The pros and cons of freelancing are fairly well known. And freelancers have no shortage of stories about bad clients. But what about bad freelancers? Does such a thing exist? Of course it does. And there’s no worse feeling than paying someone a lot of money to do work for you only to have them screw it up or bail on you completely.
So what can a client do in a situation where the vendor screws up?
Honestly, not much. Certainly you should stop paying them, but recovering money already spent will be extremely difficult. The best option is to tell everyone you know about the bad experience and lousy vendor. Negative word of mouth (especially if you blog about it publicly) can put a real dent in a freelancer’s future, and it might spur them into action.
Hopefully, it never gets to that point, because if it does the results are never pleasant. Publicly humiliating people is unpleasant (even if it generates results), and no matter what, you’re likely to get screwed out of money and your project.
The best defense against bad freelance vendors is to pick them carefully.
When selecting vendors you have all the control. You can ask for as much information as you want. You can do as much research as you want. You hold most if not all of the cards, so it’s up to you to use them.
- Get referrals. The best way to find a good vendor is through a referral. If a friend or trusted colleague recommends someone to you, that’s worth a ton. Having said that, don’t take the referral at face value and leave it at that. Do your own research. The person referring a freelancer to you may have different standards. But the best place to start when looking for a freelancer is through your own network.
- Forget about the lowest price. Generally, you scrap the lowest bid that comes in for your project. (Often people suggest you scrap the highest bid as well, and go for something in the middle.) The lowest bidder may be a good vendor, but it’s a warning sign. You have to ask yourself, “Why are they lower than everyone else?” The answer doesn’t really matter (and it’s not worth trying to figure out), so just thank them and move on. Price is a critical component of picking a freelancer, but if it’s the most important point, you’re in big trouble already.
- Ask freelancers to explain their price. It doesn’t really matter how a freelancer is pricing the project, you have a right to more details. This is especially true when the project has a fixed price. The vendor will give you a number – $10,000 – but what does that really mean? Ask the vendor to break it up on a deliverable-by-deliverable basis. Or they may have another structure (work, project management, profit, etc.) … it doesn’t matter, you just want to know. Vendors often don’t like doing this because of how they estimating the price of projects (often very poorly) and it requires more effort and leads to more debate on the minutiae of the pricing, but for the client it can be very worthwhile.
- Get references. One of your most effective weapons against crappy freelancers is to check references. Freelancers will give you their best ones (of course), so it’s up to you to ask good questions of them to get real information. Find out how the vendor reacted under stress. Find out how effective the vendor was as a communicator. Find out if they ever blew any deadlines, and what they did about it. Don’t be shy when probing for information from references. And always ask these two questions: “Would you hire the vendor again? And, would you recommend the vendor to others?”
- Hunt down your own references. Nothing says you can only speak to the references a vendor gives you. Why not find others? Presumably the vendor has a portfolio; so look up those clients and reach out to them without the vendor’s knowledge. You may find some surprises.
- Leverage social networking. There’s a very good chance the freelancers you’re looking at are using Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking services. At minimum you should be doing a Google search and hunting around for information on them. Then dig a bit deeper and look for them on social networking sites.
- Test them on smaller projects. If possible, give a freelancer something small but time-sensitive to do first. It might be a small piece of the bigger project, or something else completely. Test them. It’s a small test, but it’s better than doing nothing. You want to see if they deliver the goods, on time and on budget. You want to assess their communication and operational skills. You want to build a relationship with the freelancer to see if you’ll gel.
- Spread payments out. There are very few reasons you should have to pay everything upfront. Break up the payments based on deliverables, with some amount upfront. The bigger the project, the more you can chunk up the payments. On smaller projects you can go 50-50 (50% due at the start, 50% due at the end), but most often I prefer 33-33-33 or 25-25-25-25. Of course that works well on fixed price projects. For hourly projects, you can pay based on milestones or at certain time intervals (i.e. every 2 weeks.) And make sure payment is due on your acceptance of delivered work not on the simple delivery of something (which may be crap!)
- Define the working arrangement. How you communicate and manage the project with your vendor is critical for its success. So, define those terms early on. For example, do you want to make sure the vendor is available via Skype or another online chat tool? Do you expect weekly status reports? Do you want regular face-to-face meetings? How is the vendor expected to deliver the project? Think about the mechanics of the relationship and get agreement on those details as quickly as possible.
- Hire multiple vendors. On bigger projects consider hiring multiple vendors. This comes with its own challenges — having them work together, integrating work from different people, etc. — but it can mitigate the risk of one vendor totally ruining your project. Try and compartmentalize the work they have to do, so it doesn’t require a lot of integration. If the vendors have to work together, try and get them in a room together and make sure communication is strong.
Picking a great vendor is definitely a challenge.
You may not be able to follow all of the steps above. What happens if you can’t find a referral, for example?
Do your homework. Research potential vendors and freelancers as much as you can. Demand whatever you want from them, because it’s your money and project on the line. The sooner you weed out lousy vendors, the better. And, by going through a rigorous selection process you give yourself the best chance of success. Freelancers may grumble and groan at the amount of effort needed to close the deal, but if it’s a good fit and they really want the work, they’ll do what’s needed to make sure you’re comfortable with them.