Lessons From the Other Side of a Burned Bridge

burningbridgeA few weeks ago my main freelance client cut me loose. It was sudden, unexpected and shocking. Now, though on my part I tried to wet the wood, that bridge is thoroughly burned. One week I was the best thing since sliced bread, the next I was cut loose, the next after that I (from the client’s perspective) had tried to rip her off and the relationship is broken. Stop payments had been placed on my checks.

After a couple of weeks of drama, I’m hopefully done with it. I wanted to share some of what I learned.

Be sensitive

In hindsight, even though up front everything was great, she let a few comments slip about finances and desires to do more or different things. While she didn’t broach those subjects specifically, in the end these were major factors fueling the bridge fire.

If I had been more sensitive to what was under the surface, I might have been able to head off the bad part of the break. The break, I fear, was inevitable. But we could have parted much better.

Business, not friendship

Don’t let a long relationship dull your business sense. Our final disagreement really stemmed from a misunderstanding about scope of work I was assigned. I got sloppy, assumed she understood what I was saying because of how long we had worked together. She claims she didn’t know, and didn’t authorize some of the work I did. I was clear about what and how long. But now I know she was preoccupied with finances, and being hit with a bill larger than expected didn’t sit well.

Always be sure both parties know what work you are doing and what you expect to charge. The easiest way to do this is to provide a quote and follow up with an invoice. If you choose not to do this, as I did, then make sure you both understand and agree verbally. Maybe you will get into a weekly gig, and a standing agreement may work. But if you vary from the normal work/payment formula in place, always fall back to quote and invoice. This will prevent a lot of headaches.

This was the fundamental mistake I made.

Have a thick skin
If/when something does go wrong, it’s probably not personal. Try to understand their perspective. Find out what the root of the problem is.

In my situation, she wanted to do more for less money. She ran into a company that said they could do that. So, I was out. Then when I presented my final bill, she was unsure about my charges.

Those two facts resulted in a list of inadequecies leveled at me and the accusation that I was trying to cheat her. I was not doing what this company says it would do for less money, so I must not be as good as an employee as she thought. She did not like my final bill and did not understand why it was higher than expected, so I was trying to rip her off.

Don’t underestimate the power of emotion. We had worked together for a year and a half. While the new deal with the new company might make good business sense, it was hard for her to cut me loose. Creating this list of grievances helped her justify the break to herself.

You won’t please everyone. Even if you are doing your level best, eventually someone won’t be happy. It doesn’t matter that you did amazing work. Or that you were professional in your behavior and attitude. Eventually someone will burn that bridge.

You can’t sit on the side of the bank wondering why. You have to move on to the next project, the next client.

Be professional

When I was in the middle of the “you’re fired” conversation a part of me wanted to just leave. After all, it’s not like this was a real job. It’s freelance. She can fire me any time she likes, I can quit any time I like. I don’t have to like it. But, instead I tried to act professionally. And then she asked me to work a couple more weeks during the transition. I really did not want to do that, but I did need the money.

Before I agreed to that, I talked about what she owed me. I could tell she was surprised, but I reminded her of our previous conversation. She ended up writing me two checks. Half for now, and half post dated. I had picked up on her concerns about cash flow by now, so this wasn’t a surprise.

I told her where the new company could find all the information they would need, and made sure she had everything that she was supposed to have.

When I left we had made a time to shoot one more time. I really didn’t want to, but I agreed to come back and set up some equipment and tape one more time. I was trying to exit gracefully, and not burn any bridges.

It’s OK to stand up for yourself.

When I called the morning of the scheduled shoot I was told that she had decided to put a stop payment on both my checks. These were for work already done. And our shoot for that day was canceled.

That surprised me more than anything. We had a 45 minute polite, but frank conversation. In the end I was able to get one of the checks released. I decided not to pursue the 2nd check because it would take more time than it was worth. The check had been deposited and stopped. I had to wait for it to return and then go cash it. It took a few days, and I assumed we were done at this point.

Then I got an email asking me to do a little more work, and could the amount she already paid me cover it. At this point I was still upset about the way things had been handled. I explained that I had done work for which I had not been paid. If that bill was settled I would be open to helping set up her equipment. But not before I was paid for the work I had already completed. That was not the answer she wanted.

Just because someone asks for something does not mean you have to say yes.

Sometimes being right isn’t the most important thing.

In small claims court I could win hands down. With outside mediation I would come out on top. I could have forced the issue, but what I needed to do is find work to replace the income I had lost. Getting bogged down in trying to get the rest of the money is counterproductive in the long run.

In this case, digging past the nastiness, I believe the root of it all was a major financial need on her part.

God can ask you to do weird stuff.

Of course, through all of this there were naturally times when I was upset. Times when I would cringe when my phone would buzz, hoping it was not another nasty-gram email. It became easy to hold a grudge, to carry hard feelings.

One day, after I had gotten another viscous, rambling email (to which I had responded kindly, but frankly.) I was praying for this person. You see, I find that sometimes the quickest way to get past a grudge is to ask God to bless the person you are mad at. It’s very hard to stay angry at someone when you are asking for God to give them good things. That evening I was doing just that when I really felt that I was supposed to return the money that I had just gotten cleared.

I know, that makes no sense. I was owed more than I’d been paid. But I really felt compelled to return it. So I told her, via email, that I had been praying and felt compelled to return the money she had paid me. I am sure she read all sorts of stuff into that. But God is bigger than this situation.

The next day the bank was open, I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in business: send a money order to this woman. Everything in me screamed that this was dumb. But I was sure this was what God wanted me to do. So I mailed it.

Even though you take the high road, sometimes the other person won’t.

A couple of days after the money order had been delivered, I got another email. This one claimed that I had damaged some lights, and said that I needed to replace them within a few days time. Rather than email, I picked up the phone and called.

The “damage” to these lights was one broken bulb in a fixture and a dent in the side of another. The dent had been there longer than I had been working with her, and the fixture still worked. The bulb was a normal fluorescent you can buy at any home improvement store for under $5. Even if the lights had been destroyed, the cost to replace them would be far less than I was owed. This was not high quality gear.

Obviously, when I refused to replace this gear, things were not well received. It was clear that this disagreement would not be resolved, I told her that I was done. Please don’t call or email, or contact me again. She said that I would hear from her lawyer, and hung up.

Keep a record of what has happened.

Through this whole process I kept a record of any phone calls, writing down what we talked about. I kept all the emails. If necessary, I was ready to defend myself.

Luckily, about 20 minutes after I was told to expect a contact from a lawyer, I got another email saying she was dropping everything, and moving on. It’s been a few weeks with no more contact, so I am hopeful this will just fade into memory.

But if it had not, I was ready. Always keep a record of our invoices and payments. And if you find yourself in a bad situation, keep a record of what is said and agreed upon.

As much as you may try to keep from burning bridges, other people may still set them on fire. If you find yourself in this place, it will get better. Things will pass. Focus on the larger picture. This is one client, not your life.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons From the Other Side of a Burned Bridge

  1. Thank you for writing this up and helping others learn from your experiences. I am also a freelancer and recently got burned by a client, also because of tough finances on their part. I am thankful God has provided a new client to fill that gap.

    This is all solid advice and I appreciate your letting us learn from your hard-won lessons! Thanks!

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