The Copywriter's Crucible

Surviving the Vagaries of the Freelance Life

How to deal with business bullies (before the contract is signed)

Posted by rachelwriter on September 14, 2009

Photo Courtesy: Chesi - Fotos CC/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: Chesi - Fotos CC/Flickr

I was on the phone the other day with a potential client when he said to me, “You know, I could spend all day re-writing your contract.  How about I just send over the check for the deposit and you get started?”

Oh.  My bad!  Yeah, let’s just go right ahead and skip over all that poppycock I call a “contract.”  I don’t need to protect my rights as a small business owner.  I’ll just take your word for everything, sir.  I’ll spend hours of my time to create a quality product for you.  And, in exchange, you’ll give me… your word.  Not on paper, of course.  But by phone. 

So, sure.  Go right ahead and send along that check at your leisure.  You know, whenever it’s convenient for you.  I have full faith in your honesty, integrity, and ethicality.  In the meantime, I’ll get started on your project.  Because I know that, deep down inside, you’re a kind-hearted, puppy-eyed Good Samaritan who wants only to ensure that his vendors are treated and compensated fairly.  No, you’re not a money-hungry businessman at the helm of a multi-million dollar corporation.  You, kind sir, are the epitome of professionalism.

How silly of me for even asking you to sign your name on that rigmarole….


Don’t worry.  I didn’t accept the client’s proposal.  But, sadly, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.  Nor will it be the last.

It’s a sad fact that Big Companies in Big Cities with Big Boards and Big CEOs often look down upon us lowly, small businesses and, well, try to bully us into making concessions in their favor.  After all, we little guys don’t have the resources or the clout to stand up to the Big Guys.  (Or, at least, they think that.)  So, if we want their business, we’re at their mercy.  (Or, so they tell themselves.)

To make matters worse, in the eyes of behemoth companies, spending a few thousand dollars on a copywriter is like emptying out loose pocket change.  It’s a trivial transaction—and one that gets put on the backburner while other, bigger, more important financial obligations are met.

To a solo business owner, on the other hand, those few thousand dollars could be sustenance for a whole month.  It costs an awful lot to run a business sometimes.  Every penny counts.

And that means we’ve got to protect ourselves.  On paper.  Every time. 

Big Business trying to bully you?  Here’s how to deal:

Educate the bully.  So, Harry McHarrier doesn’t want to sign your contract because he thinks it’s hogwash?  Tell Harry that, while you understand there’s a lot of legal “stuff” in that contract, you simply cannot and will not work without a signed copy in your hands.  Remind him that his company would never perform professional services without first getting its payment terms in writing, and that your company is no different.  Explain that, as a small business owner, a transaction of even a few hundred or thousand dollars merits a signed agreement because, in the small business world, a few hundred or thousand dollars is a sizable amount of money.  If Harry is smart, he will understand—and he will agree to abide by your terms.

Ask the bully what it is about the contract, specifically, that irks him.  Something still bothering Harry?  Ask him what it is.  Does he not like the idea of you using his company’s name on your Web site’s client list?  Is he not comfortable with a certain deadline?  Maybe there’s a way you can tweak some of the wording in the contract so that both parties are satisfied.  Just don’t go stripping away your rights and protective clauses!  Those stay put.  Period.

Threaten to walk away from the bully—and the project.  Harry still won’t budge, eh?  Well, you shouldn’t budge, either.  Be forthright: tell him that if he’s that uncomfortable with your contract, you’ll be happy to part ways.  And he’ll have to find another copywriter who’s willing to work without a contract.  Which will never happen.  Unless the “writer” is a numskull (in which case Harry will really be in touble).    

Walk away.  Harry thinks you’re bluffing?  Now’s your chance to prove to him that you’re not.  Walk away.  End of story.  It’s not worth it to sit around and beg for respect from someone who clearly doesn’t respect you or your work.  Get out now.  In the end, it will be Harry’s loss—not yours.


2 Responses to “How to deal with business bullies (before the contract is signed)”

  1. southwrite said

    Great post Rachel on a very wide spread problem for freelancers. I have to say though that most of the problem clients I’ve seen have been the small not big ones. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but the large corporations I’ve worked for seem to have procedures for handling vendors and follow them. With small clients you’re usually dealing with the owner who feels the money he’s paying you is coming directly out of his pocket and wants the best — read lowest — price possible. They also seem to be the ones who think they can get away with not paying you if they don’t feel like it. And, as such small businesses, freelancers have few recourses to get their money — usually because we lack the stomach for going after them in a concerted way.

  2. So true! I got burned once, and now, even my close friends sign contracts. It’s just a smart way to do business.

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