Take a moment with me to envision the perfect freelance e-Learning project. The client is easy to work with, they pay well, the work is enjoyable, you finish it ahead of schedule and under budget, and the work is closely aligned with what was agreed upon in the project proposal. The client even submits payments to you early! Doesn’t that sound like an ideal experience?
Unfortunately, no project is perfect, so this dream situation is one to aspire to while you’re also keeping your expectations grounded in reality. Throughout the Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer series, I’ve talked about how to plan and execute your work in a way that minimizes risk and conflict, but because we’re all human, some level of problems are inevitable. Hopefully, by using what you’ve learned from previous posts in the series, your chances of encountering big problems is low—but this week, I’d like to talk about three of the most common problems that sometimes even the most experienced freelance professionals can’t avoid, and what you can do to resolve them.
1. Scope Creep
“Scope creep” is the term used for when projects starts out as planned, but the work involved grows over time, while the price you quoted for the work stays the same. It’s easy to think of scope creep as your client trying to get more work from you than you initially agreed upon, but the reality is less dramatic than that—it’s usually just a misunderstanding about what will and won’t be done on the project. However it happens, your goal should be to do everything you can to eliminate or minimize scope creep on your projects. Remember that if you don’t, you’ll be losing money for every item of work that you do that wasn’t in your project proposal!
Scope creep happens to everyone, and I’m no exception. I remember once starting a small e-Learning project where a client wanted me to revise three interactions in an existing e-Learning course. Over time, it went from three interactions to four, and then eventually to a redesigned title screen for the course, and then to updating some of the audio narration, and so on. By the time that “small” project was over, I had gone well above and beyond my original expectation, and never saw any additional payment for the additional work.
The number one remedy for reducing scope creep is a thorough, detailed project proposal. As I mentioned in my previous post about writing an effective project proposal, the key is always to ensure that the proposal is specific and tailored to the project at hand. Your objective is to make sure that the project proposal doesn’t leave room for interpretation, because scope creep begins when you and your client are interpreting the amount of work needed differently. I encourage you to make sure you’ve read my post about project proposals thoroughly, because skimping on any part of that can directly lead to scope creep.
Most important of all, make sure that your project proposal includes a stipulation for what will happen when unexpected work is added to the project. For example, my project proposals include language that states, “any additional work not stated within the scope of this project is considered extra and must be agreed to by both parties.” This sentence alone is very powerful—it can change the tone of a client conversation from “I thought this is what we agreed upon” to “Let’s discuss what’s involved with this new work, so that we’re both clear about additional costs.”
If scope creep begins getting out of hand, you then have the opportunity to complete a Project Change Request Form, which is a document where you specify what extra work needs to be done, and how much it will cost on top of the original project’s price. Change requests also get signed by the client, so there’s a clear paper trail of commitments regarding what you’re getting paid. Your client may then choose to forego the extra work, which is fine—because it means the form has effectively protected you from doing work that you’re not getting paid for.
To help you plan your next project, I’ve created a sample Change Request Form for you to download and use.
2. Missing-in-Action Clients
If you’ve been using the sales pipeline I recommended earlier in this blog series, by the time you get to a full project, you’ve likely already vetted your client thoroughly, and reduced the risk of working with someone who will disappear in the middle of your project. That said, just like scope creep, a certain amount of client-chasing is inevitable, so don’t be surprised when it happens. Sometimes, a client will disappear for reasons out of their control, like illness, emergencies, or even budgetary changes in their business.
To mitigate the risks of clients going silent on me, I include a clause in my project proposals that requires the client to pay a certain percentage of the project costs as a non-refundable deposit. This not only provides me with some protection if they go missing, but also gives the client an opportunity to show me how serious they are about working with me. If I can’t get them to agree on a deposit up front, the next option I offer is to bill them on a milestone basis. For example, I might set up the contract to bill them a partial amount when the project proposal is signed, and then again when the first draft of the product is delivered, and so on. Taking these types of approaches helps discourage clients from going silent on me, or at least mitigates my losses when they do.
3. Late Payments
Waiting weeks, or even months, to get paid can be a huge problem for freelancers, and it can create a lot of problems for multiple aspects of your business. You may recall an earlier post I wrote in this series discussing the importance of tracking your revenue, and a key part to having that level of organization is to help you deal with situations where your income doesn’t arrive in a timely manner.
One of the key things that has helped me deal with these situations is to always assume good intentions from my business partners. Some clients pay late because of their own business problems. Some businesses, especially large corporations, operate on a delayed payment schedule. In the majority of situations where payment becomes overdue, it’s got nothing to do with the client wanting to take advantage of you—most don’t—rather, something has gotten in the way for them. Assuming that they have good intentions helps me manage my own stress over late payments, and also helps me stay rational as I pursue the issue with them.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Most problems you’ll encounter as a freelancer can be mitigated through good planning. This is part of where the advice I provided in previous posts (like how to track your revenue, and how to write an effective project proposal) comes in. Good planning will pay off by helping you greatly reduce the number of times you have to deal with problems like these!
That said, if you’re dealing with a late-paying client—which can happen, regardless of how much you’ve prepared—it’s important to have a standard process in place for responding. I currently use a system where I remind my financially delinquent clients at set intervals from the payment due date: one week, 15 days, 30 days, and 45 days.
For the one-week mark, I use a standard form letter. It’s not a particularly complicated letter, but it reminds them that payment is overdue, and it includes a copy of the invoice. I always make sure to include a note encouraging them to contact me if they have any questions or concerns, just in case the payment delay is in any way related to dissatisfaction on their end.
Once it’s been 15 days since the original payment due date, I move to a phone call. While emails can be deleted or missed, it’s hard to ignore a phone call. At this stage, my goal is to find out what’s behind the delay. If the client states, “the check is in the mail,” I let about 3-5 days elapse before I contact them again to follow up.
At the 30-day mark, things change from my perspective, depending upon my relationship with the client. If the client is struggling financially, but I want to keep them (because I believe things will change for them), then I try to work out a payment plan with them. If things look really bad—meaning, they’re not sure they’ll be able to pay me the full amount at all, then I’ll see if I can get a partial payment to help my cash flow. Again, depending on the client, at this point, something is better than nothing. Remember, it’s not unusual for a client to be a few days late, but if they are habitually late, it’s possible they’re a bad client that’s not a good fit for you.
No amount of preparation is going to result in perfect projects all the time—and that’s OK! Scope creep, missing-in-action clients, and late payments are all unfortunately part of the life of an e-Learning freelancer. To deal with these situations, it’s important that you plan ahead as much as possible, and create agreements that allow you to walk away from bad situations while recouping as much of your own investment as you can.
How have you dealt with problems that crop up during your own e-Learning projects? What lessons have you learned from your own experiences with scope creep? What steps do you take to ensure your business stays healthy in the event of a problem? I’m eager to learn from your insights. And as always, I invite you to join our private Facebook group, or contribute to the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #eLearningBiz!
Editor’s note: This post is part of my ongoing 2017 series, “Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer,” a comprehensive look at the ins-and-outs of working independently in the Learning and Development industry. All of the previous posts in the series can be found here.