.

You meet earnings goals faster. When that starts happening, it's time to increase your earnings goals.

When was your last raise? Do you think you're working at the hourly rate you should be? What would it take to get you there?

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Monthly Assessment: May 2012

What I'm reading: Mosquitoes by William Faulkner
What's on the iPod: Hypocritical Kiss by Jack White

Wow. Back one day and I'm overwhelmed with work. Yes, a ton of it. When I left, I had three projects on hold. Now I'm back, I have five articles and two of those projects left to finish. And I now have another ongoing gig that requires two projects/week. Time to caffeine up! It was getting to the point I didn't want to answer any more email yesterday for fear more work come in!

The good news is a lot of the work is from conference contacts. I'm thrilled to see all that planning come to fruition. It was definitely worth it!

It makes this monthly assessment easier to write. I was gone for two weeks. Hence, I wasn't earning for two weeks. So it's lower than usual, but not lower than expected. Better, actually. Let's get to it:

I sent some. I'm thinking so. Three maybe? Of those, three assignments appeared this week.

I sent 10 this month -- two following up on conference contacts and eight more from that same conference list. No work from those. Yet. I'm not writing anyone off the way things are going!

Existing clients:
Don't you love having existing clients? I'm beginning to have quite a few, so it took a few minutes to A) kick the brain out of vacation/little sleep mode and B) figure out who asked for projects. I had five existing clients come back for more. Felt great that one of them was a newly acquired client and she had praise for the initial project. So I scored six assignments while I was gone, but still in May, so that counts for May.

New clients:
Four new clients thanks to the conference. The one mentioned above is working out a retainer for me. Another already has me set up to deliver projects weekly. One client has an article in his possession and is processing the invoice, and the other client is reviewing the content. I think that's it. I'm not quite back with both feet into the work.

I've had one referral that didn't work. They were looking for a full-time, on-site writer and since I'm two states away, that's not happening without an expensive commute. It's odd because they initially told my contact they wanted someone part time, telecommuting fine.

I worked two, almost three weeks out of the five we had last month. I billed exactly half what I normally bill in a full month. I'm fine with that given the workload staring me in the face at the moment.

Bottom line:
It is paying off big time to have planned out those meetings at the trade show. Four new clients, six inquiries, and a ton of magazine work from editors with whom I bonded -- all a super payoff for the work I put into the pre-conference planning. Also, my decision to answer emails during the first week of our vacation was a good one. I was able to accept work that would have been reassigned had they not reached me, and I got an invoice out.

How did you do in May? What worked? What didn't?

Monday, June 04, 2012

Head in the Clouds

What's on the iPod: Somebody That I Used to Know by Walk Off the Earth (originally by Gotye)

Hi. Miss me?

I missed all of you. I just went nearly a week without any Internet connection and while it's sad not being connected to the world, it's the most refreshing, freeing feeling. If you haven't tried it in a while (ever??), do. You'll be shocked at how much more creative you become.

We arrived last night at a respectable hour -- 7:30 pm -- without any idea how we'd get home from the airport. Yet neither of us were stressed. We both had this feeling something would work out. Turns out it did. I turned on the phone after we landed and found the text from daughter -- she was outside waiting, having not had to work the double shift she was scheduled for. We knew because that's how the entire trip went. Things just worked out.

After a fantastic week in Vancouver with people we adore and love (and who run the best B&B in the city -- I'm not kidding), we headed out of the rain and into the Canadian Rockies. It was love at first sight. The drive there was increasingly gorgeous, and we came upon a small town on one of our stops for gas and food -- Hope, BC. He was hoping to see a sign heading out of town that said "Abandoning all Hope", but alas. It was just "Come again!" We liked the town so much we stayed there on the way back through.

Onward to Jasper, AB, which is a town of 5,000 residents and one that's inside the national park. In fact, that's what makes these Rocky Mountain towns so great -- they're inside the parks, so their growth is regulated by the government. Amen. For when we headed outside of the park, we saw just what can happen when people decide they loved vacation enough to live there. But back to Jasper.

Great trails everywhere, from inside of town and outside. Given the exceptional food we had every morning during our stay in Vancouver, we were glad for the hiking. We stayed in a lovely place (photo above) -- a cluster of cabins and chalets along a river, again in the park (everything is in a national park). The river was loud with rapids, which was great to fall asleep to every night. The property was well-manicured and thought out to provide maximum relaxation. And relax we did. I was beginning to think I was a slug with all my sleeping in. But we earned it -- we hiked every day, and not short hikes, either.

Probably the best hike came when we decided against our will almost to do something touristy. We took tramway to the top of one of the mountains. Only it wasn't the top. No, you couldn't get to the summit without climbing on foot. So up through the snow we climbed. It took us an hour or so to get to one of the most incredible views in the Rockies. A 360-degree panorama of Jasper (dwarfed at this point) and the mountain range that it was tucked into. This is just a sample of what we were lucky enough to see.
We saw animals, too. Bears (luckily all from the car), elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, even a porcupine. Plenty of everything as the ground was just waking up and the animals were nursing youngsters. The warnings were everywhere -- elk calving (stay away from angry mothers!), bear-aware notices, and areas closed because of heavy grizzly populations and movements. 

There were also plenty of areas closed thanks to heavy snow. In a few cases, that didn't stop us, but where there were avalanche threats, we stayed away. 

We headed south on the Icefields Parkway, which would have been stunning had it not been for a rainstorm that brought the clouds below the mountains. Still gorgeous, but it was obvious that as we headed south, we also headed up. We ran into a snowstorm that luckily was short-lived, but the temps went from the 50s to the 30s pretty quickly. And that's how it stayed once we arrived in the Lake Louise area.

We stayed in another terrific place -- Storm Mountain. In fact, we stayed at the only place in Storm Mountain. The people there comprise the entire population of 10. Again, cabins, but these were built in the 1920s (most of them). We had a stone fireplace in a one-room cabin. It was heaven. It was by a highway that was frequented by trucks trying desperately to pull huge loads up the mountain, but there was no traffic during sleeping hours, so that was fine.

Fantastic food again. Since they're 25 minutes to any town, Storm Mountain has its own restaurant. We balked at being stuck eating in one place only (monopoly much?), but the food was so incredible, we came back all three nights. And it was much more reasonably priced than where we stayed in Jasper.

Now the snow was here to stay. We hiked trails that were so deep that one girl had to be pulled out by three people when she sunk to her hips (she was laughing hysterically). One trail at Lake Louise was to the lookout. We started up, thinking a "short" hike. Normally, it would be. However, the snow was easily three feet deep and we had to walk on top of the snow, which had been packed down by many before us trying to do the same thing. However, one false move to either side and you're at the mercy of your companion to get out!
We found the lookout after a hard climb. The view, like most, was terrific. The lake was still frozen over (probably will be for the next few weeks). We could see the Fairmont hotel, which faces the glacier (yes, we were pretty high up). What we couldn't see was the bench on the lookout point. Here's what we saw instead.

We drove into Canmore our last day and did some great hiking there. By now we had acclimated well and were feeling more fit (I actually lost weight this vacation!). So we took a trail that sent us up the mountain, but then we decided to see what was through the mountain pass, so we added about an hour each way to that hike, and we came back to our cabin spent, but happy.

Home called. We were forced by work and family to head back to Seattle for our flight home. We drove through Glacier National Park, which wore scars cut by several avalanches -- trees and heavy snow everywhere. It was beautiful. We were to stay in a motor inn in Revelstoke, but we were feeling like we could drive some more (only three hours), so we canceled our reservation and kept going. We ended up back in Hope at a lovely B&B run by a woman who'd moved to Canada from South Africa decades prior. She had a nice home that was impeccably renovated and furnished. She gave us more suggestions for walks, which we took and were not disappointed. But we were tired. So we headed to Seattle without much delay.

There we went to the Boeing plant to see their gallery. Neat little display, but lacking on anything really to write home about. So off to our B&B, where we'd stayed last year.

Trouble was our innkeeper had fallen a few weeks prior and had nearly died from bleeding on the brain. She said it was lucky she fell walking into the hospital to visit someone, but from what her friends said, she was lucky to be alive at all. She had completely forgotten about us showing up (understandable), but wouldn't hear of us going anywhere else. We were reluctant to stay, but her friends assured us she wasn't going to wait on us at all -- they did. We kept it low-maintenance and did what we could for ourselves, and we gave her bear hugs as we left. She remembered my mother-in-law and remembered us even though we'd stayed just one night. She's the type of person who gathers people in like lost sheep, and judging from the number of people who'd come to see her (some from Santa Barbara by car), it was obvious her charm.

Home now and to work right away. I gained clients while I was away, and I have deadlines. So I must put toothpicks on the eyelids and get something done today as I try to get back into the correct time zone.

Glad to be back among you all.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Scope Creep

I'm still somewhere deep in the Canadian Rockies and probably without an Internet connection. I can tell you from experience that I love being disconnected. It's absolutely refreshing. Still, after about two weeks, I'll be getting that "missing mouse" twitch from computer withdrawal.

I'm leaving this for you to contemplate until I can get myself back to civilization.

Over the years I've talked with a lot of clients about various projects. For the most part, most clients get that what you spell out in an agreement or during talks is the limit of your agreement. However, there are clients who aren't familiar with working with contractors. They may still be filtering your relationship through an employer/employee mindset, for they're the ones who usually say "Oh, and one more thing we'll be needing..."

It's scope creep -- adding work to a project that wasn't in the original agreement. And it can kill your compensation level.

Suppose your client comes to you with a simple website project --rewrite the Home page for $400. The rest is fine, he says. So you draw up the agreement, collect the deposit and get to work.

You deliver the project for his review. His comments come back "Here are my changes. Also, could you look at the About Us page? I want to incorporate the ideas in the Home page first paragraph into that page. Just one sentence should do it."

You think What's one sentence? and agree to do it. Back goes the copy for his review.

Back it comes with this note:  "That looks good. Only now I'm not sure the copy on that page reflects the same message as we have on the Home page. Can you tweak that a little?"

Hmm. Okay, so you tweak it and send it back.

Back it comes, only this time he's happy with the About Us page. "Great job! But now I'm wondering if I shouldn't combine the About Us page with the Company History page. Can you try that and see how it sounds to you?"

You grit your teeth and do it, thinking it's the last thing you'll do that will rid you of this client's additional demands. Big mistake, for those demands? They're going to keep coming. Why shouldn't they? You're basically agreeing piecemeal to do the entire website for $400.

How to handle the scope creep:

Stop it on the first request. When he mentioned the About Us page, you should have said, "Great! Happy to do it. Let me draw up another agreement for that work. And while I'm at it, are there any other pages or projects you'd like me to include in this?"

Agree for a fee. "Happy to handle that for you! Would you prefer I charge you my hourly rate of $XXX for that, or would you like a flat fee price in the new contract?"

Ask more questions. Maybe your client doesn't really know what they need. Ask their goals, what they hope to see in the end, what doing this and not a larger project accomplishes for them, what their budget is. The answers will help you decide if they're wanting more than they're paying for, they're the types that get spur-of-the-moment ideas, or they're stymied by indecision.

Re-evaluate the client and the project. On paper. Even if you've done this at the outset (and you should have), sometimes client needs change or they remember things that should have been in the original agreement. Create a new scope of work document and if necessary, draw up a second agreement for what you'll call this next phase of the project with the new price.

Beg off the work. This isn't your only client and if there's no extra compensation involved, there's no reason for you to keep your hand up to that flame. Say no thank you. Don't apologize -- even an "I'm sorry, but I have other projects coming in" is too much of an apology. You're not sorry. You're simply busy elsewhere. Don't agree to it if you don't want to do it for free.

How do you avoid or quash scope creep?
Words on the Page