In The End, All You’ve Got Is Your Good Name

I’ve just completed a very strange experience with a client.  Well, she wasn’t actually a client — that would suppose that there had been an exchange of funds for services.  In this case, there were santamany promises of funds, but none ever showed up.  It’s not the first time that’s happened to me, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  And it’s not even the biggest lie I’ve ever been told — there was Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Federal Reserve.

No, in this case, there was just a string of phone calls and emails about the bright future I would have if I just “trusted” her.  If I bought a plane ticket to her client site with my own money, if I started work without a deposit, if I kept revising my proposal over and over and over without ever getting a dime from her.  I wouldn’t pony up the money for the plane ticket (not my first time at the rodeo) but I did buy her book, read up on her theories, prepped for a phone conference, participated in more calls and email, and generally wasted hours I’ll never get back.

(My wife, who’s the financial brains in the family, thought I was a fool.  From the start she pegged this one for somebody who’d never pay up.  But I’m a Minnesotan — our word is our bond, and if you say you’re gonna do something, you do it.  And if you sign a freakin’ contract? Done deal, Bubba.)

This went on for three weeks.  Finally, I called a halt and said unless she paid the deposit in the contract that she had signed — nothing more would happen.

She said she’d pay if I signed an NDA.  Well, that’s pretty common, so I said sure.  The agreement was if I signed the NDA she’d send the deposit via return mail.  What’s the first clause in her NDA?  That I never, ever disclose to anyone outside her team that I participated in the development and facilitation of a public event for 50 learning professionals.  Huh?  Was I going to wear a hood? I signed, but asked in the return email if she wanted to discuss exactly how this would work.

Suddenly, I was being unreasonable.  We needed to talk.  She had a partner who had to be consulted — we might even have to “start over from zero.”  Ruh roh, Scooby. The next morning, I had an angry email in the inbox telling me the contract was “canceled” — and “since you haven’t done any work, I don’t owe you anything.”

I pointed her to the cancellation clause on my website, common to most freelancers.  It says that if I can re-sell the time, I’ll refund your deposit.  But my time is all I have to sell, and I’ve already told others I’m unavailable.

Is This A Teachable Moment?

Well, on the one hand, I suppose it should be.  I saw right away that this person was pretty emotionally unstable.  I’d known her for years — she’d actually been my employer for a bit quite a while back.  And I don’t remember any of this kind of stuff. But now she kept changing her mind, spent hours trying to decide on spending $400 on an airfare, continually promised to send a check that never materialized, ignored emails — not at all the kind of behavior that gives you confidence in a professional relationship.

Maybe this is just a difficult time in her life.  Maybe there are personal, physical or professional pressures on her right now that are causing this kind of erratic behavior.  (I went through menopause with my wife of 14 years, and, at times, she was nuttier than I am normally.)  Maybe the stress of starting a new company and striking out in a new direction have overwhelmed her — and somewhere down the road things would even out.

Twenty years ago, I’d be shouting “lawsuit” and bringing in the lawyers and enforcing every recourse that my contract entitles me to.  Now, a little older and wiser, I just feel sad that people don’t realize that the learning world is a pretty small pond and that the ripples reach from edge to edge.