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Ten Strategies for Working as an Independent Contractor

Updated on September 6, 2012

Changes in the workplace

With the American economy in a state of crisis, unemployment is high and countless jobs have been permanently eliminated. Many businesses now look to virtual assistants or temp agencies to meet short and long term needs instead of hiring permanent employees, and this situation is not apt to change soon. A practical solution for displaced workers is to offer their services as independent contractors (IC). In this way, they can maket their skills and expertise to a variety of clients, frequently at higher rates of pay than that typically offered to in-house employees.

The use of independent contractors has been on the rise for more than a decade as entrepreneurs have discovered the benefits of hiring to achieve specific short- and long-term goals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 60% of all businesses make use of contract labor and as much as 40% of all corporate budgets are now allocated to contract labor. This is good news for more than 8 million independent contractors working in the United States. (This number is expected to more than double in ten years as a result of a changing economic climate and a rising number of men and women seeking to work for themselves.)

Working for yourself

An ailing economy has led to changes in the workforce
An ailing economy has led to changes in the workforce
Perhaps its time to trade in gossip at the water cooler...
Perhaps its time to trade in gossip at the water cooler...
...for a home office and the opportunity to work for yourself
...for a home office and the opportunity to work for yourself
Agree in advance on the scope of work requested
Agree in advance on the scope of work requested
Insist on a contract articulating the details of your assignment...
Insist on a contract articulating the details of your assignment...
...and document your work at all times
...and document your work at all times

Strategies for working as an Independent Contractor

To succeed as a virtual assistant or independent contractor, it is extremely important to be professional and thorough in every stage of your dealings with prospective clients. Towards meeting this end, listed are ten recommendations for success as an independent contract worker. Attention to these suggestions will result in fewer problems and more successful relationships between you and your clients.

1. Know your limitations. The urge to accept any work offered and hope for the best is particularly strong when just starting out, but do not accept a contract you don’t have the resources to fulfill. Begin slowly and work toward more ambitious jobs as your skills and experience increases.

2. Use outside expertise when required. This might seem a contradiction of the first recommendation, but it really is not. If elements of your assignment fall outside your expertise, work with sub-contractors to finish the job. Make it clear from the outset that the use of sub-contractors is a possibility and be certain your client has no objections or concerns. Do not take credit for a sub-contractor’s work or use it to imply your abilities are more than they are.

3. Understand your customer’s goals and objectives. You must have a clear understanding of what your customer considers the end result of your working relationship. If your role is one piece of a larger puzzle, you must define to what extent you are responsible for the success or final outcome of a project. Be wary of accepting a project if your client is incapable of articulating goals or objectives.

4. Define the extent of your contribution and agree upon what the end of your involvement will be. You must be in agreement when your job has ended. For example, if you are designing a web site for a client, is site maintenance or training part of your customer’s expectations? You might believe you have finished a job, only to subsequently be deluged with calls for support or upgrades.

5. Agree to a properly structured contract. Do not accept any job without a written contract. When negotiating an assignment, it is acceptable to initially slant the contract terms in your favor—do not compromise your position before contract discussions even begin. Your client will do the same, and finding the middle ground is what negotiations are for.

6. Manage your relationships in an ongoing way. Your relationship with clients will not be one of employer/employee; you and your client are partners. Make it your job to maintain positive relations at all times. Take responsibility for your role in the partnership; provide what you have agreed upon and work to correct misunderstandings without placing blame.

7. Document your processes. Keep clear records of what you did to fulfill your contract, including your use of time. This will be to your advantage if a client makes specious claims about your practices, efforts or judgment. Discuss your methods before accepting a job and establish agreement in advance for your work processes whenever possible.

8. Communicate problems immediately. Anything that prevents you from fulfilling your contractual obligations in a specified period of time should be communicated immediately. Your contract should be reexamined and altered if your problems cannot be addressed to avoid legal issues later.

9. Justify expenditures. Your contributions to a client’s project must be cost effective to you and the client. Reasonable expenses are expected and unavoidable, but do not try to impress a client by spending more than you need to. A frugal approach will enhance your reputation in your industry and lead to referrals.

10. Document what you deliver. Provide your client with a check list, invoice or packing slip and have the document signed upon delivery of your product or services. It might be prudent to provide documentation at both the mid-point and conclusion of your assignment. This document should reflect the terms of your contract and your customer’s goals or expectations.

A suggestion from a reader

A friend visiting my page left another suggestion for Independent Contractors in the "comments" part of this article. If you click on her name you will follow the link to her profile page to read more of her work. I quote:

"...One thing I would suggest adding is change orders. A lot of times a client will sign a specific contract, but as the work goes on they change their mind about certain aspects due to one reason or another. Sometimes relevant and sometime just because they've changed their mind midstream because they've seen it could be "better" a different way.

To make sure that you don't end up with eating any extra costs that might occur due to these spur of the moment decisions it is best to have a "change order" that is a codicil to the original contract specifying the changes and any extra costs that might occur and signed by the customer so there is no confusion at the end of the job about any extra costs due to their change of heart..."

Thanks for this excellent suggestion, I appreciate it greatly.

The advantages of working for yourself

There are many reasons why more and more Americans are looking for an opportunity to work from home. Many men and women want to gain more control over their schedules. Others are tired of surrendering their children to day care, and want to be the primary care giver for their sons or daughters. Often people seek to escape office politics, water cooler gossips, or difficult co-workers. For some, there simply are not enough jobs available that allow them to utilize their skills.

These guidelines will help you avoid many of the problems that plague contract workers, but they can also serve as so much more than that. Success is never guaranteed, but these suggestions offer the opportunity for mutually beneficial interactions between you and your clients. They can become the framework for a thriving business based upon sound and ethical principles—certainly ingredients for success. At the very least, they can eliminate some sleepness nights and a few extra gray hairs, and that is important, as well.

Good luck.

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