Disorganized freelance client and not enough hours
February 7, 2019 2:07 PM   Subscribe

I've been working for a freelance client remotely for a few years, and lately it's not working that well. I like the work, but the overarching problem is that she (an entrepreneur) is pretty disorganized, which is affecting my workload and enabling my own bad habits. Note: We live in different states. How can I help fix this situation?

Here are the main issues I need to address:

1. This job was originally advertised as 25-30 hrs. a week, but for the last two years I've had an average of 10... (I didn't even realize this till recently, eek.) Fortunately, I've had other clients throughout -- but not anymore, so this is not sustainable! I need at least 20 hours. I did get an overdue raise, 8%, in December.

2. We use Slack, and she'll often either not read/not see (?) many of my posts/messages, so later she'll ask something I already said, or not answer what I asked.

3. Lately, she's not delegating some major stuff to me that she should be, and not hiring another freelancer to do certain tasks that she considers "below" my position. (The latter was her idea. One of these tasks is negatively affecting my main tasks.)

4. I set up an organizational system last year that she was fine with and that we were using, but she's using it to a lesser extent now, which isn't nearly as helpful to keep us on track.

5. We've had weekly planning meetings by phone in the past, but we haven't done this in months. I keep forgetting to ask ... because I'm a bit disorganized too, for sure.

6. She misses her own deadlines, which has conditioned me to think that deadlines don't matter too much -- and then be lax about my own. I know this is bad, and not an excuse.

I have an interview next week with for job that is 20 hrs. a week -- on staff, and in a local office. There are several reasons I'm considering no longer freelancing (life reasons), but the big one here is that I'll get 20 hrs. They need to hire quickly, so I'd have very little time to decide. Alternately, I'm considering getting a second job (local/staff) to supplement this client's work (maybe 10 hrs.?), but I don't know. The one I'm looking at pays a lot less than this client pays me (for good reason), but it'd be guaranteed hours and money coming in.

My inclination is to be totally honest and just do a brain dump by email or Slack (tactfully, and offering my help). I feel like phone might not be best -- this way, she could think about everything and get back to me. She did recently say she wants to have a phone call to, among other things, talk about how many hours I'm working a day, etc.

Thank you for reading my book.
posted by trillian to Work & Money (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Do the interview and if you are offered the job, go from there.

"I've accepted a position that is 20 hours a week, so I need for the two of us to do a strategic review of hours and our work process so that we can make the hours I have available work for you most efficiently."
posted by DarlingBri at 2:16 PM on February 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

Definitely go for that other job. It sounds like this client isn't right for you for a lot of reasons - not enough hours, not enough action, and it also seems like you're developing bad habits in response (which is human!)

That said, it sounds like you need to take the reins back and start with a status meeting. Outline everything you're doing and anything you're waiting for on a spreadsheet really quickly (like do 20 minutes of work on it) and then have a meeting with her. As a part of that meeting set goals for the next two weeks, based on X hours of work.

Don't have a heart to heart unless you have other work lined up. The way that she put the topic of your phone call makes me wonder if she's questioning the value you're bringing to her. Kick your organizational and professional skills into high gear here - if you're the professional, that's part of the value you are hopefully able to bring to her.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:29 PM on February 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

do not preemptively do a brain dump -- this does not improve your situation here.

do take the interview.

then, if you get the extra gig or not, think about:

a) whether you want 10 hrs / wk with the client, and how to make that work, or
b) how to present to the client that additional billable hours would be to their advantage, or
c) how to best fire your client.
posted by zippy at 2:36 PM on February 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Oops, sorry if I was confusing!


1. Stay with client and try to get more hours (and have a conversation about ... stuff), hopefully around 20 (less than what I did a few years ago, but more than now).
2. Stay with client and also try to get a lower-paying, local job to supplement -- around 10 hours. (Didn't apply yet -- could also look for other options locally.)
3. Leave client and (if I get an offer after my interview next week) take new 20-hour local job. I have a slightly better chance than usual, I think, because the hiring manager is my friend's wife and I've met her. (Big adjustment after freelancing for five years to switch to a staff, in-office job, though!)

(I work part time for family reasons.)
posted by trillian at 2:43 PM on February 7, 2019

Are you billing her for the inefficiencies? I am a full-time freelancer with a client of exactly one, an agency that provides all my work. It has numerous frustrations because the lone "agency" employee is an idiot. But I bill her for those idiocies! And in turn she bills the clients we work for when they do things that aren't efficient and we all get paid! I might think I work for an incredibly stupid person but I really, really enjoy not having to find more clients or deal with new people as an introverted, fairly agoraphobic person who hates change, so I make it work. If you, like me, have enough pros to put up with some stupidity, then read on for how to make sure you're getting paid for your time.

You should be billing for the time you spend on Slack and answering questions for her. Bill for emails, for doing file sorting, for phone calls, for in person meetings. Bill them under Meetings or Office categories broadly or assign the time to the project they're about. Round up to 15 minute increments (30 minutes if you can get away with it). So if you spend 1 minute writing an email? That's a quarter of an hour. That adds up.

I'm super alarmed that you haven't tracked hours to the point where you just noticed you were only working 10! Get a time tracking software! I am certain you can double or triple your billable hours if you keep careful track and start counting things like emails, meetings, paperwork. Sure, sometimes I don't bill for a 30 second email, but sometimes I do because otherwise I don't get to eat!

You might feel weird about this. But keep in mind that freelancers cost generally half as much as an employee when you break down all the different costs of having an employee. Employees get paid for all their minutes (in a manner of speaking, let's not get hung up on salary vs hourly, etc). You should too.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 2:44 PM on February 7, 2019 [11 favorites]

Also, I'm happy to breakdown further how I bill and what my invoices look like if you have questions. I don't provide invoices that are detailed breakdowns, only total hours by project, but I do have those things tracked for my own records and if there are any questions.

Rather than an email or Slack, I definitely recommend having a phone conversation or better yet, a video chat, and talk about how you're aiming for 20 hours and proposing how you see that happening, e.g., talk about the major stuff she's not delegating to you and give her a good reason for passing it to you — it saves her time because you're the expert in it and/or you're already handling related tasks X and Y so you're the natural person to do task Z so they're all done consistently.

She really shouldn't need any processing time or anything, this is a straightforward request and not one she should have a strong reaction to that requires thought. I know it's very hard to keep it impersonal but I would not bring any emotions into it other than an enthusiasm to keep her as client and a positive attitude about what you bring to the table. Definitely be prepared to talk about how you can support her as an entrepreneur. If she hates learning your filing system, that's fine! It's okay that she's scatter-brained as long as she knows she needs to pay someone to handle the details. I know how hard that is, I struggle with it myself, because I tend to be insulted and annoyed that I work with someone who makes my job harder. Again, I just tell myself: hey, harder means you get more hours which equals more money. So look on her disorganization as a positive...and make sure to bill for that accordingly.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 3:04 PM on February 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

As a freelancer you should always be looking for new opportunities. Always. So apply for the job. It's a safety net.

It's also critical to have diversified revenue streams. No one client should ever provide more than 30% of your monthly minimum revenue target.

Freelancers also need to learn to "manage up." You need to manage your client and make sure things get done. Being organized saves you time. Saving time means you have more time to make more money, or do the things in life that are important to you.

Managing a client means being sure to communicate regularly and appropriately. I tend to this that I need to connect with most clients about 3 times a month, if I'm doing autonomous work, such as content production and marketing management.

With other clients I need to connect with them once a week for a status report.

I also try to communicate according to their preferred style. If they don't like Slack, I don't use it. I might use email instead, and try to snag a phone call.

I try to provide a status report of what has been done, what is going to be done, and what needs to be done. I then tell them where I am blocked, and I tell / direct them how they can help me.

One final thing: I don't bill by hour, I bill by outcome. So, for marketing management (managing advertising etc), I charge a lump sum. For a marketing white paper, I charge a lump sum.

I then complete the deliverable by the end of the month and bill them. If it's a larger deliverable, like a technical white paper, I get paid 50% upfront, 50% upon completion.

If your client prefers to hire you "on-demand" (i.e., using a variable rate from month to month, depending on "hours") then you need to charge them markup for keeping you available, because you are incurring an opportunity cost on their behalf.
posted by JamesBay at 3:06 PM on February 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm a freelancer, and just want to say you've got some good freelance advice upthread. Take it.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:51 PM on February 7, 2019

the thorn bushes have roses is giving excellent advice. It may sound pretty ruthless, but that's just how you have to be if you don't want to be taken advantage of. You can't work for free. Dealing with your client's lack of organization is work and you should charge for it.

Also, you sound like you could stand to be more organized yourself, if you weren't noticing that you were billing only half as many hours per week as you had thought. You need to track this stuff.

We don't really know enough to be able to say whether it makes more sense to take the other job. Steady work is good, but how's the pay? It's less, but is it still enough? Are there benefits? Are there tax advantages? Do you want to do the work, do you think it sounds interesting and worthwhile? Does it seem like a nice company culture, a good place to work or at least one that's not dysfunctional? Is the position likely to be actually stable, or are there red flags that suggest you might get laid off six months down the road? All these things matter.

First and foremost though, make sure you're being paid for all your work and make sure you know how much you're working. And keep up your hustle, keep looking for the next thing. This client will dry up someday, that's just the way of things.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:55 PM on February 7, 2019

Never, ever, ever, ever, ever put your “brain dumps” into writing.

Delicate professional conversations (e.g. ones that may provoke emotions) should be handled in person (best practice!) or on the telephone (acceptable). This minimizes miscommunications and allows real-time management of client feelings.
posted by Construction Concern at 6:00 PM on February 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think you'd be wasting any time spent on trying to get the client to change. There's really no need to talk to her about it at all. Take the work when she gives it to you and don't worry about it when she doesn't. If she wants to have a status meeting, that's on her since she's the one paying you.

Freelance work is hard because you feel like you should be holding space for a client who has promised to give you work - then you end up turning down real projects for what might be an opportunity to do more work for the first client. But that often doesn't happen. So don't ever turn down real work because some imaginary work might be coming from a client who is so disorganized that she often misses her own deadlines.

One way to cut down on putting imaginary work on your calendar is to leave it off the calendar until the client has everything you need to finish the project. It goes kind of like this:

client: I need a website and it has to be done by the end of the month and I really need your help!
me: ok! no problem, send me a list of the pages you want on it and the copy for those pages
client: ok, I'll get those to you asap so you can get started right away
me: ok! sounds good!
also me: [does not put anything down on the calendar, does not turn down other work, does not even think about it again until I hear from the client] [I often never hear back from the client]

Think about how you do your billing - if you don't feel comfortable billing until the site is launched then don't start the work until you have everything you need from the client to launch the site.

If a large part of your income is coming from freelance work then you want to have more clients on your roster than you can handle if they all had work for your to do at once. That rarely happens and if it does, you can work around the clock for a week and get a nice bit of $$ or you can subcontract some out.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:50 AM on February 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, this is all really helpful and a lot to think about!

I do use time-tracking/billing software, and so yes, it's sad that I didn't notice that I was billing her so little lately! Originally, she was my only client, but when I started adding/leaving temporary clients along the way, I didn't pay enough attention to how much I was getting solely from her, because I didn't have to (especially when I had a client who was paying me $20 more an hour than she does -- unfortunately, it was a startup that didn't survive). I also happen to have some mental health/executive functioning issues that don't always mesh well with a freelance life... It's often a struggle.
posted by trillian at 8:04 AM on February 8, 2019

Response by poster: Well, I ended up taking the 20-hour job on staff with a local company (very excited) and will be seeing how it goes with only doing a little work each week for the client -- very specific tasks with very clear expectations, so that will help. She will need to get someone else for the day-to-day stuff. When I told her the news, she admitted that she hasn't been on top of things for a while and says she needs to hire someone who really good attention to detail to help her, and I tactfully encouraged that, so I hope that will happen.
posted by trillian at 2:09 PM on February 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

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