Huge freelancer fear: what happens when a client doesn’t like your work?
Huge freelancer reality: this is a risk we all take.
So the terrible moment arrives, you submit something you’ve written and your freelance client hates it. What do you do?
This recently came up in a live Q&A in my Facebook group, the Ink Well Guild. The person said one of the things holding her back is fear that her clients won’t like the work she does.
I’ll be honest, that isn’t something that I ever really dealt with. I guess I came to freelance writing a little bit cocky or maybe a little bit ignorant.
I have a journalism degree and am one of those life-long writer people. When I got started in freelance work almost 10 years ago, I think I knew I was a good writer and so I didn’t worry about my ability to deliver. I was more worried about my ability to find clients and manage my time.
This was a blind spot. I didn’t realize that would-be freelance writers and current freelance writers worry about this.
So I was glad that one of my students asked because it gave me a chance to think back on my own work history and see if I could come up with a good answer.
I remembered four times over my nearly 10-year career when I had a client who was not satisfied with my first draft. There are usually client edits and minor modifications, but these were times when I really had to put my big girl panties on and take some criticism.
First, understand that the purpose of your portfolio is to avoid this issue. Strong writing samples demonstrate your skills. You wrote your portfolio, and that usually means you can write similarly well for clients.
You’re worrying about something unlikely. It’s like me here in North Carolina worrying about getting run over by a stampede. Is it possible? Sure.
I live in an area with lots of cows. Maybe their fence will break and they’ll get spooked. A coyote could show up, and then there’s a stampede. I happen to be outside and get crushed. Possible… but unlikely.
But if I let the unlikely possibility of someone coming at me for bad work stop me from even trying, it’s like me not leaving my house because I might get run over in a stampede.
If you let yourself be ruled by fears of something that has a small chance of happening, you might as well pack up.
Don’t let what is essentially the fear of nothing hold you back.
What’s the worst that can happen if you submit something a client doesn’t like?
They send you a mean email? Want their fee back? Maybe you lose the gig?
Put this fear into perspective.
Odds are good that people interested enough to read blogs like mine, join freelance writing Facebook groups (like mine) and listen to podcasts (like mine) about writing have some natural writing ability. It’s not going to be that hard to sell these writing services and deliver.
This doesn’t apply to everyone (because statistics), but generally, I’ve noticed enough self-awareness among writers that if you’re pulled to this, you’re probably going to be decent.
This fear of “What if my client hates it?” isn’t the greatest truth.
If your client is impressed with your portfolio enough to hire you, they’ll be impressed with what you deliver. There’s no reason to think that your abilities will diminish suddenly once you start getting paid.
More likely your client will be happy to pay you.
Now I’ll tell you about the four times that clients didn’t like my work.
The first time, I was about five years in. I was working for a software startup, and I was ghostwriting some of the CEO’s blog posts for LinkedIn and the business website.
He was super easy. I’d already written a few things for him. His emails were usually a couple sentences, “Could I get a post on blah, blah.”
This time he wanted to post on rewarding your employees. That was basically all he said. In my head I took that as non-salary compensation. I wrote about mentorship programs, enrolling them in health programs, bagel Fridays, etc. I sent it to him.
He was like, “This isn’t what I wanted.”
Me (in my head): And now I shall die.
He was very respectful and polite, but succinct.
I asked, “Okay, how did I miss the mark? I want you to be happy, and I can do a rewrite. I’ll get it to you in two days. Can you tell me specifically what you were hoping for?”
He said, “I was talking about ideas to incentivize sales teams to hit their goals.”
I’m thinking, that’s not what you asked for, but okay. That makes more sense given what we’re doing here.
I rewrote the post. He liked it, thanked me, and assigned me a new one.
So it was no big deal. He told me that I missed the mark, I got really clear on what he wanted, and then I delivered.
BONUS POINTS: I took the draft he didn’t want and submitted it to another blog as a guest post. I wanted the byline, but if you have a good but rejected draft, you can pitch the idea to other clients and get paid for it.
The second time was two years later, a client in the personal finance space. He needed a long form blog post on credit repair topics to hawk a credit repair program at the end.
I didn’t have good feelings about this client. He approached me–got my name from somebody. I could tell he was squirrelly.
He said, “I have this project and this is my budget. Can you do it?”
When I agreed, he said, “Great. I expect images and this and …”
I had to say, “No, I can’t do all of that for what you want to pay, but I can do all of that for X dollars more.”
He eventually agreed, but it was clear that he was going to pressure me to deliver things we hadn’t agreed to.
I wrote the post from his outline. He made normal edits, then said “I want to add a section on X.”
I went with it because I wanted to be done with him!
But he was slowly increasing the scope with each round of edits. I think this was deliberate on his part.
After the second edits, he wanted more. I had to say “No, we agreed to two rounds. If you need more, it’s an additional fee.”
Suddenly, it was good enough.
Until then, he had been heavily editing, making it sound like I wasn’t a good writer. He acted like he wasn’t happy. That was not dissatisfaction, but manipulation. When the project wrapped and he wanted to do another one, I told him point blank that I wouldn’t be able to continue working with him unless he was willing to come up to my rates. He wasn’t, and he made sure I knew that he could find writers who were just as good for less. Hashtag class act.
Be on the lookout. If you get a weird feeling about a client, don’t take the work! If you need the work, get an iron clad definition of scope, and decide in advance what happens if they want to increase scope.
The third time was also in 2016, for one of the premier credit experts in personal finance.
He was looking for someone to start ghostwriting posts for his blog. He was still doing all the content and was trying to get out of it, which was smart.
When he approached me, I was thrilled. I had some experience with credit and said I would do my best. We agreed to do a trial post, something I always do.
It turned out that I just wasn’t expert enough for him.
He really needed a subject matter expert. I was familiar enough with credit to write about it competently, but I didn’t have the deep knowledge needed to pass as him. There are some writers who would’ve had that kind of deep knowledge, but I clearly wasn’t one of them.
If he really needed an expert, he needed to pay probably three or four times what he was paying me because there just aren’t many people who have the level of expertise that he has.
I did two full rounds of revisions because he would point out things that needed to be researched further and developed a little bit more, rightfully so. He didn’t want to move forward with me, which was fine. It was obvious he needed someone who was an extreme expert in credit.
I took a job that I wasn’t qualified for without realizing it until I was in it, and while nothing “went wrong” on an interpersonal level, it was clear that he was disappointed. And that doesn’t feel good.
The fourth time was two years ago, a referred gig for a Canadian bank. The topic was challenging because I didn’t know much about Canadian finance, but I had three weeks to write it. They were paying a huge load of money, too, so I decided to go for it.
The scope was defined, with a title, bullet point outline, and seven sections, total of 700 words.
But covering seven subheads in under 700 words is a tall order.
I did my best–a little over word count, probably 800. (They actually didn’t have a problem with the word count.) I submitted.
My contact wanted changes–condense one section, rework a couple others, add in something. I took his comments and submitted again. Then he passed it to his team.
I got edited by committee–content manager, social media manager, adviser. Instead of one editor, I had four!
People left comments criticizing me for not writing about things that the previous revision had removed from the post. Some criticized me for not going deep into a specific area when I didn’t have the word count for that. They criticized me for the structure (which had been predetermined!). They criticized me for delivering exactly what they’d requested. They sent new revisions that amounted to a half rewrite.
I talked to a friend who had written for similar clients. She said, “You’re in the vortex. You’ve gotta get out.”
I went back and ended things then and there. “Thank you for the opportunity. I’d be happy to write for you in future, but it seems that your team has a lot of ideas that need to be sorted out before content can be written. When you’re ready to move forward, let me know. Please feel free to do whatever you want with my drafts.” I refunded their fee and that was the end. Needless to say, I never worked for them again.
Never agree to work that will be edited by more than one person.
Those were the four times that people weren’t happy with what I wrote. The two times that ended well, the clients were respectful and reasonable. They requested what they needed differently or said “thank you for your time” and moved on.
Of the two times that didn’t end well, one client had unreasonable expectations. I’m not going to break my back. Some people will, and that’s why people like this think they can keep doing that… but not me. And not you, either. That wasn’t a “bad” client, just unmanageable.
The other client who was insulting me by the end had issues. His opinion was not one to be believed, so I took some deep breaths, thanked myself for getting payment up front, and moved on.
So I just want to encourage you that most people, even if they don’t like what you write, are still going to treat you reasonably okay. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
My ultimate goal is for clients to be satisfied with my work. That’s why I do offer two rounds of revisions. It’s also why I limit the number of revisions to two. We’re not going to be in revising hell for the next six months.
If you handle yourself politely, don’t get defensive, and offer to make it right… but then it turns out that there’s no way you’re going to be able to make it right, give them their money back and walk away.
Don’t ever work soul-sucking jobs.
Respect the writer.
You are the writer.
If you have any questions about managing tricky client situations, the best thing you can do is join my free Facebook group, the Ink Well Guild.
This is my new course on how to write anything for any client. It’s really robust. We talk about the major writing skills that you’re going to need for both copywriting and content writing.
I’m also including 13 modules that go in depth into 13 different types of content that your clients want you to write. If you’d like to learn more, then check it out online at copyconfidential.com.
FYI, there is a secret, unannounced bonus that’s not on the sales page yet, for Client Bound. If you enroll in Copy Confidential, you get Client Bound for free! It’s pretty cool. I hope you check it out.
Since 2010, businesses and entrepreneurs have turned to me for stronger copy, deeper customer relationships, and great blog content.
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