How To Get Treated Like the Professional You Hopefully Are: 8 Critical Insights for Independent Contractors and Small Business Owners
People will treat you the way you let them treat you.
I’ve been in business for myself for two decades, part of that time as an independent contractor with a research assistant and more recently as a small business owner with partners and employees. To say I’ve learned a lot the hard way is an understatement. But after 20 years, I can say there are definitely some keys to success and sanity that every small business owner and independent contractor should know.
The bottom line is exactly what your mother told you — people will treat you the way you let them treat you. Read on to find out how to make sure that treatment is not just fair but exceptional:
1) Provide stellar service or products. I wish I could say this goes without saying, but, unfortunately, too few people understand that if you aren’t providing clients something of real value that they cannot get anywhere else, then you don’ have much power at the negotiating table. If you aren’t an Ace at what you do, skip this post for now, and figure out how to be the best at what you do first.
2) Be pleasant, professional, and firm…ALL the time. I wish this could also go without saying, but it doesn’t. Who hasn’t gotten an email from a client or vendor and wanted to pick up the phone and scream or dash off an angry reply? Have the thought, but don’t take the action.
If a customer has made your blood boil, take an hour, three hours, a day if you need to before responding and addressing the matter. No one makes wise decisions, counsels responsibly, or conducts himself or herself professionally when furious. Always conduct yourself with professionalism and kindness. That doesn’t mean you don’t hold your ground on an important issue (like getting paid or addressing a contract violation), but you can hold your ground with dignity.
3) Don’t work with high visibility brands or Fortune 500 companies. It’s easy to get starry-eyed when the likes of Google or McDonald’s come calling. I get it. I’ve been there. But here’s the ugly truth about working with high visibility global brands and Fortune 500 companies: They will treat you however they feel like, and they’ll pay you (or not) whenever they feel like it, too. Brands and companies with household name recognition already have reputations and staying power — they know they’re virtually untouchable, and most will act like it.
Unlike you, they don’t have to protect their reputations like gold. Sure, it’s unfair that you can’t get away with being late on payments to your vendors, but big companies can, and they will. Some of the lowest and latest paying clients I’ve had have been globally active businesses with major brand recognition. Most make a habit of using vendors as purveyors of short-term loans. It is not uncommon to run into payment terms of 45 to 90 days…if not worse, and most will not negotiate on this. Unless you’re working for fun or don’t care if you have reliable cash flow, skip signing contracts with the Apples and Amazons of the world.
You’ll find medium-sized, well-established firms to be much more reliable sources of revenue and fair treatment. And if something goes wrong, they’re going to be much more willing to work with you to solve the problem, whether it’s a troublesome account manager or an overdue bill. They can’t afford to leave a trail of sour relationships with vendors behind them.
4) Don’t work for less money than you’re worth. It will set a deadly precedent that will keep you from ever getting ahead. You may be able to make up for a low-paying customer who gives you high volume workload for a while, but realize there is a limit to how much work you can take on. Focus your efforts on acquiring and keeping clients who pay market standards or better.
5) Establish clear payment terms and enforce them. If you don’t have a clear payment policy, it’s time to establish one, and it should apply to all your customers. Thirty days is the standard across most industries, and it’s difficult for a small business with its own payroll and vendors to pay to accommodate anything greater than that anyway. If a prospective client balks and says the company standard is 45 or 60 days, I’d urge you to run the other way. A client who can’t pay his or her bills in 30 days is one who is either not financially solvent or who is cooking the books to meet KPIs. Either way, you want nothing to do with the situation.
And make sure you also have policies in place for what happens when client billings go past due. Institute finance charges and enforce them. If a client is going to use you as a lending institution, then do what a bank does and charge interest.
6) Promptly ditch clients who don’t pay their bills (and that includes not paying in timely fashion). I have a lot of friends and colleagues who are independent contractors, and they marvel at how quickly I will stand up and fight if a client goes past due on accounts and how willing I am to dump said client. “Aren’t you scared they won’t hire you again? Or that you won’t find replacement work?” they ask.
Um, why would you want to work for someone who doesn’t pay his or her bills on time or doesn’t pay them at all? You’re wasting your time on clients like this. Stop expending energy chasing down payments and doing work for deadbeats, and focus that energy on acquiring and keeping clients who honor their financial commitments.
If a client goes past due once, kindly remind him or her of your payment terms. If it happens twice, particularly twice in a row, you’ve got a worrisome pattern on your hands. It’s probably time to pull up stakes and find a better homestead elsewhere.
7) Don’t work for assholes (unless you’re going to charge them a premium and you have the stomach for the drama). As I noted at the beginning, your clients are going to treat you however you accept being treated. If they’re routinely disrespectful, unprofessional, and demanding (i.e. they yell at you on the phone or over email, they routinely contact you outside business hours and expect your immediate attention, etc.), then it’s time to evaluate if this is all worth the stress. If they’re paying you three times the market rate for your work, then maybe it is. But exercise your PITA (pain in the ass) client fee wisely.
8) Work for clients who treat you with respect, value what you offer, and pay you fairly and on time. This is less a final insight than a summary of all the above. If you always seek out and maintain clients who treat you considerately, value you, and offer you fair compensation on time, then you’ll find your professional existence much more pleasant, far less stressful, and perhaps even gratifying. Never sacrifice your dignity or your ability to earn a living for yourself and your employees to customers who don’t value you and your service.
Deborah Huso is an award-winning and internationally published journalist as well as founding partner of elite content marketing firm Write Well Media.