Many people freelance. There are freelance artists, freelance illustrators, freelance graphic designers, freelance writers, freelance editors, freelance musicians, and even freelance llama trainers. No matter what you do (and, I think, often for creative types the pull to dip their toes into more than one field is very strong), you’ll have met THEM… the clients from HELL. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, or how much you are charging. There are some terrible people in this world, and there are some people who are just terrible to work with. And, no matter what it is that you do, these hellspawn clients will continuously crawl out of the woodwork, armed with unreasonable demands and illogical expectations – often at the worst possible times. So, here’s five types of Hell-born clients you’ll encounter in your freelancing endeavors… and what you should do when you’ve got one on your hands.
Once upon a time, I was looking for new clients, and came across a listing on Craigslist that sounded perfect. A relatively new website wanted someone to blog about current TV shows on a regular basis – and they were willing to pay! In actual valid currency! I was excited, so of course I fired off an email and got a response back within the hour. Imagine my surprise when I found out what the site’s pay rate was – a great big $5 per 5 1000-word posts, on a gift card from the store of my choice. As you can imagine, I was very happy to decline that particular offer and to never look at that site again.
The Cheapskate Client is probably the most common and the most annoying type. I mean, sure, we’re in a recession, and everyone needs to save money, but this one is extreme. There’s some that start out expecting you to do an exorbitant amount of work at hourly rates that would make a child laborer from an impoverished third world country want to decline the project. There’s some that demand discounts on top of discounts on top of discounts – these make me particularly glad I don’t offer coupons. There’s some that will lowball you like a bargain hunter at a flea market. And, there’s some that expect you to just do things for them for “royalties received upon completion” or, worse yet, “exposure.”
For example, just last week, I received an email from an individual I’ll call Damon*. Damon was looking for someone to maintain his online presence as he had released his first ebook a year ago, and still had no sales. He needed someone to update his blog – daily. Also, he needed someone to set that blog up. He needed someone to tweet for him, post to Facebook for him, design graphics for him, and maybe also wipe the sweat off his brow and fan him gently with a palm frond (I’m not sure about the latter). Also, he needed someone to edit a book too, and he wanted one person to do ALL of those things.
When I quoted Damon a price, he became outraged. “I was hoping you’d do it for royalties on my book!” he announced. “That price is ridiculous! No one would pay that!” Unfortunately, for Damon, I was not born yesterday, and know how much my time costs, more or less. I also know that a beginner author with virtually no social media presence, blog, website, or fan following would net me a grand total of zip, zilch, and nada. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills… especially if the only audience I’d be exposed to is that person’s mother.
When you have a cheapskate on your hands, best thing to do is just walk away. No matter how exciting or compelling the subject matter might seem, it’s not worth it. Do you want to slave away over 5,000 words just to end up with a five dollar gift card afterwards? Do you want to illustrate a menu for a friend of a friend of a friend of your aunt for free just because “she’s a friend of your family and it’s ONLY a couple drawings, it won’t take you that long, why are you so greedy?” Do you want to design an album cover for that rapper off Craigslist who carries a Gucci purse but wants to pay you in “exposure”? Do you want to work for hours and hours on a complicated project for a demanding client, only to do the math afterwards and find that you’ve made about half of what the minimum wage in your state is? Just walk away. These individuals will bring you nothing.
Last month, a woman named Alli* contacted me about some blogging work for her site. She seemed pleasant enough; however, she did not seem to know even the basics of what she needed to have done! She didn’t know if her website designer had set up a blog on her website for her, she didn’t know how often she wanted to update her blog, and she most certainly didn’t know whether she’d ever made a G+ or a Twitter for her business. She kept asking me what did I think she should do – mind you, this is before I’d even quoted her any price! I ended up passing up on her as a client, as working for those who are clueless tends to be very, very frustrating.
The Clueless Ones are nearly as prevalent as those who expect you to work for “exposure” (and, in fact, sometimes the two overlap as the Clueless Ones really have no idea how much your work is worth or how much effort it takes). The Clueless Ones don’t know what they need, what they want, what they are looking for, what their purpose in life is, or what they should have for breakfast tomorrow. They want to hire you because whatever it is that you do, they’ve read somewhere that it’s something they should have – even if they have no idea what, exactly, it is they’re looking for! Sometimes, you will walk away from an encounter with a Clueless One feeling as if the client had mistaken your freelancing service for a psychic hotline!
To make sure I’m not ending up with a Clueless One on my hands, I tend to ask my prospective clients a lot of questions about what it is they want, unless I know them (and the extent of their knowledge) very well already. Since there are still many people who are not familiar with illustration, graphic design, writing, or llama training, it is likely that 90% of your clients will be, on some level, ignorant about at least SOME things that go into making whatever it is that you make, or whatever it is that they need. However, the Clueless Ones take the levels of their ignorance to an extreme. Sometimes, if you have free time, not many other clients, and the patience of a canonized saint, it’s worth it to take a Clueless One on, lead them by the hand through the process of things they need to have that you can provide, and make some money at the end of the day. After plenty of attention, explaining, watering and at least five hours of sunshine a day, the Clueless One may possibly blossom into a loyal and paying client. However, I’ve found that in most cases, a Clueless One amounts to way more work than they’re worth. If you have better prospects ahead, it may be worth it to avoid this type of client.
A friend of mine who is new to freelancing recently encountered one of these types. A gentleman contacted her about illustrations for a short children’s book, and she was very enthusiastic about the project. However, weeks later, she came to me looking for advice, as the client had not paid up. Trusting him to do the right thing, she agreed to send the completed illustrations over to him before he’d paid her; she had not taken a down payment, there was no contract, there were no invoices. She’d spent hours working on this project, and it was all for nothing. I didn’t know what to tell her.
The frustrating part is that a great number of people are dishonest and unscrupulous, sometimes on a level that would make a Disney villain sniff in disdain. The Dirtbag Client will often try to take advantage of a freelancer’s ignorance, inexperience or difficult financial situation to take advantage of them. These are the people who ask you to illustrate a lengthy ebook for $200, or to design a website for $5/hour. These are the people who don’t give you a contract, or rush you to sign a disadvantageous one without giving you time to read it. These are the people who aren’t going to pay you what you deserve – or, like in my friend’s case, possibly not pay you at all.
It’s hard to tell when a client who seems perfectly normal will suddenly pull a heel turn and become a Dirtbag Client, because sometimes that change comes on faster than it would on Monday Night Raw. So, to protect yourself and your business, always have a contract with your payment terms outlined. Protect yourself. If you see suspicious signs or activity around the prospective client, do not ignore your instincts. Many people will try to take advantage of you if they think they can get away with it, and unfortunately, the only real way to minimize the risk of getting screwed by a Dirtbag Client is to have a contract outlining the agreements, and watch each move very, very carefully. Sadly, this still might not be enough – you may still find yourself a victim.
A couple of times, I’ve found myself working for people who, to put it bluntly, were quite snobby. They didn’t ask if something was possible or doable – they demanded it be done, and done NOW, no please or thank you very much. They didn’t take “no, this is not possible” for an answer – after all, they’re the CLIENT and the CLIENT IS ALWAYS RIGHT YOU IGNORANT PEON I AM PAYING YOUR WAGES RIGHT NOW HOW DARE YOU TELL ME NO.
No, no, no. The client is not always right. The Elitist Client, especially, is rarely right. They scrutinize everything you produce for them, complain that you’re doing it wrong (even if it was exactly to their specifications) and ask you to do it again – for free, of course, and how dare you ask for additional pay for the hours you’ll have to put in fixing it after you’ve already done it not right once! The Elitist Client is entitled, rude, talks to you as if you are a slave they own and not a company they are purchasing a service from, and expect their every whim to be catered to. They don’t take no for an answer, and they don’t seem to understand that you have a schedule, a life outside of your job, or other clients whose projects you need to finish too.
When you find yourself burdened with a specimen of the Elitist Client, the best thing to do is to sever the working relationship, or to avoid taking them on entirely. In a perfect world, we’d be able to tell a rude and entitled client to their face just how rude and entitled they are; however, this is not a perfect world and doing so would just result in pain, more pain, and possibly a great deal of suffering. Unfortunately, sometimes it is impossible to just get rid of a client, especially if they pay well (although I’ve found that generally, the Elitist Client doesn’t). If, for some reason, the Elitist Client is one of your main moneymakers, you may have no other option than to grin, bear it, and angrily shred paper after each encounter – and, of course, seek out other clients. Now.
Just last Thursday, a prospective client sent me an email. “How much do you charge?” she asked. It would have been a reasonable question, had she explained what she was looking for, or what the parameters of the task at hand were. Sadly, her entire communiqué was just that one single sentence. Though I already felt my freelancer Spidey senses tingling, I sent her back an email, inquiring what the project was, what she was looking to have done, how often, and what her budget was. Her response was as laconic as her initial email – “I need help with a blog.” Overall, not a promising start. It’s like, you wanna get that stuff done for you? Or nah?
At first glance, the Silent One and the Clueless One might seem very, very alike. Both are terrible at telling you what they need you to do, don’t seem to know what they’re looking for, and are perhaps not the best at explaining to you what the finished work should look like. In a contrast to the Clueless Ones, the Silent Ones may or may not know what they’re looking for – it’s hard to tell for sure. They tend to give you minimal information about the project, which may not be enough to base a price quote on. They’ll understate the amount of work that needs to be done. They’ll not cite a budget. They’ll cause you endless headaches and force you to send thousands of emails as you attempt to clarify what, exactly, they want.
The Silent Ones seem to use email like a chat app, with longer pauses between messages. They don’t give you much information, and if you take on their project, they don’t get any more communicative. They might miss out on sending you essential information that you NEED to finish the project. They might not reply to you for hours despite you being on a tight deadline. They might not reply to you at all when it comes time for them to pay up.
To be honest, there’s nothing you can do about the Silent Ones, not really. Sometimes, their laconic tendencies tend to stem from being uncomfortable with communicating via the internet – I’d say about 70% of my Silent Ones were older persons who still used AOL for their personal email addresses. There are also those who are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with written communication in general. In those cases, I really recommend meeting with these clients in person if geography allows, or arranging a phone call or video chat session. Talking to them, and letting them hear your voice will often reassure the Silent Ones that you are here to help them and that you really do exist, somewhere out there, possibly doing work for them. It’ll cut down on time spent waiting for them to reply to your latest email, too. If, however, they seem to be allergic to communication even when face to face meetings, phones and video chats are brought in, it might be in your best interests to become allergic to them.
Of course, these types of clients aren’t the only ones to exist. Sometimes a client can be a hybrid hellbeast consisting of two or more of the above types. Sometimes, they’re a brand new nightmare entirely. What are some of your most memorable encounters with clients from hell? How much suffering did you go through? How much do you regret your life choices? Tell us in the comments, so we can huddle together and share stories of our suffering.
*Real names of individuals and businesses changed to protect the not so innocent.