How Would You Deal With Such an Unpleasant Client?

Recently got an email from a new commercial writer up North. All you experienced folks, if you’re like me, you’ll be saying, “Oh, just let me at this guy…” She wrote:

I’m writing a web site for a logistics company, a family business run by a nice guy in his early twenties. It’s my first job as a freelancer commercial writer, although I have quite a bit of experience as a copywriter at an ad agency. Here’s the deal:

Sent the initial agreement outlining that three revisions are included; any over that amount, I charge for. Sent initial draft. Client says they’re happy with it; suggest few minor tweaks. “Awesome,” I think. Make changes; send second version. Client sends back a few more minor changes. “Easiest first client ever,” I muse.

Third version I send, emphasizing “Let’s look this over, make sure everything looks great, and I’ll proof for grammar, punctuation, etc., and we’ll call it a day.” Client responds, “Great. I’ll just send it along to our consultant and we’ll get back to you.”

(Sound of brakes screeching). “Um, okay…”

I wait nervously for a few days before emailing client. I’m told he and the consultant are still making lots of changes. Wait a few more days; told they’re still making changes. Finally, not knowing what’s left of my copy, I insist on having a phone conference with this mystery consultant, who turns out to be a very confrontational and opinionated attorney, who not very nicely attacks me for all manner of grammatical transgressions.

According to him, the lead’s been lost in a pile of blah-blah-blah. He wants everything stripped down to bare facts. In short, he is a writer’s nightmare. And I’m a new twenty-something commercial copywriter, eager to please my first client, and totally intimidated by gruff, fifty-year-old lawyers.

When I ask my client why the sudden change, his response is merely that his consultant pointed out a lot of things to him.

My question: We’re still technically on the third round of revisions, although the “revisions” are adding sections, removing sections and making very significant changes. The client doesn’t want to get back to me and give the OK on this last round because I think he believes as long as he’s within the three rounds of revisions, the sky’s the limit on making changes.

How do I diplomatically communicate the scale of changes permitted? How do I prevent this from happening in the future? How do I avoid both pissing off my first and only client and being a sucker who’s doing work for free?

Whew. Doesn’t that story just make you want to shine up your brass knuckles? Of course, she did make a few newbie copywriter errors. Like not determining up front all the folks who’d be approving copy. Honest mistake, and one of those “hindsight-is-20/20” things. Been through many projects where I didn’t think to ask that and it never turned out to be a problem, but had there been a hidden butcher with machete and red pen lurking in the shadows, I’d have been hosed.

And no question, when starting out (and young, too boot, and easily daunted; we’ve all been there), and have a great gig going with a first client, you really do want to please. All things considered, she got paid, learned some valuable lessons (far more than she’d have learned on a smooth-sailing gig), and will be that much more prepared next time.

One thing that’s a no-brainer is the whole idea of expanding scope of a project. Not sure whether they spelled out the project parameters on the original agreement. But, given how she agonized over saying anything once the thing began spreading in all directions, I’m guessing not. Big mistake.

If you make it clear upfront, in writing, that the project includes X components – X # of pages, for X fee, then as soon as things start expanding beyond those stated specs, then it’s a simple matter of saying, “Things have changed, and the fee needs to be renegotiated.” No need for hesitation or angst. The client agreed to a certain sized project for a certain fee, and it’s now grown beyond that. End of discussion.

Being completely matter-of-fact about that is crucial to preserving your status as a professional. And it should happen regardless of whether it’s your first client or your 1000th. If you had a plumber over to fix your sink and you asked him to fix that leaky toilet upstairs while he’s here, you’d never expect him to do it for nothing. So, why would you think for a nanosecond that clients are entitled to freebies? They’re not.

Another non-negotiable point for any professional is how you’re being treated. If someone starts with snide remarks, confrontational, belligerent tone, or insulting manner in any way, I’m going to say something. Anyone who does that honestly believes you’re little more than “The Help,” and as such, can be talked down to. I once told one such a client, who the hell he thought he was, talking to me that way. That went over well. I ended my participation at that moment, walked away, and got paid for my time.

Got this update from our beseiged copywriter:

“I wish I could say I’d come up with a brilliant way to resolve the situation, but it really amounted to a combination of contributing many more hours than I’d planned on (thus losing money) and finally, drawing the line and telling the client I’d have to adjust the quote before making any further changes.

“Trying my hardest to diplomatically plow through numerous revisions was what kept my relationship with the client from souring. (At the project’s completion, he enthusiastically volunteered to be a reference for me.) But whether the situation was resolved successfully is debatable. I succeeded in making the client happy, but lost money and watched some great copy turn into something I’m not as thrilled to put my name on. Live and learn.”

Ever found yourself dealing with a similarly unpleasant individual? If so, what did you do?

Any other suggestions to head off problems like these?

When you were starting out, how did you balance your desire to be accommodating and customer-oriented with the need to not become a doormat?

And if you didn’t manage that well (and many of us didn’t!), what did you learn from the experience?