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Bad clients – how to spot them

by Leo Wiles
22 August 2014

badIn the past we’ve written about how to fire a client without being burnt, but the reality is it’s much easier if you don’t end up with one in the first place. Why? Because, no matter how desperate you are for work, the price on your physical and mental wellbeing is way too high.

Sadly however, there are no mandatory tattoos for bad bosses or crap lovers (although I’m willing to start a petition for both!), so how can you spot them before it’s too late? Here are my top warning signs that there’s danger ahead:

• They fudge the brief – If they don’t know what they want then you don’t have a snowflake’s hope in hell of delivering.

• They send your BS needle into the red zone. If you’re getting a bad gut feeling, listen to it and walk away.

• They haggle, even though your quote is fair and they previously agreed to it.

• They start adding in extras such as supplying social media versions, yet don’t mention additional money.

• They act like they’re doing you a favour by hiring you and you somehow owe them.

• They tell you they could have hired a communication and media student to do this role. Hint: let them!

• They change the contract and act like it’s not a big deal.

• They badmouth your predecessor or other colleagues.

• They offer you the job without telling the person you’re replacing that they’re fired – true story folks.

• They play the blame game where everybody else was at fault but them.

• They call before 9am or after 5pm and expect you take their call or answer their email pronto.

• They have a bad rep. If you’re not sure of someone or have a bad feeling about a client before taking on a job, use your network to see if anyone has worked for them before.

Ever stumbled on a bad client? What would you add to this list?

Leo Wiles

Leo Wiles has worked as an editor, journalist and PR for over 20 years before recently retraining as a photographer. These days, she spends her time behind a lens, juggling her own clients with her work at Rachel's List, and her three gorgeous but lively kids.

11 responses on "Bad clients – how to spot them"

  1. NicolaC says:

    The client who answers all emails while ignoring the one which contained your invoice!

    1. Leo Wiles says:

      Been there! It’s one of the reasons I submit my invoice along with the copy to remove the get out of jail free card.

  2. Sally says:

    Clients who request ‘overview’ features that involve photo research for dozens of images that are never used – but take so many hours of time that the end ‘per word’ fee for the story amounts to sweet FA.
    As a freelance writer, I am going to start charging an image research fee – any thoughts?

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      I’d definitely include this as part of negotiations. If you’re writing say, a gallery, and need to do heaps of pic research as part of that, you should be paid for that time.

      I work as a blogger for a client and they require images and I charge for the image cost + a small extra fee for pic research. Never been questioned. It’s just another part of the job.

  3. Melinda says:

    The client who slowly ‘phases out’ payments without discussing the need for payment arrangements. Where they used to pay invoices in full, they then part pay, then don’t pay anything for weeks, then ignore emails containing statements, then tell you they ‘never got them’, then tell you that you should have ‘provided a quote’ in the first instance when the work was requested (months earlier). Then you are forced to either work for free or not work for them anymore, in which case they have to hire replacement writers, who of course are new so they get paid and you still don’t. Then after more than 6 months of extreme patience, you send the account to a debt collection agency and it magically gets paid. For example… 🙂

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Sounds dodgy Melinda, glad I haven’t had one of those (yet).

      And Darren, agree – it’s so important to try and nail down that brief instead of getting started on an airy-fairy arrangement…

  4. The client who doesn’t know what they want is a major pain in the ass if you’re on a fixed price, however, this is where a detailed brief is very useful. Even if you’ve written the brief yourself and got them to sign off on it, it still gives you the ability to point out you’ve met the brief and if they want to change things then its a chargeable job. It is also a little more manageable if you’re on an hourly rate. It also helps if they know that they don’t know what they want. I had a white paper client like that. Even after I suggested to them gently that they would save themselves some money if they actually worked out detailed brief but they valued their time so highly they thought it was still cheaper for me to just have a go at what I thought they wanted. Having said all that, if you can work out what they do want, or need, you can turn them into a great client who is unlikely to go anywhere else.

    Something I also think is a real warning bell is a client who says, “I could do this myself but I don’t have time.” Sometimes it may be true, they may be a fair enough writer themselves but usually it’s not the case and they end up being a hard to please client because they think they would do a better job “if only they had the time.”

    1. Leo Wiles says:

      OMG Darren the ‘I’d do it myself’ attitude just sets off Nostre Dame size alarm bells for me. It’s up there with blue chip corporations who hand over social media to interns and juniors and then say social media doesn’t work.

  5. spider says:

    The client who claims as soon as they receive your invoice that you haven’t met the brief.

    I worked for a client for some time from whom I had a simple written brief. I worked on a campaign and got considerable media coverage for her issue. As soon as I put in my invoice she claimed I hadn’t met the brief. This was despite the fact that she signed off on every media release that went out and never told me if I was indeed missing the point! She simply used this as an excuse not to pay me. She used similar tactics with her other freelancers. None of us saw any money. So sometimes you just can’t protect yourself against unscrupulous clients!

  6. rachelfreeman86 says:

    This post could not have been more timely. Thank you. I have just been burnt by a client I had a terrible gut feeling about from the start, yet persisted with her as it was my first ‘real’ job since switching professions.

    She refused payment claiming I’d not met the brief (despite me asking for feedback and not receiving any), a high school student could have written my pieces and then ignored all my attempts to get in contact. It has turned into something very nasty with solicitors involved. I have learnt my lesson and walk away with no payment, a bruised ego and a little disillusioned by it all.

    1. Rachel, if you’re not already a member, join the MEAA. It has an excellent debt collection service – well worth the cost of dues.

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