The Check Is in the Mail and Other Client Lies


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It’s one of the first rites of passage for any freelancer: the client who is not on the up and up. How you, the freelancer, handle it can make or break your freelancing career.

There is any number of reasons why this is the case. Some clients are inexperienced and do not know what they need. Others do not appreciate the skills they are hiring and as a result undervalue them (or the person providing them). Sadly, others are simply out to take advantage of others for their own gain.

Size doesn’t matter. Large corporations and long-established businesses can be just as fraught with problematic clients as startups and small entrepreneurs. While outright fraud is rare, there are common situations and tactics that freelance writer Laura Spencer characterizes as “little white lies” that “can have a serious impact on a freelancer writer who depends on client work and client payments to pay the bills.”

Here are some of those little lies you should watch out for.

“We’d like to do the first project on spec and if it works out, we’ll have some paying work for you.”

This is the old bait-and-switch tactic. Ask any freelancer: They’ve heard it before… and chances are good they never got the future paying work they were promised. That’s because either the client never intended to pay, or he or she doesn’t respect you enough to pay you tomorrow since you worked for free today.

Try using this tactic with your wireless provider. “Oh, if I get good reception during the first month and all my text messages come through, then maybe I’ll sign a contract.” The reason it won’t work with your cell phone carrier or any other business is that they are providing a service or a product that has a certain value. So are you.

This “client lie” plays on your own insecurities or belief that you lack experience. Don’t let them rattle you. It is easier to walk away before you do any work. If you’re approached in the middle of a paying job to extend the scope of work it is time to renegotiate your contract.

The problem is, there are a lot of hungry freelancers who are looking for work and think this is a way to prove themselves. If you need to prove yourself offer to do pro bono work for a nonprofit, or get a job where you can build a portfolio — and get paid for doing it — before freelancing. Never work for nothing — or almost nothing! — on the promise of “future” work!

As freelance writer and professional blogger Miranda Marquit points out, “Don’t be suckered into future work. Future work won’t pay the bills, and you can’t rely on it for a successful financial future.” Instead, showcase examples of your work and politely insist that if they want to work with you they will need to pay for the privilege.

“The last guy did it for less.”

So, why aren’t they still using the last guy?

Look, there’s always room for negotiation. But if you don’t think you’re getting a fair price, walk away. No project is worth feeling like you’ve been taken advantage of, even if you are in a bind. Don’t underprice your services. Cutting your rate is the most common mistake freelancers make early in their careers.

As blogger Dean Rieck notes:

“[M]ost freelancers don’t make their entire fee schedule public. This makes it impossible to separate truth from hype about what copywriters actually charge… [C]lients show little respect for copywriters with low fees and view their work as a commodity, rather than a valuable service.”

If prospective clients don’t seem willing to respect you in the morning, better not get into bed with them.

Moreover, you should strive to position your services as a specialty. Be willing to “niche down” instead of trying to offer your services to everyone. If you were a dentist, would you prefer to hire the graphic designer who works for anyone or the graphic designer who only does branding and imagery for dentists? You’d hire the expert who knows your field best.

“I could do this myself, I just don’t have the time.”

Maybe. But it doesn’t really matter. If they want your time, they need to pay for it. This is a gambit to not only lower your price, but to devalue the work you do. Chances are such clients are not likely to be reliable, easy to work with, or pay on time. Or even all three! Avoid these kinds of clients at all costs.

If you don’t value your time no one else will either.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis emphasizes at CNNMoney:

“Whether you are an independent consultant or freelancer who charges by the hour, day, week, or project, you are trading time for money. So the question of how you value that time is central to how you negotiate with clients.”

“The check is in the mail.”

Here’s the deal. If your client is experiencing a cash flow problem, you, the lowly freelancer, are at the bottom end of the totem pole. The client may tell you the check is in the mail to keep you off their backs. However, what they don’t tell you is that the check is headed to pay someone who could shut off their power or otherwise shut their business down. You are relatively powerless in this situation. Other clients simply process payroll once a month, so you’ll just have to wait.

How you handle this white lie can make or break your freelancing career.

First, work to keep a buffer in reserve so you aren’t as susceptible to the cash flow issues of others. It is helpful to make “half up front, half on delivery” a standard part of your contract. Another proactive tip is to automatically add late fees to any invoices paid after 30 days. Make sure this is noted in your contract and on the invoice you send for prompt payment. Remember: clients are people, too. If you are flexible with a client while they address their cash flow issues that can help build a strong client relationship that will pay more over time.

If the client is truly a deadbeat who figures he or she can easily jerk around freelancer consider it a lesson learned. One consolation is that you can write off this loss on your taxes. Another thing you can do is to help others avoid dealing with a jerk.

As blogger and podcaster Rob Bowen points out, one solution is to take “your gripe to social media to alert the client and others that this situation is unresolved and far from over.” While it is tempting to call out deadbeats socially or otherwise, be careful. It can quickly backfire on you and make you and your business look desperate, nutty, or worse. No one wants to work with a loose cannon who publicly speaks ill of others. Keep that in mind.

If you feel so wronged that you feel you must employ embarrassment tactics or legal means to get paid, tread carefully to avoid tarnishing your own reputation. It’s a good idea to wait to see if the check does indeed arrive in the mail. Give it a week or so before you start raising hell. Remember, a bridge burned once is burned for good!

Finally, don’t get discouraged. All freelancers will experience difficult clients and those who are slow to pay (if ever!). The good news is that you will get better at recognizing these kinds of clients and these sorts of requests. You will do a better job of avoiding both as time goes on. Try to stay focused on your best clients and consistently overdeliver.

With time, you’ll have more work than you can handle. That’s when you’ll have the luxury of choosing to work only with the people you like and respect — and who like and respect you, too.

David Soyka is a freelance business journalist who writes for Vistaprint, the leading provider of personalized checks and other custom products for small businesses around the world.