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April 12, 2011


Keeping Clients Accountable. Like a Ninja.

by Katie

You have a client named…Splinter.

Splinter has a new job for you about once every two or three months.  The work tends to be interesting, but not overly taxing, and Splinter generally agrees to a higher hourly rate than many of your other clients.

Splinter is also consistently late.  He’s late to conference calls, passing on specs and worst of all, he’s generally 10-15 days late paying his bills.  He always pays, but he’s always late.

Splinter’s new project is the biggest project he’s ever offered you.  It’s one of the biggest projects you’ve ever been offered.  It’s interesting, exciting and it’ll pay extremely well.  It’s also on a very strict schedule. The due date is firm; if you miss it, you’ll owe Splinter penalties for not completing the project on time.

Whether you take the job and earn piles of money or take the job and lose your mind depends entirely on your mastery of Ninja Skill #946: Accountability.

By maplemusketeer via

Accountability, like all Ninja Skills, is a basic and necessary skill that must be mastered if you want to be a successful freelancer.  It’s not a question of whether or not you hold clients and co-creators accountable; you simply must.

Of course, because it’s a Ninja Skill, it’s not easy.  It’s damn hard.  Made even more difficult by the fact that accountability is telling someone to do what they said they’d do in the first place.  It can make you feel a bit like scolding a four year old for eating dessert first; it’s not like the other person didn’t know what they were doing was wrong, they were just hoping to get away with it.

By ahnfire73 via

Holding people accountable for the big things, like paying invoices on time, is easier if you also hold them accountable for the little things, like getting to meetings on time.  But how in the heck do you hold a client accountable for getting to a meeting 5 minutes late and not feel like a jerk?

Use your words. It doesn’t matter how many awkward situations I get in when negotiating; this remains the best advice.  If something happens that you don’t want to happen again, speak up and let the other person know you noticed.

Client late to a meeting?  “Because we’re starting a bit late, we’re not going to have as much time as we’d planned.  Let’s get started.”

Late payment?  “I got your check, Steve, thank you.  It was two days over due; would it be helpful to change the due date for future invoices?”

Doesn’t email the job specifications when she said she would?  “Hi, Sue, I wanted to check in on the specs.  You said you’d have them to me by the 4th and I haven’t received them.  Is there a delay or change in the schedule?”

You don’t have to belabor the point or scold anyone, but you do have to say something.  If you don’t let the other person know that something is important to you, they’ll not treat it as important when working with you.

Whenever possible, address these things in person or on the phone.  Emailing comments like these can make the tone sound passive aggressive and people tend not to take statements as seriously when hidden in email.

Follow through. Because you’re a good reader of this blog, you established in advance with your client that, if they fail to do something on schedule, they’ll owe you a rush fee or a deadline extension.  You’ve laid out clear boundaries for your clients so they know you expect them to be on time and engaged.  In order for them to take those limits seriously, you must follow through on them.

By M.V. Jantzen via

You’re working for a friend-of-a-friend on an illustration project.  You’ve told him that if he adds an illustration to the project within 2 weeks of the due date it will increase your hourly rate for the remaining time by $5.

A week and a half from the deadline he comes to you explaining that one, tiny additional illustration is needed to help a particular portion of the project to make better sense.  Reviewing the work, you agree with him; it would help. He OKed the project illustrations as complete a week ago.

You need to follow through on the pricing change.  You need to tell him that you can do it, but it will increase the hourly rate by $5 for the remainder of the project.

But he’s a friend of a friend!  And it’s just one illustration!  And it’s not because he’s being a jerk; the project will be better!

By Life As Art via

That’s all true, but if you don’t follow through on the consequences you declared at the beginning of the project, he’s not going to take your limits seriously.  Worse, he might tell folks he recommends you to that you don’t take your limits seriously.

Might you negotiate an alternative consequence?  Sure.  But for every action a client takes, you must have an opposite and equal reaction.  It’s the law.

Keep your promises. People are more readily accountable to folks they trust. Trust builds good working relationships, good working relationships are profitable, profitable relationships are worth investing trust in; it is the business circle of life.

So if you promise to have a project done at a particular time: do it.  Be on time to meetings, send invoices where the contract says to send invoices and return voicemail and email.

Keep the promises you make to your clients to show that you are trustworthy and they’ll be more likely to keep their promises to you.

When you make a mistake, because we all make mistakes, acknowledge it as soon as possible.  Don’t grovel, flog yourself or make excuses in an attempt to avoid consequences; just plainly tell them what happened and apologize.

By spinneyhead via

So go forth, my Ninjas, and use your Ninja Skills!  Train hard, fight bravely and honor yourselves.

  1. Jul 9 2011

    I’m well pleased that my image was used in this purposeful and specific presentation of boundary setting and accountability.

    Well done with wisdom and application too! 😉 Cha-ching! Two ninja stars up. Where they hopefully won’t skewer anything flying/passing overhead.

    • Katie
      Jul 9 2011

      I’m super glad you liked how your image was used! 🙂 Thanks for using the Creative Commons license; I’m always on the search for fun, silly and good pictures that I can use here.

  2. Jul 10 2011

    Hi Katie, I googled “keeping clients accountable” and ended up here… And I really appreciated everything you wrote. I’m not a freelancer, but still found your thoughts helpful to my context. Thanks! (…and having grown up in the 80s, that picture of Splinter at the start kinda created instant rapport for me anyway. lol!)

    • Katie
      Jul 10 2011

      Yollana — Yay! The internet works again! 🙂 Glad you found the info here helpful.

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