We recently talked about the importance of contracts for freelancers. It’s a popular topic because so many freelancers don’t have good contracts and it hurts their business. But all of this talk of contracts, while good, overlooks something even more important for freelancers: Relationships.
Your contracts are important. But relationships are what really matter.
A contract is really just a piece of paper. Hopefully it gives some helpful guidelines to your working relationship and clearly defines expectations and definitions. It keeps everybody on the same page.
It’s especially good when something goes wrong. A contract helps you figure out what to do without anybody being cheated. Contracts are an important part of business.
But the relationship is really where things happen. Put client relationships over contracts.
The relationship can energize you and make your day. Very few people find contracts that exciting.
The relationship you have with a client determines how well you work together. A contract might help. Laying out deliverables and expectations may give you a helpful structure, but you have to talk to someone and work back and forth. That exchange of good ideas and being able to really listen to what your client need demands a solid relationship.
The relationship can motivate you to do your best work. When people are gelling and bouncing off one another, that’s when really great work happens. Creative sparks are flying and people get excited. A contract can’t make that happen.
The relationship is what determines whether or not you’ll get lots of happy referrals. Maybe a contract can stipulate referrals, but they’re not going to be very successful. A grudging referral isn’t going to help you.
The relationship is ultimately what determines the success of the project. A contract is just the framework to prevent problems.
The relationship is the first and best way to fix any problems. Enforcing a contract is your last resort.
“Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the contract is the deal. The contract is only the deal’s shadow. The real deal is the relationship. Keep your business relationships in good order, and you won’t have to worry so much about what’s on paper.” –Steve Pavlina
Couples put their marriage over the prenuptial agreement, so likewise put client relationships over contracts.
Don’t Drown the Relationship in Contract Details
As you read all this great advice about contracts (and it is truly good advice) it can be easy to get lost in writing up the ideal contract and trying to anticipate and prevent every conceivable problem with a client.
You can end up spending more time putting together contracts than actually talking to clients and building relationships with them. That’s a problem. Your work will suffer. Your clients won’t be as impressed and that will cause further strain on the limited relationship you have. Soon you’ll be looking at a one-time client.
All because you had a good contract but a lousy relationship.
So focus on the relationship. Get to know your client. Talk to them.
Yes, still put a contract together. Create a boilerplate contract, a template you can use that will cover most eventualities. Have a few different options for different projects. Cover your bases. Have a lawyer look over your template and options, then stick a fork in it.
The contract is still important. Things change, clients can be jerks, relationships can go south. But you should spend more time talking to the client than writing a contract.
Put Relationships Over Contracts
When you’re starting up a relationship with a new client you should pull out your template, spend five minutes tweaking and customizing the contract, and then get back to building the relationship.
Because at the end of the day, you’re going to look back on your career and remember the relationships you had with your clients, not the contracts. Do the contract and get it out of the way, but focus on the relationship.