The key to a successful relationship between independent consultants and a client is communication. Both parties need to be able to freely discuss thoughts, ideas, needs, and changes as they relate to the project at hand. However, some topics can be difficult or uncomfortable to bring up. Here are some suggestions of how to address a few touchy subjects with clients.
Money is often an uncomfortable topic of discussion, and this can be especially true when collecting payment from a client. In this case, an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure. Before beginning work, have the client thoroughly read and sign a contract that outlines your billing rate, estimated time to complete, and total project cost. This may include setting a "milestone" payment structure, where you get paid after completing phases of the project. Stating ahead of time that work will not continue beyond a certain point without payment can be helpful in motivating clients to pay on time without reminders. If your client does fall behind in payments, however, a gentle reminder suggesting that they may have simply forgotten may be appropriate the first time. Whenever possible, communication regarding contracts and payments should be in writing to maintain a paper trail for future reference.
Though this is particularly common in creative industries, independent consultants in nearly any field can be faced with this touchy subject. Clients who have a clear vision of their desired outcome of the project can be extremely helpful in giving a detailed outline from which to work. The problem arises when what they want is not, in your professional opinion, what is best for the success of the project. This is a topic to be handled with care so as not to directly insult the client. Instead of a blunt approach that essentially tells the client that they're wrong, approach this problem by bringing forth "alternative suggestions" for them to consider. Be prepared to give thorough explanations of your proposals, explaining that your professional experience and expertise with best practices in your field brought you to suggest these alternatives. Successful case studies are also very helpful when communicating the rationale for your point of view. Remember to assure them that all of your suggestions are made with concern for their project's success in mind. A word of caution: listen hard for the client's input, even if you initially disagree with it. Perhaps they have good instincts about their own end-user base that may change your creative opinion along the way.
It is important to remember that everyone does not share the same values and morals that you live by. When issues arise around governing principles like these, be cautious when handling discussions of behavior or requests that you find unethical because your client may be unaware that they've done anything wrong. Start the conversation without aggressive confrontation and then explain the issue and why it's a problem to give the client the opportunity to plead ignorance without unnecessary accusations and embarrassment. If the situation is not easily resolved, explain the ramifications you both could face by acting unethically. In the end, be polite but firm as you explain to the client that your morals and professional reputation are too important to risk. Without your reputation, your business is a commodity, so consider the long term benefits to your practice of walking away from a difficult ethical situation. While you may lose money today, you may gain from your decision in the long run and protect not just your reputation, but that of your peers in the profession.
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