9 Tough Client Conversations (and how to rock them)

What I’m listening to: All Apologies by Nirvana

Tuesday already? Wow. I blinked and last week was gone. This one is looking the same. The workload isn’t big, but the marketing for the conference is taking up a lot of time.

On a LinkedIn Group discussion, a new writer was asking where she could go for tips and blog content to help her get up and running. That, my freelance writing pros, is a great question. Notice she didn’t ask “How do I start?” — the question that’s both impossible to answer and a bit lazy at the same time. She asked for specifics. Sure, “tips” was broad, but it allows people to give her the advice that helped them most.

I foresee great things for this new writer.

My response was lengthy (I had to break it into two posts), but hopefully it gave her enough to get her looking in the right areas. My advice stayed on the positive side of things — consider it a business, set it up, look for good, free advice before paying for any course or webinar… the usual stuff. I didn’t mention the tricky conversations we freelance writers have to navigate. And we do. We’re dealing with unique clients, unique situations and projects, and sometimes unique, if not off-beat, requests.

Some of those conversations are tough, aren’t they? For those of you who are just starting a freelance writing career, here are some of those tough conversations. And since we don’t want to leave you twisting in the wind, we’re including some strategies for how to address them.

Tough Conversation #1: The royalty offer

I think the first offer we writers get is the one from budding authors looking for either a ghostwriter or an editor. Be it a business book or a memoir, some client somewhere is going to ask you to write/edit their story in exchange for royalties they’ll earn from the sale. This offer is typically coupled with a question: do you know any places I can send my manuscript?

Note to new writers: most book manuscripts don’t sell, particularly if the author has no connections with agents or publishers.

This one is easy to respond to: No. No to both questions. No, I don’t work for royalties and no, I don’t have a magical connection that will push the manuscript of an unknown, non-writer to the front of the line of either an agent’s or a publisher’s pile of manuscripts they’re considering. But we aren’t in the business of judging the sale-ability of anyone’s work. How would we know if it will sell? It’s also not up to us to give anyone a reality check. Instead, stick with the part that concerns you — payment. Here’s a way to phrase it: “No, I work only on a flat-fee basis. My rate for this project would be in the $X,XXX ball park.”

Tough Conversation #2: Payment

Every freelancer needs to know how to approach and negotiate payment with their clients. For the most part, your approach is to set your rate and convey it to clients who are in negotiations with you.

Oh, but even that approach gets turned on its head, doesn’t it? You apply to a job posting and the client has a rate in there that’s nowhere near what you need to be making. Or you have a client who tells you “My budget is X, so that’s all we’ll be paying.” What’s a writer to do?

First, stop applying to job postings. Why give control of your earnings away to some stranger? If the stated rate is lower than you want, that’s not your client. I don’t care how hungry you are for work — don’t compromise your rate just to get a clip. That doesn’t mean don’t negotiate. Often, clients simply don’t have the budget for you. Either you part ways knowing this, or you find a common ground that makes you both happy. Remember, you have to be happy, too.

Then there’s the dictator who’s telling you what they’ll pay. Here’s your response: “I see we’re quite far apart on the budget versus my rate. Here are some options that could help make it more affordable for you: I can do part of the project at your budgeted amount; I can bill you in installments, I can accept credit card payments via PayPal…” Notice what’s missing? The words “I’m sorry.” Don’t apologize for being more expensive than they can manage. That’s not your fault, nor is it your burden. But give them options to help them decide if they’re able to work with you at all. However, if the dictator behaves in any way other than respectful of your time and talent, simply say “It appears we’re too far apart on the budget to make this work for you. Thank you for inquiring. Good luck to you.”

Tough Conversation #3: The angry client

That client is on the phone and is upset. She’s unhappy with the draft, or she’s upset for any number of valid (or not-so-valid) reasons. What do you do? If it’s the phone, You pause. Listen. Choke back any emotional response, such as defending yourself. If it’s in email, you’re lucky. You can postpone a response until your own emotions are in check.

The response: Ask questions. What didn’t she like specifically? What issue is she thinking is there? How would she like to see it addressed? What needs to change in order to please her? Open the document and ask her to pinpoint specific areas that don’t mesh with what she’s looking for.

If your client is accusing you of something unethical or illegal, by all means defend yourself if you can show immediately how false the claims are. However, it’s usually best to gather the facts first, repeat the problem back to the client so they understand you’ve heard them, and then get your response together once you’re off the phone. If the charges are false, prove it. You will lose the client in these cases anyway (and you’re better off in most cases), so make sure you don’t allow their negative talk to go further without your addressing it. Above all, remain professional and emotionally detached. You can’t afford to be blaming them for their own role in the debacle, nor can you expect any kind of apology. It rarely comes, even when they realize they screwed up.

Tough Conversation #4: Firing a client

It’s inevitable: you’re going to come across a client who, for whatever reason, just doesn’t mesh with you. They say A and do B. They are scattered. They fail to pay. They ignore your questions and blame you when things go wrong. They talk down to you, treat you like a servant…fill in the blank. You no longer want to work with them. Yet how do you cut ties, particularly if they owe you money? There’s a way to do it tactfully, even if they’re promising to pay your last invoice while dangling another project in front of you (which happened with a former client of mine).

The response is going to vary, but in essence, it can go something like this: “With my current client project commitments, I’m unable to continue working with you. I’m happy to provide you with referrals to another writer who may be better able to help you. Please pay the attached invoice within the next 10 days to avoid any late fees. Thank you for your business, and the best of luck to you.”

Obviously, that conversation will be altered based on just how impossible this person was to be around and how much you think it’s more of a personality difference than an awful person who doesn’t play well with others.


Tough Conversation #3: The octopus project

We call it “scope creep” because the project that was supposed to be an interview with one person for a 500-word case study has become a roundtable discussion with seven other people to be included in a 12-page white paper. Or you write that ad copy for the client only to have them ask you to shift directions and make this a sales letter now. Oh but wait — next week, they now want both the sales letter and the ad copy. Oh, and while you’re at it, could you just work this into a brochure, as well?

It’s not the project you signed up for and, more importantly, it’s not the one you agreed to do for the price you’ve quoted.

How to respond: “I’m happy to add that. Since we’re going well beyond the original work for which I quoted my rate, I’ll work up the price for these additions and get back to you with a new contract. When would you like to have these by?”

Right there, you’ve told them in a positive way that they owe for each project. Well done, you!

Tough Conversation #6: The client is about to screw up

You see it coming. That client is about to send out a message that not just muddles their image, but makes them look foolish. Or they’re telling you to word it just like they remember being taught in high-school English class — 40 years ago. Or the client is insulting a segment of their intended audience. And you? You’re the one tasked with writing it all down and taking the blame when their feet are held to the flames.

How to respond: Remove yourself from the scapegoat position by stating, in writing, your reservations. Explain tactfully why it’s probably a bad idea to call people fat or to send out that sales letter that insults a particular race or religion, or why these 15-year-old buzz words make them look dated. An emailed note following up on a phone conversation should address it as what I call a “we” problem: “You know, I think we are in danger of offending or looking dated if we use this. How about changing the wording to….”

Tough Conversation #7: The client can’t communicate

I remember a few instances in which the client tried, but just couldn’t, convey what he or she wanted. In one case, an hour-long conversation didn’t reveal any hints as to what this person did for a living or what he wanted out of me. Even in cases where you think the project is straightforward, the conversations with the client muddy the waters and leave you wondering what just happened. In one case, I was asked to write a comprehensive review of the workers’ comp industry. Sounded like a great project, until I was told I had 750 words to work with. Anyone who knows workers’ comp knows there’s no way the summary would be that short let alone any comprehensive review.

How to respond: Questions. Lots of pointed questions. You need a few things from your client in order to get it right: What their message is, who it’s reaching, how they’ll use it, and what they hope the outcome will be. So build your questions around that. Who’s your customer? What type of message has worked in the past? What hasn’t? What’s the main message you hope your customers will take away from this?

Tough Conversation #8: The impossible deadline

You did it. You agreed to write an insurance licensing course — all 380 pages complete with exercises and tests — in three months. Only you’re two months in and it’s just not happening (Actually, I’d agreed to do it in six months and three months in it was obvious it wasn’t happening). What do you do? Your client needs that project!

Here’s the thing about deadlines: in many cases, that deadline is arbitrary. Clients think “Well, I could get to it in three months. Let’s make the deadline three months from now.” Unless they’re coordinating with printers or other entities, your deadline could be quite easily moved.

How to respond: The second you realize your deadline is too aggressive, get in touch with the client. “I realize as I’ve gotten into this that the work is much more time-consuming than I expected. Can we push that deadline back? Realistically, I see it much more manageable to deliver a quality product to you by ….”

Tough Conversation #9: The client is disreputable

You thought you were signing up to write articles for a business site. Wait, you’re writing essays for college kids? Or you are talking with the client and realize they’re the people you saw in the news who use deceptive business practices to screw over both customers and employees. In one case, I was working with someone who I found out (through a call from a cop) was scamming donations from people.

How to respond: “In light of our different views, I’m unable to work with you on your projects.” No emotional outbursts, no “Clean up your act, you jerks!” talk no matter how tempting it is. Just cut ties and don’t respond further. I had to ignore veiled threats (not very veiled, either) and I simply filed the emails for the authorities should things have become uglier. Don’t engage people on their ethics or lack thereof — just drop them and move on.

Writers, what tough conversations have you had to navigate?
How do you best address the most uncomfortable of these situations?
Any advice for new writers on how to have these difficult conversations?

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  • Cathy Miller April 13, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    Somehow I blinked and it’s Thursday already and I missed this. ☺ This is excellent advice, all the way around, Lori. I know I shared this before. It’s along the line of the royalty offer but it was a brand new non-profit who thought their passion should be my passion. So, of course, I’d be happy to forgo payment because I was so fortunate to be in on the ground floor and would be there when it became huge.

    This happened after I had already done some paid work. I simply replied that I understood their business constraints and to feel free to contact me in the future when their budget allowed for my services.

    • lwidmer April 13, 2017 at 2:13 pm

      Cathy, I love that response. It’s not dismissive or angry. It’s factual — I understand and I’m happy to work with you when your budget permits.

      It’s not uncommon that people get so excited and think theirs is the next great … whatever it is. And I’ve seen so many ads (as have you, I’d bet) offering that “ground floor” opportunity to “grow with us” without money at first.

      Right. No thank you.

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