• Advice

Maintain your sanity by managing client expectations

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

Every freelance writer I know, including myself, has run into that client. Some of us seem to get nothing but that client over and over again.

You know the one.

Calling or emailing at 10 p.m. on weekdays, on weekends and at lunchtime, demanding immediate attention. Endless followup emails if your response time is longer than 10 minutes. Little tweaks to your work that see edits going around and around ad infinitum. We’ve all got horror stories.

One of the major problems is that it’s difficult to identify which clients are going to turn into bugbears when you sign on to a project. By the time you realize your mistake, you’ve put in too many hours to jump ship without getting paid, but you know the projects is going to take up unexpected time you had slotted for other projects. You cancel your evening plans. Your personal and work schedule is botched for the rest of the week.

The best way to protect yourself from these situations is to start setting the expectations of your client early and often. This serves a twofold purpose:

  • Giving you the authority of an agreement to refer back to if a client gets frustrating.
  • Allowing both you and the client to identify, right from the start, if the relationship will work.

First up: Always Create a Project Contract

We’ll go into detail about what should be included in a contract like this in just a moment. But it’s important to note the relevance of contracts. They are a daunting beast, and for us freelance folk it can seem easier to just charge our hourly rate. I did it the hourly way for a long while. I was afraid of contracts because I thought that clients would be too. I also struggled with the idea of putting a price on a project before I knew how long it was going to take.

The fact is, at a glance you can probably work out exactly how long a project should take. You know your craft that well. And clients are generally only afraid of the commitment of signing a contract if they’re likely to give you a hard time. Otherwise, they tend to appreciate the more well-defined terms.

Never work without a contract, it offers significant protections and guarantees for both parties.

Set a Project Fee, Not an Hourly Fee

This is a difficult transition. Most of us stick to hourly fees because we want to make sure we get paid if a project goes on for longer than expected. The fact is that a well-written contract takes care of that eventuality as well.

It’s better for clients:

They get to know up-front how much a project costs. Many will agreeably pay more if they’re given the financial predictability of a solid fee, rather than relying on an estimate based on an hourly fee.

These types of fees also work better for business-minded people. It’s easier for them to wrap their heads around paying for a product than worrying about hours worked. It assures them that you won’t overcharge and pad your work hours, and it makes it easier for their accounting.

It’s better for you:

Framing your writing this way has a subtle effect on the way your work is viewed. The conversation is not longer about the value of your time, which companies are used to seeing as negotiable, but the value of the result of your work, which they generally think of as less negotiable. In their view a thing, an outcome, a project, has a cost. People have wages.

If a potential client happens to balk at your rate, framing the conversation around project cost can be a new tool in your arsenal.

Define the Writing Project Scope

This is where you can really begin to protect yourself from project creep. How many words are you contracted for? How many edits? How many hours of research? When a client hits the maximum of a certain service, as defined by the contract, you have an authoritative resource to point back to and say “this is how much more what you’re asking for will cost.” It’s a lot harder to argue with you about the scope of a project that they signed off on.

Include Payment and Refund Terms

Put your expectations for payment into the contract. How will you invoice the client? What options do they have to pay you with? How long do they have to make the payment?

If you have circumstances under which you issue refunds, or even if you have a “no refund” policy, put it into the contract. If a relationship goes south and that conversation comes up, you will have the document to refer back to. Be extremely specific.

This is an important part of managing your life and work as a freelancer. As most of us know, the freedom with freelance work comes at the cost of constantly worrying whether a client will pay on time for us to make rent. Payments coming in on time are vital to your financial health as a freelancer. Your personal stability and the financial growth of your business depend on enforceable agreements about payment.

Always, Always, Always Note Discounts on Invoices

Especially when I was hourly, if I did a project for cheap or free (ugh), I would just charge what I was owed. Here’s the thing: When you’re giving people discounts, you need to enforce the value of your work. Even if you’re volunteering, exchanging services, or working for free (because let’s be honest, we’ve all done it as much as we clamour online that no-one should), phrase it as a discount and send an invoice. I know, invoices are their own barrel of anxiety worms, but it becomes simple when you master the essentials on an invoice. Once you have some practice presenting that information you’ll never go back.

The important thing to take away, for the purposes of this post, is that you never apply a discount before the subtotal. Put the full, ideal cost of each service on the invoice. Calculate the subtotal. Calculate your discount and note it, then provide the total. Even if your discount is 100 percent, apply it, adjust the total owed, and send the invoice for $0.

This establishes the value of your work and positions you as generously offering something that is worth money. If you give someone free stuff, or cheap stuff, they will always want more for the same price. This is an easier way to say “this is a one-time discount.”

Enforce Office Hours

Even if you work at home, enforce office hours. Even if you do your work from a laptop in bed, when you’re working you’re “in the office” — and when you’re not, you’re “out of the office.” Set up an auto-email reply during off-hours that gently reminds people who send questions to your work email of your office hours.

Know When to Fold ‘em

The final fantastic thing about contracts that we’ll talk about is their ability to sniff out problem clients. The most obvious sign of trouble is if they are hesitant to sign or are pushy about expanding the scope of a project (but not the fee). The second signal you get is weasly behaviour after they’ve signed. Once they’ve signed, there is a hard line in the sand. If they continue to try and negotiate with you, that’s your signal to end the relationship.

Depending on the circumstances, it might be best to finish the work, send the invoice, and then end the relationship after you’ve been paid. Sometimes it will be best for your mental health to just end the relationship immediately and sacrifice the payment. Difficult clients cost you money and time, so ripping the scab off all at once can be more beneficial in the long term. If your contract is airtight, you can sometimes charge a client anyway if an agreement is terminated due to them breaching the agreement. Just consider how much more stress you can handle before you go down that road.

Those situations should come up rarely. The purpose of the contract is to begin the process of managing a client’s expectations. If they know what to expect right from the start, and are presented with friendly reminders throughout the project, you are much less likely to have trouble. Mildly difficult clients can be managed and turned into ideal clients this way. And for those that just won’t play ball, these tips should give you the tools to confidently end the relationship.

What experiences have you had with client expectations that run wildly out of control? I’d love to hear about them!

Ben Steele is a writer, theatre(re) professional, and nonprofit administrator. He was born in England, spent his teen and early 20s in Canada, and now lives in America. Please excuse his occasionally confused voice and the odd recalcitrant u after an o.