Freelance clients who miss their own deadlines

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Dr. Freelance: I saw your video “Freelance Writing Follies: Are You Done Yet?” and appreciate how you poked fun at freelance clients who miss their own deadline and then expect me to make words appear out of thin air. But on a more serious note, what can we as freelancers do to make sure that clients don’t try to take advantage of us? — Dr. No (I’m Not Done Yet)

Dr. No: Making a freelance job go smoothly, deadlines and all, has everything to do with setting clear expectations. Part of that is getting freelance clients to understand that we’re partners in the deal. That burden is on you, good Doctor. Here are some strategies that can help:

  • Set a precedent by defining a schedule yourself if the client doesn’t provide one.
  • Communicate expectations clearly that you need them to provide background information or interviews, etc., on a schedule for their project to get delivered on the desired deadline.
  • Outline the ramifications if they don’t stay on schedule: i.e., “if you are a day late with the raw materials, I will likely be a day later with the finished product.” (Be careful that you don’t come across as too strident on this one—no one wants to do business with a scold!)
  • Offer to talk with a third party who is making your client’s life miserable. In the situation that provoked the video, I ended up talking with the impatient web designer that was nagging my client and was able to defuse the situation. As fellow creatives, we’re often able to deliver a message in a way that a manager can’t.
  • Finally, gently explain that the more times the client emails, calls, IMs, or smoke signals to check on progress, the more it slows you down. Sometimes Type A folks don’t understand how disruptive an interruption is to the creative mind, especially one that’s on deadline.

Loyal, long-term freelance clients are unlikely to pull the “are you done yet” card if you’ve cultivated a relationship with mutual respect and in the spirit of being a partner. And, of course, if you’re late with something, you should darn well expect to have the lateness questioned.

But even the most seasoned freelancer can’t always rein in the new client, or a client not accustomed to using freelancers, who has misconceptions about what is possible in a given time frame. In that case, I generally am willing to work through a first rough patch, and educate them in how things can go more smoothly. If the emergencies are chronic, well, you may want to work on someone else’s deadlines.

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