A Freelance Frustration That Still Surprises Me

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graphic balancing time and money

I’m describing this situation to you with a mixture of embarrassment and disbelief. The reason I’m embarrassed and find this hard to believe is because I feel ashamed that I have not yet solved this problem after the last TEN YEARS that I’ve been freelancing. Shouldn’t I know better by now? Shouldn’t I have filled the gaps and fixed the issue? Well, I have solutions to share too.

You can probably guess that my frustration stems from a financial matter. What I’m writing about today is part no-payment and part late-payment.

My contracts have evolved over the years to help streamline my process and keep projects moving. For example, I used to have partial payment upfront and then the balance due when the client reviews the drafts. One client did not respond for SIX MONTHS. I wrote off the project as a loss, but when I heard back from him, he expected that I give his project attention right away. That led me to adding provisions that the balance was due on DELIVERY of initial drafts, not review, plus another that explained any response outside of a specific time period would result in delivery delays or cancellation of the project.

It’s just not possible for me to hold space on the calendar, turn away or delay the start of other projects, and then have everything fall together with the same deadline. (Later, I terminated the dual project payment structure and now require the full project fee before I even begin work. If you’re interested in how I’ve changed payment structures for clients over the years, check out my posts on terms I’ve added to my freelance contracts and the evolution of my writing business.)

In the past year I’ve had a few situations where clients have been on fire and ready to go. I make space on my calendar in good faith, refer out other projects to ensure I have time available, and then I don’t receive a signed contract or payment. Months go by, and then the client resurfaces, impatient and wanting everything done yesterday. It’s a constant re-education process. I think I’ve figured out the three main areas that are fueling this frustration:

  1. My estimates expire in 10 days. My contracts include language that indicates the estimate is rescinded if the client does not sign and return it within 10 days.
    Solution: I’ve revised the terms to include that payment must be received within 10 days too. Since clients have been sending their contracts right away, but not sending their initial project payments for a month or more–it’s obvious I need to clarify the terms. Plus, 10 days might be insufficient for me. Depending on the scope of the project, I’m going to change this to 5-7 days going forward.
  2. I don’t accept electronic payments. I have not found a digital payment service whose terms I like for ongoing use. Generally, I reserve electronic payments for rush projects. I haven’t made time to investigate different services to find the right one. If I had a good service, then I wouldn’t be waiting on snail mail and post office visits.
    Solution: Make time to find a reputable electronic payment provider. Honestly, I am not going to do that right now, so I think an interim solution is to reinforce the importance of timely payments.
  3. I don’t state the obvious. If I were to tell a prospect or client that I’m a small business and that I turn away some projects to make room for others, and that I handle all the accounting and administration, yadda yadda, I feel like I’m talking down to them. I feel like they should know this already. Maybe they do need to be reminded.
    Solution: On consult calls and when delivering project estimates, I’m including a new reminder for empathy with a few gentle words about how I save space on my delivery calendar. I think it’s a kind and human way to reinforce the repercussions of their actions.

How have you handled delays that happen before a freelance project even starts?