*** From the Archives ***

This article is from May 31, 2004, and is no longer current.

The Art of Business: Vetting Clients For Peace of Mind

In my last Art of Business column, I proposed a series of questions meant to help design firms successfully select freelancers. Now we switch sides and propose a series of questions for freelancers to help successfully select clients or at least get a sense of where trouble may lie in the coming relationship.
But before you rush to sign a new client, try to get as many straight answers to these questions as possible, either from the client or from those who know and have worked with the client previously.

  • Who will I report to?


    Nothing is worse than receiving conflicting instructions from several people inside a company. Jane says make it conservative, Bill says add some flair. The only loser is you. Ask who you will be reporting to and, if possible, whom they report to as well.


  • Can I expect to be paid in a timely manner?

This is more of a request than a question, but it brings up the subject before 45, 60, or 90 days pass without payment. Find out who signs the checks, who issues them, and who should be contacted if there’s a discrepancy or delay. Use the opportunity to remind clients that time lost tracking late payment is time that could be used creatively instead. Naturally, write your terms into the contract as well.

  • What are the project milestones and deadlines?

You may be asked to meet impossible deadlines, and you may agree to do so. But at the very least you should be aware of key deadlines and milestones, and your client should be aware of the work involved in meeting them. Mark progress along with your client as work progresses. And while on the subject, don’t be afraid to negotiate for ample time to develop ideas and implement successful solutions.

  • What are the project specs, goals, and measurements?

You can’t be expected to do a good job if your client doesn’t know how to measure success. Let it be known that if the specs are unclear, your bid can’t be firm and may include additional costs to cover changes in project specs as they change.

  • What are your preferred business practices and customs?

Every company has particular ways of doing business — communication styles, business policies, practices, and unwritten customs. Which of these, if any, should I be aware of? What practices will help me get the job done correctly? Give me the statement of work or other forms I may have to fill out now.

  • Who negotiates and signs the contract?

Your creative contact often is not the same person who signs on the dotted line. With whom do I negotiate terms of payment, dispute resolution, and other essentials in writing before making a major commitment to a project?

  • How will disputes be resolved?

Never a pretty question to ask, but a worthy one should you suspect there may be problems down the line.

  • Are you credit worthy?

Here’s a tough question to ask a client, so better yet, don’t ask the client. Instead, find out on your own by talking to other contractors who are working for the client. If your client is big enough, do your due diligence online with databases such as Hoovers Online, to determine if your client is financially sound.
Freelancers and small design firm owners are often wary of asking questions like these for fear of seeming arrogant or untrusting. But rather than putting off your client, asking questions shows your professionalism and should help persuade your client that you know your business.

Eric is an award-winning producer, screenwriter, author and former journalist. He wrote the script and co-produced the feature film SUPREMACY, starring Danny Glover, Anson Mount, Joe Anderson and Academy-Award-winner Mahershali Ali. As founder and president of Sleeperwave Films, Eric relies on his unique background to develop film commercial films around contemporary social issues. As a seasoned storyteller, Eric also coaches corporate executives on creating and delivering compelling presentations. He has written thought leadership materials for entertainment and technology companies, such as Cisco, Apple, Lucasfilm and others.
  • anonymous says:

    Just because you have known someone ‘forever’ and you are best of buds…don’t assume that will make a sweet freelancing partnership. Treat everyone with the same regard in light of squeaky clean business practices and NEVER do anything on a handshake or a wink. It’s always tempting to give a good friend the softer treatment without the formality of written agreements, but in the event of a falling out, you will both be protected. If for some reason you don’t do it by the numbers and you don’t get paid or whatever…the best advice…write it off as a loss. At least you know who your friends really are and they’ll respect your sharp business attitude and attention to their needs.

    Mark Polaski

  • anonymous says:

    Great article! I agree with the last para especially, in that most clients, especially those involved in banking or other conservative types of business, respect your display of business savvy from the outset. It makes you seem more professional in their eyes as your business skills mirror their own preferred methods.

  • Anonymous says:

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