Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lessons Learned: Get It in Writing

It's 7 o'clock and I'm rewarding myself with wine and McDonalds (hey, stop looking at me like that). For what you might ask? For having an awesome writing day and making lots of money? Oh, don't I wish! Nope, it's for forcing myself to address a thorny payment issue that's cropped up.

Now I can't exactly give case studies on here (I maintain a strict no-client-talk policy), but what I can do is share what I've learned over the past few months about the importance of contracts.

Reflection #2: Don't write/edit until you've agreed to terms and signed a contract.

Yup, I'm going to be a stickler about this one going forward. Sure, it might rub some new clients the wrong way (what, you don't trust me?) but in the end, I'm really doing us both a favor. Because a good contract protects the interests of both parties.

My (shiny, new) rules:

1. CYA.

When you get a bonanza of new clients through cold calling, it's all very exciting. You may even think some of them are really great people that you'd love to drink a beer with.

But this isn't a love fest -- this is business. And in business, a little paranoia is healthy. Especially when you're relying on new, untested clients for your livelihood (and they're likewise relying on you).

Ask questions, clarify, negotiate, and above all, work with the client to create a strong contract that protects you both.

2. Know your deal-breakers.

Here's a little gem I learned in counseling school -- every healthy relationship has deal breakers. In other words, if there's nothing your child/partner/client could do that would make you turn your back on him/her/it, you're both in trouble.

So if you receive a contract that has confusing or unfavorable terms, it's healthy and necessary to say so and ask for what you need.

During the negotiation phase, it's helpful to break down your desires into "must haves" and "would likes." No, negotiation doesn't mean you get everything you want. But don't back down when it comes to your deal-breakers (which will vary from person to person).

Here's a breakdown of my own personal must-haves when working with brand new commercial clients (these vary a bit based on the situation). Keep in mind, I am not a lawyer, and this is by no means legalese:

* Copyright clause -- copyright transfers only upon full payment.

* Acceptance clause -- if client makes no reply within 30 days of submission, the work is deemed accepted and the client can be billed, with additional work performed on an hourly basis.

* Detailed description of the work -- Scope and length of the piece, number of meetings, number of interviews, photos, captions, research to be conducted, reimbursement of expenses, number of rounds of revisions included. For editing, specify the number of passes included, the style manual to be followed, internal style sheets to be consulted, and fact-checking requirements.

* Detailed description of client's responsibilities -- what support the client will provide and when (setting up interviews, researching keywords, submitting work for editing, etc).

* Scope clause -- all work outside the scope of this agreement will be billed at your hourly rate.

* Termination clause -- if either party terminates the agreement, the writer will still be paid for all work completed.

* No implied warranty clause -- client is responsible for proofreading and fact checking the finished product.

* Indemnity clause -- client holds writer harmless for any legal action resulting from use of the work.

* Down-payment clause -- 30 to 50 percent is the industry standard.

* Project time line -- with relevant deadlines specified.

Standing up for yourself in contract negotiations doesn't make you pushy or difficult. While some clients may not love the process, especially if writers past have signed quickly and quietly, they'll ultimately respect you for it, especially if you show them that contracting is in their best interests as well. If they resist after you've made your case, acknowledge the red flag.

Do I demand all of the above from every one of my corporate clients? To be honest, no. I've got several regulars that I've never even signed a contract with. (Mostly because in the beginning of my freelance career, I was much more timid about contracts, and it now seems strange to demand it of them after a year of doing business together.) Might I ever come to regret this? Possibly. But for now, I'm going to call it an acceptable risk.

But for new clients, and especially those I find through cold calling, contracts are now my rule.

3. When the scope begins to creep, it's time for a new contract.

Ever had a project that appeared to be simple, but turned out to be way bigger than either party anticipated? It happens all the time.

The moment you realize that the project you're working on is beyond the contracted scope, stop immediately, alert your client and either amend your current contract or draw up a new one.

Got that? Now hold up your iPhones and repeat after me:

I will be as courageous in contractual matters as I am in marketing.
I will be as courageous in contractual matters as I am in marketing.
I will be as courageous in contractual matters as I am in marketing.


  1. Sarah, I recently stumbled on your blog and have enjoyed catching up with it. I'm about to take the plunge and go full-time myself soon, so I can't tell you how great it is to see someone followed Bowerman's cold-call program and found success.

    It seems like your lesson learned here and in the previous post on money are related. Bigger companies hire people all the time, so getting someone to sign off on a contract or to send you a purchase order is the norm for them. And once you have that, they'll pay it, even if it takes 60 days and a phone call or two.

    But with your mom-and-pop shops, the owner is hiring you and paying the bill and doing everything else. Might need a bit more education up front and a bit more prodding at the end. Small businesses can be rewarding to work with, because you can see how your services help, but you really need a good working relationship with your smaller clients so that you're clear on your terms, both for your fee up front and for getting paid at the end.

  2. Dear Jon,

    Thanks so much for saying it better than I could. I know writers that straight up don't work for smaller clients for the reasons you describe. While I don't hold myself to that rule, I've definitely learned to be more choosy.

    Tracking my hours (and my hourly rate) really changed my perspective on discounts. But that's a whole 'nother post.

  3. I've been following your post since I saw you on Make a Living Writing, and you are certainly inspiring me to go from comfy freelancer to full-time copywriter!

    I made my first batch of cold calls today, so thank you so much for a script that works and the confidence boost to try it out.

    In the past, I've cold emailed... but it has never brought me results. I'm looking forward to following your advice and boosting myself.

    Thank you again!
    -Tiffany Barry

  4. Way to go! If at some point you want to come back and guest post on your experiences, I'm sure people would love to read it. Or if you post on your own blog, let me know and we'll link up.

  5. This is a great post.

    I don't think telemarketing is something that will ever stop being relevant any time soon.
    We always need to get from behind our desks and actually TALK TO SOMEONE once in a while if we want to make the sales.

    The phone in the hands of an inexperienced cold caller is a deadly weapon. Never forget it!

    We talk about this more on our forums at http://telecloser.com check us out!