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The 5 stages of project creep

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Understanding your emotional response to realizing you are being asked to work for free is the first step to feeling better about those so-called clients.

Whether you’re just starting out as an independent practitioner or you’ve been doing it for decades, one thing never changes – someone always wants you to work for free. The email lands in your inbox innocently enough; you read through the project and it sounds simple enough and then you see that word. The one word that immediatelys ruins everything. Exposure.

Nothing you do as a bookkeeper, accountant or tax preparer is free. Your time and knowledge is precious and these pesky so-called clients should know better. You pay with your time, your experience, the money you spent on college or training, the bills you pay to keep your office running or your heating on at home, your continuing education and subscriptions. This simple project can get expensive, so when someone tells you that working for free would not be much of an additional load for you, it can be difficult not to throw your computer out the window.

I feel your pain my friend, and I know exactly what you’re going through. So with a tongue firmly planted in cheek, and respectful recognition to Elizabeth Kǜbler-Ross, I present the five emotional stages of being asked to work for free.

1. Denial

Chances are the first emotion you’ll feel when being asked to work for free is denial.

The first time you find out that a client wants you to work for free, chances are your jaw will drop to the floor and you’ll react with a sort of numb disbelief. Don’t worry though – this is a natural response and will help you from feeling the true impact of the situation.

2. Anger

Surely these people haven’t asked you to do all that work for no money whatsoever, right? Surely it was a just a typo? Perhaps they had an aneurysm in the middle of writing that email? They can’t seriously think that their goodwill pays for groceries, right? At this point in your emotional journey, denial is probably the sanest reaction.

You may not be able to connect with your feelings of anger right away but oh boy, they’ll turn up. The good news is that anger can be super-empowering, so it’s best to own it in all its glory. It’s all part of the grieving process of being asked to work for free, so grab a cushion and scream to your heart’s content. Just make sure your co-workers, family or friends are far away for this part.

3. Bargaining

Don’t be tempted to work for free, no matter how much you think your practice needs them as a client.

You might think the client must have chosen to ask you because you’re special and one-of-a-kind, right? You’ll start to worry there’s plenty of others out there who would love to work with this client and do this job. You’ll worry this work could lead to bigger and better work when you’ve turned it down. Stop thinking these thoughts and go and have a beer instead. Seriously.

4. Guilt or Depression

You may rail against fate, questioning “Why me?” You start to worry that competition is so stiff that you have no choice and you have to accept this additional work in order to keep the client. Step away from the computer right now and take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror. You don’t need the work that badly.

Don’t let requests for free work get you down

It’s tough knowing that clients think they can still get away with ‘good will’ in place of a paycheck. You’ll probably feel like giving up accounting altogether if this is where the industry is; you’ll find it hard to get out of bed; you’ll no longer be able to find inspiration. Don’t let them do this to you! Rise up from the ashes of your inbox and crack on with the work from clients who actually value your skills.

5. Acceptance and hope

Not all clients are like this. As acceptance deepens, moving forward requires redirecting your feelings of hope – from the belief that you can singlehandedly save the accounting and tax industry to the possibility that you just might be okay without working for that one client. It’s tough to have to redirect your energy, but focus on the work you want to do with the clients that want to pay you. Every little step is a step further away from dependency and failure.

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