Tuesday Take: When to Pull the Plug on a Freelance Project

What I’m listening to: Incomplete and Insecure by The Avett Brothers

A good start to the week. I got a project finished, got some marketing in, took care of some unfinished business, and had a call with a colleague.

That last item was eye-opening. The colleague and I have had dealings with the same client. In both cases, the projects we handled turned into shifting parameters, frustrating revisions requiring more information than was originally asked for, and confrontations with the project lead.

In my case, I pulled the plug. In my colleague’s case, that’s about to happen, as well. You cannot continue to try reaching a goal that changes without notice.

When I had to drop projects before they were completed (and there were exactly two in my career), I felt this:

  • Guilt: I don’t quit on clients. I do the job. This is my reputation, and it’s determined by every single job I do.
  • Loss: I lost the challenge I gave myself, I lost the client, and I lost the money.
  • Anger: I did what I could and it was because of someone else that I couldn’t do my same level of work. And I was being blamed (and there was nothing I could do about it)
  • Not appreciated: The demands became unrealistic, and I was in both cases treated like I wasn’t able to handle “simple” instructions.

And now it’s my friend in this same situation.

While it’s validating to know that I’m not the only one this client can’t work with, it does neither of us any good. The client can (and probably has) passed us both off as unreliable when she knows the opposite is true. It’s face-saving for her — it’s career-damaging for us.

But we as freelance writers have been at this a while. We know when it’s a dead end, and we know the smart thing to do when things are clearly not going to improve is to bow out before any more of our time is wasted.

And we don’t. Do we? We think we’ll just do one more thing, fill that last request (wishful thinking on our part, right?), and we’ll get the check and lose that client’s number.

Right. How’d that work for you? Probably about as badly as it worked for me.

When should we be pulling the plug on a freelance writing project going nowhere? Click To Tweet

When the story changes. And not two revisions after the story changes, either. In the one case where I dropped a client, the story went from “Interview X and make it all about his approach” to “Interview these three people, change the focus, and I can only pay you for two more hours of your time.” That’s an obvious Hell No situation. But what if your client says “Yes, we’ve covered the latest in surfboard technology, but I think the story needs to be more about the surfing culture and where the best surfing spots are” — that right there. There’s your jumping-off point. That’s when you remind the client that Project A was completed as agreed upon, and this will count as Project B, and the agreement for that one is coming in the next email….

When the client becomes nasty. When I pushed back on the client with project I just mentioned, I said very clearly that two hours wasn’t nearly enough time, but the client insisted I try. So I did what I could in two hours. I presented the unfinished project. That’s when she called me unprofessional and launched into a litany of complaints. Those were also the last words we exchanged. I won’t answer to, nor should you, a tirade from any client. Ever. When they resort to strong-arm tactics or calling your character into question, they’re no longer acting like business people — they’re now bullies.

When the guilt is dished out in ample doses. In both cases, the clients tried to make me feel like I’d done something wrong. In the last case, there were accusations of unethical behavior, which was utter nonsense. It was someone trying to control a freelancer’s ability to earn a living. But it was what I called the “schoolteacher” attitude in each email and phone call that I wasn’t having any more of. You’ve had clients who tried making you feel like you were dropping the ball when their incompetence was the real issue. Don’t accept it.

When the sugary BS is thicker than glue. Oh, guilt comes in many forms, my friends. There are clients who will make your life living hell, then layer on the passive-aggressive sideways complaints framed as “woe is me” worrying to get you to do what they want. You want to please. You think “Maybe i did misunderstand”… Stop. Go back over all your correspondence and communication. Did you really misunderstand or is your client unable to get to the point without a guidebook and a sherpa? In either case, stop feeling sorry for someone else’s inability to communicate.

Writers, have you had to end a project before you were able to complete it?
What was your most frustrating client situation that ended badly? 
Have you had frustrating situations that you were able to turn into successes?

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  • Paula Hendrickson February 7, 2017 at 11:49 am

    I’ve had a couple of those kinds of clients, too. Heaven help the next one who tries to blame me for not doing a job correctly when I’ve followed the original assignment to the letter. Why? If/when than happens again I will show them the true meaning of clear communication.

    How? By refusing to take the blame (unless it’s one of those non-apology apologies, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but….”). I will copy and paste their original message and use their very own words to defend my case. Then copy and paste their subsequent messages to illustrate their indecision and confusion.

    • lwidmer February 7, 2017 at 12:46 pm

      Paula, I think that’s the best method, right there. While I don’t normally condone engaging in the blame game, when it’s obvious the project is headed south, it may be necessary to explain why. That helps the next writer (hopefully).

      • Paula Hendrickson February 8, 2017 at 12:34 pm

        Right, Lori. And in cases like this it’s not casting blame, it’s reminding them what they’ve said. Sort of a non-published version of “hanging them with their own words.”

        • lwidmer February 8, 2017 at 2:14 pm

          Exactly that. When I ended one of those two projects I mentioned, I did so by pointing to the client’s own words to show I’d fulfilled every requirement. Since you know the backstory on that one, you know how many times that client had changed the parameters. It had gone beyond normal revisions — it was turning into another assignment.