"Put it in writing!" A very simple phrase, consisting of only four words, but a phrase that carries a lot of weight. For some business owners or even freelancers, who don't really see what they do as a full-fledged business, but, yet, perform services for a fee, just the thought of putting things in writing and and asking a client to sign on the "dotted" line can trigger a lot of angst and a variety of thoughts:
- Just one more thing to do;
- I just want to get the deal done;
- We don't need to sign anything;
- Everybody's clear on what everybody's supposed to do. These may all be true, but it cannot hurt to put something down on paper to simply document what's expected by the parties involved, and the reason: things happen! Not only do things happen, things also change, and not only do things change, people sometimes forget and also misunderstand what's expected after conversations end. Not that having something in writing means that people won't, can't, and don't still misunderstand, but wrapping written words around a handshake can, at least, give the parties involved a concrete frame of reference or context--a basis of something to talk about--should a misunderstanding arise.
Many of us in business don't like the idea of asking a client to sign a contract because we believe it may be too formal or intimidating for someone we want to do business with, especially if it's someone we know or share some familiarity with. Or, if you're anything like I am, you may just not feel like putting in the time, thought, and energy to write up the terms and conditions that will govern the deal you want to make. You just want to get it done! But the reality is that issues surface, and as much as we believe that nothing will go wrong, things do go wrong. Face it: if we knew ahead of time exactly what may go awry and how a very clear, simple, and straightforward agreement can go off course, we would put things in writing more often. But that's just it: we don't know! So, that's precisely why capturing expectations in a contract makes sense and can save us a lot of headache, heartache, time, energy, and not to mention, money later on. Please understand that putting things in writing doesn't mean that you need a 10-page document, typed in a 10-point font. But have something, even if it's written on the back of an envelope or even on a sticky note. You may think I'm kidding and just saying this in jest, but I am very, very serious. We can always confirm in a simple email to the client later on whatever we jotted down, but the point is that we need something. We should be clear about what products or services we're proposing to provide, but beyond that, we can't be afraid to tell prospective clients our basic terms and conditions for how we would like to do business. It's not unusual to be concerned about whether we'll lose an opportunity because a client doesn't like our parameters. But I tell you from firsthand experience that it's a lot more freeing to be honest up front about how we want to conduct business, even if it means not getting the business, than to get the business and have to deliver based on terms and conditions that we're very unhappy about, especially if it's because we didn't communicate them upfront. This is a sure set-up for feeling undervalued, taken advantage of, and disgruntled later on.
Several years ago, a gentleman, whom I met through my husband, asked me to draft a document that he could use for a business that he owned, and I agreed. After talking with this gentleman to get clear about what he needed, I told him how much it would cost and how long it would take for me to complete a draft for his review, and he agreed. But here's what's funny: the client wanted me to draft a service agreement that he could use with his clients for many of the same reasons I'm suggesting to you to put things in writing with your own clients, but what did I not do? Because he seemed like a very nice, mild-mannered, soft-spoken man, who, by his own admission, was not very business savvy but had a service he liked performing for others but often felt taken for granted and had experienced too many occasions, where his clients did not pay him what they owed or would change the services, which would result in him having to do more work than what was originally agreed upon, I did not put anything in writing with him that would govern the way we would do business (and I'm a lawyer!). I confirmed our initial conversation with an email, asking him for additional information, but as for outlining certain particulars of our arrangement . . . nope; I didn't do it. I didn't do it because I genuinely believed that it wasn't necessary. So, what happened? I drafted the document and sent him a draft to review within the time frame I promised, and once he gave the okay, I finalized the draft, provided him with a standard service agreement that he could use with his clients, and I then sent him an invoice. And then, what happened? This very nice, mild-mannered, soft-spoken, non-business-savvy man told me that he would pay the invoice in three installments over the next couple of months and that he would pay the first installment within the next few weeks. Excuse me?!?! Since when does the client dictate to the service provider the terms for payment?!?! But what was the problem? I never stated upfront, not to mention put anything in writing, that I expected full payment upon completing and delivering the final document. So, I simply said, "Okay" and considered this the cost of an education as well as a reminder of something I knew all too well: state my conditions, especially with respect to payment, up front--not just how much the client will pay but exactly by when (and, even, how) the payment is to be made. Since then, I have never experienced that again. (Well, maybe once, but nothing quite like that.)
So, question: will asking a client to sign a contract completely eliminate mishaps and misunderstandings that often occur in business? No! Will taking notes on what we and our clients discuss upfront and later confirming those discussions with emails mean that all of our business dealings will always go smoothly without any hiccups along the way? No! And are there times when you're doing business with someone you know or are familiar with, and you believe you can safely relax some of your standard practices? Of course! But, in general, apart from occasional exceptions, what does taking notes and putting things in writing, whether in a contract, on the back of an envelope, on a sticky note, or in follow-up communications do? It gives you and me the peace of mind, at the outset, that we stated what we require, addressed particular issues, and set certain boundaries, which should reduce, even if it doesn't eliminate, the amount of unpleasant surprises that we might, otherwise, experience later on. There's something about not saying anything nor being clear about what we want in the early stages of our talks with our clients that makes it difficult to bring it up later because it's like changing the rules of a game after the game has begun. And in all fairness, sometimes we don't know what issues to anticipate arising later on, so we don't know to speak to those issues early on. The reality is that we learn as we go, but as we go, each lesson we learn informs us how to handle things next time. So, the lesson here is what? Next time, don't do what I did. Better, yet, do what I didn't do: set your terms and conditions up front, as simple or as basic as they may be, but also put them in writing!
Like you, Katrina loves seeing people in healthy relationships (with themselves and others) that they genuinely enjoy and not just simply tolerate. This blog is dedicated to achieving that vision.