The Freelancer’s Guide to Working With Clients That SUCK

Today’s post comes to us from an international authority in copywriting and peer of mine that I respect highly, Dean Rieck of Direct Creative and Pro Copy Tips. I’m honored to have his work here, I’ve learned a great deal from Dean, and you will too. Enjoy – it’s a good one!

Ah, the freelance copywriting life. You get to sit at home, work when you feel like it, and tackle only choice projects from smart, easy, free-spending clients who love and adore you.

Well, not quite.

All those e-books and courses that promise freelance nirvana may be bending the truth just a little bit. Yes, you can work from home. But you’ll probably put in long hours, especially for the first few years. And you won’t get all the fantastic projects.

Some of your clients will be wonderful. Most will be average. And some are going to suck. That’s the way it is. Some can suck so bad, you’ll be tempted to get out of freelancing altogether if you’re not prepared to deal with them.

Let’s look at the various ways clients can suck and how you should handle it.

Here are some of the basic sucky client categories:

The Company Sucks – Maybe it’s a tobacco company, or a company selling equipment used in slaughter houses, or a bank whose CEO just embezzled a billion dollars. Whatever the reason, you don’t like the company, what they do, or what they stand for.

The Product Sucks – It could be boring knockoff software with no great features to talk about, a hype-filled investment newsletter, a scam money-making website, or some other product or service that makes your eyes roll and your skin crawl.

The Offer Sucks – Some clients won’t make any sort of enticing offer and insist on just naming their price. Some won’t offer a guarantee because they’re afraid of getting ripped off. When the offer is bad or boring, it’s just going to make your copywriting work that much harder.

The Contact Sucks – This is where things get really difficult. The person you work with may be disorganized, stupid, hard to reach, a control freak, fickle, or an outright jerk. Basically, you end up wanting to rip your hair out.

The Project Sucks – Unreasonable deadlines, products you know nothing about, an unfamiliar format or medium, a low budget, or working conditions you don’t enjoy can all make for a project you dread.

Okay, so you find yourself working with a client that sucks. What do you do?

Well, what you don’t do is scream into the phone, “You SUCK!” Think it. Make a note of it. But don’t say it.

What do you really do? The answer is: It depends.

It depends on your personality and tolerance for pain. It depends on your situation – are you busy and cash rich or twiddling your thumbs and desperate for work? It also depends on the kind of client suckiness you’re dealing with.

Here are a few suggestions for handing various suck-filled situations:

If the company sucks:

Determine what you don’t like about the company. If they’re doing something you consider unethical, walk away. If they’re selling something you find unappealing or gross, like a bovine anal electrocution wand, decide whether you can man up and write the copy or not. A good copywriter should be able to write about nearly anything.

If it’s just one specific aspect about the company you don’t like, consider that the rest of the company may be fine. Be pragmatic. Take the job, do good work, and make it a better company.

If the product sucks:

This is common. You just have to deal with it. Only a small percentage of products and services are super spectacular. Most products are so-so. A few are poor. You can’t make a living as a freelance copywriter writing copy only for the top 1% of products.

In fact, this is one of the reasons companies need your services. It’s your job to find the USP (unique selling proposition) about a product and write copy that persuades, motivates, and sells. If the product doesn’t have a true selling difference that makes it unique, get creative and make up something.

I don’t mean you should lie. I mean find a point of difference. Is it the first of something? The best selling? Has it been featured in a well-known magazine? Is it used by a well-known company? Is there a feature it has that others have but don’t talk about? For example, any oat cereal is “heart healthy,” but Cheerios was the first to slap a big heart graphic on the box and make it a selling point.

If the offer sucks:

Usually the client determines the offer. But good copywriters should give advice to make the offer better, since this will directly affect the success of any promotion. You probably won’t be able to change the pricing or internal processes related to selling, but you can suggest good ways to present the offer. I created a for this very reason.

No guarantee or a bad guarantee? That’s another area where you can suggest improvements in the offer. Some clients are afraid that a 100% satisfaction guarantee, or any strong guarantee, will lead to getting high returns or being taken advantage of. This is seldom true if the product claims are true. A good guarantee almost always boosts sales, so press the client on this issue.

If the contact sucks:

This is no fun. But don’t panic.

If the contact is disorganized, create a clear structure for the project workflow and take the lead in moving through the project step-by-step. I write up a schedule and a to-do list for contacts who need a little help.

If the contact is stupid, educate them. Take control of the project and tell them what you’re doing and why. Often if you just explain your process and reasoning, things work out.

If the contact is hard to reach, get a cell number, home email, and a secondary contact or assistant you can work with. These sort of contacts are usually busy and will greatly appreciate it if you find ways to keep the project moving.

If the contact is a control freak, you’re in for a bumpy ride, but you can survive. They need you to do the work, but can’t let go of the reins. Keep your ego in check and roll with the punches. Generally, a control freak will want you to do things their way. All you can do is explain what you’re doing and make a case for your methods. Make the case once. Then do what the contact wants, finish the project, and move on.

If the contact is fickle, that means things will change throughout the project and you’ll feel jerked around. You’ll also find yourself putting in extra time as you try to keep up. When you see this happening, explain that you are happy to do anything the contact wants, but it will affect the fee. Be specific up front about and what you agree to do as well as your cost. Or, you can just work hourly and enjoy all the changes, since this will jack up your invoice (just be sure to keep the contact informed about how the price is rising.)

If the contact is a jerk, well, good luck. Frankly there’s nothing you can do about it. Do the best you can and decide whether you ever want to work with that person again.

If the project sucks:

For tight deadlines, charge a “rush” fee. Or, if it’s a desirable client, meet the deadline and be a hero. You can score big points by delivering quickly. Just make it clear you can’t do this on every project.

For products or services that you don’t know anything about, suck it up and do some research. This is part of what being a pro copywriter is all about: getting up to speed quickly on anything you have to write about.

For unfamiliar formats or media, find a good sample and use it as a template to write your copy. For example, if you’ve never written a sales letter, find a good one, see how it’s structured, and write your letter with the same structure.

For low-budget projects, don’t gripe about the pay. If you accept the project, do your best and be a professional. You can mention that the fee is lower than normal, but don’t be a nag. Maybe you can get more next time. Or maybe you need to seek higher-paying clients.

For uncomfortable working conditions, such as having to work at the company’s office or following a rigid corporate writing and review process, explain that you have a simpler or better way to accomplish the work.

For example, sometimes people want me to travel and meet with them as if airline tickets, rental cars, and one or two days of my time is worth nothing. I simply tell them I charge for meetings. Besides, there’s nothing we can do at a meeting that we can’t do over the phone.

Sometimes you have to adapt to the company’s way of doing things, but don’t get sucked into a situation that will prevent you from doing good work for fair pay.

No one likes to work with clients that suck. But it’s going to happen. Be prepared. It won’t be the end of the world.

It’s your turn now: What have you been through that sucks, and how did you deal with it?

About the Author: Dean Rieck is an internationally-respected copywriter, president of Direct Creative and publisher of Pro Copy Tips, a blog that provides copywriting tips for professional copywriters.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Enjoyed your post and recognize that we can’t always afford to be too selective when it comes to the clients we work with.

    Nevertheless, I was reminded of this post on Seth’s blog earlier today:

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/11/choose-your-customers-choose-your-future.html
    .-= Russ Thornton´s last blog ..Prefab Treehouses – Blogs – Dwell =-.

  2. christopher Korody says:

    Amen James –

    If you accept the assignment you own it.

    If you are willing to take the clients money, being professional means delivering to the standard to which you hopefully hold yourself.

    This includes putting up with whatever it takes to do business with said client – be it a long review process, slow pay or…

    Remember that the client is always right. its not their fault that they don’t have any money or aren’t willing to spend it. You’re the one who chose to take the job.

    Buck up, deliver and do what you need to do to avoid being in the same position again.

  3. Oh man you have stirred up a few memories with this article (some funny some not!). Lol! Nice post 🙂

  4. I had a client once who expected me to write copy for products I had never seen. She used to be a copywriter herself and told me she did it all the time. I dropped her as a client.
    .-= Lexi Rodrigo´s last blog ..Meet Savvy Freelancer: Jarrod Thalheimer =-.

  5. Thanks Dean – great advice as usual. Just saw Dan Kennedy speak this weekend and this piece of advice comes to mind… (paraphrased) “Your client always has something of value that he/she is sitting on and is not aware of. It’s your job as the copywriter to find it for them.” He means something that is right under their nose… a tremendous asset buried somewhere in their company that they are not aware of, which could become the focal point of a campaign, messaging etc. I’ve never quite heard it put that way but it’s true, and when I think of some of my best projects, this is exactly what happened. Takes time, effort and energy to find that hidden gem though. Tough to do if you go into the project thinking… “Get me outta here as quickly as possible!”
    .-= Pete Savage´s last blog ..Have You Made This Mistake in Your Freelance Business? =-.

  6. In the case of dealing with a space cadet contact, I’ve found it extraordinarily helpful to always document conversations we had whether by email or by fax making sure that any changes and agreements are noted. Otherwise you leave the door open for…

    “What? I didn’t say that or if I did, I don’t remember saying it.”

    To which you can then click clack away and say, “Ahh, check your email, right about… now.” and wahlah you show them the exact email or fax you sent them re-capping the conversation you had.

    Do that once, and I’ll bet they don’t get so spacey on you again. If they do, zap ’em again with the bovine anal electrocution wand-like power of documentation. They’ll come around.

    Especially if you make sure ALL of your communication is going to a secondary contact. If a control freak squaks at this I just tell them, “Look, as much as I wish you and I could predict the future, we can’t. So, if by any chance you have an accident while indulging in your monkey knife fighting hobby and don’t make it in, I’m not up shit creek and neither is the business because someone else is filled in on the details or at least has access to them.”

    Overall, great article Dean. You didn’t just bitch about clients sucking but you gave us all the way to counter these less than desirable hands that get dealt out every once in a while.
    .-= Note Taking Nerd #2´s last blog ..Love Stinks =-.

  7. It was great to read about the dark side of freelancing and some solutions for coping.

    Many people seem to think that quitting a 9 to 5 job and getting into freelancing is a major liberation from the evils of bureaucratic corporations. What they don’t realize is that freelancing and running your own business also have many of the same problems as a typical job. In the beginning at least, freelancing is likely to require more hours of work for less pay and security. And you will still have to deal with idiots. 🙂
    .-= John Bardos – JetSetCitizen´s last blog ..Interview with Digital Nomad Carmen Bolanos =-.

  8. Clients that suck… nice theme. On the other hand, as you’ve pointed out, we can mitigate some of that “suckiness” by spelling out certain things upfront, like outlining a price structure that takes into account extra changes, and not allowing the client to walk all over us.

    As for my Bovine Anal Electrocution Wand (TM), hey… it’s a great product 😀
    .-= Paul Hancox, copysnips.com´s last blog ..Are These The Greatest Sales Letters Of All Time? =-.

  9. Fair enough. So where does one find clients that suck?

    Any suggestions?

    Jonathan
    .-= Jonathan | EnlightenYourDay.com´s last blog ..Inspiring FNL Speech =-.

  10. Good, straight-forward thoughts. Thanks for sharing them. One thing I would add: put it in writing. Although a signed proposal or scope of work may not be enforceable if differences result in a lawsuit, generally it will help keep a project inline.

  11. @ Kris – That’s the biggest reason we work only via email – EVERYTHING is in writing, and it’s proved VERY useful!

  12. As a freelancer, which comes with risks and responsibilities, we are untitled to make our own price for tight deadlines, or lousy clients. Robert Kiwosaky (rich dad) wrote extensively on the issue. I understand that, and I use it.
    .-= Learn Creative Visualization´s last blog ..Creating a Clear Picture =-.

  13. This blog post made me laugh. I guess sometimes you have to ‘suck it up’ and just get on with the job but if you have the luxury of having more clients than you have time available, then drop them like a hot potato!

  14. Thanks for the great information. I actually used your information on “When the Contact Sucks” and it helped iron out some of the wrinkles that were growing between us.

    Thanks a ton!
    .-= Tyler the Designer´s last blog ..Happy Holidays & Thirsty Mind Thursdays! =-.

  15. Nice article and title 🙂

    Quite liked the bit about when the contact sucks. Just to add, for me my personl hate is clients that constantly never have enough time to get you site content and then moan that the stuff you’ve thrown together isn’t good enough. Still, I’d love to know what people do when a client starts out very good and then turns totally crap when you ask for payment 😉

    Rob
    .-= Rob Web Design Talk´s last blog ..Prevent Duplicate Content using the Canonical Url Tag =-.

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  1. momshare.net says:

    The Freelancer’s Guide to Working With Clients That SUCK | Men With Pens…

    From a blog called Men with Pens, some advice for how freelance copywriters can deal with clients that suck . Whether the problem is the company, the product, the offer, the project, or your contact, there are tips for how to deal with each situation. …

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