How to Make the Business-Freelancer Relationship Last

Professionalism Starts in Kindergarten

From Rental & Staging Systems April 2008

By Tom Stimson, CTS

Like a lot of stagers, I started in the AV business as an independent contractor. I broadened my freelancer perspective by founding a staffing company and later by managing a major stager. I have hired, trained, and managed hundreds of self-employed individuals. In fact, the first magazine article I ever published was about employment law, liability, and the independent contractor. So when I talk about the freelancers-employer relationship, I tend to take the broad view. Simply put, this industry needs freelancers, and freelancers need AV Stagers. The point of this article is to reiterate what’s fair and professional when it comes to doing business. The most basic rules you need to know were probably first learned in kindergarten. In my experience, I have seen most of these points egregiously violated by both employers and workers, which is why they can’t be stated too many times.

If you can’t say anything nice…

Gossip is normal in humans and made easier and more dangerous by the Internet. We work in a frustrating and stressful business, which has caused more than one person to say things they regret. Unfortunately there are some folks who seem to believe that their ability to point out faults in others makes them look smarter. There is nothing more unprofessional to me than a freelancer that takes a company’s money and then talks bad about them – especially on the job site. Employers aren’t without fault. It is just as unprofessional to say on one hand a person doesn’t meet your standards, then turn around and hire them when you are slammed. The better business decision for both employer and worker is to say nothing disparaging in public about the other.

Dance wi’ the one that ‘brung ‘ya

Freelancers need to use discretion promoting their services when they are on a gig. As an employer, you have to respect the right of the worker to maintain basic business communication. If someone asks for a freelancer’s business card, he or she should be able to hand it out. This is different from a freelancer soliciting business by saying, “Next time call me direct.” For freelancers, the implication is that if that end customer does go around your staging client and calls you first next time, be prepared to turn down the job or redirect them to the stager. At the very least, call the stager and explain the situation and seek permission to jump their claim. This is also a point for “What goes around comes around.” As a freelancer you have a lot more to lose by stealing a customer than you can imagine. Employers also need to recognize that freelancers are helping you retain customers. It wouldn’t kill you to involve them in next year’s job with that client.

No Passing Notes In Class

The workforce is evolving. We now have employees and contractors who have never known a world without cell phones, text messages, or email. Social and business networking are becoming blended. This is not to say that work can or should stop just because a phone rings. As employer, think how frustrated you get when you call or email a freelancer and they don’t get back to you in a couple of hours (for employees I bet you count the minutes!). I bet you get even madder when they return your call while they are controlling a show. There are two criteria I have for using communication while working. First it has to be safe: No phone conversations while climbing scaffold. Second, it needs to be transparent: It cannot interfere with tasks. When you extrapolate these two points, phone and email need to be answered during breaks or the more nebulous “downtime”. Employers, just adding five minutes to crew breaks will allow more time for email and phone will probably increase the day’s overall productivity by reducing the urgency for ad hoc communication.

You made your bed, now lie in it

This is a dynamic industry in that sometimes projects go away as fast as they appear. If an employer regularly cancels freelancers at the last minute without any allowances, then freelancers either won’t want to work for them, will charge higher rates, or will enforce cancellation policies. If freelancers regularly cancel themselves to take a higher paying, longer, or more interesting assignments then employers will either book them less or not at all. Since it is in the best interest of both the employers and the freelancers to have a flexible system, some compromise is required. For employers the solution is to respect the booked time as best they can and try and reschedule freelancers when jobs cancel or change. Freelancers have to be flexible about accepting these changes and should resist the temptation to take another gig once they have committed. There are exceptions to both rules – and that is also part of the compromise.

Use your words

Many of the challenges I see between freelancers and employers are attributable to poor communication. More specifically, there is too much information trying to be shared. Freelancers need to understand that employers have limited capacity for tracking the special caveats and rules that freelancers love to require. Employers need to do a better job of expressing reasonable expectations for contractors without specifying everything the worker does. Less is more.

In conclusion, the individuals and companies that behave like pros, will earn broad respect and develop long-term business relationships. It is the best interest of everyone involved to cultivate professional standards for the sake of their craft and businesses. Practicing your kindergarten rules and maintaining consistent standards will minimize the need for policies and controls that ultimately undermine relationships and trust.

Tom (T.R.) Stimson, MBA, CTS, is president of The Stimson Group, a Dallas-based management consulting firm providing strategic planning, market research, and process management services to the AV Industry. Tom is the 2008 Secretary-Treasurer of InfoComm International, a member of the ETCP Certification Council, and keynote speaker for the Rental & Staging Roadshow. Contact him at

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