Whole libraries have been written on the subject of speaking to a member of the opposite (or same, or other – it is 2016, after all) sex, but precious little covers how we, as freelancers, should chat up our source of income if things start to go sideways. Realistically, we’re also all competing with one another for work, so cards are held pretty close to the vest. It’s not easy to peek at what others are doing in real time to mimic, as you might in other industries.
So what now? Wing it? That’s what most fledgling freelancers are forced to do, in the absence of clear instruction. More established writers have uncovered the trip wires and learned to see the red flags on a problem client from miles away, but those skills were probably dearly learned. I feel that the “new blood” in freelancing needs guidance on this, even if it’s at the cost of a smaller work pool. Why? Well, because it isn’t just about educating them – it’s about empowering them and bringing them into the fold to stand firm against industry-wide issues like scope creep, which affects every writer regardless of skill level.
Here are my “three truths,” to dealing with potential “red flag” clients, fledgling writers:
1.) Clients will test you. This means that they will often try to get something for nothing, more for little, or everything for a fair amount. The trick here is to master being a willow tree in a sea of oak trees – that is, firmly rooted but willing to bend a bit when it suits your needs. Don’t agree to take on non-writing tasks like backlinking, image-gathering or distributing press releases unless you’re being paid accordingly – these are not typically part and parcel of a writing job, and they certainly shouldn’t be free. If client-requested “edits” are sounding more like “additions” that are going to take you beyond your maximum paid-for word counts, ask politely if they’d like to increase the word count (and pay!) or have you remove some previously-written work from the piece instead. Now, they don’t want to lose work of course, they wanted the new stuff for free, but this is a polite way of acknowledging that you know what they might be up to and stopping it before it has a chance to manifest.
2.) Set the rules of engagement before they do it for you. Unless you’re being paid a staggering amount of money, you are not on call 24/7, so don’t be afraid to set time and communication boundaries. It’s reasonable to expect that you are available 9-5 Monday through Friday in your home time zone, it is not reasonable to expect you’re available at 11:30 pm on a Saturday unless it was previously discussed and agreed upon. Never give a new client your home phone or cell phone, because rest assured they will use it – and use it, and use it. Keeping things confined to email or Skype gives you some measure of control over when and where your client contacts you, and that is important for setting boundaries. If a call is absolutely necessary, offer to call them and frame it as a service benefit – “I would be happy to call you to save you the trouble, what time and number is best to reach you?”
3.) Don’t let them use price or volume as a dangling carrot. Remember that, in freelancing, promises of “more work,” “ongoing higher pay work” or “bonuses” aren’t worth the digital non-paper they’re printed on. A lot of clients will use this tactic on newbie writers to get really great work out of them….once. You work hard, turn in a great article, and wait. And wait. No bonuses, the client is MIA, and there’s no work in sight. All of a sudden, that above-and-beyond effort for that “carrot” was actually for a run-of-the-mill one-off article with average pay, or worse, lower pay. As I’ve mentioned in the Freelance Writer Guide, even new writers should not agree to less than .01 / word – $1 for 100 words needs to be the floor when it comes to fluent English writing. Don’t accept less…a reputable client that actually has fairly-priced work for you will not ask you to work for less than a penny a word, even on a “trial” basis.
Let me be clear: most of the clients you’re working for will be agencies and middlemen, and any promise of “exposure” is hollow or a flat-out lie. If they are an agency or a middleman, they aren’t authorized to allow you to stick the end client’s name or the work you’ve done for them in your portfolio.
If you enter into every project with an (polite!) attitude of self-worth, clear boundaries and a firm price in mind for your efforts, you’ll be able to avoid a lot of problem clients – the most egregious/abusive individuals in the bad client roster are looking for an easy, too-eager pushover they can exploit, not someone that knows what their work is worth.