An American Editor

February 9, 2018

On the Basics: Colleagues Lost and Not Found — Preparing for the Worst

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

No one likes to think about worst-case scenarios, especially for themselves, but we all have to do just that. Any one of us could easily have a crisis, or a colleague could have one, that affects our work. I’ve written about emergency preparation before (On the Basics: Coping with Emergencies, On the Basics: Some Ideas for a Strong Start to the New Year), as has Rich Adin (A Personal Odyssey: Preparing for the Worst), but recent events have hit quite close to home and inspired some new thoughts about this aspect of being a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, indexer, etc.

Have you experienced anything like these situations?

  • A usually ultra-reliable colleague hadn’t sent her newsletter column in by the deadline. She didn’t answer a couple of e-mail messages or respond to messages left on her landline voice mail, and her cellphone didn’t work. The only other way to reach her was through a couple of neighbors who had helped her in the past with sending and receiving e-mail when she had trouble getting messages. One of them eventually let me know that the colleague had fallen and died. She lived alone, had no siblings, children or close friends; no one in her professional organizations — we had two in common — had reported anything about her. If anyone had looked after her belongings, they hadn’t checked her computer to notify clients or colleagues about what had happened to her.
  • A client asked me to include indexing in a project that involved my editing the new edition of a textbook and a colleague laying it out, and said their preference would be the person who indexed the previous edition. I contacted the indexer, who was officially retired but said she would be delighted to do this project. About three months later, with the book edited and in layout, I tried to reach her to get the index going. Bam! I found myself up against a virtual brick wall. She didn’t respond to e-mail messages. She was on LinkedIn and Facebook, but didn’t respond to messages on either of those platforms. She didn’t have a website. I finally got her number from the client, but her phone number was out of service. Since I didn’t know this person, I couldn’t even contact anyone who might have been able to reach her or tell me what was going on.
  • A few weeks ago, I woke up with incredible pain in my side. I spent most of the day bent over in misery. I could sit at my desk and get some work done, but could barely stand up or move around, and the pain definitely affected my ability to concentrate. The pain went on long enough that I was seriously considering going to the emergency room.

Preparing for the Worst

Experiences like these reinforce the important of planning for the worst, especially if you’re in business. Clients (and family) depend on us. We can’t afford to leave them hanging, confused, frustrated, and eventually infuriated at our disappearance. A colleague’s Facebook post reinforced this: “… if anything happened to me, I would like other people to have a record of the work I had planned, what I’d finished, what I’d invoiced for, etc., so that clients could be notified of my non-availability.”

Dealing with the Problem

Here’s how I resolved these situations.

  • The newsletter contributor who died: I filled most of the issue space for her article with, sadly, an obituary for her and a short “evergreen” article in my files for the publication. I’ll put a call out for a replacement contributor in the next few weeks; this newsletter comes out every other month, so there should be time to find someone before the next deadline. It won’t be the same — she had a delightful, original writing voice — but necessity rules. I also will bulk up my stash of backup or evergreen articles: ones that are timeless and can be used at any time as needed. I strongly recommend that anyone responsible for an entire publication create such a file.
  • The missing indexer: I had to assume that the unreachable indexer was either incapacitated or dead. Luckily, I was able to bring in someone else who was both available and fine with the original person’s proposed fee. However, what if I hadn’t known other indexers? What if no one I knew had been available? What if a replacement indexer would not match the original rate? We all need to be plugged into networks of colleagues not just in our own fields, but complementary ones, at least if we want to provide services that are different from our own. While those resources might usually only be needed for referral purposes, they also could become part of your “team” for some projects.
  • My painful health issue: That severe pain receded by early afternoon and some online research and colleague/friend input reassured me that the major issues I was afraid of were unlikely, but I contacted the aides who sometimes help with my husband to be on standby and let my brother, who was serendipitously in town for the weekend, know whom to reach for computer input. I’m updating my list of client contact information and deadlines or processes (I work with several editing and proofreading clients on an on-call basis), as well as my passwords, and have asked two colleagues to be keepers of that information in case anything should happen to me that clients would need to know about. (My beloved spouse is computer-phobic and in poor health, so he doesn’t want to and can’t be responsible for anything related to my business or my computers.)

I plan to look at each ongoing project or client in terms of which colleagues might be good matches if anything should happen that means I can’t get work done, and will add their names and contact info to my client/deadline list. I also am more determined than ever to stay ahead of deadlines — including here!

On the personal level, we’re updating our wills, and I’ve asked my in-country brother and niece to be executors.

Preparation and Planning Tools

We all should have systems in place to let those who count on us know of a crisis, whether it’s temporary or permanent. Here are some of the tools that colleagues use to keep track of projects to make their editing lives easier — and make it possible for someone to step in, or at least provide notification, in an emergency.

Excel

iPhone’s Calendar app

Basic paper calendars for scheduling

Toggl for time tracking

QuickBooks for invoicing

An e-mail folder, Freedcamp file, and physical piece of paper to affix to a magnetic whiteboard

Freshbooks cloud-based accounting software to track projects, invoices, time spent on projects, and clients

Zoho for keeping client records, invoicing, and mass communications

Dropbox

http://waveapps.com for invoicing, banking, and accounting

http://www.officetime.net

On the personal level, especially if you live alone or have health issues, consider getting a medical alert system and setting up a way to be checked on regularly, just in case. The colleague who died in her apartment might have been saved if anyone had known she had fallen — she was still alive when she was found (albeit nonresponsive). When my dad died, my mother arranged for a neighbor down the block to check on her if she hadn’t called by 9 a.m. every day. One friend has an agreement for neighbors to check on her if her car hasn’t moved in X days; another’s “warning sign” is that the drapes aren’t open by a certain time every morning. You could ask a friend or colleague to check on you if you haven’t posted to Facebook in X days. Our building mail carrier knows that anything more than two days of uncollected mail implies a problem, and would let the manager know that we might need help. (Just because you live in an apartment building doesn’t mean anyone notices your routine or would act on any change in it.)

What have you done to ensure that clients, colleagues, and friends will know if you’ve had a crisis that requires notifying them or getting help with projects (or in general)? How are you following the Girl Scout mantra of “Be prepared”?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and the new editor-in-chief of An American Editor.

November 4, 2015

The Business of Editing: A Third Fundamental Mistake That Editors Make

Prelude

It’s time to buy a gift for your niece. You know what you want so you go to one of the price comparison websites and search for the item. Within seconds the results appear and you find three online stores have the item:

Macy’s $79.99
Big Joe’s Discount $59.99
Rita’s Marketplace $69.99

Although you are familiar with Macy’s, you like a bargain and so decide to check out Big Joe and Rita.

Big Joe’s website is plain-vanilla, spartan. There is an image of the product and a short description. Because you are not sure whether your niece will really like the gift, you look at Big Joe’s return policy and find it to be pretty liberal. The only requirement is that you contact Big Joe for a return authorization before making the return. So far, so good, you think, and now you look for contact information. Under Contact Us, you discover that the only way to contact customer service is via email — there is no telephone number, no physical address, just an email address.

So you decide to also take a look at Rita’s website. This is a more substantial website than Big Joe’s. The product description has more details and there are customer reviews. As with Big Joe, you check out Rita’s return policy and discover that it is similar to Big Joe’s and that a return authorization is required. You check how to contact Rita’s customer service and find that contact can be by email or by telephone with a telephone number and available hours listed. There is also a physical address listed.

Quandary

Now you face the question of from whom to buy the gift. Who would you buy from? When you buy something over the Internet from a company with whom you have not previously done business, do you buy if the only way to contact them is via email or a contact form on their website? Do you look for a physical address or a customer service telephone number? Does seeing a telephone number, a physical address, hours of operation, and the like make you feel more confident about the business?

Since the advent of email, I rarely get phone calls from clients or prospective clients — almost all contact is via email. Similarly, when I buy from an online business, most of my contact with the business is via email or the site’s contact form. But when deciding whether to buy from a business with which I have no personal experience, I look for things that give me a sense of confidence.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter: What is the purpose of our website?

Why a Website

I suspect that for most editors, the primary purpose of the website is to attract new clients who don’t know us and who aren’t being referred by their friends and family. If we are banking on referrals, then we really don’t need a website at all. Someone who has been referred will contact us — usually — regardless of whether or not we have a website. Instead, our website is intended to attract and capture the client who has used one of the search engines to look for editorial help, which is why there is so much concern and discussion about how best to design our website.

To snare that new business, we want to be sure to appeal to the customer. We know what our preferences are, but we do not know the preferences of the visitor to our site. Consequently, we generally try to make our website as appealing as possible. What we want to do is make it as simple as possible for clients to contact and interact with us.

Yet when we set up our websites, many of us do not list complete contact information. We have all sorts of reasons for doing so — we want to avoid spam, we want to avoid telemarketing phone calls, we don’t want people to know where we live in case they are criminals, etc. — even though we will provide that same information to other businesses and social media.

Sharing Information

Going back to our example, Big Joe doesn’t provide any contact information other than an email address. Yet if we placed our order with Big Joe, we would have to supply our name, address, telephone number, email, and, more importantly, our credit card information. We would have to trust that Big Joe is legitimate and will not use any information we provide for nefarious purposes. And we would do so because we have come to expect to give that information when we place an order.

Why are we comfortable giving that information to Big Joe and others who want to be paid by us, but are not comfortable giving that information (less the credit card information, of course) to people who want to pay us? A fundamental reason for being in business is to encourage others to buy our services and products, to pay us.

Fundamental Rule

A fundamental rule of business is this: You can always turn down or accept an opportunity that is offered, but you cannot turn down or accept an opportunity that is not offered. Consequently, the businessperson is focused on ensuring that opportunity comes knocking by removing potential barriers to opportunity. Yet editors find reasons to erect barriers.

In our three-business example, from whom would you buy? I know I would not buy from Big Joe. No one I know has recommended Big Joe and I don’t trust businesses that I can’t locate, can’t telephone, and was not referred to by several people I trust. I would consider buying from Rita because the contact information and design of the website give me confidence that this was a real business. Importantly, Rita is trying to meet my preferences, not forcing me to meet its preferences. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy from Macy’s because I am familiar with the company and it provides complete contact information.

Editors need to remember that we need the client more than the client needs us. As such, we should strive to make it as easy as possible for clients to engage us in a manner that makes the client comfortable. That we may currently have more business than we can handle doesn’t mean we will tomorrow.

Fundamental Error

It is a fundamental error when we make our business editor centric rather than customer centric. When we make decisions such as what contact information to include, we should strive to do so from the client perspective:

What information will a client want available as a prelude to doing business with us?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays include:

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