Client management tip: Kill fees must die

Client management: handling kill or strike feesSo, client management… Possibly the toughest part of what we do as freelancers. At least, for me. I know how I feel about kill fees (see above title, in case you’re wondering…), but how do other freelancers and consultants feel? Let’s just say, I’d made assumptions. And you know what they say about assumptions.

My bad.

I’d assumed there was only one black-and-white/for-and-against conundrum about kill fees – otherwise known as ‘strike’ or ‘cancellation’ fees. In other words, I thought I’d find some generous freelancers who allow clients to strike a job with a kill fee and some hard-asses, like me, who expect them to pay in full.

I didn’t anticipate 16 different degrees of acceptance/rejection, including three pieces of input – from colleagues I respect and admire – that laud the dreaded kill fee:

  • “Yes to kill fees. In my terms I state that cancellation or indefinite postponement incurs costs to date plus 30% of the balance.” – Jo
  • “A ‘Kill Fee’ clause should apply to creative work so that the industry is taken seriously and our ideas are valued.” – Lawrence
  • “Yes to kill fees! If the working relationship is good, I’ll throw in a pre-emptive kill fee discount, ‘just for you’. But I’ve only done this 5 times in 4 years.” – Simon

My policy

Let me put my cards on the table and state that, as a copywriter, I do not charge kill fees. Because you can’t kill a job. You accept the CE and once I start, you’re liable for the full amount. Whether you cancel the job, stop me half-way, or lose your mojo towards the end. That’s my version of client management.

If you absolutely hate the work, I’ll gladly re-do it. But there’s no killing.

Why is this? Because I try to run my business much like a dentist runs his:

  • You can’t contract me to ‘clean your teeth’ and then change the specs – i.e. get braces put on – for the same price.
  • I don’t accept payment in apples or with promises of exposure / a profit share.
  • You cannot ask me to work for free.
  • You can’t get cold teeth half-way through a clean and leave without settling your bill. I sold you the time – all of it – and I can’t and won’t re-sell it.
  • You are not able to decide you don’t like the result of the service, once it’s done, and offer only a portion of the total fee.

It’s a contract

I get that this is unusual. I get that some writers, like those who are commissioned to produce pieces for magazines or newspapers, rely on a kill fee clause to cover them at least a little bit if an article is parked, rejected, or re-jigged.

But my take is that, if you’re a professional and you produce work of quality, part of your client management policy should be disallowing clients from devaluing your output by paying for work used and not work done.

Also, if you’re a copywriter, and you’re writing to a project brief, there’s almost no way you’d be able to on-sell the work, research or prep to Client B if Client A doesn’t use it. It’s too specific. So keeping the rights to your work doesn’t help much. As Jo puts it, “I’m not a journalist and I write (mostly) for business clients. Different game.”

Killing vs ‘spec work’

In a quest to avoid further assumptions, I returned to my three colleagues and asked, ‘At what stage in the process does killing end and ‘spec work’ begin?’ Because spec work (any job for which the client expects to see a finished product before agreeing to pay for it) is my Gargamel, my evil stepsister, my Maleficent.

It turns out that, amidst my rabid distaste for kill fees, I’d always associated them with the end of the job and not the beginning. At the beginning, and if properly negotiated and confirmed in writing, I can see how they’d be a good thing. Sometimes. On a case-by-case basis, and based entirely on what you want to happen next:

  • keep the client and take a possible knock,
  • stick to your guns and risk losing the client, or
  • fire the client (AKA, wade into what Simon calls ‘the no-repeat-work swamp’)

This article was originally published in Freelancentral’s The Stable Door as ‘Kill Fees Must Die’.