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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

3 Tips to Keeping Your Freelance Calendar Flexible (and Your Head on Straight)

In the comments on my earlier post "5 Tips for Freelancers," reader Stephanie Booth mentioned that she was having trouble setting aside work dates for clients who then cancel on her without having fronted any payment in advance -- leaving her with an empty calendar and too few actual paychecks.

Unfortunate as this type of occurrence is, there's nothing technically wrong with it. If a contract hasn't been signed, and up-front payments haven't been guaranteed, a client is perfectly within her rights to cancel any proposed or pending work. Of course, that doesn't make life any easier for freelancers like Stephanie, who could have allocated those saved dates to other work (or other, paying clients).

In that vein, here are three tips for managing those clients who seem to take up all of your time... without actually paying for it.

Don't Write in Pen What Should Be Written in Pencil

Often, a client will ask if you're free to meet or work on a specific day (or days), which may give you the impression that you have a guaranteed gig. But if your client is simply gauging your availability for possible future projects, or if "something comes up" that derails their intent, that guaranteed gig will often turn out to be nothing more than a suggestion -- and one that doesn't pay.

SOLUTION: Don't commit to any dates that aren't explicitly confirmed by the client. If you use scheduling software like iCal, etc., mark down any dates the client has inquired about with question marks, so you'll know you *may* have a conflict on that day. Then, if another client makes a similar, concrete request for the same day, you can decide if it's worth negotiating a different work date with this definite client or if the earlier possibility of work is more important than the promise of an actual gig. (Hint: It almost never is.)

Confirm All Dates at Least X Days Prior

As a freelancer, it can be difficult to know what you'll be doing tomorrow, much less a week or a month from now. That's why concrete additions to our calendars are so important -- they provide the structure that we base the rest of our surreal work lives around. The earlier you can turn a question mark on the calendar into an exclamation point, the easier it gets to navigate your own life.

SOLUTION: If you have to juggle multiple clients on multiple days, confirm all proposed meetings and work dates X days in advance. (For me, X might be one week; for the less flexible, X might be a month. It all depends on how much stability you need to feel confident in your own workflow.) If a client cannot confirm a proposed date by your cutoff point, politely inform them that you'll do your best to keep it free, but you cannot guarantee that your time won't be requested elsewhere.

As an added bonus, you'll likely find that the clients who can commit earliest to their proposed work dates are often the clients who pay on time, too. (THOSE are the clients you'll want to be most flexible in accommodating, for obvious reasons.)

Insist on Partial Payment Upon Reservation of a Date

If you find yourself assailed by clients who book up your calendar and then cancel all their appointments, your best recourse is to bill your clients as soon as a date is confirmed. Even a nominal fee will remind your clients that your time is worth money, and they shouldn't take either for granted.

SUGGESTION: This type of semi-drastic measure is best covered in a contract between you and your client well in advance of the start of work. If you're unsure whether you'll need to take such a step, include this verbiage in your standard work agreement, but denote that such fees are optional and may be invoked by you only if necessary. (This is a politely-worded warning that abusing your time will eventually lead to expenses.) Also, be sure that both you and your client are in agreement on your definition of terms like "confirmed," so you don't start billing them in a seemingly arbitrary (and indefensible) fashion.

This tip may not be necessary -- or pleasant -- for everyone, but it definitely separates the "talkers" from the "doers." And, in the end, all the talking in the world doesn't get a freelancer paid -- doing does.

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