Podcast Episode 42: Project creep: how to cope with clients who want to stretch your good will.
In this episode, Lorrie and I discuss what to do when a client project starts to grow and grow but annoyingly your pay cheque doesn’t. We talk about different situations where this can occur and how to extricate yourself from it, as it can develop into a really tricky situation. We also look at whether prevention is better than a cure, how to cope with clients who want to socialise with you, and where to find 37 free ebooks about journalistic writing.
Episode 24: The Art of Getting Paid
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LH: Hello and welcome to Episode 42 of A Little Bird Told Me. My co-host Pippa and I are two freelance writers on a frankly heroic mission: we’re here to help you avoid the pitfalls that plague our profession and become the most wonderful wordsmiths you can be.
Freelancing is tough, and it can be a lonely old world out there, so our hope is that this podcast will be a little ray of sunshine in a world where you can find yourself working from bed, eating cornflakes from the packet for lunch and not seeing another living soul for four years on the trot.
To make sure that you don’t miss this little sunbeam of writerly wisdom, we’ve made it easy to subscribe – you can tune in via iTunes, RSS feed, Stitcher smart radio or Podomatic. No matter how you want to listen, make sure you stop by our Podomatic homepage at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com because there’s a whole range of linksydinks and resources on there to accompany the episodes. Blog posts, transcripts, funny videos and websites – they’re all there. The whole internet’s there. You’ll also find links to both my and Pip’s social media profiles and websites so you can come and chat to us. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn….
PW: And I am Philippa Willitts and today we are going to talk about what you can do if a project you are working on with a client starts to grow and grow, but annoyingly your pay cheque doesn’t. Clients can sometimes get pushy and expect lots of “little” extras, little revisions, little rewrites and so on, and at some point you have to extricate yourself from the situation.
LH: Absolutely, it tends to be “little” things and “can you just…?”s.
PW: They all add up!
LH: Yep! I read a tweet by another freelancer on this subject quite recently, actually, that said, “I don’t have “difficult” clients, but “dynamic” individuals that feed my children, support my agency and life long learning” And leaving aside the fact that that makes no sense whatsoever, I’m here to tell you that’s not only nauseating, it’s also total rubbish. It’s true! Clients are people like anyone else, and you can get good ones, bad ones and downright ugly clients. What’s more, add money into the mix and the sense of entitlement some clients can have sky-rockets.
PW: This is so true – as soon as they’re paying you for something, some clients think they can expect the world.
LH: Absolutely. It’s by no means all clients – far from it – but don’t be fooled into thinking that there are no difficult clients and that you must be the issue.
PW: Yes, absolutely. I know Lorrie and I often check things out with one another, like, “Someone’s just sent me this – is this reasonable? Am I being reasonable?” It’s good to have someone outside the situation to talk to.
LH: So if you have someone like that, check things with them and if you don’t, come and chat to me and Pip.
PW: Oh yes – we’ll tell you in no uncertain terms if we think someone’s trying to take advantage of you!
PW: So what we’re going to do today is look at some ways of managing this kind of situation, often known as “project creep”, and – although this might not help if you’re slap bang in the middle of it right now – prevention is better than a cure.
PW: if you can be as clear as possible before you start work about exactly what is and isn’t included – how many revisions, how much consultancy and advice, how often you have to respond to emails, even – and make sure you and the client have signed off an agreed plan, because then you are in a much stronger position to nip it in the bud before it gets really difficult. If you can point to an original agreement and say, “We agreed 15 articles and I’m now on the 17th” – it’s a lot easier to deal with.
LH: Yes, definitely. It’s by no means a guarantee, unfortunately, that clients won’t be difficult…
PW: Oh no!
LH: And, as you might discover from what we say later on in this podcast, they might well carry on being pains in the proverbial but, as with all things, being clear from the outset is the best option. Explain your working methods as clearly as possible from the word get-go. On longer projects, identify project goals and milestones where each party (that’s you and the client) will check in and contribute.
PW: Yes, if you’ve got a three-month project, say, you might want to put a weekly or fortnightly check-in in place.
LH: Or more – take your lead from the client as long as it’s not excessively.
LH: If your client knows what to expect – and you deliver the information with confidence – there’s less room for sneaking in extra bits and bobs here and there. If extra work is very clearly extra, you’re more likely to at least be in a position where you can highlight it as such and either veto it or get paid for it.
PW: Yeah, for instance, you might say at the start “I don’t tend to reply to emails at the weekend.”. And then you’re in a much better position if you check in on a Monday morning to find six frantic emails from Saturday night saying, “Where are you? We need you! This is broken!” and another angry one on Sunday, saying, “Where were you?”
There’s a website called Clients From Hell and while it’s mainly designers, it’s all freelancers who are relating the various outrageous demands from clients. A lot of them are unreasonable expectations of availability. And so that can be one of the points you want to make. I know followers of the four-hour work week and all that…
PW: Haha, I know! They’ll answer emails perhaps only once a day, which I couldn’t cope with, but it’s what works for you. You have to be reasonable – don’t put so many rules up that you’re actually blocking access that your client needs. But at the same time, if you’re not going to check emails at the weekend, make that clear from the start. If you do one or two revisions for a piece of writing, make it clear so you don’t find yourself on your eighth with no recourse, really.
LH: Yeah, I think it’s also important to have a strict time-billing policy for emailing, phonecalls and meetings, as well. If you know how much time you’re happy to spend communicating and what you want to get paid for it, you’re less likely to resent the little interactions that keep happening. Set up catch-up points in long projects, regular catch-ups in long working relationships where you’re working on various or repeated projects, like blog posts, and then you’ll know what’s extra.
PW: Yes – because all people, and all freelancers, work differently and your clients might have worked with someone who works very differently from you. And similarly, often with repeat clients, you get to know them. Some are talkative, others just send you an email with a list of article titles. You want to pre-empt problems but make sure you’re flexible and responsive. There’s a balance, so make sure that balance isn’t to your cost.
LH: Yes, I think it depends what kind of ‘zone’ you’re in. I think, if you’ve had clients taking the proverbial for a while and you’re feeling a bit used and exploited, you can start to see clients as the enemy.
PW: Yes – you can get very defensive.
LH: And pre-emptively defensive, as well. “Right, well I’m not answering on evenings and weekends, and I’m not doing this, and I’m not doing that.” You need to make decisions like this when you’re in a good place in your own head.
PW: Yes! If someone’s just messed you about, you’ll imagine for a while that everyone’s messing you about. But sometimes, if it’s 7pm and there’s an email you can respond to in 20 seconds, just do it.
LH: Use your judgement. I don’t tend to work evenings and weekends, and I had one client who contacted me at 8am on a Saturday.
Now, I didn’t take that call. I wasn’t in a position where I was going to be free – I had to get up and go out – and the client could have left me a message or sent me an email if it was important. The fact is, though, that if I worked in an office, I wouldn’t be available. That said, I had a quiet Friday evening recently, and I had a client get in touch at 4.45pm and say, “Can you do this for me…now?!” and I said yes, of course. I don’t normally work Friday nights, but I had nothing better to do, I valued that client and I had the time free so I did it. It’s good will – credit in the bank, literally and metaphorically – so why not? Use your judgement and don’t see clients as the enemies. You should be on the same team.
PW: Yeah. I often work Sundays and I enjoy it because it’s quite quiet. I find Sundays quite boring generally, I like having time off in the week, so if a client contacted me on Sunday morning, that would be OK. And, like Lorrie says, you sometimes make an exception because it’s a good client, you don’t have anything else to do or they’re offering a very good rush fee – say if they triple your rate.
LH: Yes, it’s amazing how you can find time when someone triples your rate!
PW: Haha, yes! So what we’re advising today isn’t about cancelling out everything we’ve said before about being responsive and flexible.
LH: Yes, it’s not about sticking to your principles so hard that no one can get past your wall!
PW: Yes, exactly. It’s work for you – there’s no point not being messed about when you have no clients at all! So yes, there’s a balance to be struck.
LH: Of course. Of course there is. So as we were saying, it’s best to set out ground-rules before you get started. But sadly, even with the strongest will in the world, it might not always be possible to set formal ground-rules before you start. And, even if you do, there’s no saying your client – or even you – will stick to them. Part of being a freelancer is being responsive and flexible. When a client has an urgent project, for example, or there’s a sudden change of circumstances, you might find yourself taking on more than you initially thought you would. It can seem churlish and awkward to stop everything in its tracks in the middle of a massive crisis at your client’s company and say, “Just to be clear, I’m only doing one amend on this – you’ll have to pay for more for the extras!”.
PW: Yes, absolutely. I know I have long-term clients to whom I was clear at the start that I wanted to be paid in advance, but when you’ve worked with them for 12-18 months, you stop demanding because you develop a level of trust.
LH: It’s give and take isn’t it?
PW: Yes. And also, the thing with client urgency is that it can be difficult sometimes because there are genuinely urgent situations, and others that just seem important to the client in the moment because they’re stressed.
LH: Definitely. I think that’s where the difference between short- and long-term clients comes in. With short-term clients, it’s best to stick to the rules. You don’t know when well enough to know what’s urgent and what’s just them panicking.
And with long-term clients, it isn’t always good to grab for the short-term benefits – say, getting paid for five minutes of amends. I normally offer one round of amends on work before charging extra. However, I’ve been known to chuck in a couple of freebies here and there, very frequently actually, for long-term regular clients, simply because I don’t want to charge them extra for ten or 15 minutes. I prefer to do them the favour of amending a date or a title here and there. I’m not going to charge them my minimum fee, which is normally half an hour.
PW: Goodwill is always important as a freelancer. You do someone a favour, you never know when it’ll get paid back. I critiqued a guy’s website for free, once, and when he needed a freelancer six months later, he came straight to me. That’s not why I did it, but goodwill goes a long way.
LH: Yes, people remember when you do them a favour. As long as you’re in control of the favours, when you give them and what they are, that’s fine. If a client wants a paragraph adding to something, I might not charge for it. If it’s every single time that I’m doing an extra 5-10 minutes, I’ll add an extra 30 minutes on to the end of another piece of work. Because it does add up.
PW: Some clients, rather than a particular project growing in size, find themselves relying on you for anything and everything, and we’re talking beyond things like amends and edits now. This is things that really aren’t in your remit in any respect.
LH: Yes, I think we’ve both had experience of that, haven’t we? It is problematic – you might not think it is if you’re technically able to do what they want, but a needy client can not only take up inbox or answerphone space; they often take up head-space as well. You find yourself getting caught up in their worries, their life in general, and their panic, even if it’s not logical, and you can find yourself dropping everything to respond to their every little query instantly.
PW: Yes, sometimes they’re so stressed, it can be contagious. Something Lorrie and I remind each other quite regularly is that “their urgent isn’t necessarily our urgent”. Being a step away can help you make a clearer judgement. It’s so easy to get drawn into someone else’s panic that sometimes it takes someone on the outside to put things back into perspective!
LH: Absolutely. You have to be a bit hard sometimes. Because you’re a freelancer, and a person not a faceless company, clients can come to expect the human reaction to their every drama. They sometimes expect you to invest emotionally in their dramas in the same way as them. While it’s good to help your clients out and respond to their needs, if your client is constantly panicking, you can’t let that become your problem.
PW: Yeah, the client I’m thinking of – one of mine – was technically and financially a small part of my week, but you wouldn’t have known that from the number of emails. Very nice guy, but we both agreed that it wasn’t working in the end – I felt like a full-time consultant by the end of it.
LH: No, I know the one you mean. I had a similar one – they started asking me about every little thing, CCIng me in on emails, asking me to do all sorts, asking my opinion on everything. It was as thought I’d become their life coach, and it’s nice to have someone think you’re super capable and marvellous, but that’s not my job and I don’t want to do that.
LH: So trying out the clingy client version of controlled crying can be a really good idea! With some needy clients, the more you give, the more they’ll take.
PW: Yes, the more responsive you are, the more they’ll see you as their go-to person.
LH: Yes, and if your client gets used to being instantly advised or reassured by you, they’ll start to expect it as standard. While that might be OK in quiet periods, as soon as your workload picks up, you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of panicky emails and messages, with your client feeling as though s/he is getting treated pretty badly.
PW: And we’ve almost trained them into that by being so helpful. And again, we’re not saying be rude or obstructive, but it’s that balance again.
LH: Bear in mind they’re not your responsibility; they’re your client.
PW: Yes. They’re running their business; you’re helping them by writing for them or advising them, but you’re not their managing director.
LH: So, delaying your responses to a clingy client can be uncomfortable at first, particularly if you’re used to dealing with them immediately. As you say, you can train yourself to get caught up in their panic. You can see an email and think, “I must respond now, now, now!”
LH: But it’s better to do it sooner rather than later, as you’re establishing boundaries. Set a time in the morning, say, and another time in the afternoon to deal with your client’s queries all in one go. That’s one way to control how much you contact them and how often they hear from you. Second point is, don’t apologise!
PW: Yes, you’re not doing anything wrong.
LH: Yes. I went through a stressed-out stage fairly recently where I ended up putting an “Out of office” message on every time I was away from my desk. And then I thought, “Hang on, I don’t expect this of other people!”. I don’t take offence if someone’s away from their desk. And if I don’t pick up the phone, someone can email me. And if I don’t read an email, they can phone me. And if I don’t respond for a while, it’s because I’m busy doing something else. And that’s fine. I’d got into the habit of responding to email from an hour before with, “Sorry for the late response.” Because I’d got caught up in panic from other clients.
LH: So delaying your responses, and being confident and unapologetic, to clingy clients is an unspoken way to let your client know that instant responses are not to be expected. So be friendly, offer an explanation if one is requested – “I’ve been out and about today” or “I’ve been busy working on something for another client this morning” should do – and then carry on in a polite and friendly way as usual. If you behave as though there’s no problem – and there isn’t a problem – your client is more likely to take it on board.
PW: Yes, in my experience of this it’s important to not make a big song and dance about this. Just implement longer gaps between responses, and stay calm, positive and reasonable. This can be a strange experience if you’re used to replying to emails as quickly as possible – having unanswered questions that you know you could sort out in two minutes feels just WRONG at first, but it’s important to start putting something of a distance in place.
LH: Definitely, because 20 second here and there is fine but it can start to cut into your lunch-break or interrupt your work for other clients.
LH: Sometimes, sadly, a small amount of distance won’t do the job. A step up from this is to distance yourself from the client for a longer period of time. If your client isn’t getting the message and is, for example, starting to try and contact you on evenings and weekends, you may well feel it’s best to distance yourself from them for longer than a morning or afternoon, just to try and break the habit. A good way to do this is to help your client to help her/himself. As we’ve said, it’s not about leaving your client out in the cold. They might be sad and do puppy-dog eyes if they’re used to relying on you for everything, so help them to help themselves. Bear in mind that you may be limiting your own usefulness to the client in this case, but if they’re particularly clingy, this may be no bad thing. I’ve not seen it happen, but consider yourself warned!
The first thing to do if you find yourself in a similar position is to limit the assistance you give to the client, and to allow them to help themselves. Respond to their inevitably long and panicky communications with short, friendly, informative posts – as I say, not instantly, but in your own time. Include limited information including, where appropriate, links for the client to read up in her/his own time.
PW: Something that can be really helpful in this kind of situation is saying something like “a good place to find answers to questions like this is here.”. There’s a less tactful version of this – a website called “Let me Google that for you!” – it’s very sarcastic and passive aggressive, so I wouldn’t suggest it, but it’s quite fun so I’ll pop it in the show notes for you. But yes, point them gently in the direction of where you can find that information and they might not only start to find their own feet, they might also get the very gentle hint that it’s not your job!
LH: I’ve had clients come straight out and respond with, “I’d rather you did it.” Or “It’d be quicker if you did it.” And I’m like, “Yes, because I spent hours learning how to do it!”
If this is the case, you need to establish whether you want to do the work but get paid for it, or you don’t want to do the work full stop. One thing about freelancing is, because you’re an individual service provider who deals directly with clients, rather than a big faceless company, clients may start to see you as a bit of a go-to option for everything. You need to decide which services you’re willing to offer and how much of an attachment to one client you really want to have.
PW: This is very true. You might work with people who you genuinely don’t mind helping out a bit, or people whose work is so lucrative to you overall that it’s worth going the extra mile for. The key is to be conscious of this and actually make that decision, rather than just meandering into a situation where you find yourself inadvertently being someone’s on-call pa!
LH: I think that’s a really good way to put it – mindfulness in these situations is really important. You may not mind the client or the work, but if the work creeps to such an extent that there’s an expectation that you’ll do anything and everything, that can feel quite uncomfortable – it starts to remove the autonomy that’s a big part of freelancing
PW: yes, definitely. You became a freelance *writer*, that’s because you didn’t particularly want to be a general advisory-good-at-Google-searching person.
LH: Haha, yes! Clingy clients in my experience often do just want you to Google search for them!
PW: It’s incredible. And as a writer, you have to research a lot and you can get incredible Google results. But just because you’re good at it, doesn’t mean you want to do it all the time.
LH: I imagine clients would soon lose patience if you invoiced them on a Friday for all the Google searches.
PW: Or if they sent you a piece of work and you emailed them back and said, “Sure, but could you just Google “How to write a press release” for me.
LH: You’re right – you end up being that person’s PA.
PW: Sometimes the client is just lacking a bit in confidence and, because you are generally a very useful person, they start to over-rely on you. In these cases, being encouraging – actively so – about their skills can work miracles very quickly.
Something we’ve talked about before is looking at whether you should friend your client on Facebook, and both of us were unequivocal in saying no. So we’re going to talk about what to do if a client is blurring the lines between business and friendship.
LH: It can be a whole can of worms. A worm factory, in fact. Don’t get me wrong, it’s genuinely lovely to have a friendly working relationship with your clients but it’s your responsibility to ensure that you and your clients don’t cross any boundaries. And it’s not just for the sake of it that I say this: experience tells me that clients who try to blur the lines between business and friendship will often try to blur the lines between work and “a favour”, as they’ll call it.
LH: Poor Pip! That was such a knowing “YES!”
LH: Now, the problem with this kind of situation is that, while none of us mind doing the odd favour for our loyal clients, odd favours have a habit of creeping when your client tries to blur the lines. And when the situation with favours creeps out of your control, it becomes a problem.
PW: Yes. It’s like in any aspect of life, there’s always that guy who’s a bit pushy, or that woman who gets into your personal space; this is just the business extension of that. If your boundaries aren’t clear, and haven’t been clear from the start, perhaps, then that kind of person in particular – someone who isn’t the best at reading subtexts – that can be when it starts to spiral. You can feel a bit trapped, as though it’s gone beyond an easy fix, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fixable.
LH: Yes, let’s be kind to them: they might not even realise they’re doing it.
PW: I like to think very few people actively seek to exploit your goodwill but some people do it. They may just be incredibly busy and just think, “Oh, Lorrie will do that”. It’s not automatically someone trying to take advantage.
LH: Yes, with my friendly clients, I’ll ask how their wife’s doing, or how the kids are doing, or how the house move is going. But it’s superficial chat, and it’s chat that tops and tails work-related discussion.
PW: A client of mine recently had a baby and I sent her a congratulations card. I’d heard a lot about her pregnancy, and it seemed appropriate.
LH: That’s nice. If you’d have turned up at her house with a bunch of flowers, that wouldn’t have been ok.
PW: Likewise, if she’d asked me to babysit, that also wouldn’t have been OK! Haha!
LH: Yeah, a closed communication like a Best Wishes card is perfect. And like we say about superficial comments, it’s nice to show some interest in your client as a person.
PW: Definitely – they generally appreciate the personal touch.
LH: And a client might genuinely really enjoy chatting with you, and I have clients who are so lovely, I sometimes wish I’d met them elsewhere. But – and this is where the but comes in – when they start calling you every other day to “get your opinion” on something or “just ask you a quick question”, it can really start to cut into your time.
LH: This can also be the case for clients who you’ve got to know through family, friends or other clients. You’d be surprised at what little excuse some people need in order to expect special treatment or “Mates’ rates” and it can leave you feeling really awkward and unsure of what to do.
PW: Yeah, I’ve done work for various friends. One of my friends was setting up a dress-making business and I wrote her website for her, so mates’ rates applied. I’m not dead keen on that kind of work – it’s not the fees that bother me, because if that were the case, I wouldn’t have done it – but it’s that the lines can get more blurred. If your friend calls you in the evening, you don’t know if it’s work or chat about her boyfriend troubles. So I do work for friends if they ask and it fits, but it’s not something I seek out, really because it can be so tricky to navigate.
LH: In terms of friends, friends-of-friends and people like that, how you want to deal with a client like this depends on how well you know them, how far over the line between business and friendship you’ve got, and how much you value your relationship with them.
PW: Yes, because you do want referrals on the one hand – it’s the best way to get new business, because someone’s directly recommended you, and that’s brilliant. But if someone goes, “Well, I’m your mate and he’s my mate…” My barriers go right up, then.
LH: “I told him you’d cut him a deal!”
PW “Where did you get that idea?!”
LH: Yes! “You told him wrong!” So you have to really think about how much you really value the relationship because, as you can probably tell, listeners, it can be tricky to weasel your way out of this one.
As always, it’s best not to get yourself into these situations in the first place. But, as ever, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to find yourself in a situation that’s more than a little uncomfortable when you’re trying to be a friendly freelancer, especially when you start out as well.
PW: I think it’s safe to say that a lot of the advice we give is based on experience rather than on having taken the best action in the first place…
LH: God, we wouldn’t have a podcast, otherwise!
PW: Haha, yes! So don’t go thinking “those two handle it all brilliantly”. Mostly, we know how to handle it because we’ve done it wrong before.
LH: Yes, and the experience I’m going to share will clearly illustrate that. While I don’t have personal experience of a client blurring the lines between friendship and business, that’s only because, unfortunately, I’ve had my fingers burnt early on by friends who’ve effectively become clients. Over the years, I’ve had a number of friends – I hesitate to call them friends now – and friendly acquaintances, people I used to work with, say, and they’ve asked me to do a piece of work for them – be it some copywriting or a translation – on the understanding that they’ll pay me for my time. Now mates’ rates or not mates’ rates, the expectation has been that it’s work. Now invariable – and I mean literally invariably – once the work is done, all mention of money is forgotten, and it’s never mentioned again.
PW: My friend whose website I wrote – the dress-maker – needed website. She had a friend who was a web designer and they came to an agreement. He was getting married, so she agreed to make his wife’s wedding dress if he would design and build her website.
LH: I think he comes off better in that deal.
PW: Especially as she made his wife’s wedding dress and he never designed her website.
PW: And he was full of good intentions, kept saying he was sorry and still would…
LH: That’s so disgraceful.
PW:…he was just really busy. But this was a wedding dress. She couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t make the dress of this women’s dreams. And yet the web designer did nothing. And he didn’t go into it to trick her, I’m sure of that – and she’s sure of that – but she became really low down on his list of priorities.
LH: That’s a shame isn’t it? Because if that was a paying client…which it was, actually, just because you pay with a wedding dress…
PW: Exactly. Her wedding dresses take weeks to make, and she’s very specialised in what she does – she’s very sought after. And that’s the kind of situation where it seems like a good idea, because she was a bit skint and couldn’t afford a web designer from start to finish.
LH: Likewise, I don’t know if the people I dealt with went into it to trick me – I don’t know whether they had any intention of paying or whether they thought it was just a platitude to trot out, “Oh yah, yah, I’ll pay you.” because people have funny ideas about freelancing – they don’t really see it as proper work.
PW: And especially writing – they think, “Well, I can write.”
LH: But it’s really weird. Because as I say, when the work was done, it was like, “Oh thanks very much…” then silence. And in some cases, towards the end, when it was getting towards invoicing time, I was treated to a side-eyed spiel about how tight money is at the moment, and “God, I’m so broke at the moment…” and…
PW: “In a couple of weeks, it’ll be fine!”
LH: Not even that! Just sad puppy-dog eyes, “I’m really broke at the moment…my husband’s not got much work on at the moment…I don’t know where I’m going to find the money from…thanks for doing this for me…I’m really grateful…”
And in other cases, the so-called friend I’ve done the work for has literally dropped off the radar once the work is complete. I’ve got one person I’ve never heard from again.
PW: And that’s horrible. On the one hand, you’re going, “I spent ten hours on that and it’d be worth X amount of money” but on the other hand, you’re going, “I thought this person liked me!”
LH: Yeah, I sat next to that person for 18 months – we worked together for a year and a half. Heard from them never again.
PW: And for the sake of a friendship, if I were on the other side, I’d think, “I can either give her £300 or I can lose a friendship.” And you’ve got to wonder.
LH: Yeah, in my case, I decided not to pursue the matter of money. It was too horrible and I felt stupid, and I think that’s what they were relying on: the embarrassment.
PW: Yes, we don’t like to push it, especially about money, especially if you’re British.
LH: Yes, we don’t like to push it and beg for money. But the invoices in my case varied from about £50 to about £300. And while that’s not a big thing anymore in terms of money, it absolutely has soured both my relationships with the people involved and taught me never to work for friends unless they understand entirely that this is my job. Even then, I’d be loath to work for someone who wasn’t another freelancer, to be honest. I’d happily work for you, Pip, and we’ve done that. We invoice one another professionally and the invoices are paid immediately.
PW: Same as we would with any client or contractor, because that’s the appropriate thing to do.
LH: And I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. It’s a pet hate, honestly. And as we’ve said, this podcast is based on our experiences. And I’ve been taken for a mug on several occasions. So now, there have been times when other friends have asked me to do some work for them, I’ve said no. I’m sure I might come across as a bit harsh to them at the time, but the fact is, I don’t want to lose respect for any more people I know! My advice would be never mix business and pleasure unless you’re more than happy to work for free.
PW: And earlier, we mentioned the fact that if you do get stung, you can get a bit defensive. That happened to me the other week, when a regular client got in touch wanting some extra work. Now I emailed Lorrie immediately and said, “Ugh, can’t believe it, look what this client is asking! So unreasonable!” and Lorrie quite rightly pointed out that he wasn’t pushing it, he was actually just asking. But I was so snowed under that it felt like a cheek. So yes, you can get overly sensitive, and it’s good to check it out with someone else. So yeah, you can find yourself a bit militant.
LH: Yes, you have to remember that, just because you’ve had your fingers burnt, doesn’t mean you should start to stick to your guns at the expense of other things.
LH: So yes, if your client is starting to blur the lines a little bit, my advice would be to pull back. It can sometimes be a shame – you might wish you knew them in other circumstances – but the fact is that sooner or later, mixing business and friendship gets messy. Don’t add clients on personal social media accounts, as we said in our last dual episode. Make sure that dinner or drinks with your client are professional – don’t get drunk or overshare information about your personal life: the terrible partner you had.
PW: Keep TMI for your actual friends. I’m a big fan of TMI, but not at work. And this isn’t to say you can’t have semi-formal semi-social business meetings. I went to the Content Marketing Show in London last week, and I emailed my regular London clients to see if they wanted to meet up for a drink.
LH: And I’d do the same thing.
PW: Yeah. And that’s fine – it’s when it goes beyond that.
LH: Think carefully, really, is what we’re trying to say. You don’t have to be specific about the fact that you’re pulling back. Maybe take longer to respond to emails and phone calls. Be a bit less available. Be busy next time an informal lunch comes up. Generally, there are ways to reset the boundaries without having to have The Chat although, of course, it’s not always that simple.
PW: Yeah, sometimes The Chat has to happen, and you have to uncompromisingly outline your boundaries. Other times, it needs to be more than that, though. It needs to be The Final Chat.
LH: Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you clingy client just won’t get the message and take the hint. Maybe they’re deliberately trying to squeeze as much work from you as possible, maybe they’re just over-reliant on your skills that they’re terrified to do anything without you, despite your encouragement and distancing techniques. Maybe they just think you’re brilliant and they don’t want to spend a minute without you.
PW: Yes, and you mustn’t let yourself get taken for a mug. Most clients are genuinely respectful and great, but there will always be the odd one who sets out deliberately to take advantage and get as much from you as they can. Or who’ll be so thoughtless and unable to see your point that you can’t rescue the situation.
LH: Yes, as you say, it might not be malicious, but it comes to the point where their convenience is more important to them than your convenience. In my experience, this final straw moment can be a real turning point for finding out which kind of person you’re dealing with – the evil client or the really clueless client. I’ve had clients who’ve stomped off in a huff when I tell them, “No, sorry, we’re not going to be working like this.” and I’ve had others who’ve respected me for it and stopped trying to push the boundaries (at least, as often!).
PW: I had a massive turn-around, as Lorrie knows, where I was treated badly repeatedly, then I was firm, firm, and firmer – as firm as I could be. And finally, when I was ready to end it entirely…I’ve never seen a U-turn like it. They can’t do enough to keep me happy. So you can be surprised sometimes.
LH: I’ve had a similar experience recently with a client who went off in a huff. As I advised with my episode of Professional Courtesy, I ignored the rudeness. A couple of months later, they’re back with an apology. And I feel vindicate – quite right that they should apologise; they were very rude.
PW: taking decisive action at this stage is vital, but can be hard. It’s safe to say that both lorrie and I have found ourselves – recently – having to be very firm with a client and, complex and scary as it was, we both felt a million times better once we’d done it.
LH: 100% – you start to feel a bit daft about letting it bother you so much – I get it from friends or my husband.
PW: Yes, it’s easier for someone outside the situation to see it more clearly.
LH: Yes, you often only realise once the clingy client is gone what an unhealthy relationship it had become; once your head is free from their clinginess and whininess. In the event that you dump a long-term or repeat client, it might be as simple as explaining that the situation isn’t working for you anymore and going your separate ways once all work is complete for them. Alternatively, tell the client you don’t have the time to give them the support they need; I’ve advised previous clingy clients to invest in a virtual assistant rather than a copywriter. You might have to be pretty insistent if the client has got pretty reliant on you, and maybe expect some huffy emails or phonecalls!
LH: In the case of a one-off project, it’s really important to have put an agreement in place to protect both you and the client in the event of issues like these.
PW: Yes, you don’t have to make a big song and dance about it, either – just pop the agreement in with your email and it’s generally fine.
LH: Yes, I send agreements after clients have decided that they’re happy with my proposal. If you don’t panic, clients don’t panic.
PW: Yes, and I always make sure to include terms that protect my clients. There are ways to do this without it being a massively awkward encounter.
LH: You may find yourself having to refund a deposit to the client, for example, or having to refund part of the price. If you’ve got it down in writing who gets what and under what circumstances so that there’s no room for argument if the relationship ends or turns sour.
PW: this might sound like arguing over who gets the sofa during a divorce but if things are already difficult, you don’t want to make it any more complicated or open to misinterpretation than it needs to be.
LH: Yes, if you try and negotiate with someone who’s cross, you’ll get nothing.
PW: And you’ll be angry, they’ll be angry and the whole thing will leave you both with a bad taste in your mouth.
LH: So, hope that’s been a really helpful introduction to coping with Project Creep. Sorry if you thought we were going to be talking about creepy clients…
PW: That’s a whoooole other episode!
LH: That is a whole other episode! So yes, if you need any advice on dealing with clingy clients or project creep, come and have a chat to us. Google “A Little Bird Told Me freelance writing podcast” and all our links are there.
PW: So now it’s time for the legendary – no less! – A Little Bird Told Me Recommendations of the week. So Lorrie, what’s your recommendation?
LH: I’ve done it again – I’ve gone and found a recommendation that’s really old. My recommendation this week is a blog post from 2007 from Freelance Folder, entitled, Writers: How Not To Suck At Marketing. Now, I’m not naming any names this week, but it’s been a baaaaad week for marketing in my little circle. I’ve seen marketing faux pas after marketing faux pas and it seems like no one is taking our advice!
PW: Some people still suck at marketing, Lorrie!
LH: They do! They suck! If you’re listening to this, maybe you suck too! But we’re not giving up on you. So, number one in this article is, Treat It Like A Real Business. An example given by the author is that he received an application from someone with the email address “PrettyMissy456@aol.com”
LH: Now it says, “Would you hire an account or lawyer with an email address like this?” And it’s true you wouldn’t. But yeah, there are some really good tips. Tip number two is “Get a real website”, tip number three is “But act like a real person.” Tip four is “Spend some money”. And at first I was like, “Hmmm…” about that, but there are some really good points in there about the outlays that you really do need to make to set up as a freelancer. It’s why we suggest having some money behind you when you set up.
PW: Yeah, and it might only be small things like web hosting and getting a URL – those are the kinds of things I wouldn’t recommend compromising on. Don’t use a free blog to promote yourself as a professional. Even if you don’t want to go and put an ad in a magazine, there are some outlays that people go to ridiculous lengths to avoid. You can avoid them but sometimes the compromise you make…like, having a proper website with its own URL will probably make you more money than you spend, whereas if you go for a free one, you might well lose money.
LH: Yes, I mean, I like what the author’s written: “Is it your basic human right to be paid for doing what you love without spending a dime of your own cash? No.” He’s all for boot-strapping, but yes, it’s a good point: the world doesn’t owe you a living; some things cost money.
LH: Tip number five, the final one, is “Figure out what you’re good at and tell people about it.” And it’s just about promoting yourself properly and realistically, talking about any specialities you have. And what really swung it for me was the bonus tip, which is “For God’s sake, proof-read!”
LH: And it says, “I really wish I didn’t have to say this, but I clearly do. We got 68 applications for our most recent job posting and 51 of those had major errors. I’m not talking about using a semi-colon when I would’ve preferred a dash, I’m talking about starting an email with ‘Hello, my Lisa!’. And always check your attachments because you never know what you’re sending!”
PW: I always, always quadruple check my attachments.
LH: Me too. I’m laughing just thinking now about a specific example that’s famous on the ‘net. A girl applied for a job and said, “Please find attached my CV”, and instead of her CV, she attached a picture of Nicholas Cage!
PW: Hahahahaha! I once got an email related to a website I do the social media for. And someone had contacted me to ask if I’d promote this particular event they were doing. So she emailed me and said, “Here’s the link”. And then pasted a recipe and emailed it to me!
PW: So I replied with, “Um…did you mean to send me a recipe?” And she was mortified, and it was easily fixed, but yes, you do have to be careful.
LH: Aww. So Philippa, can you trump that recommendation?
PW: Well, rather than seeing it as a competition, I’d like to see it as compl-e-menting…
PW: I was trying to get across that it was compl-e-menting!
LH: I wondered why you suddenly went “Compleeeeementing!” Is it a compeeeetition?!
PW: Yes, I realised it sounded ridiculous! Hahaha! So, my recommendation this week is a post from the Online Journalism Blog and it’s 37 Free E-books on Journalism. It looks great and even if you don’t specifically do journalism, any kind of writer could find something relevant here. So, there’s one by Adam Westbrook called, “Ideas on digital story-telling and publishing” for example. So again, could be good for writers, editors, all sorts of people.
PW: The post is divided into segments: computer-assisted reporting, community management, staying savvy in the information war – because there’s so much information around that we need to know how to get it right – and there’s also an investigative journalism section that looks brilliant. There’s an investigative journalism manual from an African perspective, which is really interesting – we in the West might often overlook that. There’s a security guide for people who work in dangerous environments or have sources who need to be protected. So even if you’re not a journalist, learning about whether or not to download books illegally…this is all stuff that applies to many kinds of writers.
LH: Definitely. It’s widely applicable.
PW: The post is originally from January last year and the author is also updating it, so it’s a good one to keep an eye on.
LH: Brilliant. We were just bemoaning, like grumpy old freelance ladies, that it can sometimes feel like writing standards are dropping a bit. So yes, anything that will encourage people to good quality writing standards can only be a good thing.
PW: Definitely – to report more responsibly and legally, too. And more people like me and doing journalism without the formal training. So it looks great. And once you’ve absorbed this information, it’ll improve your work from then on.
LH: Brilliant recommendation!
PW: Thank you very much! So we really hope some of what we’ve said today will prove useful to you. Even if you’re in a brilliant position now, bear it in mind when working with people long term, and when taking on new business.
LH: Definitely – because starting off on the right foot is always easier than getting out of a pickle! So that brings us to the end of A Little Bird Told Me 42!
PW: Impressive numbers we’re at now!
LH: Hugely impressive! If there’s anything you’d like us to talk about, let us know. All our links are at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…
PW:…and I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and we’ll see you next time.