I once had a client that blamed me, their PR, for losing them a multi-million dollar deal.
I wish I’d paid attention to the red flags when I signed them.
The micro-management, the constant questioning, and pushing me on coverage when I’d already told them that results would be slow in traditional PR thanks to magazine lead times.
Then, when they landed a big business deal and I told them it wasn’t a good idea to announce the new partnership without agreement from their client, they told me to go ahead anyway.
I asked if they were sure.
They said: It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Obviously it all blew up in their faces when I placed the news in multiple national newspapers. They lost the deal and told me it was my fault for not advising them properly.
I quit, which was a big move considering the project was about 80% of my income at the time.
The money was nice for the six months I stuck with them but the knock to my confidence, the constant stress, and having to pass on nicer clients to manage this workload, was absolutely not worth it.
So if you’re faced with a big project, a new client, or a simple enquiry, don’t ignore the warning signs as I did. Here’s what you should look out for.
I’m very firm on my pricing and anyone who asks for a discount is basically telling me: ‘I don’t think you’re worth that.’
But, there are some other reasons people haggle and being able to tell the difference between a client who doesn’t think you’re worth your day rate and one who can’t afford you but desperately wants to work with you is really important.
Those that haggle because they’re trying to get a good deal are less likely to respect you, your expertise, and the value you provide in the future.
Those that haggle because they really want to work with you might make great clients but you need to be firm with them.
Whether or not you discount is up to you but be very aware of the language these people use and judge whether the money will be worth it in the long run.
A client who will be a pain will likely say something like:
- This all sounds good but can you provide a discount?
- We were hoping to get this for under X.
- This is way more than we were looking to pay, can you do it for X?
- I’m not sure this should cost that much. What about X?
- We normally pay [Terrible Rate] for this kind of work.
Stick to your guns and if you do need to discount, make sure you include a trial period in your contract so you can either ditch the client if they’re difficult to work with, or you can put up your prices.
Don’t get me wrong, good communication is important but there are some people out there who love unnecessary calls and meetings.
Be wary of those who ask if you can hop on a quick call without notice. These calls are rarely quick and you set a dangerous precedent for the future of your relationship with this client.
If you are free and the call is necessary, set a specific time slot for the call and be sure to show your client that you are not free at their every whim.
Setting boundaries like this at the beginning of a relationship is so important. If the client doesn’t like this or feels they should be able to call you whenever they like (and aren’t paying for that privilege), they’ll probably end up taking up a lot of your time.
There’s often no smoke without fire. If you’ve heard bad things about a person or company, it’s likely some of it is true.
Look to people you trust to get their opinions on a situation or potential new partnership.
If you’re really unsure and have no one to turn to, do a little research, ask around in some Facebook groups. Or, of course, go back to the person you heard the bad things from.
You ask a question and a client comes back talking about everything else beyond the specific thing you needed.
This isn’t always a sign of bad will. Some people just move at such a blistering rate that they don’t cover everything that needs to be covered in an email (these people also quite like phonecalls).
While someone being cagey might be a sign they are trying to rip you off, that’s not always the case. However, these people are still difficult to work with because you’ll find yourself asking questions that will go unanswered. This means you might not be able to move forward with a project when you want to.
Follow your gut instinct here. If something feels like a scam, it probably is. And even if the client is just going to be tough to work with, ask yourself if it’s worth it.
Some clients are just downright rude and you don’t deserve that. If someone can’t respect you, they don’t deserve to work with you.
I’ve been quite vocal about people working for free in the past. In fact, I have a whole module on it in my motorsport journalism course. It’s not always a bad thing but look for signs of exploitation within the clear interest in your skills.
In many industries, you might be asked to complete an unpaid test or piece of work. It might be a writing or editing test, mocking up a logo idea before you’re commissioned, or perhap writing a detailed proposal document.
Not all companies are malicious when it comes to asking someone to complete an unpaid test ahead of securing the work but if you’re a professional who is doing any kind of work, you should be paid for it. Paid tests are fine and a great indicator of whether you can work together.
It’s up to you whether you take on an unpaid test but just be aware that the client might be a little tricky to work with if they didn’t value your work enough to pay you at this early stage.
Some of my clients will leave me to do my thing and are happy as long as they see the results rolling in. Others want to know what I’m doing every step of the way.
The aforementioned pain-in-the-arse client wanted a list of every journalist I was emailing and the exact pitch I was sending each one. As a freelancer, I wasn’t going to give them that kind of information (not to mention the data protection implications!).
Look out for signs of micromanagement. You can help to calm down a client who likes to be in control through regular communication but you need to ensure you’re being paid for your time doing this extra work.
A trial period written into your contracts is always a good idea because it means you have the grounds to adjust your prices if the work proves to be more than you initially thought.
Look out for clients who ask for endless reports and updates, don’t let you make decisions, and complain constantly.
Crappy clients come in all shapes and sizes as well as in varying levels. For the right money, you might be able to put up with some of this. And sometimes, you’ll make a judgement call based on an attractive paycheck and end up regretting it (been there!).
Go with your gut but make sure you’re able to set expectations and establish boundaries with your clients as it’ll make life easier in the long run.