A six-figure freelancer on why you cling to lousy clients and how that costs you in both time and income. (Also: Tips for how to dump ’em!)
Almost on a weekly basis these days, I’m hearing from writers who have relationships with lousy clients that are simply untenable. There are clients who never pay on time, who demand attention at all hours of the day and on weekends, clients who are borderline abusive, and clients who blur the line between personal and professional.
Yet, whenever a writer emails me to complain about how they’re being treated (or mistreated, as it happens) by a client, I’m often quick to point out that like with most relationships in your life, if you’re being mistreated, you’re playing a role in the problem.
And you need to take immediate steps to fix that.
Why do good writers cling to lousy clients? Here are some common reasons.
The Problem: You have no confidence
One of the most obvious reasons for why freelancers allow themselves to be treated shabbily by their clients and don’t speak up is a distinct lack of confidence, especially among newer freelancers, who believe that if they let go of this client, they won’t be able to find anything else. We’ve all done this at various points in our careers, sticking with people we know are taking advantage of us because we’re too timid to speak up. They know what they’re doing after all, and we don’t. Which of course, couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Solution: Speak up. Put your foot down. If your client is late in paying you, let them know that 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 that you’re not available after business hours.
Set your limits and stick to them.
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 a post or that there aren’t any publications that pay $3 a word any more, 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 more freelance businesses 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 in India, is not a livable wage. I beat that number within months and started looking elsewhere for better options. I found Freelance Success, a community of professional writers, many of whom make six-figures a year.
Turns out, professional freelancers make far more than $4,000 a year and find that a laughable number. Like me when I was a new freelancer, your problem may be that you’re setting your sights too low and don’t know that there are other options out there for you.
The Solution: 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 different 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.
The Problem: You’re not good enough yet
Most bloggers aren’t going to tell you this, but what can I say, I’m a rebel. Maybe the problem is that deep down inside you know you’re not good enough yet to be published in Big Name magazine or writing for Big Company’s blog or whatever. You know you don’t have the necessary 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 a bad thing. There is a learning curve to everything and that includes writing professionally and the more you do it, the better you’ll become. If you’re hesitating in pitching top-notch editors and clients because you don’t feel you’re quite there yet, it’s time to start focusing on how to get there.
The Solution: Take classes, take e-courses, read blogs. Learn how to build a website, to send a query letter, to market aggressively, to negotiate an assignment, and to write an article. Identify the skill set you need to make a great living as a freelance writer with 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 so 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 between you.
The Solution: Learn how to market effectively so that even if a relationship does go sour, you can replace that client immediately without a massive hit to your income. This could mean learning how to write a really good Letter of Introduction or sending 25 queries in a week.
The Problem: You’re despertae 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 already existing lump sum of savings to get them through the tough times. I should know, I was once one of them. But I didn’t have a family or even an apartment back then. If I didn’t make it, I wasn’t going to be homeless.
That said, my husband and I pretty much did the same thing last year and this time we did have a lot to lose. While I don’t regret our decision at all and ultimately, wouldn’t have changed a thing, we didn’t anticipate just how difficult it was going to get once we did deplete our savings. And 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.
The Solution: Get a job. No one likes to hear this but the truth of the matter is, if you’re struggling financially, have mouths to feed, and freelancing is not paying the bills, it doesn’t hurt to take on a part-time job or create another source of income while you’re freelancing and getting back on your feet.
Or 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. So 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 tend to be missed by newer writers. 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.
The Solution: 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, wanting 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, the client likely takes this to mean you’re a pushover. Most people won’t treat experienced freelancers the way they sometimes (horrifically) treat newbies and there’s only one reason why this happens. An experienced freelancer will likely not put up with overly demanding clients that take up their other billable hours, while newbies will often bend over backwards trying to please someone who simply can’t be pleased.
The Solution: Start speaking up against unfair treatment or anything that doesn’t fit into your business model.
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 a different deadline, that you can negotiate a rate, or that you can walk away from an assignment if the terms aren’t agreeable to you. But you’re an independent businessperson and you need to start thinking like one. If you’ve ever hired an accountant or a lawyer, you know what I’m talking about. Sure, 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 need to pay more. That’s how you as a businessperson should be thinking, too.
The Solution: Start thinking of yourself as a businessperson and your clients as people to whom you provide a service. Remember that you’re in a relationship of equals.
The Problem: You’re looking for work in the wrong places
You hate querying 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 Craigslist ads and bringing in work that way. Some marketing methods are better than others and if most of your clients are coming through oDesk or Freelancer.com or any number of bidding websites, you’re guaranteed a large portion of lousy clients with unpaid invoices as the cherry on top. Instead, if you learn to actively find markets and reach out to editors and prospects, it may be harder to find those clients, but they’re much more likely to be good ones.
The Solution: Learn better ways of marketing your work. Look for clients and editors in the right places and start avoiding the easy solutions of oDesk and Freelancer.com that end up costing you much more in the long run.
How to Pitch: Pitching guidelines for 200+ publications
We know that finding markets to pitch your story ideas, understanding what they’re looking for, and making sure they pay an amount you’re comfortable with can be the most time-consuming and frustrating part of the job. So we’ve tried to make it easier for you.
Here’s a list of publications, organized by subject and with a note of their pay rates, each with a link to their guidelines.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Publisher, 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 publisher 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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