I knew from I was in middle school that I was called to serve. My brain was always filled with fun and creative ideas for helping others. My most memorable high school experience was volunteering at a Pregnancy Clinic. I often went beyond the call of duty and volunteered longer hours than expected. The Director would always comment that she wish she had the money to pay me. I was always ready to volunteer to fix a problem, even if I was not asked to do so.
As a business owner, my personality followed me into me business. I had to learn (and am still learning) to set boundaries for myself when it comes to giving my time, money and talents away in the never ending pursuits of Mrs. Fix It. If I did not seek out guidance, a mentor and a coach, I would constantly find myself making decisions that frustrate me or cost my business accounts dearly.
In this blog, I share one of my most embarrassing business stories. Writing this blog has allowed me to finally let this mistake go. Read and heed! Don't say I did not warn you!
A few years back, shortly after being laid off from my job, I took on a nonprofit client that needed help developing their fundraising and sponsorship efforts. I formulated a contract and sent it to them for their signature. After all signatures were in place, I started my work.
Going good so far, right? Don't worry, it goes south after this.
Within days of taking on this project, I realized that there were structures, policies and supports that needed to be in place in order for the outcomes of my project to be most beneficial to my client. I expressed my observations to the Executive Director and offered to FIX the issues free of charge.
Yup! Free of charge. I didn't even update the contract. I trusted this organization. There was no need to complicate issues by drafting another contract. Ain't nobody got time for that!
The troubles started when my payments became increasingly late. There were periods when I went two months without payment. My work never stopped. I would include the late fee as outlined in the contract on each subsequent invoice, but my client paid the base amount and never paid the late fee. I eventually stopped putting the late fee on the invoices. They were a small nonprofit. Maybe they did not have the money. Who knows, perhaps working with them would lead to other nonprofit gigs, right?
ANOTHER BAD MOVE!
Towards the end of the contract, I decided to do a donor mailing for my client. This was also done free of charge. The client provided stamps and envelopes, but I wrote the letter, stuffed and mailed the envelopes. For some reason, I put the wrong return address on 100 of the 400 envelopes. I caught the error quickly, informed my client, made the necessary changes to the remaining envelopes and contacted the organization whose address I used in error. I assured the organization that I would make arrangements to have someone grab any mail that came to their offices with my client's name on it. To my surprise, approximately 75 of the 100 envelopes mailed using the wrong return address was returned by the post office. The addresses provided by my client were incorrect.
I finished the terms of my contract...plus some. At the final meeting with the organization, I discussed my project report, submitted a travel drive with all the letters, databases, plans, etc. I had created and asked about my final check (which was 2 months late...again). At the conclusion of the meeting, after submitting all my work, I was informed that my final check was docked $500 because I put the wrong address on 100 envelopes. I was floored!
Say what?! Come again?!
I was being docked 50% of one month's payment because of an error that occurred during a task that was unrelated to my contract? I was being docked after waiting two months to get paid? I was bring docked after completing ALL the terms of the contract? I was being told this information AFTER I had submitted all my work?
I was heated, embarrassed, ashamed and short with my pay! I felt like a fool on the inside. On the outside, I decided to keep my cool. After all, I wasn't going to show that my dignity had been affected. I expressed my dissatisfaction with the manner in which my compensation was handled. The organization would not back down. I left. I swore I would sue. How dare they?
I huffed and puffed and almost blew an artery. I cried and cried.
After calming down and doing some self reflection, I realized that Mrs. Fix It had taught me some invaluable lessons:
Lesson #1: You need to respect the terms of your own contract. If you don't respect or enforce the terms of your contract, how can you expect a client to do so? Contracts are in place to protect and hold both parties accountable. Even work that is being done for free needs to be outlined in a contract or Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Every change in the terms of a contract should be documented and signed by both parties. If you choose to disregard the terms of your contract, you should make yourself ready to deal with all consequences.
Lesson #2: Don't be afraid to walk away from a contract. That's what your contract's termination clause is for. There are some contracts that are just not worth it. Grant it, some contracts are more difficult than others. Your challenges should not be related to the seriousness or respect your client gives to the work that you are doing. Your time is important. The work you are doing for your client is important.
Lesson #3: Value yourself and the work that you do. Many new business owners struggle with setting prices that reflect the true value of their products and services. Confidence is important in business. Lack of confidence costs money. Lack of confidence leaves money on the table. Lack of confidence leaves you feeling frustrated. Remember, your skills & expertise are priceless! Others may have the same skill or expertise as you; however, no one can do what you do quite like you.
Lesson #4: Never...Never give a client a product without final or full payment. If payment is not received per the agreement of your contract, you are not obligated to provide the final product to the client. You do not want the headache of chasing down a client for payment after they have received their product. Avoid the headache and possibly a lawsuit by clearly outlining the timeline for payments in your contract.
I am so glad that I learned these lessons when I only had $500 at stake. Even though that $500 felt like thousands at the moment, the situation could have been worse.
As with anything else in life, you have to take the good with the bad. You must learn from both and become a better, stronger, more viable person...and business owner.
Have you ever had a similar business experience? What do you have in place to make sure contracts are honored?
I would love to hear from you!