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I Don’t Want These Clients!

A writer buddy of mine called the other day to discuss a possible new client. She was feeling uneasy and by the time she described her interactions with him I could see why. I got to thinking about the kinds of clients I turn down. They include:

  • Clients who won’t or can’t even come close to my price. One of the hardest lessons for me to learn was my own value as a writer. I know what I bring to the project and I know I’m worth it. I do try to leave this person with both a reality check and some suggestions, but that’s just to make me feel good.
  • Those who offer percentages only or expect deep discounts for percentages, or free workshops, etc. I’ve never really won on participation deals. The jury is still out on one – at least that book did make it to a publisher. I’m taking a small percentage of another because I’ve seen the marketing plan and believe the author can implement it effectively. We’ll see. In both cases, however, I didn’t work for free. In fact I charged enough so if I don’t make another nickel I won’t feel I should have charged more. I understand the risk.
  • Clients who have a belief system radically different from mine. Since to do a decent job ghostwriting I have to duplicate the person who hires me, if we see the world in largely different ways, I can’t make it work. I don’t mean we have to see eye to eye on everything. But there has to be enough commonality so we can work well together, not distracted by outside issues.
  • Those who have impossible deadlines. I probably can’t complete a book in 30 days, not a good one anyway. As a ghostwriter I know that just getting the material passed back and forth between us adds time.
  • No deadline at all is, in my experience, also a major warning sign. Over time I’ve been surprised at how many people will invest thousands of dollars yet drop the project before we’re finished. I now look for people who have some determination and a firm timeline.

  • High maintenance clients. These can be hard to spot in advance; clues include an insistence on instant messaging, a demand for my cell phone number, their feeling we have to meet face to face for several hours a week, the assumptions I’ll work weekends and take calls at dinner time.
  • Any potential client that causes me an uneasy gut feeling, or a sense I probably don’t want to work with them. I’ve come to trust my intuition. I’ve learned that by seeing the messy results when I don’t.

What I want is a relationship with my clients where we both feel good about the project when it’s done. Screening clients helps me develop clients just like that.

You may also want to read: Saying No To A Writing Client

How do you screen clients?


Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Hi Anne –

    Great tips. I’ve missed the warning signs of a high-maintenance client a few too many times, and I just learned how to spot them recently. My problem with that is thinking, “What if I’m wrong? I’m going to lose money…”

    One I’d like to add is the client who refuses to understand you’re working in his best interest; for example, if he runs an IT staffing company and hires you for web content, but doesn’t want “IT staffing” as a keyword – instead, he wants to try to pirate Microsoft’s traffic (yeah, right) by using the names of their software products 51 times in a 500-word document for his “About Us” page.

    (This recently happened to me.)

    I told this gentleman that it wouldn’t be good for him to do this, because I know my stuff – and he said, “Ok, I understand. Use these keywords…” He gave me different Microsoft products. I tried again (this was over a couple days) and he said, finally, “OH! I get what you’re saying. Yes, yes, do it that way!”

    I did. I worked about six hours on his project – he needed around 20 pages of web content.

    He called me immediately after I sent it. “This isn’t saying what I need it to say – it’s all about IT staffing and there are only a few mentions of *crazy keyword that never gets searched.*”

    I had to walk away. I wish I’d known the project would go sour – and I refunded his 50% deposit because it was really substantial and I didn’t want to deal with whatever mess would come out of it… even though my contract stated that the 50% was a non-refundable kill fee. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have refunded it… anyway –

    I rambled, and I’m sorry. I really just wanted to thank you for this post. 🙂

    • Anne

      Rambles allowed… and you’re right… if you worry too much you’ll lose money you’ll end up with even less.

  • That’s a nice list. Can I add two? They would be the ones who won’t get back to you on things, including when you’re supposed to be getting paid, and the ones who decide they want to edit lines all the time that say the same thing you’ve said, then tell you they want you to think like they do when you really don’t know them to even have the possibility of trying. To me, go ahead and edit, but I’m not Kreskin!
    .-= Mitch´s last blog ..Are You A Lurker Or Participant In Life? =-.

    • Anne

      Good ones, yes to both. Contracts or letters of agreement help, but if they are jerks, they are jerks.

  • Thanks for the great post. I run screaming when I sense a high maintenance client, though sometimes they can sneak up on you. My biggest problem is charging what I’m worth. I’ve raised my rates, but I’m still not sure they are high enough. I often quote my price and then cringe while I wait for the reaction, but really, I’ve never had anyone tell me I’m too expensive. So this is one of the things I need to work on in the new decade.
    .-= Charlotte Rains Dixon´s last blog ..The Benefits of Not Writing Daily =-.

    • Anne

      Charlotte, I would say if no one has complained you’re too expensive you need to raise your rates another notch. OTOH, if you’re making what you need and you’ve got some left over for fun and investment, that’s also fine.

  • Great post! I’ve had some of these clients already. What I’ve learned is definitely to trust your instincts. I think if I had done that sooner, I would have spared myself the pain of ending with a emotionally abusive client. At the same time, I’m finding it difficult to turn down jobs when there is little coming in. Can you afford to be picky when you don’t have a lot of jobs to pick from?
    .-= Brandi´s last blog ..What To Do While You’re Waiting For The Other Shoe to Drop =-.

    • Anne

      Brandi, it’s a balancing act. I think you’ve always got to be willing to turn down work you know is wrong for you for whatever reason. Takes faith I know.

      • I like how Peter Bowerman put it – negotiating with a potential client is the Battle of Who Could Care Less.
        .-= Mark Keating´s last blog ..Dell steps up green wars with bamboo boxes | Electronista =-.

        • Anne

          lol, yes, although I don’t like the battle metaphor much, but I take the meaning and that’s more or less where I’ve learned to negotiate from… but it is a learning… another post coming on. First the questions.

  • Right on Anne — I just recently had an interesting sounding prospect I was in initial talks with…but I dropped them like a rock when they called me at 8 pm wanting to chat further. If they’re like that before we even have a contract, what will they be like once they’re paying me? No thanks!

    Carol Tice
    .-= Carol Tice´s last blog ..Guest blogger: Bob Howells – Tie Up Some Packages =-.

    • Anne

      I think living on the left coast means I have less of that… maybe not.

  • Mark – I agree with your excellent point regarding deadlines. Sometimes, clients are unfamiliar with how long it might take to produce a certain amount of writing – after all, they may be hiring a professional because it’s not something they are comfortable doing themselves.

    If a deadline seems like it might not work out in terms of the project workload and expectations, then asking the question you suggested is a great way to break the ice and get conversation moving towards understanding the nature of the proposed deadline and whether it can be pushed back in order to produce the highest quality work possible.
    .-= Benjamin Hunting´s last blog ..Two Decades Of Sloan Draws Near =-.

  • Anne:

    I don’t want those clients either!

    Part of the joy of freelancing is the wherewithal to be selective about the clients I engage. In fact, part of the reason I became a freelancer was because the political consulting firm I worked for took on a number of clients that fit several of your categories above. And yet, I was expected to do my best work for them. I kept having visions of Mike Doonesbury – not that I ever worked for anyone as reprehensible as Mr. Butts.

    I would endorse your caution about “gut feelings,” with one caution. The early interactions with any potential new client are emotionally charged moments. When emotions may be filtering or interfering with what is actually being said, it is especially important to strive for clarity. Asking a “dumb question” at these times can ease some of that tension and hopefully give a greater understanding of the client’s actual motivation. For instance, with regard to the 30 day deadline: “I can appreciate the need for reasonable deadlines, and I will do everything in my power to accommodate yours. May I ask, other than timeliness, is there a particular reason the manuscript needs to be completed by X date?”

    It may be that the client is just inexperienced in this regard, in which case setting up a schedule of benchmarks to which both parties agree can be helpful. Or it may be that the client has another activity that requires the project to be completed by that date. In this case, I would honestly assess my ability to deliver under that conditions, and if I wasn’t 100% sure I would decline the work. On the other hand, if I felt I could do it, I would definitely charge more than my usual rate for it.

    If your “gut feeling” is still sending alarm signals, listen to it – but use the “dumb question” technique for corroboration. For example: “Mr. Customer, forgive me if I’m off base here, but I can’t help thinking of a similar situation that came up last year for another client. I juggled other commitments to meet that deadline, which negatively affected several other clients. If I tell you that I can meet your deadline, and all your other requirements, are you saying that I definitely have the job and you’re ready to get started immediately?” Again, if it was me, I probably wouldn’t take the job – but again, if I did I would definitely charge for that “added value,” and insist on payment in advance as well. If the client isn’t ready to commit, you shouldn’t either!

    I think a lot of freelance writers trap themselves by thinking that they have to do everything they can to land every potential client. Not true. As you point out, not every client will be a good fit. Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton both hired ghostwriters for their autobiographies, but I doubt anyone would agree that those two writers are interchangeable. There are good clients out there, and every “suspect” eliminated from the “prospect” list means you’re one step closer to finding one.


    • Anne

      Well said, Mark. Maybe I’ll do a whole post on the kinds of questions to ask… I like yours except I’m way more informal – more like “why is that date important?” And yes, if I think I can do it in a hurry I will charge more.

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