Thursday, January 27, 2011

Suckerpunched (or Why Friends and Family Make Lousy Clients)

Dante's circle for unscrupulous businessmen
Tim Berry at Planning Startups Stories wrote a nice post earlier this week titled "Tip: Mistakes are more fun than tips." In that spirit, allow me to share a doozy of a stupid that I committed a few months ago that finally imploded yesterday.

As a general rule, I don't do paid work for friends and family. My experience is that they expect too much for too little, and emotions play too much of a role — i.e., they're lousy clients.

But in late fall, during a slow week and as a favor to a family friend, I took on a referral for writing the content for a small website. The owner seemed nice enough, her website was ghastly, and she needed a few business letters written. I offered a modest bid. Which she promptly accepted.

The two business letters were the top priority, so I promptly and heavily rewrote what she'd sent me, and she signed off on them after a round or two of revisions. So far, so good. I commenced on the website copy, and she seemed to be happy with the initial two pages.

She's an event promoter, so the remaining items were brief summaries of the various events she handles. And that's where things got sticky. It turned out, there really wasn't any source information on the events other than what she'd posted in previous years, and some of the events had no information at all. So, I asked if I could interview her in order to gather some raw ideas about what she wanted. She was unresponsive. I MacGyvered it as best I could, but she wanted more and fresher information. I reminded her of my offer to do it interview style, and again, she just seemed more inclined to grumble than to help me help her.

At this point she wanted to know exactly how much her tally was. I provided a summary, subtracting out what she claimed was unusable. She asked me to send an invoice, and I did.

Then I didn't hear from her. Then I sent a second notice, and a polite email asking when I could expect payment or if she'd like to break it up into two installments. No response.

Fast forward to yesterday. I called her, and again, as politely as possible, inquired about the status of the invoice. At which point she informed me:
  • She had to heavily rewrite the letters I'd given her (which was news to me, since she'd approved them)
  • She had to rewrite the copy I'd provided for the web page (which was an outright lie, based on comparing what I sent her to what's currently posted on the site)
  • She had shown my invoice to another writer she knows (!) who thought that it was too high (unsurprising, given that the other writer charges her about half my hourly rate)
I'd been suckerpunched. I asserted that she did indeed sign off on the items I'd provided, and she retorted, essentially, "Nuh-uh-no-I-didn't." I stood by the invoice, in which I'd been painfully generous, and she basically spat on it. After a bit of back-and-forth, I simply said, "You know what, Sandy [not her real name], clearly we're not getting anywhere here. I think it's best if you just send me a check for what you believe you owe me. If that's $0, that's your prerogative."

I've already wasted the time, no sense in wasting further mental energy, and the piddling amount isn't worth pursuing legal action. Even after full-time freelancing for almost 12 years now, evidently I occasionally need to re-learn stupid mistakes in order to remember them. Tattoo it on my butt and carve it on my tombstone: No more friends and family clients.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Freelancer Bill of Rights? No, thanks.

My friend Katharine O'Moore-Klopf of KOK Edit posted an item about the Freelancers Union Freelancer Bill of Rights over at the EFA Yahoo Groups board, and I couldn't help but toss in my two cents. (Update: As Katharine notes in the comments, she is not affiliated with the Freelancers Union and was only providing information for freelancers to check out. My apologies for not making that clear!)

I confess I don't particularly groove on the language from their intro page: Freelancers have the right "to empower themselves to demand fair treatment from clients."

Really? *Demand*? I'd argue that fair treatment is earned, not guaranteed.

The list itself? Meh. Nothing you haven't heard before. Frankly, you can already do all of the items they outline if you'd like — but I come down in the camp of the commenter who said: "If every time I hired a plumber, electrician, or snow plow guy he came back with a 'Plumber/Electrician/Plow Guy Bill of Rights' I wouldn't do business with him." Bingo. My primary issues are these:
  • A document such as the Freelancer Bill of Rights positions clients as adversaries rather than business partners. 
  • Do you really want to come across as defensive and difficult to work with? Chill, breeze.
  • As Lori Widmer riffed in "The Freelance Nevers" and "Writerly Misconceptions" this week, there are no absolutes.
Call me cynical (trust me, you won't be the first), but I believe this type of initiative actually holds freelancers back: Thinking that there's some sort of magic pill that'll make all the bad clients go away. Thinking a big brother like a union will enforce The Rules to protect you. Thinking that setting a minimum price will protect you from lowball clients.

As we discussed on Halloween, it all comes down to watching your own tail. You choose, every day, what you want to do, who you want to do it with, and how you want to do it. No like? Don't do.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Waterboarding the English language

Last week, I received an emergency story assignment from one of my longtime editors who was heading out the door for vacation. I needed to get a short quote from a few different sources for a piece about improving your finances in the coming year. Easy peasy.

I was reminded, in the process, that our country is litigating itself into oblivion.

I'm accustomed to running quotes by my sources, though there are reasons why I won't show someone the entire story. That said, this particular situation was truly a stunner. One of my sources gave me a two-sentence quote of fairly standard financial advice that needed approval from her compliance department. As it happens, she had received an honor in 2010 as one of the country's top 100 women in her field, and I wanted to mention that as a way of boosting her credentials. The compliance department said that was fine, as long as I included the following disclaimer:
"Source: Magazine X's Top 100 Women [in her field], [month/date], as identified by Magazine X, using quantitative and qualitative criteria and selected from a pool of over 450 nominations. [People] in the Top 100 Women [in her field] have a minimum of seven years of [experience] and [seriously large amount of money that they manage]. Qualitative factors include, but are not limited to, compliance record, interviews with senior management and philanthropic work. [Specific performance] is not a criterion. The rating may not be representative of any one client's experience and is not indicative of the [specific job title's] future performance. Neither [the source's company] nor its [people in the same job as my source] pay a fee to Magazine X in exchange for the rating. Magazine X is a registered trademark of the [even bigger publishing conglomerate name]. All rights reserved."
In case you're not counting, that's about 150 words to disclaim a 8-word phrase that stated a simple fact that someone had received an industry honor.

How, exactly, those bon mots of legalese would prevent anyone making a foolish decision with his or her money, I am not sure. But, what I *am* confident of is that this little exercise in the waterboarding of the English language — not to mention common sense — surely cost the interviewee's company several hundred dollars in legal fees.

Fees which the parent company eventually charges as fees to its customers, making life more expensive and retirement ever more elusive...and proving that our lawyer-legislators are ignorant, above all, of The Law of Unintended Consequences.