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It’s easy to let free work and unbilled hours creep in to a relationship with a client. Sure, a potential client could just come straight out and ask you for a free article or some free development code to “prove” you’re up to the job. I’ve talked about how I handle that. Here though, I’m talking about the more subtle ways we can end up working for free:
- Phone calls that turn into a free consulting and brainstorming sessions.
- Back and forth email communication
- Delivering the work to the client
- Management and billing
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With a defined sales progress, it’s not too hard to avoid working for free before closing the sale. What happens once our lead has become a client?
Let’s give an example of a freelance writer on $40/hr. The freelancer has agreed with the client that a given article is going to take 3 hours to research and write. Great – that’s $120.
Now lets look at what actually happens:
- Communicate back and forth with client discussing ideas and topics (30 minutes)
- Research and write article (3 hours)
- Client asks for “a couple of quick things”:
- Find a few free images (15 minutes)
- Upload the articles to WordPress, with tags and categories applied (10 minutes)
- Format the article so it appears in line with the other blog articles (25 minutes)
- Link out to other articles on the client’s blog (10 minutes)
- Generating invoice, chasing payment, confirming payment (15 minutes)
Should the short amount of time to handle billing of the project be attributed to the client? No, not really. Factor it in to your hourly rate. So setting that aside, the total time handling the project has been 4 hours and 30 minutes. Our hourly rate has just dropped from $40 to $26.50!
By understanding the client’s needs in advance, it’s relatively easy to avoid this type of thing from happening.
Anticipate Your Client’s Needs
Client wants a writer for a well researched article. Chances are, it’s not for the client’s amusement – there’s a very specific reason that he needs the article done. It might be for publication in a magazine or journal, as a guest post on an industry website, or a blog post on the client’s own site. There’s one way to find out – ask!
Client: Can you do a detailed article on “The 15 Best Cat Toys?”
Freelancer: Sure. What’s it for? I ask so that I know how best to format and deliver it.
Client: It’s going up as a guest post on www.weloveourcats.com
Next step; anticipate what the client might beyond what he’s asked for. Give him that suggestion.
Freelancer: OK. It’s going to take me 3 hours to deliver a well researched 1,000 word article. If you want, I can handle the entire process from writing to publishing the finished article. I can find 3 free images, format the article in line with the blog’s styling, upload it, and add the relevant tags and categories. That’s going to add an extra hour.
If the extra suggestion is something that the client actually needs, and the time/cost quoted is reasonable – 99% chance he’ll say yes. On the other hand, if he declines, he knows that you won’t be doing it for free.
It comes down (as usual) to providing value to a client. When a client asks me for a website security test, I already know that they’re not going to get any value from me just performing the test. The value comes from the client understanding and taking action on the results of the test. So, as part of the quote, I include up to an hour of consulting after the report is delivered. That way, the client doesn’t get the report and then get faced with another bill if he wants to discuss it, i.e. actually take value from it.
Unbilled Phone Calls and Emails
The lines can sometimes get blurry with billing for calls and emails. It really comes down to the type of relationship you have with the client and the type of project you’re working on.
Generally, if a client is phoning or emailing me to give me work (i.e. a sales call), I won’t bill him for the privilege! If he wants to discuss the project, talk about strategies and finer details, or needs help writing a specification, then it’s a consulting call and it’s chargeable.
Same with emails – if we’re agreeing a project, it’s not chargeable. If it’s a quick question, I also won’t charge. I don’t want the client to think that every single interaction with me is going to cost him. If the client has a problem though and we’re communicating to find a solution and provide that value, then that should be chargeable.
Management & Billing
On the whole, management and billing is not chargeable. Freelancers get paid higher rates per hour than a salaried employee for 3 reasons:
- They’re running their own business, use their own equipment and have their own expenses.
- They don’t have any employee benefits or employee protection.
- The work can be casual or sporadic and there can be little to no guarantee of future projects.
Although that’s the reality of freelancing, it’s still possible to mitigate those risks to some extent. Optimizing any repetitive business processes cuts down on management time.
- Anticipate the client’s needs and offer a solution before hand
- Bill for consulting calls (you’re not a free advisor)
- Don’t bill for sales calls (it’s just greedy)
- Don’t bill for managing your own business (you can’t – it’s your own overhead)