7 Signs a Writing Client Isn’t for You

What I’m reading: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
What’s on the iPod: Keep It Simple by Martin Sexton

A quick note — visit the All Indie Writers Freelance Theater page this Friday to hear Jenn’s interview with yours truly. We’ll discuss easy ways to market your services.

I’m staring at a pretty busy week ahead. I spent last week finishing one client’s projects and getting another client’s projects well under way. This week will be spent finishing that batch and moving on to a third client’s wish list. And marketing. Always marketing.

Sending out introductions often leads to deeper conversations. As I connect with new client prospects, I realize there are some pretty telling behaviors that indicate we’re not a match. Not that every behavior is an automatic rejection, but I consider them warning shots and I proceed cautiously.

Here are some of the things that could indicate the client isn’t for you:

Balking at the thought of limiting revisions. That tells me three things — the client doesn’t know what he/she wants, may be a micro-manager, and could be viewing freelancers as extensions of their typing pool. If three rounds of revisions (I usually give just two) aren’t enough, maybe it’s an indication there will be headaches later.

Lots of talk at you. In one long-ago client encounter, the client said on first meeting “You need to be writing this down.” And yet I still took the project. And it was a disastrous relationship. Clients need to tell you about their projects and company goals, but they need also to listen. Your advice should matter to them, particularly if they’re not used to writing anything themselves.

Wanting all your free time. No client should require freelancers to be available 24/7, yet invariably someone will come to you with a project at 4 pm the Friday before a holiday weekend. It’s up to you if you take it, but know that the client who can’t understand or respect your professional and personal boundaries is going to be the problem child who haunts your every weekend.

Consistently short deadlines. Right up there with expecting you to work when the rest of the world is having fun, handing you a project to have done in 24 hours — and doing so more than once  — isn’t fair. Also, it’s not up to you to put out the fires they start via bad planning.

Expecting you to check in/check out. Every client deserves an update on progress. What they don’t deserve is the right to tell you when you should be working and expecting you to alert them to when you’re not going to be near the phone or computer. I remember working with one resume group that wanted this very privilege. That relationship lasted about a minute — I didn’t become a freelancer to be told how to act like an employee. And for them, it’s a dangerous practice to treat non-employees like employees.

Asking the price up front. To me, that’s the biggest red flag there is. If they’re basing their entire decision on price and not so much on quality and skill, that could be trouble later on. When potential clients ask me up front about price, I give it to them without any thought of following up. Rare is the client who has decided, even after hearing the price, to hire me because I’m worth it. It could also mean you’re aiming too low on the food chain.

Expecting a price break on the first project. There’s only one time I consider a price break for new clients — when it’s coupled with an ongoing, written commitment for more projects. Otherwise, the price stands. Not every client can afford you, but the assumption shouldn’t be that you’ll bend on your rate. Instead, the client who asks if they can get some of the work done for that price is the real gem.

Writers, what red flags keep you from taking on clients?

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  • Cathy Miller January 19, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    This one is very similar to your "asking the price up front" but with a twist.

    Not having a budget. I know, I know. LOTS of prospects respond that they have not worked out a budget for a project. It doesn't always mean there's going to be a problem but with a bit more questioning, I often find they are not ready for my professional services. 😉

  • Anne Wayman January 19, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    Slow pay on the first project

  • Paula January 19, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    One of my very first clients (who only lasted for one project) spelled out very specific and convoluted payment terms which he later tried to bend to his benefit.

    It was sort of a PR type gig to get articles about his company and products in print, and he rated the "value" of story placements in various types of publications, which he broke down based on real circulation vs paid circulation; number of subscribers vs number of newsstand sales; ad rates, as noted in their media kits; distribution area; trade vs consumer; pass along numbers even factored in….and those are only the things I can remember. Of course the story length was important, too, and cover stories got bonus points.

    According to his list, by my calculations the cover story I landed for him – in a family custom real estate magazines that spanned most of the US and were a great fit for his company – should have paid $2,000. But he nitpicked the definitions I gave and said it was worth less than $1,000. He said it was a trade, I said it was a custom publication geared to the trade's clients, exactly the people he wanted to reach. He said it was local, not national, but I countered that it was a family of local custom publications that were purchased by Realtors across the country.

    I held my ground, and knowing I never wanted to work with a jerk like him again, I went ahead and burnt that bridge. Why? Before we'd hashed out a fair payment, he sent me a small check hoping I'd be dumb enough to cash it so he could say I'd accepted payment.

    Instead, I mailed the check back with a scathing letter telling him I wouldn't allow him to get away with trying to use his complicated formula to confuse an inexperienced freelancer into doing far more work than he was willing to pay for. I outlined everything I'd done to get that story placed, I broke his stupid formula down like a checklist, and told him while my interpretation of his formula resulted in a higher rate, I saw where some confusion came from – whether it was a trade or consumer publication – and suggested the only fair thing to do was to split the difference.

    After several heated letters (this was pre-email), he finally paid me $1,000, which was a lot more than he wanted to. I think returning that first check stunned him into realizing I wasn't some dumb little kid he could pacify with a couple hundred dollars. (Looking back, though, I was pretty dumb to even consider his ridiculous formula.)

  • Lori Widmer January 19, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    Cathy, excellent point. I agree — that is a red flag.

    It's akin to clients who don't know what they want or they do, but have no idea how to explain it. I had one lovely client (he really was a nice person) who'd spent an hour telling me all about his business. It should take ten minutes — otherwise, you're over-thinking it or your focus is way off.

    Anyway, I knew I was in trouble when he said "Our goal isn't to attract customers" but he couldn't tell me what the goal was. I missed the mark (naturally) and his note to me (very nice note, I might add) said that most people don't "get" what they do.

    Right there was his disconnect. He didn't know how to tell me in a way that I understood and could convey to his audience, which apparently didn't include potential customers??

    You tell me. I'm still scratching my head over that one.

    Anne, amen! Agreed.

    Paula, that's a wild story! You were so smart to mail that check back! Amen. You risked not getting anything, but you trumped his trump and won. Way to go!

  • Jennifer Mattern January 21, 2015 at 1:38 am

    Thanks for the reminder that I need to get my rear in gear and edit our podcast chat. 😉

    Lori's guest episode will be available directly at http://AllIndieWriters.com/podcast/7/ at some point on Thursday. 🙂

  • Lori Widmer January 21, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    Thanks, Jenn. It was a fun conversation. 🙂