Question: how do I distinguish between insincere freelance job offers on the one hand, and sincere offers on the other hand that may have defects, but can lead to a beneficial longer-term working relationship if worked through? The former have the potential to waste time and good-will, while the latter may not be ideal short term, but may be lucrative and thus not a waste of time long term.
Concrete situation: I have recently decided to devote part of my time to freelance jobs. I have begun contacting various people in my personal network that I believe can potentially provide contacts for such work.
One of these people has indicated that he himself would like to get me engaged in some of the prospective projects that he has in mind.
(I know both this person and his spouse from a professional setting. Up to now I haven't had any reason to doubt his professionalism and multiple qualifications.)
I was invited to an informal chat with this person in which he gave me a very broad overview of the projects that he has in mind - and claims to have started groundwork on. I agreed that it all sounds very interesting and that I would very much like to be involved. Some preparatory work needs to be gotten in place, but I understood that I might be getting involved in a month or so. Apart from my resume (including skills) not paperwork was generated, not even an NDA (I was asked to honor his confidentiality and I am happy to be bound by my conscience).
A few days later this person contacts me, after hours, and asks for a fairly small job to be done the next day. As I already have prior commitments, I respectfully excuse myself and he agrees that it can be done some days later. He offers to e-mail some material for me to look at in the mean time so I can start on it first thing in the morning. The morning of the day I set aside for this task comes with no e-mail having arrived yet. I phone, only to get the answering service, and no returned call the whole day.
Result: A day wasted waiting and keeping myself available for this task, which could have been used gainfully otherwise. Also, I have other commitments set up for subsequent days, and if this person now decides he wants the work done after all, I'll again have to decline him.
On the one hand, it could be that he is just under time pressure and while the change in commitments is unfortunate, future opportunities may make up for it - if I do not go and burn bridges.
On the other hand, I have begun questioning if this person (and his motives) are for real. Is this perhaps some elaborate game? Does this person perhaps suffer from delusions of grandeur about his plans - or perhaps some other abnormality? If so, it would be better to cut my losses and avoid being pulled in any further. (Although I am at the same time afraid that declining this person permanently might also affect my relationship with his spouse, although ideally and professionally it should not, although we are not in an ideal world.)
And on the third hand, it seems that his style of communicating verbally and very generally (perhaps a result of time pressure?), without vital specifics, versus me needing details, preferably in writing, is bound to cause misunderstanding/resentment sooner or later.
As Peter's and keshlam's answers point out, an up-front contract goes a great length to help here. I agree, except that for tasks that may take max 4 hours, and perhaps are needed in a rush, this might be a bit of an overkill. I have done such small tasks for others in the past without much more than a verbal agreement. In the end I am more worried about reputation (customer stasifaction) than the money or time, as the former is largely a mental construct, that therefore scales more easily to larger projects (where the money may be better).