Part 2 of our thoughts on contracts Read Part 1 – “Your Friend, The Contract” Here

Your contract is firmly in place, yet things are going off the rails. Your client isn’t meeting their obligations, causing delays and extra work for you. How can you effectively deal with this scenario?

First, recognize almost every contractor has encountered this situation at least once during their business tenure. Most clients understand you can’t produce results if they don’t give you what you need, but occasionally you’ll find yourself dealing with someone who expects magic despite their inaction.

As an independent contractor, managing such a situation falls on you. Some prework will help avoid pitfalls, so even if your existing contracts are all working smoothly, prepare for the inevitable by developing clear process expectations to include in all future contracts. Review our Part One, Your friend, the contract post for suggestions. For example, include crucial elements such as the dates you need specific information from the client and the date you will produce the corresponding work. If you need the client’s financials to create a requested report by the middle of each month, state the date they are required. Include consequences of inaction on their part in a clear statement: “Any delays resulting from the late delivery of complete information by ABC will remain ABC’s responsibility. Jill Contractor will do their best to accommodate and assist ABC in such a case but cannot guarantee federal or provincial reporting requirements will be met.” Remember, once the client signs the contract, it’s a binding agreement, so make it work for you.

Now that you’ve set up for the future, how do you deal with an awkward current situation? Here’s what we do:

1. Use the opportunity to review and develop your red flag ability.

Chances are you had a suspicion you might run into challenges with a particular client. Clues such as a reputation for being difficult or their disinterest in drawing up a contract point to possible problems in the future. It’s tempting to take on new work in anticipation of the income or because we think we can handle a client that no one else wants to touch, but a problematic client can wear you down and affect your ability to service other contracts. Think carefully before entering a relationship with any business you suspect will cause more trouble than worth. Watch for signs of potential bad behaviour such as missing meetings and ignoring communications. If you still decide to proceed, double up your written processes and expectations in the contract. Make sure it’s signed before you start any work – you’ll be glad you did later.

2. You are not an employee.

There’s a reason you’ve decided to work for yourself, and it might be because you don’t enjoy traditional employee/employer environments. In addition to your specialty, your skill set needs to include the ability to avoid being sucked into any client office politics, drama, or crisis. Be professional and stay clear of gossip or expressing opinions about your client or their employees. You are an independent professional contracted to provide a specific service, not take sides, or settle internal issues.

When issues escalate, sending written communications is in your best interest. This creates a clear record of your attempts to resolve an issue, should things ever devolve to a legal capacity.

Practice a neutral but factual tone. For example, write, “Without the last three month’s financial statements, the annual report cannot be completed on the agreed-upon date in our contract. As you know, reminders and requests for the overdue January, February, and March 2022 statements were made on June 12th, 22nd, and July 3rd.” Please advise when you are available to discuss an amendment to our contract to reflect a new report delivery date. Without these crucial statements, delivery by August 1st will be compromised.”

3. Amend, amend, amend!

If the critical deliverables of your contract change, amend your contract. Sometimes a client recognizes your skill would help in another project, and they may ask you to take on an extra task. Or they decide to take a new approach to their original plan, and you find yourself spending substantially more time and effort because of a Plan B plot twist. The truth is there will always be clients who want to take advantage of you. If your client shifts focus and you are told not to worry about the original deliverables, stop, drop and roll – you’re about to catch fire. Stop and get clarification on the new tactic, drop the redundant deliverables by drafting an amendment to the contract reflecting the new task or goals (and the applicable fee, if any), and then roll with the change to demonstrate your flexibility. These actions will protect you if the client suddenly decides plan B isn’t working and expects you to produce the original deliverables. After all, you promised them in a signed contract, right?

4. Know your worth.

Contract creep is when small additional tasks start to bog you down. New entrepreneurs often fall into the trap of wanting to please a client at all costs. Don’t fall into the trap of taking on small unpaid assignments to appear helpful. For example, the client asks you to take minutes in a client-initiated meeting. This is different than taking your own notes as they pertain to your part of a project. Being responsible for recording generic minutes means your concentration will shift. It’s also not your job – remember, you are not an employee. One way to avoid being ambushed by such a request is to ask your client a day before the meeting when meeting minutes will be available. This reminds your client to assign this task, and if they ask you, try one of these responses:  

  • Say you appreciate the offer but want to give them the most value for your time and so need to concentrate on listening to the information shared during the meeting.
  • Act surprised but agree and say you would be happy to take minutes on this first occasion at no charge and will send them your fee schedule for administrative tasks.

Final Thoughts

Managing client expectations can be one of the biggest challenges an independent contractor faces. The more you anticipate and prepare in advance, the easier the relationship will be. It takes time to fine-tune your intuition, see past impressive talk, and identify false promises, so being proactive in setting standards, insisting on clearly defined deliverables, and knowing your worth are essentials for every contract.

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