Also: Tips for how to dump ’em!
When you’ve been freelancing as long as I have (20+ years and counting!), you hear a lot of stories about lousy clients. Clients who never pay on time, who demand attention at all hours of the day and on weekends, clients who’re borderline abusive, and clients who blur the line between the personal and the professional.
We all understand that these are not tenable, long-term relationships. However, if you repeatedly find yourself in business relationships with bad clients, it’s important to consider where you might be ignoring red flags, what you’re signaling that’s attracting them in, and why it’s taking you so long to let them go.
And then you need to take immediate steps to fix that.
So, why do good writers bring in lousy clients? Here are some common reasons.
The Problem: You have no confidence
One of the most obvious reasons freelancers allow themselves to be treated shabbily by their clients is a distinct lack of confidence. This is especially common among newer freelancers who’re worried about speaking up when they’re being taken advantage of, either because they believe that most clients operate this way or because they’re afraid of losing the client—and the income.
Speak up. Put your foot down. If your client is late in paying you, let them know you won’t be doing any further work for them until that bill is cleared. If they’re calling you late at night or on weekends, let it go to voicemail or tell them you’re not available after business hours.
Set your limits and stick to them.
This is your business and if you don’t set boundaries, you’re not only likely to have a miserable experience, but your business may suffer financially as a result.
The Problem: You don’t know your options
The idea that there’s nothing better out there, that the going rate for blog posts is $50, or that there aren’t any publications that pay $1 a word anymore, is what keeps you tied down to that low-paying gig.
You either don’t know that better markets for your work exist or have convinced yourself of it (perhaps because you’ve read it on some other blog or website).
This lack of knowledge hurts your freelance business more than you can imagine.
When I first started freelancing, I heard that most freelancers in the US don’t make more than $4,000 a year. That, even to a freelancer like me in India, was not an acceptable wage. I hit that number within months and started looking elsewhere for better options. I networked with professional, six-figure freelancers, and started understanding what they were doing and why they were doing it.
(Read this free report I put together on what six-figure freelancers do that sets them apart.)
Turns out, that $4,000-a-year number includes all freelancers—the professionals and the hobbyists. If you’re a serious, full-time freelancer, not only is a full-time living completely achievable, but it’s only just the beginning. Your problem may simply be that you’re setting your sights too low and accepting work from low-paying clients when there’s so much better work out there for the taking.
Look at what other successful freelancers are doing, what they’re making, and who they’re writing for. That should tell you of the many markets out there for your work and convince you that the lousy client you’re working for doesn’t have to be your only paying gig.
Oh, and check out this list of markets that I’ve put together that pay $1 a word and up. Start pitching these publications and raising your rates immediately.
The Problem: You need more writing practice
Most people won’t say this to your face, but what can I say? I’m a rebel.
Perhaps the problem is that deep down you know you’re not good enough (yet) to be published in Big Name magazine or writing for Big Company’s website. You know you don’t have the expertise and skill and you’re afraid of quitting your lousy clients and going after the big ones because you don’t feel ready.
This, if we’re being honest, is not entirely a bad thing. There is a learning curve to everything, and that includes writing professionally. The more you do it, the better you’ll become. If you’re hesitating to pitch top editors and clients because you don’t feel qualified enough, it’s time to focus on how to get there.
Read articles, take courses, work with a coach. Learn how to build a website, to send an excellent query letter, market aggressively, negotiate an assignment, and write an article. Identify the skill set you need to make a great living as a freelance writer and attract top clients, and figure out where you’re lacking. Then systematically start learning how to improve those skills.
The Problem: You lack good marketing practices
If your lousy client is the only client you have, no wonder you’re hesitant to let go of that work. As a freelancer, you can’t afford to be reliant on a single client, even if they’re sweethearts and think the world of you. The key to freelancing is to diversify, to have the marketing skills and know-how that enables you to find new (good) clients and to replace existing clients if things don’t work out.
Learn how to market effectively so that if a relationship goes sour, you can replace that client immediately without a massive hit to your income. Here are 21 ways of attracting new clients and, if you’re feeling ambitious, here’s how I sent 25 pitches in a single week (every week!) as a new freelancer.
The Problem: You’re desperate and need the money now
This is one of the worst situations to be in as a freelancer and probably the most common reason, after lack of confidence, that freelancers continue working for lousy clients.
Most freelancers quit their jobs far too soon, without an existing lump sum of savings to get them through the tough times. I should know, I was once one of them. As a new freelancer, however, I didn’t have a family to look after or a home mortgage to pay off. If I didn’t make it, I could move back in with my parents. I wouldn’t be homeless.
Fast forward a decade and my husband and I did the same thing all over again. This time, we had a lot to lose. While I don’t regret our decision at all and ultimately, wouldn’t have changed a thing, we didn’t expect just how difficult it would get once we depleted our savings. Sure enough, at the point we were at the lowest, despite my many years of experience, I made bad freelancing decisions out of desperation. I stuck it out with bad clients who never paid or were a nightmare to deal with, making a bad situation worse.
Get a job. No one likes to hear this but if you’re struggling financially, have a family to feed, and freelancing is not paying the bills in the present tense, it doesn’t hurt to take on a part-time job or create another source of income while you freelance on the side and get back on your feet.
Alternatively, find other ways to supplement your income outside of writing: walk dogs, babysit, or run errands for other people by signing up to websites like TaskRabbit.com. When you’re desperate, not only will you make bad freelancing decisions, but you also become risk averse and unwilling to say no. This hurts your career not only in the short term, but in the long run as well.
If you’re clinging on to a lousy client out of desperation, the first order of the day is to take that desperation out of the picture, no matter how you choose to do it.
The Problem: You don’t realize the client is lousy until it’s too late
Do your clients constantly turn out to be lousy? Are most of your clients late payers or far too demanding? Do you listen to other freelancers talk about their relationships with their clients and editors and wonder what you’re doing wrong?
It could be that you haven’t yet learned to recognize the red flags and the warning signs that ward off experienced writers but are often missed by newer ones. If you’ve been reading this piece thinking far too many of your clients fall into the categories I’m describing, it might be time to think about your role in the situation and fix it.
Experience will help with this, but actively learn to recognize early warning signs. Some red flags include wanting you on call 24/7, refusing to talk about money, requiring your decision immediately instead of allowing you time to think, giving unclear directions, and not putting anything in writing.
The Problem: You act like a pushover
If you’re too timid to say what you really feel, a lousy client will take advantage of this. Most people won’t treat experienced freelancers the way they sometimes (horrifically) treat newbies and there’s only one reason this happens. An experienced freelancer will not put up with overly demanding clients that take up their billable hours, while newbies will often bend over backwards trying to please someone because they haven’t yet learned or recognized the value of both their work or time.
Get comfortable firing your clients. When something doesn’t fit into your business model, you need to get rid of it right away so that it doesn’t suck more of your time, energy, and attention.
The Problem: You see your client as your boss
A client is your equal. It is important to remember that. This is a business relationship with both sides getting something out of the deal. Many new freelancers I speak to are amazed that it’s possible to ask for an extended deadline, that you can negotiate a rate, or that you can walk away from an assignment if the terms aren’t agreeable to you.
You’re an independent businessperson, and you need to think like one. Ever hired an accountant or a lawyer? That’s how you should act, too. Of course they want your business, but you’re going to get time from them that you’re paying for. If you want more of their time, you’ll need to pay more. You don’t question it when it comes to accountants and lawyers. Why do you question it when it comes to your own services?
Start thinking of yourself as a businessperson and your clients as people who pay for your time and work. How you run your business is something you decide, not your client.
The Problem: You’re looking for work in the wrong places
You hate pitching, so you’ve signed up for oDesk instead and that’s how you’re bringing in most of your clients. Or you’ve been responding to calls for writers on Twitter and sometimes get a one-off assignment that way.
Some marketing methods are better than others, but if you’re relying on random luck to bring in assignments, you’re guaranteed an unhealthy dependency on the few clients you bring in. Instead, actively learn to find markets and reach out to prospects.
Learn better and more effective ways of marketing your work so that you can be completely confident that if you let go of one client, you’ll have several more that you can bring in any time you choose.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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