Tips for Freelancers: Navigating Non-Billable Business Call Requests

Credit: Photo by NoWah Bartscher on Unsplash

As a freelancer offering consultancy work, it pays to regularly contact people in your industry. This will help you make new contacts, learn about new developments in your industry, and better understand how you can add value.

Setting up an “exploratory call” is also a normal step before you start working with a new client, and it’s usually non-billable work. But there’s a fine line between just having a conversation or scoping out a possible project, and being asked to give away your expertise for free – and it’s not always easy to spot when that line is blurred.

“Learning to say ‘no’ to unpaid work, or to ask for specific fees, is not just important on an individual level. It is important to maintain the value of journalism,” says Corinne Podger, an independent consultant who heads the Digital Skills Agency. Keeping this in mind can help you be more firm in asserting your own boundaries.

Plan it in

If you are self-employed, you will already be scheduling time for non-billable work. Podger says that’s about 20% of his total work time, and advises freelance consultants to explicitly set aside some of that time for unpaid networking and exploratory calls.

Stick to this limit as closely as possible and make sure you have taken this time into account when setting your rates and schedules for paying customers. This protects your business.

Having clear boundaries also gives you a handy script to turn down unpaid work when you need it.

Isabelle Roughola writer and producer who does consultancy work says that telling new clients she’s booked for work or pro bono calls, and inviting them to schedule a meeting the following month, helps “weed out lesser inquiries serious”.

Know your priorities

Always consider your personal bandwidth and work priorities when deciding how you will share your time. Are you a new freelancer who could benefit from new contacts? Interested in mentoring younger peers? Want to donate pro bono work to certain causes that can’t afford your usual rates?

Consider how much time you have, who is asking and the nature of the work itself; if it fits with what you want to do more of and where your specific expertise lies.

“There’s a bigger issue here about working to figure out what you [can offer], the work you do best. When you become independent, this is the most complex area you will face – we all underestimate how difficult it is and how long it takes,” says strategic advisor Lucy Küng.

Rather than seeing unpaid calls themselves as a threat to your productivity or the viability of your business, perhaps the real issue is more existential: understanding your own business or what Küng calls “productizing” your work.

READ ALSO: What Journalists Need to Know About Product Thinking in 2022

“It’s embedded in the larger question of what you want to offer, how you’re going to add value, who your ideal customers are. to this framework.”

She recommends finding communities or support groups of independent colleagues (formal or informal) where you can share ideas, challenges and possible solutions.

Manager’s mindset

After establishing the type of work you are willing to do and the time you can devote to unpaid opportunities, the next step is to be firm about protecting those boundaries.

Podger notes that as a freelancer, you are not only your own manager but also your own employee. So if you take on unpaid work, consider the impact it would have on your business and ask yourself if your “employee” will be able to handle the extra workload.

“I have found it helpful, when deciding whether or not to charge a reservation, and what to charge, to try these two hats in turn and ‘feel’ the impacts of the decision from these two different viewpoints.”

This slightly detached perspective might help new freelancers in particular feel more confident about turning down those not-quite-right projects.

Value-added service

Sometimes clients request a follow-up meeting after a project. In these cases, it’s hard to justify billing for that time, says freelancer Steve Garnsey.

There are advantages to forcing this request; to land repeat projects and referrals from the client, get testimonials and reflect on the project itself and improve your work.

“It can force you to justify your approach or your decisions, which can lead to a redesign or confirmation of how you do things. It’s good for continuing professional development (CPD),” he says, adding limit these meetings to 30 minutes and ensure that all comments are constructive.

“The bonus of these calls is that it proves that my work is valued and probably makes my contract with the company all the more secure, which is not to be sniffed at as a freelancer. So, some work” free” for a customer does not mean going wrong under such circumstances. It is a price worth paying.

However, Garnsey warns that clients ask for more than they pay, such as expecting you to be available for (unpaid) phone calls or additional advice beyond fixed-hour jobs, which reduces your effective hourly rate. .

“The best defense against this is to be as specific as possible in your time estimate, to be clear about the brief, to stick to it, and to remind the client gently if necessary. But that’s easier said than done. what to do in the real world.”

Communicate the value of your time

While Küng says she’s generally happy to take a call if it’s relevant to her areas of interest, she points to the difficulty of giving meaningful advice in a short phone or video call.

“Don’t get sucked into detailed comments about the clog project. It requires deeper conversations – it’s very difficult to give quick advice well, as you need to know a lot about the background and their goals.”

If it becomes clear that this is what the other person is looking for, it is important to explain that this would require a longer conversation and more structured input – then see if they are interested in setting up a formal commitment.

Of course, there can always be situations where you choose to offer your pro bono work to support an organization or individual.

One of Roughol’s top tips is to send a zero bill if you’re waiving your fee or offering a discount: “This will make you understand the value of what you’re doing and, depending on your jurisdiction, this may be useful for bookkeeping and taxes.”

Any advice we missed? What do you recommend? Let us know

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