Reputation is Everything

Alisa BonsignoreA few years ago, I worked as a contractor for a small agency. While I typically work directly with my corporate clients because the pay is better without the middleman, I made an exception in this case. After all, there’s value in having a project handed to me without a lengthy proposal and sales pitch process. The clients were compelling and the owner seemed like a good guy.

These were fairly small-ticket projects, and we had an agreement that he would invoice the client with the agency’s 30-day payment terms; he would turn around and write my check the day he received his. My payments would usually come at the 35- to 38-day mark. We operated this way for nearly two years without issue. And then, one day, things fell apart.

The 35-day mark came and went. I called. “That’s odd,” he said. “I was expecting the check on Tuesday. I’m sure it will be here any day. Let me call them and get back to you.”

We repeated the above process for weeks. “Gosh, I don’t know where that check is. Let me look into it.” Finally, after more than three months, he forwarded me an email from the company’s accounts payable department. “It’s on its way!” he said.

Good news, right? Maybe, except that the email revealed that he hadn’t even invoiced for my work until my invoice was already 60 days past due. He’d been stringing me along. I had been willing to forgive his issues with a delinquent client, but I wouldn’t forgive – couldn’t forgive – deliberate lies. Had he come to me early on and explained the situation, I wouldn’t have been thrilled, but at least I would have seen his truthfulness as a sign of professional respect.

I discussed the situation with a colleague, and after expressing his outrage at the dishonesty, he boiled down the entire situation into a sound byte: “Small businesses have to be honest. Our reputation is all we’ve got.”

I’ve carried his words with me since that day, and I go out of my way to treat my clients and colleagues in the same way that I’d want to be treated, with honesty and respect.

Do you think that there’s anything more important than your professional reputation? And have you been in a similar situation?

5 thoughts on “Reputation is Everything

  1. Niki Brown

    Not sure why people and companies have such problems being honest about money. I strive to explain my quotes to client in an honest and fair manner and I expect them to be the same about payments, or problems paying invoices.

  2. Herne

    I’ve seen a lot of big companies wait 60-90 days to pay an invoice because they want to audit each and every entry on the invoice and double-check it before they “approve” the invoice and write a cheque. I don’t know what happens these days but when you sign a contract and agree on paying for a service, I would think that you would pay for that service when you received it, not 3 months later. You don’t go into a restaurant, eat a meal and then say, “I’ll pay for that after I’ve digested it and decided if it was ok.” You demand the best service from your contractor (freelancer), so be honest and pay what you owe in a timely manner.

  3. Pamela Saxon

    Alisa, thanks for this post. Yes, I have been in similar situations. My feeling is that, especially now in the age of social media, we can’t afford NOT to be honest and transparent, with the highest of integrity. I like to sleep well at night, and the best way I know to have that peace of mind is to be as honest in my dealings with others as possible. It’s completely selfish on my part!

    My way of dealing with this kind of situation? Burn me once, shame on you, and you don’t get another chance to burn me again! I have a client who is 60 days past due, and keeps giving me the runaround. Next time she comes to me with a job, it’s 100% up front, or nothing, and I will be certain to tell her why. After all, it’s not just my work that is at stake here, it’s my time, and of the two, my time is by far the most valuable.

  4. Alisa Bonsignore

    Herne, I allow 30 days on my invoices because my large corporate clients pay on a 30-day cycle, not just for freelancers but for all vendors. I haven’t really had a problem with the big guys, but it’s the little ones with less liquidity that have been more of an issue. But again, if they had said upfront that they were having liquidity issues and that they could pay at 35 days (30 for them to get paid and a generous five for “the check is in the mail”), I would be fine with that because they were courteous enough to be honest with me.

    Pamela, it’s definitely a “burn me once” situation. I haven’t worked for this particular agency since this incident because they have been unable to front even a portion of my fee on other projects. Without that sign of good faith, I can’t commit to them again. I’m lucky that the late payment in question wasn’t a large one, but the fact that they couldn’t cover even a small invoice tipped me off to the fact that their financial situation was even worse than I had imagined.