Getting paid more by being reliable

Being perceived as reliable allows you to get paid more even if the work you produce is exactly the same. Sometimes, even if the work you produce is inferior, in fact. Its quite easy to demonstrate this.

Source: Mitchell Laurren-Ring

Imagine, if you will, that you’ve just decided to buy an iPhone. You have done research, found the model you want, budgeted the amount to buy it cash and are on your way to an iStore. Just as you’re about to walk in, a gentleman stops you, holding a box of the exact model you want in hand. He says he was buying it as a gift for friend who seems to have purchased one on his own just that morning. He suggests that you give him the money you were going to pay for it in exchange for the phone and the receipt to save you both the trouble of having to go into the store. Do you take it?

Its exactly the same phone and he’s not lying, but you probably wouldn’t, would you? The gentleman senses your unease and offers you a 10% discount on the price. How about now? What just happened there? Even if you still don’t take the deal, it somehow seems like a smarter option than paying full price. A similar thing would probably happen if you were offered the next model up instead, at the same price.

This gentleman, will not be able to sell the exact same product, in the same location for the same price as the iStore simply because the latter has a reputation and you trust it implicitly. Its not about the store either. To see this, imagine that this gentleman was a close friend rather than a stranger. The store and your friend are able to get a premium price simply because you regard them as reliable.

Reliability can be a bottleneck to getting to the next level

I recently left a partnership and decided to put more focus into my career as a freelancer. One of the things that bothers me is how often a client will bring me in to fix code that is obviously inferior but later learn they paid 3–10 times as much as I would have charged. My meritocratic engineering mind had always been of the opinion that people with 5x my rate where 5x as productive but something else was going on here.

Patrick McKenzie confirmed this with some numbers that blew my mind in an article. To quote:

there is virtually no difference in the mechanics of work done between $100 an hour, $200 an hour, and $30k a week

Patrick was able to realize a substantial growth in the price he was able to charge clients simply by being able to prove that the investment was worth it.

I really felt the frustration of not getting by whilst producing work of good quality. I didn’t necessarily want to make bucket loads of money from each client but it felt really unfair to be fixing the messes others made for a tenth of the money. I also realized, however, that I was really erratic which made it difficult not only to plan and budget income but also to meet deadlines and not feel frazzled all the time. This made it difficult for me to accumulate good testimonials so I set out to be more reliable and the following are a few points that have stood out for me along the journey.

Reliable doesn’t mean perfect

Source: Axel Hartmann

Whilst some may argue that the iPhone is the perfect phone its not perfect. Even when you walk out of the store you accommodate the possibility, however rare, that there’s some defect in your phone that got past them. This doesn’t affect your perception of them because you also expect that when you bring up this defect, they will make an honest effort to correct things.

In a similar way, I don’t think you have to have perfect deadlines or anything to be perceived as reliable. It certainly helps but I feel that keeping communication lines open can go a long way towards mitigating things in much the same way the iStore does. For instance, whilst its tempting to keep quiet when a deadline is about to be missed until you have something to show, its preferable for the client to inform them that you will miss the deadline and be open about why that is and what you’re doing to “fix” things. In fact, its even better to tell them the moment it dawns on you, a week before, that things might not work out as planned.

You need reliable partners

You have to be able to depend on the people and companies you work with. This is one of the hardest ones for me. I recently have taken on the policy of not working with a partner that I had worked with for a long time. I genuinely like and love them as a person but I’ve come to accept that, at this point in their lives, I can’t rely on them.

What broke the camel’s back was when I tried to mediate a deal between this partner and someone that owed me a favour. A proposal had been requested and I was promised it would be sent on Wednesday. Monday, 5 days later, came with no word until I followed up myself. This was really disappointing as they had the freedom to set any deadline they liked and they let it slip without acknowledging it.

Needless to say, this had knock-on effects on my reputation with the person I had given the referral. Passing on these effects through communication also gives the impression of having dodgy contacts, which doesn’t help at all. However, as per the above point, its better than keeping quiet.

You need reliable equipment

If you can’t trust your equipment, chances are, people won’t be able to trust you. I’m a big offender here but I’m working on it. A cellphone that can’t be trusted will affect the perception of your accessibility and how seriously you take communication. A car that needs you to own a toolbox to operate it will eventually make you late for (or miss entirely) a meeting. A hard drive with no backup will eventually make work disappear.

Substandard equipment and substandard procedures make you come off looking like the electrician who uses your kitchen knives to undo screws. Its not easy, especially when starting out but it means more effort must be put into place to buffer people against these (like leaving a few hours early if you can’t trust your car).

You need reliable clients

This is perhaps the least intuitive one but one I learned the hard way. Its very difficult for you to be reliable unless your clients are reliable, or more precisely, your relationships with them are reliable. This manifests itself in a number of ways:

  • a client that’s late for meetings increases uncertainty about your time and how you are able to use it.
  • a client that pays you late…you can fill in the blanks.
  • a client that is quiet for weeks on a project then reappears out of nowhere with an urgent deadline will jeopardize any other commitments you have.

Overall, dealing with unreliable clients takes away from my quality of life and leaves me less able to go after projects I really want to. You can’t always see them coming in advance, but again, you can do things to mitigate the risks for yourself such as:

  • adopting a strict time limit for appointments or having a penalty for time overages
  • collecting more of the payment for the work earlier in the process
  • establishing bounds on what reasonable expectations are

Its not easy, but you have to somehow absorb the costs of all the madness otherwise.

Its a value system

Ultimately, this gist of this is that reliability is a value. Its a belief that must permeate your life in order to be able to offer it to someone else. Like any other value, it will affect the choices you make throughout your life and influence your relationships going forward. You may have to let go of some people who don’t think its important. There are also people you’ll meet who couldn’t have come into your life if you didn’t.

I’ll be writing more posts like this as I learn and grow into being a better freelancer.

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