Free work sounds a little like this:
Could you just take a look at this and provide some feedback? It shouldn’t take you too long to do this little extra thing, right? So as part of this project, we just want to add a few extra things, ok?
Phrases like these are all too familiar to small business owners—especially freelancers and those that work in the services or consulting. And while you always want to make a client happy, free work is not something you’re not in the business of.
Here’s why free work shouldn’t be in your vocabulary and how you can avoid falling into its grip…
Time is Money. Free Work Hurts Profitability
We know about profitability in an accounting context, but for those in the services or consulting businesses, it can be traced directly to time spent. Say you’re a graphic or web designer and you bill at $75 an hour. Every minute you spend doing free work costs you $1.25. That’s not so bad, right? Well, what happens when a little extra work turns into 30 minutes? What about 45 minutes? Pretty soon, you’re spending hours (unpaid) on this “small task” that’s taking you away from time spent on paid work.
Free Work Devalues Your Work
Doing free work indicates to your clients—whether they recognize it or not—one thing: that they can get free work out of you. They likely aren’t consciously asking for free work, but they’ll get used to the idea of you doing little favours here and there on the house. That in itself makes for an awkward conversation when you do finally decide to stand your ground. Imagine how they’ll react? Well, you didn’t bill us for this last time.
So How Do You Prevent Working for Free?
There are a few key tactics you want to employ when it comes to making sure you’re not working for free, but it all starts with aligning expectations from the get-go. When you sign on a new client or customer, make sure there’s an actual signing. Put an agreement in place that outlines the entire scope and terms of your working relationship.
In this document, you’ll include things like net payment terms, ownership of work product, marketing rights, non-competes, the jurisdiction in which you’d settle disputes, warranties, and liabilities. (That’s a partial list, and if there’s ever anything you want to consult a lawyer on, it’s your master services agreement.)
Create a Clear Scope of Work
Since you’re probably putting a master services agreement in place because you’re going to be doing some work for the client, the next document you want to put in place is a scope of work (aka, an SOW). This is where you get airtight about the exact work deliverable you will produce. Each scope of work includes the project description, the deliverables, the cost, the timeframe and deadlines, and the terms. (Again, a partial list.) Also, most SOWs include language around change orders. A change order occurs when both parties agree to change a given aspect of the SOW. Usually, this has budgetary, deliverable, and/or time impacts. When a client makes a request outside of the SOW, a change order is how you would implement it—but only with a mutual written agreement. This is a great way to avoid doing free work. It’s not that you don’t want to, it’s that you can’t. Doing so would break the SOW and is akin to you not fulfilling it.
So creating clear, specific SOWs is a great way to ensure that you’re not working for free because you get to blame the paperwork. Using an invoicing app or accounting software like TrulySmall Invoices and TrulySmall Accounting can help you keep track of your invoices and add or remove additional services easily!
Before you start on your new project, it’s good practice to ask for a deposit so you ensure that your time and efforts are compensated and you’re not working for free. Try using an invoicing app to create invoice templates and send them to your new clients, even when you’re on the go! If you’re not sure where to start, check out our full guide to freelancer invoicing here.
Prove You’re Equal
Sometimes, clients or customers can subconsciously take advantage of their vendors or contractors (aka, expect free work). It happens. But you’re just as much of a business as they are. If the free work expectations become so persistent that you’re really struggling with how to deal with them, it may be time to pull the “I’m a real business too” card. Of course, you’re not going to say those words exactly, but you should make it clear that when you are doing free work for them, that time you could be spending doing paid work for someone else. As a business, they should understand that. If they don’t, they don’t respect your time which means they don’t respect your work. They’re probably a client you don’t want.
Striking the Balance
At the end of the day, a healthy business is one that has work coming in and customers that stick around. Sometimes that may require going the extra mile—and most extra miles aren’t paid. The key is to use your judgment. Know when it’ll be worth it and know when you’re getting taken advantage of. Easier said than done, but absolutely possible.