Relationships are built on mutually understood agreements. More often than not, these agreements are based on mutually implicit understandings of common terms. Employee, best friend, peer, co-worker, manager, president, CFO, etc. all have implicit meanings which we assume are commonly understood. In my experience, we can often trace problems in relationships back to misalignment in these implicit understandings. Our expectations of another person do not align with what they believe is expected of them when our agreement is only as deep as a single word like “client” or “consultant.” At the end of the day each of us has our own unique understanding of these words.
At Good Good Work we strive to make the implicit explicit. We also strive to be transparent. To that end, I’m going to dig a little deeper into how we engage with clients.
The Master Service Agreement
“A master service agreement is a contract reached between parties, in which the parties agree to most of the terms that will govern future transactions or future agreements.”
We see the MSA as the opening of a relationship with a group we are going to do work for. In fact, before we do any work for a group, we require that they sign an MSA. Typically, the MSA is followed by a Statement of Work (SOW), which defines the scope of a project. The MSA acts as a foundation for the relationship while the SOW defines very specific acts. Legally speaking, the SOW supersedes the MSA whenever they are in conflict. The MSA “catches” anything that isn’t covered by a SOW. This allows us to create Statements of Work that are tidy and precise.
We break our MSA up into a few sections:
- Legal Requirements
- Cultural Norms
- Client Cultural Norms
The preamble and legal requirements aren’t really interesting; you’ve probably seen this kind of stuff in many agreements and it’s thoroughly covered online, and you really should talk with a lawyer about this kind of stuff anyway.
We define the rate as a means to set a standard hourly rate for any work that falls outside of a Statement of Work. This allows us to do little things for our clients without having to create a whole new SOW. For instance, we were asked to do a discovery recently for a client, but quickly found out that they had an emergency with their server. Due to a little bit of technological malpractice on the part of a former consultant, they were 200% over their server space limit and were about to be charged some $700 by their hosting company. We were able to swoop in and save the day because we had the MSA already in place to account for this kind of out-of-scope work.
This might seem small or petty, but we can avoid uncomfortable situations because we are explicit like this. Having a Master Service Agreement allows us to do work without putting us or the client at risk.
What I’m really proud of here is our cultural norms section. This is something that Katie developed after years of working on her own. She developed an arsenal of legalese to protect her against bad clients who stiffed her or stole her work. In spite of that, she found that there were practices some clients would engage in that couldn’t be curbed through legal language. What it came down to was expectations and our misalignment around them. For example:
[9:45 pm] Client: “Hey I’ve got an urgent request, can you do this now?!”
This is a text message we’ve gotten far too often. The work day is over and we are trying to maintain a healthy work/life balance when an urgent request comes in. This signals different expectations. The client expects people to be on call, perhaps because they are on call (for whatever reason) at night. It’s a minor thing but again, this is about setting expectations so everyone can be happy. We cover this exact scenario in the maintain professional boundaries section of our cultural norms:
As it turns out, our Clients are pretty great! We love to socialize and get to know them on a personal level. We’re all about happy hours and hikes instead of dumping catch-up and hang-out time into meetings. One-on-one time shouldn’t cost money. We also like to keep work inside standard US business hours (10:00-18:00 eastern time, Monday-Friday). If we get text messages [see documentation]—or emails after hours—it’s 99% likely we won’t respond. But we’ll certainly get back to you the next time we’re in the office.
This gives us the power to say “no” and mean it. We’ve set a boundary and now it’s just a matter of pointing to the document everyone signed and saying “nope sorry can’t do that, we agreed.” This might seem trivial, but consider the power dynamic of someone who controls your livelihood making a demand like that.
Beyond being able to say no with confidence, it also supports our own development of healthy work habits. I’m constantly reminded of this agreement, that I have with all of my clients, when an email pops up on my phone while I’m out with friends. Not only do I have no obligation to look at it, I’m actually incentivised not to respond lest I break my own agreement!
The Client’s Cultural Norms
We provide space for our clients to add their own cultural norms too. We want to know what they expect and how they work. We haven’t yet actually tested this part of our document with any clients, so I can’t say how well this works. If you want to try it out with us, just book a consult here.
What I do know is that this little bit of work upfront can save a lot of heartache down the road.