For almost 3 years now I’ve been building a teeny tiny content marketing business from the ground up. (Based in Philadelphia! Philly, if you need a copywriter or strategic organic content, call me.)
One of the biggest challenges freelance copywriters and creatives face is managing client expectations.
We have to find a way to provide value while holding firm boundaries.
This high wire act is often the most difficult aspect of the job.
I’m writing this list so you don’t have to experience the dreaded fatigue of scope creep and so that your clients get better service.
Ultimately, we’re all doing the best we can.
Building a professional copywriting or digital marketing business is a process.
We can learn from our mistakes and build better safety nets by being more self reflective.
My hope is that we can raise awareness about the value of copywriters and creatives, raise our rates, and build successful businesses— our way.
Without further adieu…The Top 5 Signs You’re in a Bad Client Relationship
- They’re too didactic aka condescending
What does didactic mean?
Intended to teach, particularly in having moral instruction as an ulterior motive.
Another way to put it is, they’re condescending.
They seem to imply that you don’t actually have the knowledge, expertise, or skills to deliver what you’ve promised—and yet somehow they do.
This is an uphill battle from the start.
While they most likely don’t have your copywriting skills, maybe at some point they DIY’d some copy or design.
The thing is, they’re not wrong.
Most of our clients are getting squeezed and sold goods and services they don’t need, every single day.
They’re looking at the numbers and trying to keep costs contained.
They’ve been burned by overly salesy people online who’ve disappointed them.
Most of them have DIY’d a lot and built businesses from scratch.
The answer is to deliver good work.
If you’ve delivered good work, consistently, and they’re still questioning you, it’s probably time to gracefully exit.
When no amount of social proof or copywriting samples will be sufficient because there is a lack of trust for one reason or another— you might be tempted to seek approval.
Don’t do it!
Your clients need to trust you and feel confident that their business is in good hands.
Walk away if you can’t gain their trust.
Chances are, if they don’t trust you, they don’t trust anyone.
2. They don’t answer questions
Creative work is full of ambiguity.
The best way to defeat the ambiguity is to brainstorm, ask questions, and clarify objectives at the beginning of the project.
This means you need clear processes, copy briefs and structured discussion.
Some clients just won’t fill out the brief or answer the questions.
This happens a lot with bad clients.
They don’t do their homework.
I’m embarrassed to admit how many projects I’ve entered into without getting the information I needed in order to do my best work.
While none of those projects ended in disaster, they were much more difficult (and time consuming) than necessary.
The solution is to slow it down.
Schedule a meeting.
Ask all the questions.
Don’t move forward until you have what you need.
Take the time up front to get on the same page with your client.
Keep sending that copy brief!
This sounds straight forward, right?
Because it is.
You’re not a mind reader and you can’t do your job without preparation.
Here’s what happens with non-committal clients:
They dodge meetings and/or dodge questions.
They send in team members (or other freelancers) who don’t know what’s going on.
They act super, duper busy even though they want the project done yesterday.
No. Win. Situation.
Finish the project.
Get it done to the best of your ability with the information you have.
And then walk away.
There’s another client right around the corner who is eager to be present, answer your questions, and provide relevant information.
3. They don’t pay your invoice
The best clients will pay your invoice lightning fast.
The worst clients will never pay it at all.
Most will pay within a reasonable time frame.
Once in a while, something happens and lines get crossed.
As long as they make it right, all is forgiven.
But if the client doesn’t pay you on more than one occasion and you’re chasing down invoices, stop all work.
Spend the time you would be working on their projects seeking better clients.
It’s that simple.
P.S. 50% deposits up front for new clients is a great filter!
4. They don’t respect your boundaries
First thing’s first: you’re not their employee, you’re an expert.
Any good freelance copywriter is probably juggling 5 or more clients at a time, each with different internal systems and project management tools.
You simply can’t commit to everyone’s internal business culture like that.
This means you need to figure out how to navigate around it, because it will come up.
I’m currently in Slack, Trello, Asana, BaseCamp, and Zoho for current and former clients.
Just to name a few!
Clearly, as a new freelance copywriter, I ran into a lot of boundary problems.
Clients who wanted me to work on weekends.
Clients who wanted me to manage other freelancers.
Clients who asked me to work for free.
It didn’t take long to learn about contracts, systems and processes.
If you have iron clad structure, it makes it a lot harder for clients to go rogue and easier for you to uphold professionalism.
I’m a big fan of a thorough, thoughtful, branded Welcome Packet.
It’s a simple way to communicate your boundaries, including how you work best, your expectations, and your processes.
It’s also a great way to build trust.
I recommend learning how to set firm boundaries ASAP.
Everyone is different.
Most freelance copywriters and creatives are introverts.
We don’t love to sit in meetings and make small talk when we need to be working on our professional or personal projects.
It’s okay to say no.
You can be yourself and still provide an amazing service to your clients.
Be crystal clear, professional, and available…Just not 24/7!
5. Editing by committee
This is another touchy issue that comes up regularly with bad clients.
They try to edit by committee.
I call these “copyhacking sessions.”
It gets ugly– fast.
For this reason, I don’t live edit or sit through copyhacking sessions anymore.
I’ve experienced one too many tear downs by people who have no business commenting on copywriting tactics, techniques or strategies.
Most of the time, they mean well.
The problem is that they inadvertently introduce more complexity to an already complex project that has layers of ambiguity.
We don’t have infinity.
We have a deadline.
We need to keep the ideas contained.
Just trust me on that.
If you’ve given 100% to developing your copywriting and creative process, chances are you’ve already thought through most of the permutations that are going to be introduced by people who are looking at the project for the first time in a feedback session.
Of course we want to hear thoughtful feedback.
We want our work to wow our clients.
We want to edit until it’s just right.
That’s our job.
Don’t let your clients insult you by making you go through a copy edit with their business coach.
Just say no!
Here’s what I do.
I send the copy over in a very detailed Google doc. (They know upfront that this is how the project will unfold.)
I record a video that details the brand message, the copy techniques, and the strategies behind everything. (Clients love this–very convenient!)
I back up my work with persuasion and evidence. (Like an English teacher!*)
If you can’t get your copy approved after you bring an exhaustive process, it’s probably time to reassess.
Most of the time, 2 rounds of edits should do the trick.
If you’re way off after 2 edits, something is amiss.
If it’s always a slog to get the copy approved, you’ll get burned out and resent your clients.
Set the whole thing up for success, from the beginning.
Ditch the clients who can’t seem to “ship the work.”
I truly believe that people are good and a lot of the snafus happen because of breakdowns in communication or misperceptions.
It’s important to anticipate what your clients need and do you best to help them.
In the wild west of freelance copywriting and digital marketing, there’s a lot to learn.
Take some time to design a really strong service with clear processes and expectations, and your rates will skyrocket.
Sometimes, this work is about more than the deliverables.
It’s about professionalism, mutual respect, and building a trustworthy business.
You can always email me about freelance copywriting and other dilemmas creatives in business struggle with.
*Why are so many copywriters former teachers?