Freelance Writers: How to Identify Problem Clients and What to Do If You Find Yourself Stuck with One

The following is a guest post by Laura Pennington.

Over the past year as a freelance writer, I’ve worked with around 100 different clients, taking on a bit of everything — from one-off blog posts, to white papers, to ebooks. Some clients have been a complete dream to work for; the kind you truly enjoy cultivating relationships with and taking their phone calls.

Others are a complete disaster; they have you waking up with night sweats thinking “How did I get myself into this?” My primary goal when 2013 rolled around was to cut down on this type of client. So, I started to do what I call “red flagging” prospects.

What Happened When I Decided to Start “Red Flagging My Freelance Writing Clients

I decided to not only get better about “red flagging” them, but to get better about firing them if I got stuck with one. Taking this approach has drastically improved the quality of projects, payments and the use of my time. I actually just “fired” my last bad client last week and a burden has been completely lifted off my shoulders.

Advice for New Freelance Writers

For new freelance writers out there, being able to identify bad clients is just as important as being able to identify good ones. So let’s walk through some “red flags” to help reduce your headaches and improve your business.

Of course, these tips might not suit everyone, but you’ll learn quickly what you’re willing or not willing to tolerate in your freelance business. Make this part of your screening process and wave goodbye to the ones you don’t want.

Red Flag #1: Wants Immediate and/or Constant Contact

I am not willing to sit on Skype all day just in case a client wants to reach out. That’s just not efficient for my freelance business, as I occasionally am in meetings, stepping out, or doing other projects that don’t mesh well with incoming information and pinging messages.

If we’ve already hammered out the details of a project and spoken through phone or email, I don’t find it’s helpful for those people who want to talk every single day by phone. It’s inefficient and I’ve found that most of the time these clients want to know “Are we on track?” or “Do you have everything you need?

Freelance Writers: How to Spot -- and Deal with -- Problem ClientsThis is information that can be covered in an email, and left up to you whether you NEED to contact them by phone as a follow up. I work best when I’m on my own, so let me get to it!

When I’m working with 30 clients, I don’t have the time for daily phone calls with each of them. This can be hard to reinforce once you’ve started to work with someone. So if they’re emailing you five and six times before signing a contract or depositing a payment, and keep wanting numerous phone calls, move on.

Definite red flag; if they’re like this BEFORE work commences, imagine what they’ll be like after you start working with them.

Freelance Writers: Issues Potential Clients May Want to Cover During a Phone Consult

As a freelance writer, of course I’m willing to speak to every potential client once on the phone to determine if we’re a fit. But if my portfolio has been provided, we’ve discussed rates and background and I’ve gotten a feel for their project, constant communication can just be annoying.

Bottom line? This type of behavior also takes time away from servicing your other clients (you know, the ones who give you great projects and pay on time?).

Red Flag #2: Unclear Directions

Have you ever been contacted by someone who wanted a blog or a CRM and then later they decided that they were really more interested in a whitepaper?

If you’ve already accepted terms and started working, I call this a “change in scope or expectations.” This is such a hard problem to navigate since now you’re back to square one (possibly with a completed project) with a client who may want to argue with you on the final release of payment.

If the instructions weren’t clear or you were given creative room and after delivery they changed their mind, this can be a sign that your client is not really clear about what they want. This can result in arguing over details and payment, or worse, numerous phone calls and emails trying to rectify the issues (see Red Flag  #1 — you need to avoid this wherever possible to streamline your workflow!).

Ultimately, I just don’t see it worth my time to continue investing in a client who is all over the place. At my day job, we called these “timesuckers” because they end up being worth way less than what they offered because they swallow up so much time and effort.

Red Flag #3: Wants to Keep Bargaining With You

Maybe you worked with them a year ago but you have since raised your freelance writing rates, and now they want to haggle at the old price.

Perhaps they’re requesting five blog posts and want you to throw in a free one.

Or, maybe they wanted 500 words and later realized — post-delivery – that they were more interested in 1,000 words and expect you to provide the extra content free of charge.

Too many people out there want something for nothing and since, as freelance writers we work for ourselves, clients can sometimes see this as a route to take advantage of us. Hold firm to your freelance writing rates. I’m sure you generated them after some careful thought about your overhead and the actual time and effort it will take you to complete projects.

I made “deals” with a few clients early on and ended up procrastinating on them because the motivation to deliver just wasn’t there.  Usually you never hear from these clients again or they offer you more projects in the same vein – sometimes even expecting further discounts because they’re giving you “bulk work.”

Everyone has a different pain tolerance and obviously you’ll gain more knowledge as you gain more experience as a freelancer. You’ll start to realize what you client deal breakers are.

The Temptation to Take On “Just One More” Freelance Writing Client

Sometimes it’s so tempting to take on an extra client, but you must be choosy about who you work with. I think occasionally we, as freelance writers, spend too much time convincing clients that they should select us when we also need to balance whether or not we want to select them.

Freelance Writers (Especially Newbies): The Most Important Thing to Remember about Problem Clients

Freelancing is a business partnership and if your clients are holding you back, you’re going to be stuck with numerous jobs that give you grief. Work on generating and building relationships with those clients you love – you know, the ones who respect you, your talents, your time AND the fact that you’re a business owner too. Screen out the bad ones and move on to the next.

Just as your clients’ skills, time and talent are valuable to their business, your skill as a freelance writer, your time and your talent are all valuable to your freelance business. So, don’t squander them – and don’t let anyone else do so either!

About the Author: Laura Pennington is a freelance writer and editor based in the DC metro area with over 7 years of experience in the legal and insurance industries. She is currently conducting dissertation research for her PhD in public administration and policy. She can be found online at SixFigureWritingSecrets.com.

Want to Submit a Guest Post?

I’m in Jamaica now preparing for the SEO writing seminar. I’m also trying to work less — although I’ve been more swamped than ever since I’ve gotten here! Bottom line — if you wan to send in a guest post, I’d love to publish it.

P.S.: Did you catch yesterday’s post on what it takes to make a full-time living writing and selling ebooks online?

P.P.S.: Just a heads up — on June 1, prices on some of Inkwell Editorial’s ebooks will increase. Of course, I’ll announce it in the weekly newsletter, so if you’re a subscriber you’ll get it right in your inbox!


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    1. Lance McDonald says:

      Excellent post. These are very good valid points. I definitely learned something being that i’m a newbie in SEO writing. Thank you!