I don't mean to hate too much or come off as a cynical dick. I've worked for lots of wonderful people who are the embodiment of professionalism. 

This article is not for those stellar people that the world desperately needs more of. They work their tails off to get things done and we all thank them. Hopefully, they are rewarded financially too. They certainly deserve it.  

Then there are those who seem to constantly invent new ways of screwing things up.

Lots of them will end up processing your paychecks.

The goal of this article is help you take a proactive approach that saves you time and spares you headaches.

It's about handling incompetence. At one point I was really miserable because of other people. I can't control how others behave, but I can control how I react and prepare. I was very guilty of not evaluating my responses. 

Let's dive in. 

Why is this a problem at all? 

Society can be really bad (and slow!) at funneling people into work where they are most effective. Ever have a job you hate? You were probably not very good. We tend to be bad at things that we loathe. If you were good, it was probably very draining. Someone always pays in these circumstances. The employee is usually miserable or the employer gets terrible service. Sometimes both. 

What is worse is when someone who hates or simply sucks at managing people ends up doing just that. 

Employees start out wanting to be good at their work and a lousy manager makes them unproductive. Ever see some of those hilarious articles about worker productivity soaring when people get enough rest, aren't constantly worried about money or health, have a manageable workload, and have a little time to relax? What a discovery! People do a better job when they aren't a burnt out mess. The fact that this is newsworthy information in 2015 is very telling. 

One of the reasons why the movie Office Space was so successful was thousands of people could relate to it. It's a ridiculous movie, but millions of people have had a very real boss like this: 

 

I wish I had a quick solution for these big societal problems that waste everyone's time.

The reality is that things like this are slow to change. Being proactive is a lot better than waiting for the world to get it together. 

 

This story is where the lightbulb went off for me:

I wrote some music for a company's new YouTube commercial that took about 8 hours of my time. My net profit was about $400. 

$400 / 8 hours = $50 per hour to write some music. Not bad at all. 

After about a month of wondering where my check was, redoing paperwork this company lost, explaining the problem to multiple people, and sorting through long email threads, I easily spent another 3 hours sorting the thing out and more time waiting.

This time sorting things out absolutely counts as work. Time spent doing things I'd rather not is work.

$400 / (8 hours of actual work + 3 hours of cat herding) = $36.36 per hour

Because they couldn't get their act together, each hour of my time was worth A THIRD less. 

This behavior flies because it eventually gets sorted out. Usually. At the expense of your time. 

This is something I wish I had thought about sooner. 

But better late than never. Rather than beat around the bush, I want to help you avoid losing more of your time. 

Here are some strategies that have helped me handle or avoid these situations.

1. The best medicine is prevention. If I'm negotiating an agreement privately, I usually factor in some wasted time when I ask for my fee. Now it isn't wasted time you didn't expect. It is part of the process that you have prepared for. 

2. Ask for a sizable deposit and offer a discount if they pay up front in full. Then work your ass off to reward them with great service.

3. Have a cancellation and refund policy that protects you and incentivizes them to be proactive too. If a client cancels a performance before I've made any arrangements, no problem. I'll happily refund their money. Cancel a day before? Different story. By that point I've spent time and money to prepare that I can't get back. They've also locked up my time. Booking a different job isn't an option at that point. That is why I don't refund deposits on last minute cancellations. Same goes for when I was teaching private lessons. Students pay for lessons in blocks and receive a discount for doing so. Need to reschedule in two weeks? Need to take next month off? No problem. Forgot that Jimmy had soccer practice tomorrow? Sorry, can't refund you. That was your lack of preparation, not mine. Tell people this ahead of time and be prepared to tactfully defend this practice. 

4. Always insist that necessary paperwork is filled out 2 weeks in advance of a job. This usually comes up when dealing with large arts organizations, universities, or other non-profits. If you really want to play hardball, be clear that you don't perform unless your check is on the stand the day of a performance. Asking for more money usually isn't possible here so ensure that you are paid in full with minimal runaround. Some organizations might not go for it, but when they do it feels GREAT to walk to the car knowing you are 100% done. 

5. Be willing to walk away. At one point I was gigging every day and completely miserable with that. The majority of the gigs were low paying, didn't make me any meaningful connections, and didn't make me any better as a player. And slow too! It was my own fault. I made no effort to negotiate. I was just taking whatever was thrown my way. I felt like a moron spending a week to try and chase down someone who owes me $50. 

Don't do this. Be pickier. 

Playing one really good gig a week is way better than 7-10 awful ones. Trust me. At one point my schedule was totally dry and I was dying to be the guy gigging like a maniac. Then I got there and it wasn't what I thought it would be. Find 2 or 3 really nice gigs every week, add some quality students and you have a full time income that doesn't wreck you. 

6. Follow up. Always confirm that people have everything they need from you. Taking 10 minutes to make a phone call or send an email is way easier than chasing people down who claim you forgot to send them some document, confirm, didn't pass go & collect $200, etc. 

I learned this from a friend who follows up religiously. He sent in all his paperwork way ahead of time to a university who contracted him as a ringer in their orchestra. The people in payroll assumed that his information was the same as last year and didn't bother to update it or double check. This caused his paycheck to be accidentally deposited to his ex-wife's bank account. He was predictably thrilled. 

7. Go over people's heads if they waste your time anyway. Someone is giving you a problem despite your reasonable efforts? Contact their boss. These people are usually easier to get in touch with than you think. My only contact from the company mentioned above was flat out ignoring a lot of my correspondence. I sent emails, left phone messages, and patiently waited over a month. 

No luck. Time to crack the whip. Since the point person was actively ignoring me, I made a temporary email account and guessed the CEO's internal email address. First initial + last name @ companydomain.com. Big surprise, right? I wrote him short message describing the problem.

This is the one email that fixed it, with names changed:

On 4/15/13 1:17 PM, "Emilio Guarino" wrote:
Dear Paul,
I'm the composer you met with back in February regarding the new commercial. I’d like to get the project wrapped up and I’m having trouble reaching Cindy regarding the final payment. 
Everything ok on your end? Anything you need from me?

Emilio Guarino
 
On 4/15/13 1:30 PM, "Paul Meyer" wrote:
Emilio,
Not sure why we are not getting back to you this is not our culture and I am sad to hear this. 
Amanda please take care of this. 

Paul

 

The check was in my hands three days later. I was hired again without problems and the point person who blew me off was "no longer with the company" when I worked with them next. 

8. Be extra super duper clear about a payment schedule before any work happens. Define what "on time" is. It can vary wildly. 

If you're negotiating payment terms to play someone's wedding, go research what other people do and adapt that to what works for you. I personally take a deposit and expect the final balance the day of the event. I make it very clear to the client in plain English ahead of time in my contract.

If you're being hired by a bandleader or contractor, don't bring up the topic of money too quickly. That can spook some people. It can make you sound cynical and jaded. Nobody wants to hire that. Usually you won't have to ask anyway. They will tell you upfront or once you confirm availability. 

If you're working for a big institution, ask what their standard pay schedule is. If they say "Net 45", then you're usually stuck waiting up to 45 days for your check. Is it possible to have it sooner? Absolutely. Sometimes it's not worth the trouble. That's something you just have to get a feel for over time. 

In any case once you've established a clear payment schedule, set a reminder in your calendar. If things go just fine, ignore it. If you're still waiting after that, touch base with them just to make sure everything is on its way. Start soft and only get aggressive as an absolute last resort. Emailing the CEO of a company should not be your first line of defense! 

 

For the best results, stack all of these strategies. Realistically you will have to if you have multiple projects in process. It also takes some time to dial these in to the level that suits you. Bothering everyone's boss is definitely a bad idea. Walking away from every gig that isn't ideal will hurt you in the long run. A totally ruthless cancellation policy will scare away great clients. 

These aren't dogma. They're principles that I try to stick to, but compromise is absolutely involved. 

This is just part of my recipe. Season to taste.