Freelance referrals gone bad

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freelance referralReferrals—given or received—can be among the most powerful business-builders in your freelance arsenal. As today’s guest post illustrates, however, they come with their own set of responsibilities and conflict resolution requirements.

A former client (let’s call him Jim) contacted me and wanted me to work on a new project with him. I didn’t have time and didn’t have a great experience working with him before, so I referred him to a colleague (let’s call her Abby), someone I had recently re-connected with after many years. They worked out a contract, and Abby began work. As the referring business, I was to be paid a 10% referral fee.

There were hints of trouble along the way: Abby felt pressured into doing more work than originally agreed, work she wasn’t qualified to do, and it was taking much longer than projected. She was demonstrating a lack of professionalism that concerned me. Jim was unhappy with how much longer things were taking, and unhappy with the quality of the work in general. Soon Abby was not responding to Jim at all, and he contacted me in desperation to get a response. She felt Jim was harassing her, and he felt she was ignoring him for no reason. I stepped in as a third party to perform some conflict resolution.

Finally, the work was done, but the disasters were not: The primary task was not executed well at all (never mind the extra work Abby had done) and the agreed-upon deadline was missed by a month. Jim threatened legal action several times. There was a lot of “he said, she said” going on; the truth of what happened probably sat somewhere between their tales.

Once I realized (and confirmed) that Abby had done a poor job, I felt compelled to take matters into my own hands beyond facilitating communications. Her lack of professionalism and skills reflected badly on my business. I have enough integrity that I couldn’t let that stand. It was time to do what was right.

Jim asked for a prorated refund from Abby. I decided to pay the refund myself, recouping some of the cost from the referral fee, and considering the rest of the refund as a “mea culpa” for referring the wrong person. Although I didn’t need to refund money I didn’t earn, I strongly believed this was the right thing to do, and I did so on the condition that Jim not pursue legal action (to which he agreed).

I also committed to working on his project myself, so that I can improve the quality of what Abby failed to do. That means unpaid work on my part, but I will be strictly limiting the hours I spend on it.

The finished project will involve a third-party company, and I contacted them to iron out details of what was happening. Luckily, they supported my plan and backed me up to Jim, and we were able to plan for a high-quality finished product that works for everyone.

The lessons I learned included the following:

  • Be confident in referrals when you make them—in particular, be sure of the colleague’s skill level and abilities.
  • Don’t be hesitant to make things right, even if it costs you time or money.
  • Don’t let personal feelings for a friend or colleague get in the way of doing what’s right for your business.
  • Protect your reputation.
  • Be the bigger person.
  • Find a compromise.

I am fortunate that Jim accepted my proposal and that I was able to shield Abby from legal action. I took responsibility for a referral gone bad, and I will work to make it right. It’s not ideal, but I’m pleased with the solution, and so are Jim and the company completing the final project.

In the comments: Have you ever given or received freelance referrals that didn’t go according to plan? What did you do to make things right?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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  1. says

    Jake, you acted with very high integrity in this matter, and I really like your “lessons learned.”

    Your story illustrates why I rarely I give referrals. Several times a month I get emails from writers I don’t know or don’t know well who ask if I can refer them to my clients, or farm out some writing to them. I always say no. Like you, I would feel responsible for the quality of their work.

  2. says

    Thanks for the comment, John, though it’s actually a guest author who acted with high integrity. (I’d like to think I’d do the same, given the same circumstances.) I agree with your point–I believe I’ve become more discriminating over time about referrals. I need to have worked with someone extensively before giving a seal of approval.

  3. says

    People constantly contact me to become a referral or be part of my network. I don’t connect with someone unless I’ve worked with them and know they are a good referral, can do the work, and hold a high standard of integrity as I do.

    In the past I did refer a client to someone I’d met through LinkedIn and whom I believed could do the work. It became a disaster. The writer claimed the client was difficult, didn’t follow-through, and was uncooperative. She was paid but was asked to perform beyond the original scope of work, which she said required additional payment. The client told me the writer didn’t deliver and was unwilling to work with her. It was another “she said / she said” situation.

    I did do what I could to make it right but by the time I was informed it was too late for the client to complete the project. I never referred that writer again and the client and I worked things out amicably. Now I only refer to people I personally know or have a long-term relationship with.

    Most of my work is by referral. I do my very best to provide the highest quality work and give the client the attention needed to complete the project. This assures that whomever is referring the client holds a stellar reputation and I don’t embarrass them from lack of integrity or professionalism.

    Referrals are a lifeblood to a business. It’s important to make sure they flow through the channels smoothly.

  4. says

    Wow. You salvaged a lousy situation, Jake. Well done.

    I have had that happen. In one case, it was a writer I still trust. Things were happening in her life that caused her to be really late in getting a project back to me. At the time, the writer was subcontracting through me and the client didn’t know (I’ll never do THAT again).

    Her reasons were valid — hospitalization is valid enough, I’d say. So when she was a month late and I couldn’t access her files to help (next time, it’s Evernote all the way), I had to apologize for the delay and take the heat firsthand.

    I made it right by taking over when she came out of the hospital. I paid her what I’d promised (it wasn’t her fault) and I worked two days solid to produce what normally took a month to do. My fault for not closing the loop and letting the client know someone was helping me.

    In the end I did lose that client. That wasn’t a bad thing as the work always outpaced the rate (and they weren’t budging on the rate), but I think it was more of a new director taking it internally than any delays. The project did not have a time-sensitive deadline — it was a “whenever” deadline. I just felt badly that it had taken months instead of just one month.

  5. says

    @Linda, thanks for the comment. As someone who also works 99% by referral, I totally agree that you need to have a rock-solid subcontractor with your same high standards.

    @Lori, thanks for sharing that story, though sorry to hear that the outcome didn’t ultimately result in a loyal client. I remember catching some heat from an editor when I was late due to a hospitalization, but I got it done the next day. And yes, “whenever” deadlines are…deadly!

    (By the way, this was a guest post, so I will pass along the praise!)