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Columns by Peter Economy

When Hackers Attack

The Occasional Free Lunch


Making Up Is Hard to Do

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Lip-Reading Lessons

When a client says… "I just don't have time to take care of all the details," what he really means is... "I want you to take care of all the details."

When a client says... "We've got to get this extra task done but I don't have the money to pay for it," what he really means is... "I want you to do this extra task for free."

When a client says... "Do you have any other jobs that would conflict with what I need you to do?" what he really means is... "I want you to clear off your calendar and devote your every waking moment to my project."

When a client says... "I'll be out of town for a couple of weeks, would you please step in while I'm gone?" what he really means is... "I want you to take charge of this project for a while, maybe forever if everything goes well."

When a client says... "You wouldn't have an ethical problem doing this, would you?" what he really means is... "We're skating on very thin ice ethics-wise -- are you willing to take the fall?"

When a client says... "Don't call me, I'll call you," what he really means is... "Don't call me, I'll call you."

Read My Lips (When Clients Make Silent Requests)

Have you ever been in the middle of a gig, and had the sensation that your client wanted a totally different product -- or wanted you to work on an entirely different job -- but never openly said so? You know what I mean: the contract says that you're to run a focus group for a new flavor of toothpaste, but the client keeps hinting that you should sketch some ideas for the publicity campaign. If so, you're not alone. This happens all the time to IPs.

Some IPs make it a habit to stay alert for their clients' unspoken requests. By understanding them when they're made, and then taking action to fulfill them, they deliver first-class, grade-A, kick-ass service. The clients show their appreciation by sending more work to the IPs. It's a simple, win-win situation for everyone.

At least, that's the theory.

Trouble is, reality doesn't always work out quite so nicely -- in fact, things can get downright nasty. Many freelancers get burned, if not scorched, when, under pressure from a client contact, they diverge from the original agreement. The story goes like this: client pressures IP to add another task or two to his workload, or to take on another project altogether. IP picks up the pigskin and runs for a touchdown. But when it comes time to submit an invoice for the extra work, guess what? No extra point: "I'm really sorry Mr. Sucker -- I mean, IP -- but I can only pay you the amount we agreed to in the contract. If I'd known that it would be such a hassle, I wouldn't have asked you to do it in the first place."

The Road Less Traveled

When a client gives you that special wink, or shows you a sign, or throws you the secret handshake, what should you do?

There are several different paths that you can take through this sometimes thorny patch of woods. The first option is to go for it -- hey, good client relations start with giving your clients what they want, right? -- and do just as the client bids, gratis. A second option is to start shouting at the top of your lungs, "Are you kidding me? Didn't you read our contract, you exploitative lunatic?" Myself, I prefer to follow a third, less extreme option, which cuts a middle ground between the first two.

A couple of years ago, I signed on for a job with a big-time client. The gig went beyond the scope of my usual projects, which invariably consist of me sitting in front of a computer all day typing words as fast as I can (just as I am right now!), while trying to ignore the gravitational pull of the Internet, or that electric guitar in the closet that's always calling my name.

The contract was very clear about my responsibilities: I was to serve as the co-editor of a book, to write a couple of chapters, and to help coordinate the process of assembling the text, for which I would be paid a fixed amount of money. Now I've been around contracts my whole working life -- my first "real" job out of college was as a contract negotiator, and my very first book was entitled Negotiating to Win -- so I know that if you're a smart IP, and you want to get paid for the work that you do, you do what the contract says to do, period. If you do less than you've agreed to, you risk pissing off your client, and potentially the loss of a great gig. Do more than you've agreed to, and you may not get paid for your extra effort. That might not be a big deal if you've only done a little bit extra, but it could be a very big deal if you've done a lot extra.

So when my IP radar said that the client wanted me to range far beyond the terms that we had agreed to -- I was expected to direct the work of the other IPs, line up a publisher for the work, help to negotiate a contract, and more -- I supported his requests 100 percent, and made a point of letting him know it. But I also let him know that his requests would require a fresh infusion of cash. I gave him a price, he said "yes," and we both lived happily ever after.

Don't Be Shy

When your client makes a silent request, don't be shy: drag it out into the open. If it's going to cost your client more to pursue it, be sure to let your client know exactly how much more, and suggest that your agreement be modified to take this additional amount into account.

The client may decide to add the task and add more money to your project pot, or she may decide to have you back off on another task so you can work on the new one, keeping your project funding unchanged. Or she may simply decide to forget all about the silent request altogether. Give your client the option to choose the course of action she wants to take -- if you make the decision yourself, you may be putting yourself at risk.

But, whatever you do, if a silent request is going to have a significant impact on your finances, the project schedule, or deliverables, don't simply act on the request and hope for the best. While this might work just fine with a long-term, established client -- someone you trust and with whom you've built a good working relationship -- simply hoping for the best with a new client is often a prescription for getting screwed. And while getting screwed once or twice is a great way to learn your lesson, getting screwed regularly is not the best way to become a successful IP. That is, unless your place of business is the Mustang Ranch.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Peter Economy if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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