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  • Writer's pictureDebra Stang

Five Clients from Hell…and How to Handle Them

I've been freelancing for more than ten years, and overall, I would say I've been very lucky. Most of my clients are wonderful people and very easy to work with. Every so often, however, it happens. I get a whiff of brimstone and…flash! The client from hell appears.

Of course, I don't know it's the client from hell until we're well into the project. Then the horns pop out and the you-know-what hits the fan. So far, I've identified five distinct species of clients from hell. I'm sure if you're a freelancer, you probably have your own list.

Here is mine:

1. The Clingy Client

This client wants to be in contact with you twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. If she's not flooding your inbox with emails, she's calling you, texting you, and occasionally sending messages via carrier pigeon.

The clingy client is, fortunately, one of the easiest to deal with. The best solutions I've found are firm boundaries and clear communication. When one of my clingy clients comes to me with a project, I tell her exactly how long it will take and when I will be back in touch. Then I screen my phone calls and answer email messages with a brief, "As we discussed, I will have this done by Friday. Back in touch then."

Some clingy clients can't handle not having their writer/editor on a leash every second and drift on to other freelancers. Others learn to take a chill pill and become delightful clients to work with. I'm happy with either outcome.

2. The Committee

Most freelancers are familiar with this one. You start out working with one client. Then, all of a sudden, you're getting opinions from the client's mother, boss, best friend from college, and dry cleaner. And none of those opinions coincide. Mom thinks chapter three should be longer. Frat buddy thinks it should be shorter. Dry cleaner thinks the writing is too technical. Boss thinks I'm talking down to the audience. And so forth.

I usually have a heart-to-heart with the committee client and explain that he hired me to do the project at hand, and that I'm open to his feedback…and his feedback only. If he insists on going to everyone he knows for advice, the least he can do is go through their concerns and weed out the ones that are mutually contradictory.

If the committee client doesn't get the hint pretty fast, I usually contrive to be busy the next time he asks me to take on a project.

3. By the Way…

The "by the way" client is the one who keeps adding onto a project. We start out with an agreed-upon piece of work. Say, for instance, I am to write a twenty-page chapter on a certain topic. I complete the assignment and send her an invoice.

Then the dreaded email arrives: "By the way…would you mind fact-checking Chapter Two, as well?" "By the way…could you add an extra ten pages of material to the chapter you wrote?" "By the way…would you mind copy editing the manuscript?"

When I get a "by the way" email, I immediately put together a new contract including price and turnaround time for the additional work the client wants done. I also politely state that even if she decides not to hire me for the additional services, payment for the original work I completed is still due.  

4. The Flake

Don't get me wrong, some of the nicest people I know are a little flaky. They're just not particularly fun to work with. The flake usually contacts me about a project. He's very enthusiastic and swears it will be the biggest thing since Shakespearian audiences wept over the fate of Hamlet. Often, he says that he can't pay me upfront, but we'll split the proceeds when the great project hits the public.

I patiently explain that I work on a fee-for-service basis no matter how great the project. He either disappears or reluctantly agrees. If he agrees, I set aside the time on my schedule to work on his project. And then…it fizzles out. I get weekly emails informing me that the manuscript I'm supposed to edit will be arriving soon, but it never does. When I try to pin down a date, the most specific information I can get from him is, "It's almost ready."

Meanwhile, I'm pulling out my hair, because I've cleared the space on my work schedule and very  likely turned down other assignments in anticipation of working on this one.

I used to wait patiently for weeks for the flake to get it together. Now I wait exactly one week after the project materials were supposed to have arrived. Then I send an email explaining that, since his project is late, I'm going to start work on other projects. I will be glad to work on his if he sends it to me, but I can no longer guarantee the turnaround time.

The usual outcome…you guessed it. I never hear from the flake again.

5. High "Ick" Factor

Fortunately, clients with a high "ick" factor are few and far between, but they are very memorable when they turn up. They're the ones that make you shudder and consider changing your email address. For instance, I had one potential client get in touch with me about editing his novel-length manuscript. I sent him my standard editing agreement, which says I don't work on projects that "encourage or incite racism, homophobia, violence, or any other criminal activity."

He emailed me back, asking if I considered "consensual" sex between adults and children criminal activity. Ick! I turned him down flat, even when he offered me several times my usual rate for copy editing.

So, those are the clients from hell I most typically run into. Did I miss a sub-species that you want to see represented? If so, leave a comment… 

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