If you’re a freelance blogger or you offer some other freelance service online, you probably already have a few of your own stories about clients from hell, don’t you?
I’ve been a full-time online freelancer since 2014 — and over the past two years, I’ve experimented with offering a whole bunch of different services.
Everything from freelance blogging to social media management to video editing to email marketing…
(The social media work turned out to be my favorite, so it’s most of what I do now…)
And man, if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, there is a whole lot of work available out there in the digital marketing space!
I’ve also worked with a whole host of different clients — from tech startups to independent bloggers to established restaurant chains to… well, what I call Hail Mary clients. You know, Hail Mary… as in the play in American football?
“A Hail Mary pass is a very long forward pass in American football, made in desperation with only a small chance of success.”
Yeah, those types of businesses, too.
We’ll talk more about those guys later.
So back in April, I published a post on Blogging Wizard entitled, How To Avoid Getting Burned When Outsourcing To Freelancers.
In it, I reviewed a few basic principles for successfully outsourcing and scaling your business, such as:
- Don’t outsource too soon.
- Don’t outsource tasks you should be doing yourself.
- Consider multiple avenues to find talented freelancers to work with.
- Vet all potential candidates carefully before hiring anyone.
But one question that came up in the comments was,
“What about us as freelance bloggers? How do we avoid getting burned when finding new clients?”
And one that I would be happy to tackle for you based strictly off my own personal experiences.
Because as a one-man or one-woman show, we — as freelancers — simply don’t have time to waste working with nightmare, headache-inducing clients.
But first, let me offer you…
A quick disclaimer for new(er) freelance bloggers
Have you recently made the leap to running your own online, service-based business?
If so, that’s great news!
Welcome to the (digital) family.
And let me also say this… prepare to get burned once or twice.
Whether you are a freelance blogger, graphic designer, web developer, social media guru — whatever — you’re (unfortunately) going to have to pay your dues.
It’s just part of the process of gaining experience, testimonials, and portfolio samples to win better clients down the road.
Let me give you a personal example.
Three of my best clients over the past year — added together — have brought in $19,368 (USD) in revenue for me.
(Yes, I just counted…!)
And that’s just from those three clients.
Do you know where I first found those three clients back in 2014?
So if you’re a new(er) freelance blogger and you’re not on Fiverr, I urge you to reconsider.
You don’t have to offer 1,000-word articles for $5 — but you can offer something at a low price point to at least get your foot in the door.
Let me give you a personal example.
Back in 2014, I started out offering a Fiverr gig where I’d write five tweets or Facebook posts for just $5… but forget about the $5, especially since I only got $4 after Fiverr took their cut. The important thing is that I was trading my time for leads.
Each new gig I delivered gave me a chance to mention my social media management services to prospective clients.
And that led to a lot of new business, including the three clients I just referenced.
Now, I had never received anything less than a perfect 5-star review on that post-writing gig, and that was partially because I did extra work on each gig I delivered — often 6-7 posts for $5 or including branded images for the buyer.
I knew that having perfect feedback meant my gig would rank higher in Fiverr searches.
But I remember having to make tough calls on that platform more than once.
I delivered five posts to one buyer, for example, and he instantly asked for a refund. He said the posts I wrote were awful…
So I had to make a judgment call.
If I refused his refund request, it would escalate to Fiverr support — and they would no doubt issue the refund anyway.
But even if they didn’t, this buyer would end up leaving me a negative review… thus killing off my perfect 5-star streak.
So I issued the refund and the client kept the posts.
In a few days, I checked out his Facebook page…
And guess what?
He used the posts just as I delivered them.
Yes, I got burned.
The client asked for the refund strictly so he could get some free work out of me.
This is a small example, of course — only $5 — but the point is that sometimes getting burned is just part of how we learn and grow our businesses. To be frank, I wouldn’t trade my experience on Fiverr for anything… a lot of the clients I still serve to this day began as a $5 gig.
But moving past a platform like Fiverr, let’s begin by looking at one of the most common ways freelancers get burned — not getting paid.
#1 – Invoice your clients upfront
I know this point will be contested by other freelancers.
- Some will say they invoice when they deliver the project, and that works for them.
- Some will say they invoice half upfront and half at delivery, and that works for them.
But the complaint I hear most often when freelancers describe getting burned is that they didn’t get paid for the work they did.
I personally have never had this problem.
Because aside from platforms like Upwork that have the client pre-fund an escrow account, my policy has always been — and will always be — that clients must pay upfront in full before I will begin their project or service.
I would rather lose a potential client than risk doing a month of work for free.
And do you know how many times a client has refused to work with me as a result of my payment terms?
One time, on a $2,000 ghostwriting project, I agreed to invoice half upfront and half at delivery. I was okay with that arrangement because I outsourced the job to another freelance writer for $800 in total.
So even if I never got the second payment, I would lose nothing.
(Fortunately, I did get the second payment…!)
But most of my social media services involve recurring monthly payments. So if we start service on July 15, your first invoice is due on or before July 15. And then that same amount is due on or before the 15th of every month thereafter.
If payment isn’t made on-time, service discontinues.
Even as a freelance blogger, the best case scenario is that you work out a regular writing or publishing schedule with your client — two blog posts per month, for example.
That way, you can invoice your client the same amount on the same day each month — prior to doing the writing — and begin to build a recurring monthly income for yourself.
Now, if your clients are used to paying you on delivery, you might have an uphill battle convincing them to change when their payments are due. Don’t bother… just focus on changing your payment terms for new clients going forward.
And if you use a platform for invoicing such as PayPal, consider upgrading to a (free) business account — you can then set up automatic monthly payments to make getting paid consistently that much easier.
#2 – Put everything in writing, but skip the contracts
Ever heard that a contract is only as good as the paper it’s written on?
It’s basically true.
If you’re Verizon, for example, contracts are very important. If customers don’t pay their monthly bill, you’ll send them to collections… or have your billing or legal team pursue payment.
But as an independent freelance blogger…
- Do you have a legal team?
- Do you work with a collections department?
- Do you have unlimited time in a day to chase down payments?
Of course not.
If a client doesn’t pay, you aren’t likely to sue. You aren’t going to hire a third party collector. And if you hound the client for payment, you’re likely just wasting time.
Move on already.
If you had collected payment upfront in the first place, this wouldn’t be an issue.
Yet I hear of so many freelancers wasting time crafting these detailed, thorough, multi-page contracts, written in convoluted and iron-clad legalese.
Is it because they want to appear super duper professional to their clients?
But I find nothing professional about wasting time putting together a contract that is almost entirely non-enforceable. Especially if the client happens to live in a different state or country.
I suppose another reason for contracts is because some freelancers want to lock their clients into fixed-term arrangements… which I also find absurd.
I don’t know about you, but I began my freelancing career so I could pursue the things I want to do, not the things I don’t.
And I don’t know of anyone who would want to legally force a client to continue their working relationship if either party wants out. That’s just a recipe for disaster, headaches and conflict.
It is, of course, very important to clearly outline service and payment terms in writing, but an email or text-based Skype chat will suffice.
Be very clear on what you’re agreeing to so there is no misunderstanding later… but a detailed contract adds no value.
Forget about ’em.
#3 – Diversify your book of business
If you have followed me online for any period of time, you would have probably heard or seen me mention the following three things:
- Financial Independence
These three concepts are the basis upon which I make every decision for my online business.
- Will this decision allow me the continued freedom to be in complete control of my business?
- Will this decision allow me the continued flexibility to work where and when I chose?
- Will this decision allow me the continued financial independence to support my chosen lifestyle?
Unless I can get a yes to all three of those questions, I will decide against any business decision — or working with any particular client.
For example, some freelancers prefer to work with fewer but better-paying clients.
I prefer working with a larger number of budget-conscious clients.
Simply put… job security.
I’m not afraid of losing a client at any given point.
No one client will make or break my month.
But if you’re going to work with only one or two big clients, you might as well go back to being a paid employee. Either way, you lack financial independence because you are counting on a single source for the majority of your monthly revenue.
The threat of being burned by a client is mitigated significantly when that client represents a small(er) percentage of your income.
Consider diversifying your services, and pitching smaller potential clients on smaller jobs. Those smaller jobs are often easier to win, easier to do, easier to outsource, and insulate you against wild fluctuations in your monthly earnings.
Plus, you’ll hesitate a lot less to drop a client from hell.
#4 – Vet clients on a video call
Much as I described in my previous post about vetting a potential freelancer, you must also vet your prospective clients.
Even if the job sounds doable and the client seems reputable, it’s worth doing a little digging.
Some of that can be done online…
- For instance, if you found a prospective client through a platform like Upwork, does he or she have positive feedback and history?
- If you found a prospective client through your contact form or social media, can you learn more about him or her online?
- Are there reviews of his or her business on Google? Are they positive?
- Do any of your contacts in the freelancing world have experience working with this client?
And last, but not least:
Does this client run a profitable business?
This last question certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all of choosing who to serve. For instance, a brand new startup may not yet be profitable — but there is potential there.
On the other hand, I once worked with a blogger… let’s call her Samantha just for the sake of this blog post.
Samantha had a heart of gold.
She really wanted to help people afflicted with a certain illness that she too suffered with. She regularly blogged and created YouTube videos to speak to those afflicted individuals.
- Her content was poorly thought out at best.
- The videos made no sense… they were cringe-worthy to watch.
- And her blog content was terribly written in terms of substance, formatting, grammar, and — well, her content had no redeeming qualities — to be quite honest — aside from her good intentions.
And to top it off, she had no monetization strategy. She just simply knew that one day money would fall in her lap if she kept producing new content.
She nonetheless hired me to manage her Facebook page for the better part of a year… but it became apparent to me rather quickly that Samantha had a shelf life, and I would eventually lose her business once her marketing dollars ran out.
And they did.
But throughout our time working together, I would try to gently offer suggestions in terms of how she might grow her business and start to bring in some monthly revenue… but to be blunt, I’m a freelance social media manager — not a business consultant.
This an example of a Hail Mary client, as I described earlier. Despite my best work and my best intentions, I could not force her to succeed.
But would I work with her again?
She was very positive, a great communicator, paid on time, and was really clear about what she wanted from me.
So when I talk about vetting your clients, whether or not they have a profitable and successful business shouldn’t ultimately decide whether or not you accept the job.
But it can be a good indicator.
I recommend you — as a freelance blogger — get on a video call with prospective clients and find out the following:
- What exactly does your client expect you to write?
- How often will they need new content?
- How will they measure the quality of the work you turn in?
- How do they intend to use the content you write?
- Why are they choosing to hire a writer now?
- What kind of turnaround time do they require on the writing you do?
- Who else is involved on this project that you’ll need to communicate with?
These are sample questions, of course.
You can ask any questions you wish.
In fact, the questions you will need to ask will vary wildly depending on the prospective client and the writing job at hand.
But the main thing I encourage you to do is look for red flags. For instance…
- Does the client expect you to be available to talk any time of the day or night?
- Does the client have difficulty articulating his or her expectations for you?
- Is the client unclear on what exactly a job well done will look like?
If so, I would describe all of these as red flags.
It isn’t that you need to decline working with him or her, but beware that it may not be a long-term working relationship. And it might be riddled with headaches along the way.
Proceed with caution.
And lastly, you might wonder why I emphasized video calls in this subheading.
There are a few reasons for it.
First, did you ever watch the TV show Lie to Me?
It’s based on the book Telling Lies by Paul Ekman, a lie-detection expert. Since reading that book, I value the opportunity to read facial cues while having a conversation.
I’m less interested in what a person has to say and more interested in how he or she says it.
(…perhaps it’s my decade or so of sales experience that urges me to read between the lines!)
But second, and perhaps more importantly, I would never want to accept a job without first getting a gut feeling for a prospective client. I want to know what he or she is all about. As much as he or she is interviewing me for the job, I want to know who it is that I may potentially be serving.
- Can I work with this person?
- Will he or she be fair with me?
- Will I be able to communicate effectively with him or her?
All important questions.
And simply accepting a job through email or an online job board like Upwork won’t answer those questions for me.
Not all that glitters is gold
In the early days of every freelancing career, mistakes will be made.
The important thing is to learn from those mistakes and continue building.
As your reputation as a freelance blogger grows — along with your testimonials, contacts, portfolio samples, and experience — so too will your ability to avoid clients from hell.
It is, after all, much easier to decline working with a prospective client when you already have a stable and steady monthly income.
Just remember to:
- Invoice clients upfront for services rendered.
- Put everything in writing but skip the technical contracts.
- Diversify your book of business — don’t put your eggs all in one basket!
- And finally, vet your clients thoroughly and schedule at least one video call with them.
For those of you who freelance — as writers or otherwise — what other tips would you share to avoid getting burned?