When freelancer is the other “F” word

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You don’t have to be in the creative biz for long before running into a prospective client who has had a bad experience with a freelance writer, graphic designer or web designer (or all three)—the kind that turn “freelancer” into the other “F” word. Although coming to the rescue may seem a good business opportunity, this once-bitten client also has DANGER stamped on his or her forehead. The reason? Well, as tempting as it is to blame a fly-by-night freelancer, how can you be sure that the freelancer caused a bad relationship? Is it possible that a toxic client caused the issues? You don’t want to become the next casualty.

So, this is an occasion for an extra amount of due diligence before you start working on the project. Ask the client questions to ferret out at least approximately where the problem started. Examples might include:

  • Was this the only freelancer you’ve ever used before?
  • What was the project and what were the objectives?
  • If you don’t mind my asking, approximately what was the budget to do this work?
  • What was it about the freelancer that fell short of your expectations?
  • Were there any specific incidents you can cite that exemplify the issue?
  • What would be the most important thing that I can do differently?
  • Can I see a sample of the work that you believed fell short of the mark?

The key is that you’re accomplishing several things at once by taking a little bit of extra care. First of all, you can get an idea of whether it was truly the freelancer who botched the job, or whether there was a lack of clarity in the communications or mission. Second, if you conclude that it was a faulty freelancer, you will get a specific understanding of where he or she fell short. Finally, by asking these questions, you’ve identified some definite no-nos in dealing with this client. Was it blown deadlines, poor creativity, slow turnaround, surprise charges? All of these can be dealt with. The real danger would be if you look at a sample of the other freelancer’s work…and it looks great. There’s no guarantee that you can turn around a client like that, and a high probability against it.

In the comments, have you ever had to manage a client who held freelancers in low esteem because of a prior bad relationship? What did you do to get past being the other “f” word, and how did it work out?

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  1. says

    Dear Dr. Freelance,
    Great list of prescriptive questions to ask an ailing client! I was in a situation like this once where the client noted that the previous designer had created “hundreds” of logo designs and they didn’t like any of them.

    That comment alone should have been a huge red flag, but early in my career and eager to please — I was sure I could come up with something better — that the client would love. Many, many revisions later, no logo love and no payment from the company — siting that since they couldn’t use any of the work we produced, there was no value in it.

    Had I asked these surgical questions, I might have realized that it was the client who had the contagious condition and that I could not put a bandaid on the situation to make it better!

  2. says

    Thanks for commenting, Eileen, and for providing a classic example of what I’m talking about. We like to think we’re good enough to accomplish what the previous creative couldn’t. In theory, sure—but in practice, there are some clients that simply can’t be pleased, no matter what you do. (Ironically enough, since you’ve used a couple of medical puns, I’ve had more than a few physician clients fall into this category. They are *very* tough to please.)