Every now and again I have packages couriered here in Phoenix. If you've ever been to "the Valley" you know that even though traffic moves fast (too fast actually), the city is fricken' huge. With the price of gas and the time lost with me on the road I decided a long time ago that I'd just use a delivery service. In fact, I've been using the same service for years.
A few days ago I called them up at about 2:00 PM and informed them I needed some Verbal Kung Fu for Freelancers books taken over to the Art Institute of Phoenix the next day (sometime before 5:00 PM). By coincidence, later that night a client asked me to meet her over in that area the next day. It turns out that I would be able to take the books to the school myself, and it wouldn’t be out of my way.
I called the courier first thing in the morning and left them a message apologizing for the change of plans (they didn't answer and didn't end up calling back, which was kind of unprofessional). I did indicate that if they did want to charge me for setting up the order I told them that was okay.
In fairness to them, I offered and they took me up on the offer - the next day I received this email and an invoice for $8:
"Hi Jeremy, This is for the job that you cancelled. Unfortunately, our driver was already on his way to your place when you cancelled.* Please let me know if you have any questions."
Hmmm, actually yes I do have a question, is it worth it to charge a client who's been with you for years an $8 penalty for a first-time cancellation fee when the driver had not even arrived?
Keep in mind that I didn’t say, "Is it right?" Instead I said, "Is it worth it?" There's a big difference there, I hope you can see it.
As freelancers we have to make similar decisions in whether or not we charge clients for small stuff / expenses as well. The challenge is that each individual situation is different (sorry, there are no concrete rules to follow), but what I've found helpful is asking myself the following questions to help me decide whether to charge or not:
- Do I expect to get more business from this person?
- Am I trying to send a message (don't cancel on me) by charging them even a little amount?
- How will they most likely react in having to pay this?
- Is there a chance I'll really up set them and perhaps lose the account by doing this?
- Do I need the money that badly?
- What is the best outcome I can expect from doing this? What is the worst outcome I can expect from doing this?
- Compared to how much business this client has given me, is this a small amount or large amount?
- Is this a first time thing or does this client repeatedly abuse my generosity? Have I told the client about this before?
In this example, sure I'll probably use these guys again but even though I did offer to pay them for the inconvenience I was surprised (not in a good way) that they actually went to the bother of charging me eight bucks for a first time offense. In this case the vendor risked losing an account for $8...and it actually worked out in their favor.
I'd just advise you to really think about those questions I have above before you send out invoices for small things (office supplies, 15 minutes of work, canceling, etc), you may find it's not worth ticking the client off and losing the business. If the amount isn't too much, I'd suggest giving the client a "free pass" the first time it happens, just casually mention it to them so they're aware of it. If the situation comes up again, then you might consider charging them.
* - Don't you also find it a little suspicious that by "mere coincidence" the driver (even though she/he has several pickups in a day) was on their way to my place exactly when I called? Hmmm, makes me wonder...