Pushy Client Tricks

What’s on the iPod: Ants Marching by The Dave Matthews Band
What I’m reading upstairs: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Another uber-special moment yesterday brought to me by the IRS. I have to give them credit – they’re exceptionally nice on the phone, and their letters have lost the judgmental attitude I once received. A few years ago, they chastized me for not using an electronic program to figure my taxes. Ironically, I had.

This time it was a miscalculation in two areas – education credits and child tax credit. It did seem too good to be true, but I’m a writer, not an accountant. And here’s the kicker – I received two notices, apparently (though one has yet to arrive). One was a recalculation based on their error. You read that right. The IRS made an error. What’s more, the woman on the phone with me admitted to it and apologized for it. It’s why I can’t hate them entirely.

The damage is minor this time. I’m getting better at the calculations. Here I thought I’d get it right this year. Ha! Stay in writing and editing, Lori. Math ain’t yer thang….

A writer friend and I were discussing recently a project he’s working on. He completed it per the email from the client. Imagine his surprise when she changed the parameters entirely, now thinking for that same smallish sum, he’d just rewrite the entire piece because she thought it would read better this way. Imagine her surprise when he turned her down.

Given the almost doubling of the project word count and the lack of any additional payment, I think he did exactly the right thing. The temptation is to push back on payment sometimes, but in this case he said it was clear this was going to be more of a hassle that might require several rewrites and payment debates.

It typifies an attitude in some organizations and associations that adding on to the project or deciding it wasn’t what they wanted in the first place means tough beans to the writer who’s already done the work. Not so. You as a contractor have either a formal or informal written agreement (email saves us more than we think). You completed the work as discussed. If the client was unclear, it’s up to the client to pay for that lack of clarity in order to get the project right.

Maybe it’s because the current corporate mindset is to pile the work on to the skeleton crew that’s already overworked. The everything-for-nothing attitude is seeping into our freelance world. Maybe this changing of mind and project scope is fine inside a salaried environment, but freelancers are not required to fulfill a corporate-style role. It’s like this – if you were paying a plumber $10K to install new sinks in the restrooms, he’s going to install new sinks. He’s not going to install new toilets, stall dividers, hand dryers, etc. for that same price just because you decided it would be cool to have everything upgraded. You’re going to owe him more.

That’s how it is with freelance writing services. If the client asks for XYZ and get XYZ, but then decides they didn’t really want that but thought FGH would be much better, that’s a new project. If the client decides he’s not paying because he’s changed his mind, that’s his tough beans now. If you the writer completed the job as outlined, you’re owed money.

Have you noticed any increase in clients expecting additional work under the same contracted price? How have you handled it?

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  • Devon Ellington July 14, 2010 at 11:28 am

    It's in the initial contract — how many revisions are included in the price, what constitutes "revision" and that change of direction/parameters result in being billed at the hourly rate.

    That's only the first step. When they try to push you, you have to stand firm. The contract is only as good as its enforcement. If they're going to try to screw you, you don't want them as a client anyway.

  • Lori July 14, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Exactly. It's when contracts become the most important paper you'll ever possess. I believe this was an informal contract over email, but I contend that even that has spelled out the expectations enough for the writer to say this is a new project. I'm glad he stood his ground. He's too talented for that.

  • Cathy July 14, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    I agree with Devon. All my projects are in writing in either the form of a proposal that they sign or a Statement of Work that they confirm acceptance in writing. Both outline the Scope of Services and state services outside the scope incur an additional fee.

    I don't find as much push-back in that scenario as I do the client that likes to call with the "oh could you just look this over and give me your thoughts" or some other "off-the-cuff" request. When I tell them I would be happy to and here is my consulting fee, that usually stops the conversation.

    If I don't treat my business as a business, why should the client?

  • Jake P July 14, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    I'll add this: One of my best clients (a custom magazine publisher) will *preemptively* say, "Jake, Client A changed his mind on what he wants the angle of the story to be. Can you rewrite the first three paragraphs and the kicker, and we'll pay you an extra $XXX."

    They don't try to skeeze me out of a revision that deviates from the original assignment. It's a respectful, respectable way of doing business, and that's why I like working with them, even though their deadlines are sometimes pretty outrageous. It's also a behavior I emulate when contracting stuff out to graphic or web designers.

  • Valerie July 14, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Oh, yes. Mostly I run into this with clients who are new at working with copywriters or new to working with me. Some clients just try to squeeze all they can from you, fairness be damned. They're looking for a doormat. If I suspect this is going on, I ask how many writers they've worked with recently. If they've been running through freelancers like water, chances are they pull these shenanigans with everyone.

  • Wendy July 14, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    My most recent problem with this came from the client's posse. It's unnerving to get emails from a couple of people, I don't know, discussing a project that I recently worked on and asking for different revisions. Interestingly enough, the changes they wanted were off-base from what the client, who hired me, asked for. Disaster in the making.

    I was tempted to reply to the posse members stating my case, but I thought it over and decided it wasn't worth it. I just responded to the client- the one who hired me in the first place. I expressed my concerns to them adding copies of the emails from the unidentified editing team. This is what happens when too many people get involved. I didn't get any more emails from them and the client took the project as I had written it.

    Revisions are fine if you're making minor changes. If the focus of the project completely changes then it's a whole different rate of pay.

  • Ashley July 14, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Your friend should try going to that same business and making a purchase. Later that week, go back and say "well, I actually wanted this other thing over here in addition to what I bought. You should just give it to me at no additional cost." That'll go over well.

    This is not a get-a-refund-if-you-change-your-mind kind of business. It's not like I can resell the same product to someone else and call it even. Just like that same plumber installing sinks, if you decide you don't want that sink later after all, you're still going to owe him for the labor/time he put into the job.

  • Stacey Abler July 14, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    What helps me when dealing with client requests is framing it as you have with the example of the plumber. It sometimes helps to look at it from that way and see unfair the request really is.

  • Paula July 14, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    I recently had a potential client state (not ask), "If we don't use what you wrote, then we don't have to pay you."

    I said, "That's not how it works. If I put in the time and effort to write something at your request, you pay me regardless of what you do or don't do with it. After all, you don't go into a store walk out with something saying you'll pay them if and when you use it. You pay for what you get."

    Never heard from him again.

  • hugh.c.mcbride July 14, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    "Maybe it's because the current corporate mindset is to pile the work on to the skeleton crew that's already overworked."

    Remember that "Little Irksome Things" post from a coupla days? For *way* too many managers these days, the way they "incentivize employees to propel past their goals" is to pile on the work, repeat "we need to do more with less" ad nauseum, and make more than a few passing references to the hordes of unemployed who'd be more than happy to do twice as much as you did yesterday for 1/2 the price.

    Kudos to your friend for bringing a momentary (though unfortunately most likely also a fleeting) glimpse of reality to this client's day.

  • Katharine Swan July 14, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    I had a very similar situation a few years ago, and I also refused to rewrite the piece (website copy) according to their new parameters. I also refused to negotiate a new project to do it, because they had given me some trouble with payment — actually stopped responding to emails until I threatened to contact their parent company regarding nonpayment. I don't think I've ever been so relieved to be done with a client.

  • Lori July 15, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Cathy, that's exactly the attitude freelancers should adopt – treat your business as a business and clients will (eventually) follow.

    Jake, I can see why they're one of your best clients. And you're right – what you project in negotiations makes a difference.

    Valerie, that speaks to the level of professionalism of that client (and that would be a former client if it were my client). The attitude isn't that of the majority, but it's often enough to notice.

    Wendy, good for you! I too refuse to deal with posses. They can send me whatever they like – it's all going into the trash folder. I work for the person writing the check, not the friends, coworkers, aunts, acquaintances who think they know what they're doing.

    Ashley, very true. In fact, I had one client incident recently in which I was told "We didn't use it and didn't have time to get revisions to you" and as a result, no check. No more. It's pay the bill or get a view of my back as I depart permanently. I cannot work for people who won't pay the bill. Ever. I'd end up resenting them and being pissed at myself. In fact, I've already begun resenting them. That creeps into the work.

    Exactly, Stacey. Even so, if the client's not going to pay, it's not going to matter. Still, getting it out there may deter them or at least make them pause before attempting it with their next writer. Doubtful, but if they get enough pushing back, they'll eventually have to amend the approach.

    You're well rid of that one, Paula. Great way to frame it with him, too.

    Hugh, it sucks that this is indeed the way a lot of businesses are run. However, economies being cyclical, wait until they're on the receiving end. Employees who are overworked now are going to remember the treatment they received when the market picks up again. And even companies have to worry about reputations. I remember sitting in a conference round-table session once, just after the insurance market softened, and laughing as these corporate customers took the insurance company CEOs to task for being such hard-asses when the money was plentiful. Lots of those CEOs lost their customers to smaller players because of their blase attitudes toward their customers. It was sweet payback.

    Katharine, that's what kills me. They have the gall to demand services they haven't paid for and won't treat you like a pro. As Kathy would say, screw them!