Today’s guest is my good friend Lori Widmer, from Words on the Page. She’s a phenomenal freelancer and an activist for fair pay for our work. She’s also got some great tips for handling difficult clients. She talks about two separate, yet related issues here.
Dealing with Client Insecurity
By Lori Widmer
If you spend enough time in the freelancing trenches, you’ll encounter clients who can’t make a decision without a committee, and that’s where you have to put your diplomatic and contract negotiation skills to the test.
Outsmarting a Posse
The email came in as I was heading out for the weekend. “I see several editing mistakes in the copy.” How is that possible? Simple – the email didn’t come from my client. The email, instead, came from my client’s colleague.
If you haven’t faced a posse yet, brace yourself. It’s one of the most unnerving, irritating wastes of time you’ll ever encounter. Worse, it’s almost impossible to avoid. Without fail, clients writing books or authoring their first anything will want to run it past a few friends or colleagues, who inevitably fashion themselves instant experts. When this happens, run like hell.
As there are many kinds of editors (and some with talent, some without), there will be an equal number of approaches and styles. Likewise, clients and writers have a history that a posse cannot understand. In one case, I had a client who wanted specific things in the copy that were clearly errors, but it’s what he wanted. And yes, he asked a friend to read the copy. And yes, the friend found these mistakes. And yes, the client conveniently forgot that these were things he’d insisted on against my advice. In that case, he was more concerned with getting out of our arrangement without having to pay me. He paid, alright. But not without a fight.
You may not be able to avoid a posse, but you can outwit the posse interference. Since I’ve been burned so many times I feel like a human marshmallow, I now include a clause in my contracts that specifically excludes third parties from taking part in the writing and editing process. Also, I counsel my clients on the dangers of employing non-experts to look over expertly drafted work. Typically, I will repeat in email before the contract is signed and as I’m delivering it that the contract is between two people – the client and me. Any outside input is not part of the process and will not be honored under the current contract. Instead, third party involvement will be priced separately (and heavily).
What can you do when the posse undermines your work? Whatever you do, don’t go into defense mode, and certainly do not start trying to please everyone. It won’t work. In the end, you’re all going to be miserable. I restate the terms of the contract, I restate that I’d be happy to take additional payment in order to work with these new people, and I reiterate that I’m the one who’s being paid to give the client the best possible product based on my skills, research, and interactions. Then I let it go. It’s no longer my situation.
About that email – the “mistakes” referred to were actually factual mistakes and not editing mistakes. That the colleague had called them editing mistakes was unnerving, but I was able to recover quickly by sending a note to the colleague, copying my client, and letting him know I was glad the mistakes he referred to were not editing mistakes but errors in fact. That was my one and only communication with that person, and that was to clear up instantly any misconceptions the client may harbor about my abilities. In other cases, I’ve not been that lucky. There was the client who used Grammar Check and thought it was The Final Word in grammar. I had to quote him Chicago Manual passages before he realized it may not be such a great tool. He still ended our relationship, but on a congenial note. I had a client who took the advice of an acquaintance and began reframing and rewriting the entire book. Some you win, some you don’t.
Yes, you may lose that client to the whims of a posse. So be it. Just make those contracts airtight and don’t you dare work one second for anyone who isn’t listed on that contract.
And that’s’ why it’s important to not only have a strong contract in place but to
Assert Your Contractual Rights
I had occasion recently to work with a favorite client on a new project. He provided the contract and I got to work. I finished the project, sent the invoice, and went about my business. It wasn’t until he came back with edits that I realized it was time to restate to him our contract terms.
The contract was very specific in whom I would work with – him. His contract, his terms. This new twist he’d thrown in had me working directly with his colleagues, who were invisible to this point. If these colleagues had been part of the original agreement, my fee would have been much higher. Working for a group is much more difficult than working one-on-one. As they say, too many cooks.
Despite my great relationship with the client, I asserted my boundaries, restating to him (very politely and very tactfully) the terms of our agreement. I added how happy I’d be to continue and if that was his intention, I’d gladly provide him with new terms. He realized the error he’d made in drawing up the contract minus the additional people involved. I salvaged a tenuous situation by being assertive yet friendly.
Would it have killed me to continue on with the project and work with these new people? No – not right away. See, projects tend to snowball. If Carl wants Jill to look it over, Jill may want to impress Carl with her editing skills to perhaps procure that promotion he’s dangling over her. Or perhaps Carl and Jill have a shaky history and Jill’s itching to stick it to him. Now enter Fred, who’s a ladder climber, and Pam, who took a communications course in college and thinks she’s an expert, and you can almost hear your project blowing apart.
Since I’d been burned too many times to count in the past, I knew I had to halt the misconception before it turned into precedent, for this client had hired me to complete a number of projects for him. Did I risk losing him? Sure. But I risked that simply by taking on the project and doing my best. Risk is part of most business arrangements. It’s also why we have contracts – to minimize our losses should things not work out.
It’s also more professional to alert your client to an issue at the outset than to try working with it, finding out it’s too much for you, and trying to back out later. It’s much better to risk losing a client than to work endlessly for the same client (one client project I had went on for a year) only to be stuck with a set project fee you can’t alter.
If you’re providing a contract for your clients, I highly recommend you put a clause in it dealing with third-party review or input. My contract states the contract is between the named individuals in the contract only. Any third-party input will be contracted – and priced – separately.
Lori Widmer is a veteran writer and editor with over 15 years of experience. Visit her writing blog at