Such was the case last week. I had to take off for eight days because my parents needed me. Dad was in the hospital. Reports weren’t good.
Somewhere about four days or so into my absence, Paula Hendrickson checked in. As did Cathy Miller. As did Anne Wayman. As did Joy Drohan. As did Dana Held.
Somewhere about five days in, Jenn Mattern checked in and offered to take over the blog until I got back.
Real friends do that.
Luckily, things stabilized with my dad and I was able to return home in time for my daughter’s baby shower. My sister took over helping my mom, and my brother and sister-in-law will take over this week until my dad is settled in back home.
But it’s what Jenn and everyone did here that made me realize how lucky I am. Thank you, friends. You helped without being asked, and you graced this blog with your talents. I love you all.
While I was with my parents, I had the misfortune of dealing directly with a few federal, state, and local government agencies. In particular, the federal Veterans Administration program caused mountains of grief and complexity at a time when we needed simplicity and compassion. Their system is a lesson in lack of cohesion, in policies being adopted (or not) as the people in charge see fit. In one completely bizarre and incredibly frustrating case, a director told us in her 43 years with that department, she’d never heard of the VA helping anyone with hospice coordination.
That was after a different office had dangled the carrot in front of my dad for five years.
Yet even in this circle-jerk debacle that has become the VA, there are lessons. Here’s what watching the almighty ineptitude and shifting policies of this particular organization has taught me about business:
Say what you mean.
It’s on their website, in their brochures, and being spread verbally by their own people — veterans are entitled to a host of wonderful benefits, including free nursing home care, in-home hospice, respite care for my mom… only they used these four words: “For those who qualify” coupled with the idea of any veteran with “at least 90 days of service” would be eligible. Not so. Seems there’s a different level of qualifying — they call it the “you’re not qualified enough” stipulation when you press them.
For freelancers, this kind of promise made to clients, followed by the “Oh, but I really meant to say” bullshit means you’re going to lose a customer. Make sure your language in any communications piece or any conversation is precise. Say it exactly as you want it to be perceived, not sugarcoated to the point that the real meaning is hidden.
Do what you say.
If you advertise freebies (much like the VA has done repeatedly) and you renege on those freebies, it doesn’t matter if your client is willing/able to pay or not. You’ve left a bad impression. Take for example this link to the federal VA’s list of benefits. Just for fun, click on Pension. Read the eligibility. By their own criteria, my father is eligible. And he is. Only they have to spend down their assets to $80K total in order to get him a modest pension (my calculations had it at $37 a month). How is my mother supposed to survive exactly? Don’t make an offer to a client without qualifying it with every condition first. If you bring your client to the same page at the outset, you can establish a trust-based relationship, even if the conditions exist.
Introduce your left hand to your right hand.
At one point in our VA office-to-office inconsistency debacle, I said in frustration “It’s as though they took the hand of a gorilla and the hand of a field mouse and used them to build the entire infrastructure.” In your own communications, make sure your message is clear and consistent. Don’t tell client A that you’ll happily write their articles while telling client B you don’t do that sort of thing. If you don’t want the job from client B, find a truthful way to tell them you’re not taking the job.
Keep it simple.
What continued to impress me in the worst possible way was how the VA made it extremely complicated to get any of their “free” benefits. And they do it at a time in one’s life when simplicity is required. If the goal was to discourage anyone from applying, it’s working. Luckily, my brother-in-law is well-versed in VA forms and requirements. And it’s really telling that the qualifications needed to get into a VA nursing facility are this arbitrary, moving target. We heard everything from his disability had to be 65% related to service to 100% related. Worse, the burden of proof is on the applicant. It truly is a game of the one with the best lawyer wins.
You, freelancer, need to spell out in simple terms what your terms are. What are you doing for what amount of money? How will your client pay you and when? What is included in your fee and what isn’t? Don’t assume your client understands any of it. This may be the first time they’re working with a contractor. Help them have a successful outcome by anticipating their questions and assumptions ahead of time.
Writers, have you ever had an encounter with an organization that’s taught you something about your own business? Describe what it was like.
Have you ever worked with someone who has made the process harder by their own lack of clarity and communication, or by some shifting requirement?