The freelance guide to working with clients that SUCK

April 21, 2011 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Freelancing 

freelance clients that suckThis post originally appeared at Men With Pens.

Ah, the freelance copywriting life. You get to sit at home, work when you feel like it, and tackle only choice projects from smart, easy, free-spending clients who love and adore you.

Well, not quite.

All those e-books and courses that promise freelance nirvana may be bending the truth just a little bit. Yes, you can work from home. But you’ll probably put in long hours, especially for the first few years. And you won’t get all plumb projects.

Some of your clients will be wonderful. Most will be average. But some are going to suck. That’s the way it is. Some can suck so bad, you’ll be temped to get out of freelancing altogether if you’re not prepared to deal with them.

So let’s look at the various ways clients can suck and how you should handle it.

Here are some of the basic sucky client categories:

The Company Sucks – Maybe it’s a tobacco company, or a company selling equipment used in slaughter houses, or a bank whose CEO just embezzled a billion dollars. Whatever the reason, you don’t like the company, what they do, or what they stand for.

The Product Sucks – It could be boring knockoff software with no great features to talk about, a hype-filled investment newsletter, a scam money-making website, or some other product or service that makes your eyes roll and your skin crawl.

The Offer Sucks – Some clients won’t make any sort of enticing offer and insist on just naming their price. Some won’t offer a guarantee because they’re afraid of getting ripped off. When the offer is bad or boring, it’s just going to make your copywriting work that much harder.

The Contact Sucks – This is where things get really difficult. The person you work with may be disorganized, stupid, hard to reach, a control freak, fickle, or an outright jerk. Basically you end up wanting to rip your hair out.

The Project Sucks – Unreasonable deadlines, products you know nothing about, an unfamiliar format or medium, a low budget, or working conditions you don’t enjoy can all make for a project you dread.

Okay, so you find yourself working with a client that sucks. What do you do? What you don’t do is scream into the phone, “You SUCK!” Think it. Make a note of it. But don’t say it.

What do you really do? The answer is: it depends.

It depends on your personality and tolerance for pain. It depends on your situation – are you busy and cash rich or twiddling your thumbs and desperate for work? It also depends on the kind of client suckiness you’re dealing with.

Here are a few suggestions for handing various suck-filled situations.

If the company sucks:
Determine what you don’t like about the company. If they’re doing something you consider unethical, walk away. If they’re selling something you find unappealing or gross, like a bovine anal electrocution wand, decide whether you can man up and write the copy or not. A good copywriter should be able to write about nearly anything.

If it’s just one specific aspect about the company you don’t like, consider that the rest of the company may be fine. Be pragmatic. Take the job, do good work, and make it a better company.

If the product sucks:
This is common. You just have to deal with it. Only a small percentage of products and services are super spectacular. Most products are so-so. A few are poor. You can’t make a living as a freelance copywriter writing copy only for the top 1% of products.

In fact, this is one of the reasons companies need your services. It’s your job to find the USP (unique selling proposition) about a product and write copy that persuades, motivates, and sells. If the product doesn’t have a true selling difference that makes it unique, get creative and make up something.

I don’t mean you should lie. I mean find a point of difference. Is it the first of something? The best selling? Has it been featured in a well-known magazine? Is it used by a well-known company? Is there a feature it has that others have but that other companies don’t talk about? For example, any oat cereal is “heart healthy,” but Cheerios was the first to slap a big heart graphic on the box and make it a selling point.

If the offer sucks:
Usually the client determines the offer. But good copywriters should give advice to make the offer better, since this will directly affect the success of any promotion. You probably won’t be able to change the pricing or internal processes related to selling, but you can suggest good ways to present the offer. I created a list of proven offers for this very reason.

No guarantee or a bad guarantee? That’s another area where you can suggest improvements in the offer. Some clients are afraid that a 100% satisfaction guarantee, or any strong guarantee, will lead to getting high returns or being taken advantage of. This is seldom true if the product claims are true. A good guarantee almost always boosts sales, so press the client on this issue.

If the contact sucks:
This is no fun. But don’t panic.

If the contact is disorganized, create a clear structure for the project work flow and take the lead in moving through the project step-by-step. I write up a schedule and a to-do list for contacts who need a little help.

If the contact is stupid, educate them. Take control of the project and tell them what you’re doing and why. Often, if you just explain your process and reasoning, things work out.

If the contact is hard to reach, get a cell number, home email, and a secondary contact or assistant you can work with. These sort of contacts are usually busy and will greatly appreciate it if you find ways to keep the project moving.

If the contact is a control freak, you’re in for a bumpy ride, but you can survive. They need you to do the work, but can’t let go of the reins. Keep your ego in check and roll with the punches. Generally a control freak will want you to do things their way. All you can do is explain what you’re doing and make a case for your methods. Make the case once, then do what the contact wants, finish the project, and move on.

If the contact is fickle, that means things will change throughout the project and you’ll feel jerked around. You’ll also find yourself putting in extra time as you try to keep up. When you see this happening, explain that you are happy to do anything the contact wants, but it will affect the fee.

Be specific up front about what you agree to do and the cost. Or you can just work hourly and enjoy all the changes, since this will jack up your invoice (just be sure to keep the contact informed about how the price is rising.)

If the contact is a jerk, well, good luck. Frankly there’s nothing you can do about it. Do the best you can and decide whether you ever want to work with that person again.

If the project sucks:
For tight deadlines, charge a “rush” fee. Or, if it’s a desirable client, meet the deadline and be a hero. You can score big points by delivering quickly. Just make it clear you can’t do this on every project.

For products or services that you don’t know anything about, suck it up and do some research. This is part of what being a pro copywriter is all about: getting up to speed quickly on anything you have to write about.

For unfamiliar formats or media, find a good sample and use it as a template to write your copy. For example, if you’ve never written a sales letter, find a good one, see how it’s structured, and write your letter with the same structure.

For low-budget projects, don’t gripe about the pay. If you accept the project, do your best and be a professional. You can mention that the fee is lower than normal, but don’t be a nag. Maybe you can get more next time. Or maybe you need to seek higher-paying clients.

For uncomfortable working conditions, such as having to work at the company’s office or following a rigid corporate writing and review process, explain that you have a simpler or better way to accomplish the work.

For example, sometimes people want me to travel and meet with them as if airline tickets, rental cars, and one or two days of my time is worth nothing. I simply tell them I charge (a lot) for meetings. Besides, there’s nothing I can do at a meeting that I can’t do over the phone.

Sometimes you have to adapt to the company’s way of doing things, but don’t get sucked into a situation that will prevent you from doing good work for fair pay.

No one likes to work with clients that suck. But it’s going to happen. Be prepared. It won’t be the end of the world.

If you’re a freelance copywriter, what have you been through that sucks and how did you deal with it?

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Smart Comments

6 Comments on The freelance guide to working with clients that SUCK

    [...] The freelance guide to working with clients that SUCK [...]

  1. Charles Cuninghame on Apr 26th, 2011 10:42 pm
  2. After a few bad experiences, I’ve realised that if my intuition tells me this is a sucky client, it’s better to let them go. It can be hard if you don’t have any other work on. But by turning down sucky clients you’re making way for better clients. If you choose to take on a sucky client than you’ve just gotta grin and bear it and be a professional.

    [...] posted an excellent article about how to deal with freelance clients that suck. In the post, he’s clear that we, as freelancers, have to adjust our attitude to make clients [...]

  3. Kendra Francesco on May 23rd, 2011 11:23 pm
  4. My first experience kind of fell in my lap. I’d given a gentle critique of an autoresponse email, and made suggestions to make it better. She asked me if I wanted to work on them. Of course, I said, “Yes.”

    I should have known she wouldn’t be easy to work with when I was immediately presented with a non-disclosure, non-compete agreement, AND a requirement for my work schedule, AND a requirement that I had to tell her every day what I’d done on her stuff. (Since she never paid me a dime, I know the non-compete won’t hold up in any court.)

    I lasted four months under her “care.”

    I’m in the process of putting together a website and she WON’T be part of my samples.

  5. Dean Rieck on May 24th, 2011 12:46 pm
  6. Kendra:
    Signing a non-disclosure is not out of the ordinary. However, as a freelancer, clients cannot dictate your schedule and you should have never signed a non-compete. Four months without pay? Get some money up-front next time and have the client sign *your* contract.

    You’ve learned a lot of hard lessons all at once. Maybe this will turn out to be a good thing in the long run.

  7. Kendra Francesco on May 24th, 2011 7:22 pm
  8. Well, it’s a slew of lessons I won’t forget in a hurry! LOL

    30+ years in retail taught me that she couldn’t be the norm. She’d be one of those customers to whom I’d simply “smile and nod” and go do what I was hired for. In other words, she didn’t turn me off of writing for a living. If nothing else, it proved I could write in spite of any client’s attitude.