Photography: J. Star
Running a freelance business is like being continually unemployed. You might have a full schedule, you might have all the work you need right now, but you never know what tomorrow will bring and if you want to keep your career moving forward you need to bring in new clients all the time. That means being alert for interesting opportunities, persuading people to give you work, and starting new jobs on a regular basis. And like anyone starting a new job, you get the thrill of being chosen — and sometimes the horror of discovering you made a bad choice when you accepted the gig.
Just as some bosses are sweet and supportive while others are spiteful and slave-driving so some clients turn out to be less than the freelancer hoped. And just as it’s difficult to spot a bad job when you fill in the application form and even harder to leave once you’ve got your feet under the desk so it’s not always easy to spot a bad client before you take him or her on, then walk away once you’re counting the billable hours. There are though a few signs that a client is going to be more of a pain than a pleasure — and one great way of heading for the door.
The worst kinds of clients, of course, are those that don’t pay. But they’re also the smallest problems. Smart freelancers make sure that large projects for new clients are divided by milestones, with one payment up front and others paid out during the course of a project. Failure to cough up on time means that work stops and while some time will have been lost, the damages are restricted. In effect, the client is dumped until he stumps up the next installment — and is likely to be dropped at the end of the project anyway. Arguments over money owed always cause enough bad feeling for both sides to want distance.
Sweating the Small Stuff
More subtle are clients who negotiate over small amounts. If the best clients are those who understand the value of your work and accept your rates without a quibble, among the worst clients are those who assume that any quote is up for negotiation. There’s always room for flexibility when the project is big and interesting enough but when a new client starts asking for a discount for work that amounts to no more than a few hours a month, that’s a sure sign that you’re going to be spending as much time talking about the work as you’ll spend doing it. When that happens, you’re taking on a client for free.
It’s not just the pay a small client can create big fights about though. They can also make outsized demands, submitting a request on Friday afternoon, for example, and expecting the work to be ready by Monday morning. Big clients get to make big demands — especially when they only do it occasionally — but small clients who make demands bigger than their budget are another kind that freelancers really want to avoid.
Expecting priority (over other clients, over family, over sleep…) is common enough among bad clients but even more common is mission creep, when the agreed parameters of a new project suddenly start expanding. It usually begins with something small — so small it’s not really worth charging for — like adding a banner to a large website or producing a logo in a different color. Slowly though, those small extras start to grow. Soon, the freelancer is being asked to add more pages or change the design of the logo, and because she didn’t charge for it the first time, it’s hard to charge the second time — and even harder the third time.
When the mission creeps sideways like that, it’s not long before a significant portion of the day is lost to work that doesn’t appear on the invoice.
Mission Creepers Aren’t Bad Clients
Mission creep alone though isn’t necessarily a sign of a bad client. It’s a sign of bad planning. The freelancer can squish the problem by listing the work on the bill once the time becomes meaningful. A bad client is one who then argues about it, protesting that the price wasn’t quoted in advance, or worse, assuming that the extra was a freebie and that he wasn’t going to be charged for it at all. That’s a sign of one of the worst kinds of client: someone who believes the freelancer is working for him only because he likes him, because he enjoys the work and because, like him, he wants the venture to succeed. Freelancers should like their clients, enjoy the work and look forward to seeing the venture they’re helping to create go on to conquer the world — but they work because they need the money and good clients recognize that.
The worst kinds of bad clients though are those who are the hardest to spot, and that’s true of clients who suddenly go silent for long periods of time. As a freelancer, you’ll clear your schedule, count the money and get ready for a couple of months of reliable work only to find that the project you thought was in the bag has effectively been put on hold. You won’t be told it’s been put on hold, only that they’re doing market research or talking to the marketing team or finishing up another project, and that they’ll be back in touch next week. Then they disappear and you’re left wondering whether you can take on another job or wait for that client to come back. The lack of reliability alone should tell what you need to do: what you should always do when you realize you’ve spotted a bad client…
Get busy enough to say “no” when the bad client returns — the best way to dump the worst of them. Of course, that means bringing in new clients, and trying to spot the signs that they’re bad ones.