Most of us embark upon a freelance writing career with the goals of gaining more flexibility, financial security, and independence. The idea of having a steady flow of interesting projects from clients who value our expertise is a powerful incentive to take the leap. I’m not gonna lie… This goal is 100% attainable, but there is a learning curve.
Unless you’re brand new to being a working writer, you have likely had a client who turned out to be more challenging than expected… perhaps you even recognized the warning signs before saying yes… but then said yes anyway because you didn’t want to turn down a paying job. We’ve all been there.
But if you take the time to identify key qualities to look for in potential clients, you can set yourself up for success… and a whole lot less stress.
Who you invite into your orbit is everything has such an impact on how much you enjoy your work, and if you’ve been told compatibility between you and your clients doesn’t matter, that’s just not true.
First, Know Thyself
Before we look at strategies to determine whether you should say “I do” to a client, be sure you have the desire and have (or can acquire) the skills needed to do the job.
Be honest with yourself about whether your expectations are realistic. Developing self-knowledge is a lifelong process far beyond the scope of this discussion, but identifying the conditions you want for your working life is within your grasp.
We are all individuals with varying skill sets, values, perspectives, personalities, temperaments, and work styles. Your ideal client might be an absolute nightmare to someone else, and vice versa. Don’t make your freelance career more stressful than the day job you left behind by trying to fit into someone else’s box.
Instead, get specific about your needs and avoid that discomfort zone. By setting better boundaries and expectations with clients from the outset, you can stick to your principles without feeling awkward or pushy.
Set Up Filters to Attract the Clients You Want
Use your website, LinkedIn profile, social media platforms, and other marketing tools to highlight your preferred writing niche and expertise. Showcase the types of work you prefer in your professional portfolio. Describe the clients you most love to help and how you help them.
This will help you attract the projects you want, and ideally the type of clients who appreciate your style and experience. Be sure you have clear intake forms (website contact page, email, SMS, etc.) so a prospect can easily get in touch with you from your platforms. These same rules apply when you are doing marketing outreach.
Do Your Homework
Before scheduling a meeting with a prospect, find out as much as possible about them and their business. Research their website, affiliated links, work history, number and type of employees, industry standing and competition, customer testimonials, and anything else you can find.
Thanks to search engines, you never have to go in blind.
Prepared with a clear understanding of your personal and business goals (the “know thyself” exercise), and the knowledge about your prospect from your research, you will be confident during your first meeting. Enter the conversation with a checklist of questions that you deem important for any working collaboration, and then get more granular based on your research, the project introduced, and where the discussion organically leads.
Ilise Benun, Founder of Marketing Mentor and the Simplest Marketing Plan, warns that in recent years, people seem to rush through the qualifying process, which is the root cause of the problems that develop later.
Insist on meeting in “real-time” before agreeing to any terms. This forces all participants to slow down and form relevant questions and thoughtful answers. It also allows you to convey what value you bring to the table. Benun advises viewing potential clients as “practice prospects” to take the pressure off the interaction, and whether it results in a job offer. “This is not an audition. Remember you are interviewing the client as much as they are interviewing you.”
Your mission is to gather any remaining details you need to determine if the job feeds both your psyche (know thyself) and your working career aspirations (professional goals). They can overlap slightly, but here’s a list that will give you an idea of the questions you might ask yourself and your prospective client:
The kitten thing might do you in, and that’s okay. Being clear about your rates, turnaround times, and other critical details will help you filter out clients who are not willing or able to meet your terms.
Heed the Red Flags!
Sometimes there’s an underlying fear among freelancers that you have take whatever work you can get. It’s also easy to get caught up in the thrill of the chase (and the flattery of winning) a new client, so we overlook caution signs. By paying attention to these factors, you can recognize what is worth your effort, and what may cause you unnecessary grief:
- A bad reputation – Does the company have negative reviews (Glass Door, Yelp, Better Business Bureau, etc.) with no evidence that they tried to resolve the situation appropriately? In your detective work, you may uncover an unsavory history of payment disputes or worse — public lawsuits, charges of discrimination, sexual harassment, or fraud.
- Poor communication – Note how people communicate with you and others before you commit to working with them. If the chain of command is unwieldy, there is confusion between co-workers, your calls routinely go to voicemail, or emails go unanswered, this may be your cue to bow out.
- Disrespectful behavior – Mutual respect is at the foundation of all good relationships. When a potential client is rude or dismissive, it rarely gets better. We often don’t have the luxury of knowing a client’s temperament well before taking the plunge, so you may need to look for clues such as how they treat their staff or interact with vendors. And trust your gut during your meetings. Your subconscious might pick up on cues based on body language and tone that you have a hard time putting a name to.
- Budget woes – To avoid surprises, share your rates early on and be transparent about your terms for payment. Be wary if a client haggles over pricing or is reluctant to sign a contract. These details may leave you without recourse if they change the terms of your agreement during a project or put you at risk of not being paid for time already invested.
- Unrealistic expectations – You can usually control this by setting boundaries and clarifying the scope of work before agreeing to collaborate. If you have caveats, state them before onboarding a client to avoid friction later. For example, do you prefer to be contacted by email, or are you unavailable at certain hours? If you must pick up your kids at 2:30 pm, all they need to know is you have another commitment at that time.
Add your observations to this list and make it your own. If too many danger signs are present, chances are this is not a good client for you.
Trust Your Instincts
Even if a potential client doesn’t raise definitive red flags, it’s okay to decline a project because it doesn’t feel right. If you are relieved at the thought of not getting an offer, it’s time to politely remove yourself from the negotiation. You can sometimes refer prospects to a fellow writer who may be a better fit.
For more tips on avoiding hellish writing gigs, check out Digital Copywriter’s article “A Copywriter’s Journey Through Dante’s Inferno.”
Even the most cautious writer can end up with a client who suddenly turns into a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality. Everyone is on their best behavior during the onboarding process — rather like a first date. After a few conversations and perhaps a meet and greet, you must decide whether to commit to a client. Sometimes it’s just not going to work out. Before you cut bait, there are some ways you may be able to salvage the situation.
Making Difficult Clients Better
Ilise Benun believes you can help even very challenging clients become better ones. Much of this lies in providing a client with guidance on what information you require to do the best work on their behalf. Educate them on what to expect before, during, and even after you have delivered the work.
“Challenging clients are not bad people. Many are simply overwhelmed and in need of help. Often, they have not worked with a writer outside their organization and are relieved when given a clear roadmap to follow.” Most of all, they need reassurance that you have actionable steps that can help them achieve their goals through the deliverables you will create.
Every relationship is a two-way street, and it takes time to work out the kinks. Make sure your boundaries don’t turn into brick walls. If your client makes reasonable requests and is open to alternative viewpoints, stay approachable and opt for creative problem-solving. You can be a team player without being a doormat.
Nothing Is Forever
Sometimes even the best client relationships become less satisfying over time. It’s possible, and even likely, to outgrow a position. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate your client list from time to time to keep things interesting and allow yourself space to explore, grow, and continue loving your work.
For more on vetting and working with new clients, check out these resources:
“How to vet clients for consistent success” by Jeremy McGilvrey, Upwork
“The art of vetting clients: How to ensure you only work with the best” by Nicole Gant, Legal Grown Marketing.
“How to turn difficult clients into good clients,” interview with Ilise Benun, Episode 8 of Marketing for Creatives with host Marina Barayeva.
This article was co-written by Annamarie Maricle. Annamarie is a content marketing and creative writer at Wordswerk, with everything from digital campaigns to film scripts under her belt. She has also worked extensively in the nonprofit sector as a grant writer and front-line fundraiser, raising millions of dollars for causes she believes in.