The Copywriter's Crucible

Surviving the Vagaries of the Freelance Life

How to spot a snakey client before signing the contract

Posted by rachelwriter on October 7, 2009

Photo Courtesy: Jayanth Sharma/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: Jayanth Sharma/Flickr

Not too long ago, fellow writer, blogger, and Twitter pal Randy Southerland wrote a post about how to recognize when a particular client isn’t… well… worth it.  And, by “it,” I mean the time, the effort, or even the paycheck.

I’d like to add my own two cents on this topic.

Sometimes the allure of some extra cash can be so enticing that we freelancers forget how to look out for ourselves.  Instead, we go against our better judgment and contract with a nightmare client.  You know the type: impossible to please, hypocritical, late on payment(s), disrespectful, etc.  In a word, unprofessional.

Recently, I’ve been dealing with a prospective client who first reached out to me many, many weeks ago for a rather large copywriting project.  The client requested a detailed quote for my services, which I provided, and then expressed a great deal of interest in working with me.  The client then said s/he’d be back in touch with me in a few days to sign the contract.  It all sounded very promising.

But then the client vanished.  Without a trace.  For several weeks.  And didn’t bother to respond to my follow-up phone calls and e-mails.  I all but gave up.

Several weeks after that, though, I FINALLY received a return phone call from the client.  S/he basically admitted that s/he’d deliberately ignored me because the company had decided to do the job in-house.  Until, that is, they came to their senses and realized just how badly they needed professional help. 

The client never did apologize for his/her unprofessional conduct, but because s/he basically hired me on the spot, I considered it water under the bridge; I was too seduced by the promise of adding a new client to my roster.  The client then promised to sign the contract, pay the deposit, and deliver all necessary materials by the following week so that I could get started right away.  And before hanging up, s/he reiterated how thrilled s/he was to be working with me.

I was feeling pretty good.  It was a sizeable project.  A decent paycheck.  And a wonderful creative outlet.  And, the client seemed genuinely excited about working with me. 

Of course, things didn’t exactly work out as I had expected. 

Weeks upon weeks have passed since the day the client “hired” me, and, to date, I still haven’t heard from him/her.  Not a peep.  Nuttin’.  Nada.  Despite my repeated efforts to follow up and find out what the hell is going on. 

I feel annoyed.  Frustrated.  Angry.  Yes, very, very angry.

But, most of all, I actually feel… smarter.  Enlightened.  Like I’ve learned an invaluable lesson, here.

And this is it:

As far as I’m concerned, the well of “prospects” has run dry for this “prospective” client.  I’ve learned that this client would only waste my time, effort, and energy if I signed on to work for him/her.  And that no amount of money (which I’d likely have to fight tooth and nail to receive, anyway) would be enough to compensate for the migraine I’d suffer as a result.

No Sir-ee Bob, this is not a company I’d want to work for.  Ever.  And so, I won’t.  For my own sake.  For my own sanity.  For my own scruples, for crying out loud! 

And so, if the client ever does get back to me, my response will be simple: thanks, but no thanks.  I simply cannot, and will not, work with unprofessional people. 

If there’s one thing I hope you’ll walk away with after reading this anecdote, it’s this: if a prospective client is irresponsible, disrespectful, and unprofessional before the contract is even signed, you can bet your bottom dollar that the client will be irresponsible, disrespectful, and unprofessional after the contract is signed.  The only difference is, once the contract is signed, you’re locked in. 

So don’t let the allure of dollar signs make you doubt your gut instincts: if it walks like a snake and talks like a snake, it’s a snake.  Get out now, while you still can!


8 Responses to “How to spot a snakey client before signing the contract”

  1. southwrite said

    Unfortunately this is the exactly the kind of client that freelancers always fall for — particularly in a down economy. The promise of money and the client’s sweet words of interest virtually always drown out the alarm bells sounding in the back of your logical business mind. The best thing is when the client doesn’t follow through and all you’ve wasted in a little time and a bid proposal. It’s far worse when you’ve done the project and you can’t get paid even after suffering through the pains of actually working with them. The most important thing I’ve learned is its vital to have a contract that gives you an escape clause from a big contract like a book that you see isn’t going to work. it should also clearly define how you’re to be paid in case the client doesn’t follow through on their part of the bargain. Contract clauses and detailed records of work performed coupled with communication records are vital if you end up going to court to get your money.

    • Great point, Randy: writers should always have protective clauses like that in their contracts… JUST in case. Sometimes the snakey clients don’t show their true colors until after the writer has signed his or her soul away to them. 🙂


  2. I remember Peter Bowerman, author of The Well-Fed Writer, saying that if a copywriter finds him or herself getting particularly excited about the prospect of a project, that is a clear indication that he or she needs to market more. I’m not saying that is the case in this situation, but I have always taken Peter’s words to heart in my own business. There have been times where I’ve gotten sooo worked up and excited about a project, only to be let down. Hard. As a rule, I don’t count on any money until I have cash in hand. A hard pill to swallow, but it helps keep me focused.

    • Hi Nichole,

      Thanks for your comment! I agree: when a writer is hungrier for more work than usual, it’s probably time to get out there and market his or herself more. Good point! And, it’s good to know that other writers out there have been in a similar boat at one time or another. 😉

      Best to you!

  3. Maria H said

    It was so to see this article today and I am considering such a client now. They are still being “snakey” and polite. They are putting up a better front than your example but my gut is telling me that this dragging out of project commitment means that my turn around time is being eaten.

    When is the best time to walk away if you are available when they make an offer?

    • Does your client KNOW how available you are? If not, sometimes the best way out is to simply tell the client that your schedule is jam-packed and, right now, you can’t possibly take on any new work. That you only give your clients 100%, but with all the “other” projects you have going on, you wouldn’t be able to do that for him/her, and you aren’t willing to compromise your business ethics in such a manner. (In other words, you’re doing the client a “favor” by not doing a “half-assed” job on his/her project.) A gentle way to let him/her down.

  4. The client sounded quite rude and unprofessional. It is very important not to be so desperate for a sale until you put up with anything just to get it because you may need the money. If you allow them to drag you along once, you’ll give them permission to do it again.
    If it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck..quack, quack it is a duck!

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