An Open Letter to College Students
There isn’t much that I would change about my college experience. But if I could…
I don’t have to travel much.
And, as someone who makes a living off of billable hours, that’s probably a good thing. It goes without saying that I usually prefer staying at home.
Some situations, however, still necessitate being there in person. Client conferences, holiday parties, and strategic summits are perfect examples.
This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the freelancer. On the one hand, being face-to-face with your client is a great way to solidify an otherwise virtual-only relationship. On the other hand, travel isn’t cheap, and it consumes precious hours that would otherwise be billable.
In this post, I’ll share a few tips for visiting clients, billing time, and staying in control.
Traveling can be a nice break from your freelancing lifestyle. Who doesn’t love to zone out in the terminal, drink coffee, and listen to your favorite podcast?
As refreshing as that may seem, it could also be a missed opportunity. After all, the moment you land, your entire focus will be dedicated to the client you’re visiting.
Before you ever step foot outside your home office, you need to create your “billing itinerary.” (I would recommend downloading this spreadsheet if you’re not already using a weekly time planner.) Start by planning for the known events. For example, if you are helping a client host a two-day event, you’ll probably budget at least sixteen billable hours for that (eight per day). Then, consider what else could logically happen, such as dinner, cocktails, or tearing down an exhibit. From there, you’ll have a good idea of “flex time” available for your other clients. In my experience, the best opportunities for flex time would include:
Try to determine a realistic goal for each day. Since you’ll be away from family anyway, it’s feasible to work more hours than you otherwise would. It’s good to push yourself, but don’t be too aggressive. Remember, you don’t want to miss the main point of the trip!
Traveling yields a mountain of receipts. How do you know which expenses should be submitted to the client for reimbursement? Good question.
Before embarking on your journey, try to feel the client out for what they’re willing to pay for. In many cases, they’ll come right out and tell you (unsolicited). In other cases, you have to find out in a tactful way – which isn’t always easy. There’s a good chance they’ll offer to pay for your transportation and meals, but every client is different.
Even when you know which expenses are fair game, there are still gray areas that require solid judgement. Here’s a perfect example. Recently, I visited a client who made it clear that they would pay for all travel and meals. Part of the travel overlapped with the weekend, so I had to find my way to Sunday mass. I had not rented a car; instead, I relied on ridesharing services for my ground transportation. Round trip, my church experience cost about fifteen dollars. Some might argue that this expense could be included in the final amount submitted for reimbursement. However, I decided to eat that expense, since it was purely a personal interest.
When it comes to tracking your in-person billable time, there are even more potential gray areas. In general, bill only for time when you’re adding value. Having drinks and trading toddler stories doesn’t count (in my opinion).
We’ve talked about the nuts and bolts of billing time, but client relationships are so much more than quantified hours. It’s not your other clients’ fault that you’re traveling. Their businesses are still in need of your amazing services. Although you can’t be as engaged as usual, you can at least use flex time to check in.
Be open with clients about your availability and travel schedule. And, who knows – visiting one client might even trigger another to bring you to their location.
In summary, face-to-face client meetings can be the spark to take a great relationship to a whole new level. Just be sure to make a plan, try your best to stick to it, and don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re only one person!