How a Shift in Attitude Changed My Freelance Writing Business

What I’m listening to: Heathen by twenty one pilots

We’re four days into 2017 and already the possibilities are encouraging. Some easy marketing has netted some scheduled follow-up calls, and the calendar is filling quickly. There’s potential on the horizon.

There’s also a shift in my own attitude, one that was small, but one that I felt was necessary. It’s a change that will help me protect my business and get me off the familiar hamster wheel of putting out fires I didn’t start.

Here’s where that change might make any writer a little nervous:

This year I stop covering up when clients screw up. Click To Tweet

Dangerous thinking, isn’t it? When we work with freelance writing clients, we want to protect their image, and often that means taking the heat when they need a scapegoat. It’s our position as the lowest person in the food chain that pretty much guarantees when things go wrong, it’s falling on us (corporate gravity is a lot like physical gravity in that way).

It sucks, but we clam up and take it.

In many cases, I’m still in that position. I’ll let them blame me when someone else messed up. If it happens often enough, I work that additional aggravation into the quoted fee.

If, however, it happens repeatedly and the client is less than cordial, I’m no longer interested. In fact, it happened that way not long ago.

A client had me in on a project. It was our first time working together. The project was straightforward, and we’d discussed it over the phone (I record conversations and take notes). I sent my usual follow-up note, repeating back the parameters. No problem.

First draft, also not a problem. Nor were the revisions. It was only later that things blew up in a big, messy way.

The details aren’t necessary to know, except for this — the client handled it badly. The project parameters, which were agreed on and spelled out earlier, were now morphing into something else upon an “emergency” revision that never needed to happen. I was accused of some pretty terrible things, all of which were untrue, and the client was now treating me like a disobedient child.

I did one thing wrong — I let the emotional outburst influence my decision to give a rewrite that wasn’t necessary. I stuck with the project until it was excruciatingly obvious that no amount of additional work was going to satisfy this client, despite having taken the extra precaution of running every step past the team before tackling the work.

Writers, sometimes you simply cannot hit a moving target. Nor should you keep trying. Click To Tweet

Fast forward to this week. One of the sources I’d contacted saw the final product and got in touch, upset that his contributions weren’t included.

There it was — my moment to decide.

I could have fielded the upset, taken it as my own fault, and let him walk away thinking I wasn’t a person of my word. Or I could tell him the truth.

I chose the truth.

But it wasn’t an emotional dumping of every single thing that bugged me about that project or the client, for that, dear writer, is nothing more than childish. If I were still in high school, I might get away with that kind of immaturity. But in business, not a chance.

Instead of the emotional stuff, I stated fact. Fact — the client changed the parameters. Fact — the client had issue with these things. Fact — the client changed the product based on misconceptions, and I didn’t agree with that assessment.

It was honest. And it was refreshing to be able to tell this source that the real reasons behind his contributions being absent weren’t decisions I was in a position to make.

But what about future work?

I can almost hear the panicked thoughts some of you may have — she won’t be able to work with that client again!

Very true. And that was a decision I’d made months prior — in fact, the moment I decided to pull the plug on further revisions — for no one, no matter what their reasons, should ever bring emotions into a business relationship. I don’t care if I was being accused of lighting this client on fire — taking someone to task, particularly without a valid reason to do so (and despite this client’s insistence, there was no valid reason at all), is never acceptable.

That’s when a client is no longer part of my professional orbit.

Besides, I have plenty of clients who know my work, know my strong ethical stance, and know I’ll get the job done accurately.

What about you? Have you had instances in which you refused to cover for a client’s bad decisions or behavior?

Where do you draw the line with protecting your client’s image?

Where do you draw the line at revealing details that could harm your client’s image?

What change are you making this year that could improve your business?

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Comments

  • Solitaire January 4, 2017 at 10:34 am

    I had a client who got angry and lashed out at me over an email that she took the wrong way. Now, my default reaction is, if someone in the room is angry, it must be my fault — so I looked very closely for whatever I may have contributed to the conflict. I concluded that if I had the email to do over again, I would have changed “I plan to do XY&Z” to “with your approval, I propose doing XY&Z.” It was an issue that we had discussed in passing, and I expected she would need to be persuaded about XY&Z.

    But while I’ll own that little piece of it, her email reply started with that sentence and went on to attack me on two other matters, flinging wild accusations, and saying essentially that we could do things her way or we could “reconsider” my contract. It was one of the angriest, most threatening emails I’ve ever received from someone I had met face to face.

    Here’s the reply I wish I had sent: “You have misunderstood my intent, and your reaction is grossly disproportionate to the imagined offense. I will do as you instruct, of course.”

    Instead, I fell all over myself apologizing. The gig paid pretty well, and there was some possibility of it turning into a full-time job, so I spent the rest of the project trying to get back into her good graces. I should have realized the well was poisoned. We eventually parted on nominally cordial terms, but even though the gig was important to me professionally, I hesitate to cite it with potential clients or employers.

    I wish the story had a happy ending. Here’s my best shot: I’ve learned (again) not to let myself be bullied. Yay me.

    Reply
    • lwidmer January 4, 2017 at 3:28 pm

      Solitaire, that would have been a good response. Alas, like me, you fell into the emotional trap. And you’ve pointed out the most important lesson to anyone going through this — “the well was poisoned” once the falling out occurred. Even if she had forgiven you, I doubt she would be able to forget her own unprofessional behavior. And you’d be the reminder of her own indiscretion.

      Reply
  • Paula Hendrickson January 4, 2017 at 11:21 am

    That sounds just like my nightmare client of a year ago. In my case, everything about the assignment was in writing and I followed the client’s guidelines to the letter. I even ran all potential sources past her before scheduling interviews. She liked and okayed most of them, and offered alternate sources for others.

    In early October I turned in my copy, asking the client to let me know if she needed changes. She replied that they almost always have “tweaks” so not to be worried if they ask for a revision, something they almost always do.

    No further word from her until December 22 or 23, when I was out of town for the holidays. She sent me the edited copy which retained quite a bit of my writing, plus notes saying certain sources weren’t of the caliber they required—no matter that she’d approved or suggested every single one of those sources. She told me to include something we’d already agreed to removed (because experts I’d spoken with said it wasn’t a real issue), so I told her a second time that her idea didn’t pan out, so she told me to add another point off the long list she’d originally provided, meaning yet another interview. She gave me 2-1/2 weeks to complete my revision, apparently forgetting it was the holidays an no one was in their offices, including me. Better yet, on the first or second business day of the new year she said she needed the revision by Friday—nearly a week earlier than she first said. I told her I’d do my best, to which she replied, “You led me to believe you were a professional.”

    Really? What’s unprofessional about not over-promising you’ll somehow snag impossible interviews with virtually no notice?

    Somehow I managed to round up new sources, do the interviews, rewrite the piece and turn it in on the new deadline. She replied “got it,” and nothing more.

    Months passed. I kept checking for the piece to come out, but nothing. In late April someone from their office sent me papers to fill out so I figured it had finally been approved and I’d be paid. (They pay on acceptance.) One question was whether you expected to work with the company in the future; I marked “no” since I never want to deal with that dreadful woman again. I asked when my copy would run and they said, “Oh, didn’t she tell you? It was axed last month.” The controlling coward who needed my copy in such a rush that she cut almost a week off an already tight deadline sat on the copy for over four months before deciding not to use it, then never bothered to tell me. And she suggested I was less than professional. A few days later she emailed me saying, “Sorry. I thought someone told you. You’ll get a kill fee.” Someone?

    The only way nightmare clients like these keep their jobs must be because so many freelancers take the blame. Like you, Lori, when two of the sources asked about it I gave them the short, honest answer: After getting all of the changes she requested, the client sat on the project several months before deciding not to use it.

    It’s time to stop enabling bad clients.

    Reply
    • lwidmer January 4, 2017 at 3:41 pm

      That right there, Paula — she had already approved the copy. That’s where your obligation (and frankly, mine with the project I’m describing above) ended.

      I suspect someone above her had said the sources she gave you weren’t up to snuff, but if she’s already signed off on the project, it’s no longer something you’re required to fix, particularly over a holiday week. That’s insane.

      In my case, I opted to fix what wasn’t broken instead of pointing out that no, they’d already approved and signed off on the project. And that the stated “offense” I was being accused of was neither unethical nor uncommon practice. But I tried to please. Like Solitaire says though, the well was already poisoned. The way this client talked to me, chastising me and acting as though I’d lit her house on fire, was proof that relationship was dead at that point.

      Like Solitaire, I found it to be a lesson in how to stand up for myself professionally. Funny how years later, we are still doing that.

      Reply