Spotting Bad Writing Clients

In an ideal world, every client a writer has would be the most perfect, honest, well-paying person on the planet. To borrow from the Horton Hears a Who film, they would all be ponies who eats rainbows and poop butterflies.

Ah, welcome to the REAL writing world, kid.

First, let me say that most clients are pretty good. They might not always respond to your emails as promptly as you’d like, and an occasional payment might be late, but they give you clear expectations, sign contracts and compensate you for what you do. Others are more of the Voldemort type, however. They lurk passively in the background, quietly planning, scheming, drawing more and more people to their projects, until BAM! They show their evil faces, laughing as they betray your trust, wave their wands and pay only in despair. These Cients-Who-Should-Be-Ashamed are the ones to watch out for, and after a while, they’re pretty recognizable.

1. The pay rate is low.

Decent clients understand that writers have bills to pay. They also understand that much of what writers earn is pretax and goes to pay overhead expenses. These professionals are more than willing to pay their contracted writers a liveable, at-least-minimum wage. Some, bless them, even are willing to pay a percentage upfront or provide a bonus. If a client is offering just a few dollars, he likely either doesn’t understand what writers need to get by, or he doesn’t truly value the writing craft. In either case, it’s not a good situation.

2. They don’t want to sign a contract.

Some beginning writers are loathe to insist on a contract for their project, because they don’t want to come off as arrogant. Bad clients use this to their advantage. They say that a contract isn’t necessary, because they can be trusted. The truth is, bad clients try to avoid contracts simply because it makes it easier to get out of payment if sued. A good client will have no problem signing a contract because they know it guarantees you’ll do the work you promised. They might provide you with a version they’d like you to use because of their company’s policies, perhaps, but the use of the document is never an issue.

3. They don’t provide full contact information.

Some bad clients purposely withhold contact information, providing only a basic phone number or email address. They might say this is for reasons of confidentiality and privacy, but no legitimate business keeps their location secret. They withhold this information because it makes it easier to go AWOL when they don’t pay–in many states, a physical address of the client is necessary to serve legal notices, and file complaints, so starting work before you know where to get in touch is asking for trouble.

4. They postpone payments without prior notice.

Life happens. Miscommunications aren’t always possible to prevent. That said, the occasional payment postponement isn’t anything to squirt your pen ink over, especially if you’ve worked with the client before and he doesn’t have a history of payment problems. The problem is when they don’t follow through with the alternate arrangements they make. They say they’ll pay Tuesday. They apologize Wednesday and say they’ll get to it Friday, which comes and goes. They don’t offer a really good reason for the repeated delays, but they always make another promise. Don’t stand for this, because it sets a precedent that you’ll be tolerant of lateness and that you are not in true control of your business. Be upfront about the fact late fees will happen, let them know the next steps for collections (e.g., certified demand letter from an attorney, lawsuit, etc.) and give a precise schedule — to the hour — of when those steps will take place.

Getting Customers to Pay

As I write this, current clients owe me almost $2,000. This represents work spanning over the entire month of December and most of January.

The unpaid balances on my client accounts are not for want of proper documentation or billing. I know to the penny who owes me what and have records of all my Paypal invoices. The problem comes back to two simple facts of freelancing:

  1. Clients don’t always finish projects when they say they will, and
  2. Their correspondence sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.

The first issue isn’t always the client’s fault. I sometimes work with people who are hiring me on behalf of others in a company. When they need approval from superiors, who themselves might be waiting on someone else, things get bogged down really fast.

I make it a point to send follow up emails to my clients, but even so, people have a tendency to push writers off to the side if they get busy with other things in their life. This reflects a larger problem: The general consensus is that, apparently, writers don’t need to make a schedule, nor do they need to get paid on time and, you know, maybe eat or pay rent.

The best thing a person can do to combat both of these issues is to establish clear communication policies with a client in writing, putting them in project contracts. For example, the contract might specify that the first mode of contact is email, then phone, then written letter and, lastly, an attorney contact. The policies also can indicate how much time may elapse between communications, such as 24 hours. Another good policy is to require at least one correspondence per week, even if it’s just sending a quick email that says, “Just checking in!”

This strategy doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to foresee the exact pay date for every project (clearly, it isn’t in my case), but it does give you the ability to know what is happening with each project and to make some assessments about how to adjust your budget or calendar appropriately.