Monday Muse: 6 Warning Signs of a Bad Client/Freelance Writer Match

What I’m listening to: Misery by Green Day

bull-keep-out-1390792-1280x960In my entire freelance career, I’ve never been so glad to see the backside of a week. I was working through what I thought was a relatively slow week when a writing emergency — an actual one — was dropped in my lap midweek. It was an odd situation, and an urgent one. I had to deliver by Friday.

Two thirteen-hour days and one eight-hour day later, I’d managed to address the emergency and provide a draft Saturday morning. The entire episode was not pretty, nor was it fun (hence the song I listened to today). And naturally, as the stress dissipated (and there was plenty of stress), the post-stress headache moved in. I managed to fend off a migraine, but only just.

But I delivered. I don’t quit on clients and I don’t give up when things get rough. I put on my big girl pants and work my tail off.

This week  I’m out. Never fails that things go awry the moment you close the suitcase. Still, I’ve taken work with me though internet connection is nonexistent. Projects that had to be dropped last week are on this week’s agenda.

That includes putting my marketing back on top of the list. With a conference just six months away, now is when I usually get in touch with new contacts in hopes of building some lasting relationships. Maybe it’s because I just came off the heels of a really lousy week, but I’m putting a tighter vetting process in place this time around.

Not that my clients are anywhere near hard to deal with — the opposite is true in every case. But it takes just one meltdown for me to pull back from making new friends easily. When you get burned, you want to avoid getting burned again.

For me, the vetting happens on the front end. Here are some methods that are now in my new client marketing plan:

Quick online checkup. If there’s a problem big enough to talk about, people will. A quick scan of the first three pages of search results can tell you a lot. If you see nothing, that’s good. Not a guarantee you won’t have issues, but certainly a better sign than pages of complaints.

Feedback from friends. Are you being referred? Then make sure your friend gives you his or her impression of the client — warts and all. Particularly the warts. What one writer can live with isn’t necessarily the same thing another writer can.

Temperature. When in doubt, take a client’s temperature. Ask them to describe a project outcome that would frustrate them. Listen to the tone of voice when they respond. Also, when you’re on the phone with a client, pay attention to verbal cues that someone is going to be a handful — excited speech patterns, over-explanation in a condescending tone, slightly patronizing little tics, asking a question in a way that sounds like a sideways accusation, flexing the authoritative muscles too much … the problem child often reveals his or her nature in small doses.

Revision expectations. Not yours — theirs. Ask prospective clients what their typical revision count is with freelancers. Six revisions into it, you’ll be sorry you didn’t.

Overdoing it. I’ve found it to be a warning sign when a new client overdoes it with directions, particularly if they send me suggestions and links and then push me to use them. Before accepting the project, pay attention to how much detail is going into the explanation of the project. Is it light on details and heavy on directive? If so, and if you’re unable to pull more must-haves or useful info out of the client, there’s your red flag.

Additions after the fact. Can you determine if your new client is someone who’s going to add to the pile of requirements after you’ve started or, gawd forbid, finished the project? After having that happen to me a few too many times, I’ve realize that yes, you can see it coming. How often does that client switch gears in mid-thought or change the parameters of the project while he or she is talking? If you’re not doing a brainstorming session, that could spell extra work for you. Did that client/editor just say “And maybe I’d like to see…” without saying it definitively. Moreover, is the project morphing out of control as the client is telling you about it? If so, run. Run, my friend.

Writers, how to you identify a bad match?

What warning signs do you look for? Which ones are absolute deal-breakers?

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  • Paula Hendrickson October 10, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Lucky I wasn’t drinking my tea when reading the “temperature” passage – I had flashbacks of last night’s debate that set me into gales of laughter!

    Seriously, though, I had a similar experience within the past year with a high-profile first-time client. It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I NEVER want to cross that so-called editor’s path again. About eight years ago I had another experience when a new-to-me editor changed the scope so much that I had to re-write and find all new sources. Even after that she totally re-worked my copy to the point I didn’t recognize it, and it was so bad 1) I wish my byline weren’t attached, and 2) I can’t use it as a clip.

    Luckily, those were the exceptions. Most of the time my copy is run nearly verbatim.

    • lwidmer October 25, 2016 at 3:50 pm

      Paula, it’s a shame when you do everything you can and the person’s attitude gets in the way. Not much more you could have done, I don’t imagine. I’ve had editors like that — luckily long ago. I wrote one article that took seven edits. No article needs seven edits. Two, maybe three. After that, it’s not really the writer, but the editor. Either they’ve not made the assignment clear or they can’t stop touching the content.