You are an independent contractor, sole proprietor, or owner of a company of one. What happens to your business, your income and your clients if something happens to you? If you haven’t thought about setting up a formal contingency plan to outline the steps you need to take now in case something happens to you, you could be jeopardizing your livelihood. Whether it is an accident or an illness, something unexpected could occur at any time that can put a strain on your work and life.
Here are some things you should think about when developing — and implementing — a contingency plan.
1. Who’s got your back? If you’re working with a team, as long as you keep them well-informed, team members are often in the ideal position to take over a project for you while you’re out of commission. If you are working solo, however, you may not have identified someone to help take over your workload at a moment’s notice. Choosing this person presents some obvious challenges because, technically, the person who might best know how to handle the things you do is potentially also your competition. You need to find someone who is experienced and savvy enough to keep projects afloat but not necessarily someone who could easily replace you in the eyes of the client. The key is to pick someone you trust to best represent you and your interests. Tap into your most solid relationships to identify this person.
2. What will they do? When you are working on projects for clients, get in the habit of documenting what you are doing and any relevant resources, contacts and timelines. Determine what tasks are mission critical to keep the project moving forward and the client happy while you’re away. Develop a list of main tasks for each client project.
3. How will you prepare them? You should touch base with your point person often enough to keep lines of communications open and the relationship strong. You may want to provide them with access to a Google Doc with your list of tasks so they can familiarize themselves with the work without giving away too much detail. This would be your guide and reference document if you were caught in an emergency and needed to relay directions to them quickly.
4. How will you notify and prepare clients? When you are planning for an absence — such as a pregnancy and birth — you can communicate and prepare for your absence far enough in advance to build client confidence. But what if you’re in a car accident? Sure, the client will tell you, “don’t worry, we’ve got it covered until you get back on your feet,” but they have their own bottom line to consider. Being able to trigger your stand-in immediately and let the client know this person is “working with you” to handle things in your absence is not only a good confidence builder but can help you hold on to the client.
5. What are the risks? With anything in business, there is a risk of losing business when something happens to you. Even bringing in a trusted stand-in could result in the client deciding to go with that person in the future instead of you. Business is all about relationships and trust. There is no way to prevent client attrition — not even with seemingly binding contracts. Some of the most important aspects of business are to have open communication with your client and a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. With open communications, even difficult decisions can be made mutually and without burning bridges.
6. How will you hand off the work? While you probably don’t need to do an actual drill to run through the steps of handing off client projects to someone else during a crisis, you should clearly communicate what they should do and how they can access critical files and information to take over in your time of need. That could include giving them access to a shared file system such as drop.io or Dropbox as needed. And what if something really bad happens — like you’re in a coma? How can they help handle things, and who in your family should they stay in touch with for updates?
7. How will you get it back? Clearly communicate how projects will be transferred back to you when you’re ready. There may be some transitioning time to get you back up to speed with developments, especially if you’ve been out of commission for a while. Realize that this transition could be emotional for you as you are eager to get back into the swing of things, but might just need some time to process everything.
8. Giving it up. In some extreme cases, you may have to make the decision to give up the client. This should be a decision discussed directly with your client to find a mutually agreeable and professional manner in which to part ways. The logical next step might be to give the client work to your stand-in or the client might want to put the project up to bid again or work with someone else. The wisest thing to do in this situation is to make the decision that is best for your well-being and the well-being of the relationship you have with the client. Keeping relationships strong and intact will work well for everyone in the long run.
When you are working on your business contingency plan, put everything in writing, not just for your own reference but to make sure you are on the same page with the person who will act as your stand-in. Some may advise consulting a lawyer to draw up a contract that covers the details of the business relationship between you, your stand-in and your clients. Regardless, having the process in writing can help to temper expectations on all sides.
When I took a six-week maternity leave, I fully expected to continue to work on a reduced schedule within the first few weeks post-partum. I was taken aback to find that not only was I unable to do this, but that my doctor strongly recommended that I take off three months to recover after a number of unexpected complications. I didn’t have a contingency plan in place and lost thousands of dollars of income. Luckily, I had excellent relationships with my clients, and all of the jobs were still there when I got back on my feet. Today, I’m even luckier to have a virtual team who can pick up the slack if anything were to happen, all of them people whom I trust implicitly to do the right thing.
What kind of contingency plan do you have in place…just in case?