Tag Archives: flying solo

Flying solo: Unlocking HMRC

In this post for her Flying Solo column, Sue Littleford highlights useful resources to help UK-based editors understand the country’s tax system.

This post is for people in the UK tax system, where Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (henceforth HMRC) is the government department that deals with collecting taxes and National Insurance. Self-employed editors must evaluate their own tax and National Insurance liabilities (‘self-assessment’) and will find plenty of help and resources on the HMRC website. This article looks at how to access the most relevant information.

Sorry, everyone else, but do explore your own tax authorities’ websites – you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

When you fill out your tax return, you’ll find context-sensitive help all over the form but, usually, the help means even less than you’d already intuited, if you’re anything at all like me. Please don’t be put off and think you can’t possibly deal with your tax return yourself. With all due respect to accountants, who are invaluable if your tax affairs are complicated, we have a self-assessment system that’s (meant to be) designed so that taxpayers can file their tax returns all by themselves.

And so HMRC, despite the terminology you see on the tax return, does a great deal to help you understand what you need to do, what you can and can’t do, when you need to do it by and so on. And as we start the increasingly rapid slide into Making Tax Digital (MTD; live April 2023 for the self-employed with a turnover (takings) of £10,000 pa or more), it’s best to get familiar now with the sources of information, so you can also start readying yourself for the demands of MTD.

I’ll now go through some of the sources of explainer videos and webinars, and guidance notes.

Personal tax account

A good place to start your journey of understanding is with your personal tax account, or PTA. To access this you’ll need to log in to HMRC (via Government Gateway or GOV.UK Verify, or create an account).

Here, you’ll find collected together PAYE and self-assessment tax, National Insurance, pensions, benefits such as tax credits, child benefit and marriage allowance, and your annual tax summary. The information on self-assessment is presented in a slightly more usable way than through your self-assessment account which, when I looked at it when I did my own tax return a few weeks ago, was – and I stress this is my personal opinion – still atrocious.

If HMRC emails you and says there’s a message for you, you can pick it up in the messages tab of your PTA.

Incidentally, these PTAs were introduced in April 2016 as long-lead preparation for MTD. No one can say we weren’t warned!

HMRC customer forum

HMRC has a customer forum or, rather, a list of forums where taxpayers can join the appropriate board to ask questions and read the advice already given or to give advice. Some answers will be given by other forum members, but HMRC Admin pops up from time to time, and will also post links to relevant new information on the main HMRC website.

Each top-level forum subdivides into topics, so it’s worth visiting and scrolling through just to see whether the coverage coincides with what you want to ask about.

HMRC help sheets

There is a whole slew of help sheets for self-assessment for the self-employed, and for all other categories of taxable situations.

HMRC webinars and other help

HMRC runs webinars throughout the year on a variety of topics, usually of an hour or less, and at different times of day to help people to attend. If you can’t attend a live delivery, then recordings are available.

If you’re new to self-assessment and filling out a tax return, start with the introductory webinar and the one on record-keeping, and with the guidance. If you’ve not completed your tax return for 2020/21 yet, then keep on scrolling down the same page for explainer videos on how to do it, and how to pay your tax and National Insurance. You’ll also find videos on allowable business expenses, the simplified expenses system and a host of other topics that may or may not apply to you. It’s a very long page, so do ensure you scroll right to the bottom to be sure of discovering all the help.

I strongly recommend you sign up for the email alerts. That will ensure you’re told about upcoming webinars, as you need to register to attend them, and things like due dates for your tax return and tax payments.

There are frequent live webinars on business expenses (ie which expenditure you can offset against your income to reduce your profits and thus reduce your income tax and National Insurance, and which you can’t). There are occasional webinars on MTD (and I expect they’ll get more frequent as we get closer to April 2023, to make sure people are making the necessary preparations). Live webinars come with downloadable documents with links to the help for that topic.

Although the recordings are great at demystifying the tax system, do attend the live webinars if you can, as via the chat function you can ask questions and get direct answers. They won’t deal with your individual tax record, but they’ll answer questions about the specifics of your situation and either answer directly or link to a place where you can read up on that topic. Some of the more common questions are answered by the presenters during the webinar, but all the time the backroom staff are busy typing away. And you can save the whole chat history, to see other people’s questions, and the answers they got, which can be great if there was something you meant to ask but didn’t. Maybe someone else asked it for you.

After attending a live webinar, you’re emailed a link to the replay and a list of links for the various help sheets.

YouTube channel

HMRC also runs a YouTube channel, with videos organised into playlists, such as self-assessment help and deadlines.

Making Tax Digital

MTD is already live for VAT (since April 2019), so much of the information available is around the VAT element. But there are listings there too for self-assessment folks, with videos and written guidance.

The HMRC business manual

You can also access the HMRC’s internal business manual on taxing income. This will tell you, in quite a formal way, everything you could possibly want to know, and you can’t get more from the horse’s mouth than this.


I’ve kept the resources here limited to self-assessment for the self-employed. For a much wider range of resources, browse ‘Money and Tax’, to find ‘Dealing with HMRC’, ‘Income Tax’, ‘National Insurance’, ‘Self-Assessment’, or ‘VAT’ among other topics, on GOV.UK.

One thing I’ve not been able to find, to my satisfaction, is a reasonable glossary of terms. The ones I’ve turned up are too narrow, too high-level, too old … If you know of one, please pop it in the comments! Thank you!

About Sue Littleford

Sue Littleford is the author of the CIEP guide Going Solo, now in its second edition. She went solo with her own freelance copyediting business, Apt Words, in March 2007 and specialises in scholarly humanities and social sciences.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: padlock and keyboard by FLY:D 🔶Art Photographer; Pay Your Tax Now Here! by The New York Public Library, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Flying solo: Using your records to price jobs and make business decisions

This article by Sue Littleford, for our regular Flying Solo column in member newsletter The Edit, looks at how to use Excel’s filter function to help you decide how much you’d like to be paid and how long you need to do the work. It also considers some other decisions you may want your records to help you with.

The Going Solo Toolkit contains a spreadsheet for you to record your work (available to CIEP members only). There’s an older, simpler work record available, and I daresay many people have devised their own record-keeping system.

Everything you could ever want to know about calculating a price for a job is covered by the CIEP guide Pricing a Project: How to prepare a professional quotation by Melanie Thompson. So, this article is going to look at how to extract the information from records to help you arrive at a decision on how much you’d want to be paid, and how long you need to do the work, and then take a look at some other decisions you may want your records to help you with.

You already know that you need to record the work you do for your tax return, and you already know that if you record – or calculate – the right detail you can use that record to inform your estimating and quotes for jobs, both in time and in money.

But I know that many people struggle a bit with using Excel, so how on earth do you get the information back out of the spreadsheet? The more data you have, the more useful your records should be, but the more data you have, the harder it can be to see at a glance what you want to find out.

The filter

I’m going to talk about just one tool in Excel: the filter. Once you get to grips with it – and that won’t take long – you can use that same tool over and over, layering it up, even, to get an analysis out of your records of whatever information you’re focused on.

You can, of course, sort your rows of data in order, just as you can in Word, but the filter doesn’t disturb the original order of your spreadsheet, and enables you to do what amounts to multiple sorting, so it’s more powerful and less bothersome, which is why I use it so much.

I’m going to make a big assumption and show examples based on the Work Record spreadsheet from the toolkit. The principles are exactly the same, as long as you keep your records in Excel. If you keep your records in Word or on paper, you won’t have access to these features. Perhaps this article will encourage you to give Excel a try!

The screenshots here are taken on a PC running Office 365. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve hidden a few columns.

If you use a Mac, the principles involved are still relevant to you, and I’ve linked at the end to some YouTube videos, and Microsoft articles, on filtering for both Macs and PCs.

Right, to business.

The filter is your best friend when it comes to interrogating your spreadsheet. It’s in the Editing group on the Home tab, and it looks like this: Click on it, and you’ll see this:

The filter lets you select all records in a column with a particular value, but you can be a bit fancy about the values you use.

Let’s keep it simple for now.

The handiest way is to make the filter available on every column in your spreadsheet. You can do it the really easy way, and just click at the top left corner where the row labels meet the column labels, where the little triangle is:

Then click on Sort and Filter, then Filter, as you can see in the first two screenshots. A little down arrow will appear at the top of each column (you can’t filter by rows), and they look like this:Click on any of those down arrows and you’ll see you get a list of the unique entries in that column – and if you’re looking at dates, you’ll get a family-tree-like menu with checkboxes, so you can select by year, by month or by day.

Now you’re cooking!

Select an item, and your spreadsheet will now show you only the rows that match that selection. So you can filter by client, by type of work, by fee earned, by imprint, by word count, by rate per hour …

Coming to a price – or evaluating a proffered fee

Suppose you’re asked to do a copyedit of 75,000 words. To get a feel for how long that takes you, and how much you’ll want to charge, you may decide to filter your records to jobs in the range 70,000–80,000 words.

This is the starting view of the spreadsheet I mocked up for this article:Clicking on the little down arrow at the head of the word count column will give you a list of the unique values in that column, sorted in ascending order:

Now you have a choice of how to proceed. You could simply uncheck the (Select All) box, then either click every value between 70,020 and 79,989 words, or you could click on the Number Filters option, just above it.

That gives you more options: above average, below average, Top 10 … but let’s keep to the immediate job in hand. You want to filter on the jobs you’ve already done, between 70,000 and 80,000 words. So click on the Greater Than option:type 70000 in the first box, keep the And radio button selected and then use the short drop-down box beneath to select ‘is less than’ and type in 80000:and click OK. The box will disappear and you’re left with a list of rows of data where the word count falls between those two values. As you can see, the original row order is preserved.You can stack up filters, so can filter down to just proofreading jobs or just copyediting jobs, or just developmental editing jobs, or what have you. Because I’m currently assessing a copyediting job, that’s what I’m going to pick.And that shrinks the list further, to:Now you can easily see what you’ve earned before doing copyediting for that kind of word count. You can see jobs ranging from 48 to 1,021 notes. What about the job you’re assessing? Where does it fall on this spectrum? You can see that jobs had few tables, but up to 52 figures, and you had a mixture of Harvard and short-title referencing. You can see how many days overall the project took, how many hours, what kind of speed you were achieving and whether you had a large number of authors or just one.

If you work in fiction, or in some trade nonfiction, you may have no notes, no references, and quite possibly no tables or figures. But you would still see your editing or proofreading speed, what you got paid and how complex the job was.

Whether you use just one filter, or whether you stack them, you do need to turn them all off once you’ve finished, or risk being really confused next time you open the spreadsheet, with a chunk of your data apparently missing (I speak from experience!). You can see which column(s) a filter is active on as it changes from the simple down arrow you’ve already seen to this, a down arrow alongside the filter symbol: 

You can see it in situ on the type of work and word count columns. Click on each active one and select the ‘Clear filter from …’ option, or to clear all the filters in one action, go back to the original Sort and Filter button and click on it, then either on Filter (to toggle it off) or on the option below, Clear.

Establishing a probable duration

Using these same principles, you can estimate how long the job is likely to take you. In the last screenshot of the filtered spreadsheet, you can see the words per hour range from 1,111 to 1,743. You still have the information about complexity – referencing, notes, artwork – so how does that stack up against the job you’re evaluating, or quoting on? Are you likely to be nearer the lower or upper end of this range?

When you’ve worked out how many hours you’ll probably need for the job, you can then see when and whether the job will fit in your schedule, assuming that the quality of the raw manuscript isn’t significantly different from the manuscripts you’ve already edited or proofread. That’s a big assumption, so think about that, too, when you’re looking at the sample to provide a quote, or the full manuscript to decide whether the fee being offered will be enough.

At the left-hand side of the spreadsheet, you have the number of elapsed days that the previous jobs took. That will also help you decide whether you can take the job on: how well does it fit in your schedule? And what else is happening at that time? Do you have some other commitments in your diary? Did you plan on taking some time off?

Incidentally, I’ve personalised my copy of the spreadsheet and include a column for days worked, too, that I take from the time-log for the job. I can then tell whether I was all-hands-to-the-pump or whether I was working at a more sedate pace. For the first job in the screenshot, 29 days elapsed from starting work to finishing it. But did I actually work 15 days, 20 days, 29 days of the 29? That will fine-tune the information and help me decide whether I can fit the proffered job in the timescale wanted.

I always give myself plenty of wiggle room when working for indie authors, particularly, and when necessary I negotiate with corporate clients on the deadline as well as the fee. Life happens, as the saying goes, so you want to have the time to do the work at a sensible and safe pace, and have some time in your back pocket for contingencies.

The information stored in your spreadsheet can support your quotations and evaluations, if you actively use it.

Who is my worst payer?

This is a question you should ask yourself at least once a year. And when you’ve found out who it is, in an ideal world you would fire them and make room for better-paying clients. You may have a sound reason to stick with a low-paying client, of course. Perhaps it’s work for a cause you want to support. Perhaps the work is really interesting, the deadlines are sensible and the client is a delight to work with. Then aim for the next worst-paying and fire them, instead! Don’t burn your bridges, though; just be ‘too busy’ the next time they ask so it’s open to you to accept work from them another time, if you need to or just want to.

Always take a look at the latest version of the CIEP’s suggested minimum rates, to inform your thinking.

But the first step is finding out who is your least-good payer.

The Work Record spreadsheet in the Going Solo Toolkit gives you two ways of looking at your earnings: per hour and per thousand words.

First, if you offer more than one service, you’ll want to filter by service: copyediting, developmental editing, project management or proofreading, for example. There’s no point comparing oranges with apples.

We’ve already seen that putting a filter on a column and then opening up the filter gives you the unique values in that column, listed in ascending order. That may be all you need. Select the lowest value – or two, or three or more – and see who those clients are. Or filter on numerical values, less than £x per hour, or less than £x per thousand words.

There’s an ultra-quick way of taking a look at how much your clients vary, though. Click on the top of the column to select it, and look in the status bar at the foot of the spreadsheet, towards the right side. If I select the £ per hour column in the spreadsheet I mocked up for this article, I see this:That shows me that my rate per hour runs on a spectrum from £21.98 to £38.11, via an average of £30.28. If you do this on a spreadsheet of your own, and don’t get these values showing up, then right-click on the status bar and start ticking some of the options in the pop-up box:The ones you want are in the third section from the bottom of this list, from ‘Average’ to ‘Sum’.

Am I happy to be earning £21.98 per hour? What’s the minimum I want to accept from now on? Let’s say £27.50 for the sake of demonstration.

So on the £ per hour column, I set the number filter to ‘less than 27.5’, in the same way as before, and I get this result:

I can see that the three clients who paid me less than £27.50 per hour are all different, and for only one job each. Two of the three worst payers per hour were for proofreading. But look at that difference in £ per 000 words: from £12.88 to £17.68, although the lowest rate per 000 words paid more per hour than the job below it. I can see that the good £ per 000 words job had a lot of references and notes, which would have slowed me down, and yes, that’s reflected in the words per hour column. Do I want to fire Barbara Seville? Let’s take another look at the data and filter just the jobs for that publisher, turning off the filter on the £ per 000 words column to get everything for that publisher:Now I can see that low fee in context. That low rate is looking like an anomaly, and all the other jobs I’ve done for them paid more than my line in the sand of £27.50 per hour. Maybe I’ll keep accepting work from Barbara Seville, but keep an eye on how the fees work out.

The worst payer of all was Barry Island Press, so let’s look at them in context. Clear the checkbox for Barbara Seville from the filter and tick Barry Island Press:I’ve only done two jobs for them, but I can see that their proofreading rate is a lot less than their copyediting rate, although it’s hovering just a few pennies above the suggested minimum hourly rate (as at the time of this writing). Maybe my decision will be to decline any proofreading from them, but keep on copyediting for them – or maybe I’ll decide to ask for an increased fee, if I otherwise like working for them, and see what happens.

Play around with the filters: in the numerical filters, the above average and below average are useful for deciding who you want to work for less, and who you want to work for more often. The Top Ten option allows you to pick a number other than ten, and the bottom as well as the top of the pile – you could easily find your top three earning jobs, your bottom three earning jobs, or ten jobs, actually up to 500 in either direction, but I suppose ‘Top Ten’ is snappier than the ‘Top or Bottom up to 500’.

Additional help

There are, as you may expect, YouTube videos and other resources on how filtering works. Here’s a small selection:

For PCs

  1. Microsoft’s instructions on how to apply filters: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/filter-data-in-a-range-or-table-01832226-31b5-4568-8806-38c37dcc180e#ID0EAACAAA=Windows
  2. This video is by a Microsoft employee: youtube.com/watch?v=BtiVbY7lhqw
  3. Here’s another guide on filtering, which includes keyboard shortcuts if you prefer those to all-mouse: youtube.com/watch?v=wMlTDXPEjag
  4. And if you’re very new to spreadsheets, here’s a beginner’s YouTube video: youtube.com/watch?v=k1VUZEVuDJ8

For Macs

  1. Microsoft’s instructions on how to apply filters: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/filter-a-list-of-data-8ec38534-e2f1-41d0-b8bb-e3f5fcad95a0?ui=en-US&rs=en-US&ad=US
  2. Some intermediate features, including filters, are covered in this video (if you want to skip to filters, they show up at 19:34): youtube.com/watch?v=Z9sKEjHaIm4
  3. And if you’re very new to spreadsheets, here’s a beginner’s YouTube video: youtube.com/watch?v=znqfM4ligew

About Sue Littleford

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford is the author of the CIEP guide Going Solo, now in its second edition. She went solo with her own freelance copyediting business, Apt Words, in March 2007 and specialises in scholarly humanities and social sciences.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: numbers by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Flying solo: Customer service – being people-centric

This article by Sue Littleford, for our regular Flying Solo column in member newsletter The Edit, looks at a skill you need beyond editing in order to run a successful business: great customer service.

The article covers:

  • What is customer service?
  • Using the resources of the CIEP
  • Why does customer service go wrong?
  • Why you should demystify things for your client
  • Learning to communicate effectively
  • Getting the most out of contracts

For all we talk a lot about your editorial business being a business, it is a people-centric business. It’s not just indie authors – organisations are made up of people. You need people skills as well as word skills (and all the other skills).

Customer service isn’t just about doing a good job. It’s about how you do that job. You can be technically very good (nobody’s perfect, of which more anon) but you won’t get repeat clients if you’re a nightmare to deal with, or even just a bit prickly or offhand. On the other hand, you can be absolutely lovely, saying yes to everything, but fail to deliver on quality or timeliness.

Customer service comes up frequently for discussion. In 2019, Cathy Tingle, then I, then Vanessa Plaister all had something to say on the Institute’s blog. And shortly after I started the first draft of this piece, Cloud Club West started discussing the ethical side of dealing with clients (both clients’ ethics and ours), using the CIEP Code of Practice and Dignity Policy as a springboard. The same day, Hazel Bird published a great blog on being trustworthy. There was something in the air!

What is customer service?

We’ve all been customers ourselves, so it’s no mystery. I want to get what I meant to ask for, on time or a little earlier (so I’m not fretting down to the wire), at what I think of as a fair price. I want to be kept in touch with the process, but not feel I’m doing the job myself. I want to be alerted early of any difficulties. I want your technical competence.

Most of all, I want to feel secure in a safe pair of hands. And I want kindness – especially in a service like ours, where editorial comments and queries can be an endless stream of barbs puncturing the client’s feeling of pride in their work, and even their self-worth.

But if you’ve not been in a customer-facing role before, or not for a while, it can be easy to think about the job only from your own point of view: your own convenience, your own way of working, your own priorities, your own standards.

Remember: customer service is a two-way street, a conversation, an agreement between two parties, and those parties are people.

Using the resources of the CIEP

As ever, the Institute has already covered this ground in the Code of Practice and the model terms and conditions (T&Cs). Note that, at the time of writing, the T&Cs are being revised, but we’re talking principles here, not hard-and-fast wording.

If you’ve not been in a customer-facing role before, the Code of Practice section 3 and section 5 cover what’s required for freelancing copyeditors and proofreaders. If you offer project management, then you also need to read section 6. If you’re in-house, then you want section 4.

The Dignity Policy focuses on how members treat members, but there’s a reminder in the ‘Statement of expectations’ that there’s an overlap with section 3.1 and section 3.3 of the Code of Practice regarding what may be construed as unprofessional conduct.

Why does customer service go wrong?

My opinion is that it’s usually down to a mismatch of expectations. No, a proofread isn’t a development edit. No, a proof-edit isn’t a great way to save money getting your first draft published. No, I can’t rewrite your 10,000-word dissertation over the weekend for you, and I wouldn’t even if I could. No, my schedule isn’t all about you.

No, your first-time author doesn’t understand publishing inside out. No, your novice client doesn’t have a crystal ball to know all the assumptions you’ve made about their experience. No, your client probably has no idea that sending in a novel chapter by chapter is less than helpful, and demanding it back chapter by chapter so they can carry on changing stuff is even less so. Please no Google Docs! Please! You can’t edit or proofread while your impatient author watches you fillet their book, and keeps adding little tweaks while you’re doing that … And remember, your client may not be your ultimate client, especially if you’re working with business materials.

Many clients have no idea what it is they don’t know. You’re in a position of power, here, and you mustn’t misuse or abuse it.

Educating your client well (and nicely) is an opportunity for great customer service.

Why you should demystify things for your client

In my long-ago salaried days, when I moved from central government to the private sector (a move that very much felt like gamekeeper to poacher) one of the buzzwords my new employer used a lot was the need to make my erstwhile department an ‘intelligent customer’.

What that apparently rather insulting phrase actually means is educating your client to understand what’s sensible to ask for, what’s going to be ruinously expensive, how much time things are likely to take and that scope creep is a Bad Thing. I heard it most whenever contracts were being negotiated for new services, the kind of contracts that run into eight figures.

Starting to sound like a useful concept, once the prices are scaled down? Editors dealing with novice clients have to, or ought to, spend a fair bit of time educating those authors about the publishing process insofar as it applies to them.

The bottom line is that it’s worth the effort of ensuring both you and your client understand each other’s needs, wishes and expectations – unless you like tearing your hair out, giving refunds and worrying your reputation is going to be trashed online, of course.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

A year ago, Caroline Petherick was kind enough to share an information sheet that she sends to prospective clients, on the CIEP Forums (thanks to Christina Petrides for reminding me of this, and for finding the link).

Explore what the client wants. Find out what they actually mean by the words they use. We’ve all had a client ask for a ‘proofread’ when they mean a developmental edit and a copyedit or two first. Why should they already know the intricacies of our world?

Explain what you can and can’t do. If the client is a student, you also need to ensure the supervisor has approved outside help, and get hold of the institution’s guidance on what you’re allowed to do and, importantly, what you mustn’t do.

Ask questions – I often ask which draft number the client is on (too low a number and I know it’s not ready for a copyedit quite yet) – and if the client is surprised that the first draft isn’t the one that’s published, you know where you are in terms of what you need to teach the client, if you’re interested in taking on the job.

On the other hand, don’t bury your client under a tidal wave of interrogation that seems very one-way. It’s a conversation, remember.

Perfection, the impossible dream

Do not, under any circumstance, say you’ll make the text ‘perfect’. There is no such thing. Honestly, there isn’t. Language being what it is, how we express ourselves is an art rather than a science. Comma placement, for starters. Your perfect is my ‘I don’t like that’. My perfect is your ‘who on earth does it that way?’ Spelling, hyphenation, what’s italicised … whatever you’d put in a style sheet is a place for your client to say ‘I don’t like that’ or even ‘You’re wrong. When I was seven, Miss told me you do it this way.’

Promising the impossible is not good customer service, and it gives your client an enormous stick to beat you with, because the two of you will have different ideas of what perfection looks like.

Keep it real

Manage your client’s expectations. The standard advice is under-promise and over-deliver. I’d agree with that, but caution you not to take liberties in either direction.

Over-promising is a pretty daft thing to be doing. It may win you the job, but that’s about all – and the downside may just keep on giving. Don’t promise a standard you can’t deliver, a speed you can’t meet or a competence you don’t yet have.

But don’t go so far the other way that your performance overrides the service the client thought they’d agreed to. They may not believe your assertion that you really need four weeks the next time, and insist your deadline is in ten days, ‘because you did it before’. Wild over-delivering is also a pretty daft thing to be doing.

Use your contract for the heavy lifting

Your contract is another good place to start on the route to an intelligent customer, this time on the business aspects of your relationship. I’m happy to recommend Karin Cather and Dick Margulis’s book The Paper It’s Written On as, although the authors are American, the principles apply across jurisdictions. The book takes you through the type of content you may want to include as it sets out the basis of your working relationship with your client. What will you do? When will you do it? What are the client’s obligations to supply original material, on time, in no worse condition than the sample and of the length you quoted for?

What happens if something goes wrong, whether that’s illness, pandemic or some other crisis? Can you or will you be subcontracting the work? What if the client is unhappy with what you’ve done, or wants to cancel before you’ve started? What are the remedies? Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate!

When is it over?

One thing you need to be very clear about is when the job is finished. How many times, or how much later, can a client come back and say they found a missing apostrophe on p 327 and expect you to refund half your fee? When does the hand-holding stop?

This is where all your communication comes into play. From the outset, you must circumscribe the job. It must go in your contract and in your initial emails.

This is also a good defence against scope creep – just a new paragraph, just a new chapter, just this, just that. Remember the old adage: don’t set yourself on fire to keep somebody else warm.

So, what did Cloud Club West talk about?

A lot! (We always do, and I promised them namechecks.)

Key advice included:

Katherine Kirk reminded us that email etiquette is in the CIEP’s Code of Practice, and sent us to check out Malini Devadas’s podcast on maintaining boundaries.

Alice Yew has a boundary around working on shared documents, whether that’s Overleaf, Google Docs or what have you, but explains to potential clients the adverse impact of an author updating a file that’s being edited or proofread, so that they understand the reason.

Many people reported clients insisting on phone calls (which miraculously take up none of your time and are therefore free, as you aren’t actually editing or proofreading, are you? Katie Ellis reminded us of this recent forum thread on that point), or communicating via WhatsApp at unsocial times (or at all!).

Lisa Davis doesn’t publish her phone number anywhere; Janet MacMillan and several others have language in their contracts that stipulates communication must be by email only, so that both parties have a written record of what’s been said, asked for and agreed.

Laurie Duboucheix-Saunders and I told of technically challenged clients, unable to handle emails or Word documents. If you take on a client like this, your standard contract and up-front emails will need to reflect the different requirements, but be alert to the many ways that people can work around their difficulties with technology (including someone who printed out a PDF, hand-annotated it and sent back photographs of the pages) and make sure that you can either help your client to learn a better way of doing things, or that your contract enables you to increase your time and/or your fee if your client won’t or can’t follow the stipulated communication methods, although Christina Petrides reminded us to be flexible when we can.

Alex Peace’s contract sets out precisely how and in what format files will be exchanged. As she’s mostly an indexer, that’s critical to her.

Laurie Duboucheix-Saunders moved us on to the duty to respond to queries, even if you don’t want to take the job on, and Ayesha Chari advised telling students why you don’t want to take on a job, if their expectations are wide of the mark, and it’s not clear they have supervisor approval.

Sam Kelly reminded us of the importance of educating clients if they’re not yet comfortable with features like Track Changes. One of his rejected all the changes, thinking he’d accepted them, and the journal rejected the article as being in dire need of editorial attention. Cue much angst all round.

Helena Nowak-Smith knows what it’s like to have clients who don’t understand that you may have other projects on the go and that getting their text to you late will impact the delivery date; whereas Marieke Krijnen has encountered more plagiarism than she ever thought possible. Lots of advice followed from Cloud Club West members to include anti-plagiarism language on your website and in your contract as part of your intelligent customer efforts.

Conclusion

If you want your clients to be loyal and to keep coming back with more work, maintaining good customer service is part and parcel of the job. Some clients may forgive the occasional off day. Others won’t. Most won’t forgive multiple off days. Investing time in your clients and building those relationships, within healthy boundaries, is an investment in your business.

When my long-established freelancing brother heard I was throwing in the salaried towel and setting up for myself, too, this is what he drummed into me.

You. Are. Only. As. Good. As. Your. Last. Job.

I agree with him, but would add:

And. The. Way. You. Did. It.

Summing up

  • Customer service is essential.
  • Investing in relationship building is an investment in your business.
  • The standard of work you produce matters, but so does how you do it.

About Sue Littleford

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford is the author of the CIEP guide Going Solo, now in its second edition. She went solo with her own freelance copyediting business, Apt Words, in March 2007 and specialises in scholarly humanities and social sciences. Before that, she had been the payroll manager for a major government department for some 14 years.

Her whole career had been markedly numbers based – both in central government and in the private sector – even though she became the go-to wordsmith everywhere she worked. She eventually switched to words full-time, transferring her skills and experience to hone her business efficiency and effectiveness.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

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Photo credits: boundary by Jan Canty; We hear you by Jon Tyson, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.