This is a post for all my fellow freelancers — the copywriters in particular.
When you first start out in business, you’re eager for the experience and excited by each new enquiry — even if it’s not that exciting.
It’s time to prove yourself and you want to say ‘yes’ to everything and everyone — even if you probably shouldn’t.
I have the benefit of hindsight and I can tell you that’s a terrible approach. In the beginning, I worked with plenty of clients I should have walked away from. But I also learned some valuable lessons that I can share.
So here are some of the client behaviours you should be wary of. Learn to recognise them and know how to protect yourself.
The initial enquiry
These behaviours are all red flags. If a client does any of these things, proceed with caution.
Giving bad vibes
Sometimes you get a bad feeling from the start.
For example, the client might seem:
- Rude, offhand or insulting
- Demanding or presumptuous
- Odd, creepy or something you can’t put your finger on.
If you feel this in the first instance, and those feelings don’t subside, sometimes it’s best to listen to your gut.
Talking about bad experiences
If a client starts by telling you about all the bad experiences they’ve already had with other freelancers in your field, take heed. It may not be the other freelancers who were the problem.
Having unrealistic expectations
Some clients will expect you to work miracles. For example, by asking you to:
- Make their video or social media post go viral
- Get their website to #1 on Google, or to the first page of Google in a week
- Provide instant or guaranteed results from a creative or marketing project.
If they’re not listening or accepting what you say when you try to manage their expectations, beware. This could come back to bite you later.
Having a ridiculously tight deadline
The client has a project, but they need it yesterday. If it’s an existing client and it’s unusual for them to do this, fair enough.
But if it’s a new client, be cautious — especially if there’s talk of an ongoing working relationship — because:
- It suggests the client isn’t good at planning or managing their own clients
- You’ll have to rush it to get it finished, which could cause extra stress
- There may not be time to complete it to your usual high standards
- This could be the kind of client who always drops things on you at the last minute — even if they tell you otherwise
- When you’re busy, this could become a massive inconvenience.
If you take on the work, make it clear to the client that you’ve made an exception for them. This can help to prevent it becoming the norm.
Asking for super-specific samples
A client should be able to gauge the quality of your work without seeing a like-for-like sample.
But if they insist on seeing samples of work you’ve done for an identical company before they’ll hire you, tread carefully.
When this happened to me, the client said they still wanted to work with me, but used my “lack of experience” of their business to justify trying to drive down my prices.
Driving the conversation on price
“It’s an easy job, should take you about an hour, so that will be, what, £10?”
This behaviour is like a huge warning sign with a deafening siren and red flashing lights on it.
First, the client doesn’t get to tell you how easy the project will be. If it was so easy, they’d be doing it themselves.
Second, the client doesn’t get to dictate how long the project will take, or — for the love of god — how much your rates are!
Haggling on price
Some clients will take your carefully worked out pricing as a starting point for a negotiation. And, unless you’ve deliberately gone in high, this isn’t likely to work out in your favour.
Deliberately pricing your service high so the client can negotiate it down is a really bad strategy. First, it makes you look weak and susceptible. And second, they might just dismiss you without any negotiation.
But if they do try and haggle, remember you’re a professional, not a market stall. Stand strong and reiterate your value proposition.
If the client wants a discount and you’re prepared to give them something, here are some ways to do it while maintaining some control:
- If you offer a lower price, take something away from your service to compensate. This will show the client they don’t get full value if they don’t pay full price
- If they promise you more work in exchange for a discount, tell them you’ll discount a future project — say, the third one — instead of the first one. This will hold them to their word.
- Tell them you need a piece of work like this for your portfolio, so you’d be willing to offer a discount on this occasion.
At the start of the project
When you first start working together, another set of red flag behaviours can rear their ugly heads. At this point, there’s still time to stop the project and run for the hills.
Here are some of the things to watch out for.
Unwillingness to pay a deposit
If you’re working with a new client, there’s a level of risk for both of you. But if you’re doing the work without any compensation, you’re taking all that risk yourself. So, it’s advisable to take some money upfront — whether that’s the whole amount or a 50% deposit.
A good client should appreciate this. But if they’re reluctant, you need to ask yourself why.
No idea what they want
If the client doesn’t know what they want, how are you supposed to know? You’re not psychic!
This is a recipe for a project governed by indecisiveness, dithering and no clear direction.
It’s also a cue for a client to say the dreaded words: “I’ll know what I want when I see it”. This is totally unhelpful, intensely frustrating and will lead to way more work and revisions than you planned on or quoted for.
Not wanting to change anything
Some clients don’t like change — even if it’s clearly for the better. And while they might understand that they need to change, they’ll resist it every step of the way. This can make your job incredibly difficult.
When it happened to me, it was excruciating. I had to justify every change I made at great length, while they ummed and ahhed over it. And making any kind of progress was like wading through treacle, dragging them kicking and screaming behind me.
They pulled out of the project before it was finished, leaving me out of pocket, but teaching me a very valuable lesson.
Unwillingness to complete a brief
There’s some information only your client can give you. This usually comes when they fill out your project brief.
But some clients resist completing the brief, saying things like:
- “Is this really necessary?”
- “I don’t know why you need all this”
- “Can’t you just make something up?”
- “I already have enough paperwork to do”
- “Just do it like this competitor has done and change it a bit.”
I have a simple rule: No brief, no copy.
How they complete the brief is up to them. They can fill it in by themselves, or I can do it for them over the phone. But if I don’t have that information, the project could go badly wrong and I would have no comeback.
Making unwise/unethical suggestions
Beware of clients who ask you to do things that compromise your ethics. I’m talking about things like:
- Plagiarising their competitors’ work
- Making dubious claims without evidence
- Signing everyone they know up to their email list, without getting their consent first for GDPR
- Immorally manipulating their audience.
It’s your job to educate these clients on the dangers of doing things like this. Just make sure they’re listening and understanding what you’re saying.
During the project
A client who doesn’t communicate well can cause all kinds of problems.
For example, some clients might:
- Be unreasonably slow to respond to communications
- Not bother to read your emails properly
- Not respond with clear answers to your questions.
You can manage this to some extent by:
- Being proactive and contacting them in plenty of time
- Consolidating your questions into one email/phone call
- Keeping your emails to the point
- Numbering the points or questions you have, so they’re easy to identify and answer
- Giving clear and limited options to choose from (a client of mine would often respond with ‘yes’ when given a choice, so this isn’t foolproof!).
While some clients are a little too laid back, others can be overbearing and will try to control everything.
Clients who micromanage often do so because they don’t like to delegate. And having someone working off-site makes it more difficult to keep tabs on them.
Micromanaging behaviour might include:
- Telling you how to do your job
- Emailing or calling with unnecessary regularity
- Demanding frequent updates/immediate responses
- Asking to see your work before it’s finished
- Insisting you get their permission before making any and every decision.
This behaviour means the client is constantly finding things to complain about and your project will probably run on for much longer than it should.
While there are ways to manage this kind of behaviour, many of them are long-term strategies, designed for people in full-time jobs with micromanaging bosses. My own response to this would be simply to walk away.
Making unreasonable demands
Some clients will think they own you.
They might expect you to:
- Drop everything, at any time, to accommodate their needs
- Be available to take on last-minute work whenever they demand it — even if it means working outside your normal hours
- Respond to emails and text messages during evenings and weekends.
The key to avoiding this behaviour is to set clear boundaries from the start. For example:
- Clearly state your office hours
- Specify how and when you will be contactable
- Use an email autoresponder out of hours and let clients know when they can expect a reply.
If you need the work and want to take on projects out of hours, make it clear that this is not your normal practice and clients shouldn’t expect that this service will always be available.
Moving the goalposts
In freelancer circles, this is also known as ‘scope creep’ and it’s when the scope of a project creeps up over time because the client keeps adding to it.
The additions might seem insignificant at the time, but they can add up over the life of the project and you might find you’ve done way more work than you actually quoted for.
To prevent against this:
- Be aware that this can happen and watch out for it
- Take time to understand the project goals and expectations, then ensure your initial brief and quote cover everything that might be necessary
- Have a process in place for dealing with additions to the project
- If a request seems unreasonable, take the option to decline it.
Changing the brief
This happened to me on one of my first ever projects. I was almost ready to deliver the first draft when the client did a u-turn and changed the entire brief.
He expected the project to be rewritten to the new brief because I had revisions included in my contract.
To avoid problems like this, make sure your terms are clear:
- Include a clause for changes to the brief
- State that work done up to the point of a brief change will be chargeable
- Specify what constitutes a revision — and what doesn’t.
This is also another good argument for taking money upfront.
After seeing the first draft
This can be unsettling and can leave you with all manner of thoughts racing through your mind.
But if a client doesn’t get back to you straight away, there may be a perfectly legitimate reason. They could be absent from work or out of the office. Or they may have to present your work to a committee before they can come back to you with feedback.
So give them some time to respond before you contact them to chase them up.
Vague, non-specific feedback
“I don’t like it.”
“It needs rewriting.”
“It’s not working for me.”
This kind of feedback is unhelpful because it’s not specific or actionable. It would require you to get inside your client’s head to understand it — and that’s never going to happen!
You need to really drill down into what’s wrong before you can fix it.
I wrote this post on how to give constructive feedback to your copywriter and it works for some other disciplines too.
This happens when all the decision makers in the process give you feedback independently of each other.
It may come in one batch, via your client — or in dribs and drabs from several different sources, so you’re never sure when you’ve received it all.
Worst of all, the feedback is unmoderated, which means contributors could be wildly opposed and contradicting each other.
Clearly, this is unacceptable and is never going to work. If it happens, you’ll need to go back to your client and ask them to consolidate the feedback and get it to a point where everyone agrees.
But ideally you want to prevent it from getting to this point. So, you should make it clear from the start that feedback should be:
- Consolidated and delivered by one person
- Moderated, so everyone agrees
- Clear, specific and actionable.
Giving feedback in stages
Your client gives their feedback and you act on it. They then pass it to their supervisor and give you a new set of amends. Then the supervisor gives it to the manager, who gives their feedback as well.
When you finally submit what you think is the final draft of your project, your client tells you that they’re now going to present it to the decision makers.
Cue an avalanche of new feedback from people you’ve never encountered before and who, seemingly, have had no involvement in the project up to this point.
Your client wants to filter out all the potential problems before the project gets to this point. They think this is a good way to work, and it might be — for them!
But for you, it will be a nightmare of epic proportions — so don’t let it happen. Be clear upfront about the number of complimentary* revisions you’ll undertake and what constitutes a revision. Make sure you have this in your terms too.
If the client knows that more rounds of revisions will be chargeable, they’ll be more keen to minimise the number of rounds.
*If you make them complimentary clients are less likely to think they have to use them all and won’t think they’re entitled to a rebate if they don’t need them.
Making changes just for the sake of it
Some clients will make changes that might not seem necessary. The changes could just be their way of keeping some control and exerting their authority.
If they’re inconsequential, I’ll do them to make things easier for myself. But, if they’re detrimental to the project, I always explain why they’re not a good idea.
After final delivery
Some clients wait until the very end of the project to reveal their bad side.
This is surely the most common complaint from freelancers.
When you’ve poured your heart and soul into a project, you deserve to be paid and you shouldn’t have to go cap in hand to get your money.
Chasing late payments is frustrating and takes time out of your working week that you could be spending on something more productive.
You can help yourself by:
- Having clear payment terms on your website and on your invoice
- Keeping records of all the emails and phone calls you’ve made to recover your payment — you may find you need proof if you have to take it further
- Introducing late fees to cover your extra admin time
- Being prepared to make a claim if you have to.
Tinkering with your work
Some clients can’t help themselves. And rather than giving feedback when you ask for it, they’ll wait until they get the finished job — and then massacre it.
This can be annoying — especially if you were proud of the piece and wanted to include it in your portfolio. But if the project has already been paid for, there may not be much you can do.
I tend to choose my battles on this one. I might point out a problem if I see one — and I might follow that advice up in writing. But if it’s clear I’m getting nowhere, I’ll leave it. Because sometimes life’s too short.
Not following your advice
Your project is complete and you’ve given the client some amazing follow-up advice to help make sure their success continues.
But, a while later, you’ve checked on their progress and found they haven’t done any of the things they were supposed to. Or, worse still, they come back to you, having not done those things, and complain that they’re not getting the results you said they should.
This is so disappointing and it can feel like all your effort was a waste of time. But it could also be an opportunity to turn things around and put them right.
Get back in touch with your client and see how things are going. Or point out that the advice hasn’t been followed and ask if there was a problem.
Offer to go through the advice again, because maybe they weren’t paying attention, they misunderstood something or they just need more help.
About the author
I’m Jenny Lucas, a freelance copywriter based in Leicester, UK.
I’ve been freelancing since 2011.