Even After 22 Years as a Copywriter, I Still Wrestle with This One…

So, I’ve been dealing with several cases of “scope creep” of late: when a copywriting project goes beyond the agreed-upon (in writing) parameters. We’d like to think it’s pretty cut and dried: If the project scope goes beyond what you contracted, they pay more. Period.

And, sometimes it is easy, and the client “gets it,” and you get your extra money. But as I’ve discovered, it’s a heckuva lot easier to talk tough when you’re discussing the idea in the abstract vs. being in the middle of a real-world situation and about to have an uncomfortable conversation with a commercial writing client. Especially if it’s your first gig with them. You want to stand up for what you’re owed, but, sometimes, you have to give to get.

(NOTE: You see my “(in writing”) bit above? Do not even think of moving ahead with any commercial writing project without some sort of written agreement (even if it’s just the simple one-pager I discuss in TWFW). I can’t believe how many commercial freelancers have sent me “What do I do now?” emails over the years, because what they discussed (i.e., as opposed to put in writing) with their client as far as a scope has now expanded, and the client doesn’t want to pay them any more. And while I’m sorry they’re going through that, they only have themselves to blame. ‘Nuff said.)

So, I had one of those gray-area projects recently. I was working with a graphic design team on a commercial project for one of their clients. After meetings with the end client, we submitted a creative brief to the client, outlining our proposed direction. The client signed off on the direction, and I came up with a first draft.

My design client loved it, and felt it nailed what the client said they wanted. But, after we submitted it, the client said, “Now that I see this, I realize that that (i.e., the concept that the project was based around, and which they signed off on) just doesn’t really capture what we’re all about. We’re really about this.” Pretty straightforward, right? They changed direction, so we renegotiate, right? Well….

So, he wanted us to rework the copy with a new direction. And not having worked with a creative team before, he just doesn’t get that he can’t just change direction in mid-stream, and expect that there won’t be a change in fee. Plus, they’re a non-profit and with a tight budget. And, stickiest of all, he’s such a nice guy, and so sincere and earnest (and yes, clueless in his way), that it’s just really tough to say, “No can do.”

So, I discuss with my design clients, and while we both agree that it’s not right for the client to do this at no additional charge (and, this means more work for me, not them, since we’re not at the design stage yet), I make a decision. I say, “Listen, we’re right; they’re wrong. But, I’m happy to do another round if it makes them happy.”

And I arrived at that decision after a simple calculation, and after looking at the big picture: How much work this design firm has given me over the past 2-3 years, how they never haggle over my fees, how they look out for me, and how hard they work to make my job as hassle-free as possible.

Viewed through that lens, it’s a pretty easy decision. Sure, if I stood my ground, they’d have totally understood, but by taking the high road, I absolutely endear myself to them.

They’re delighted and relieved that I’m willing to “take one for the team,” and they agree with me unequivocally, that if the client pulls this again, they’re putting their foot down in no uncertain terms.

This commercial freelancing business of ours is so great largely because we get paid very well, and by clients, who, overwhelmingly, know how the world works, and don’t play games over fees. And for every deal like this, where you eat some hours, inevitably, there are those gigs where you quote $4K, the client says, “Let’s do it,” and the project takes, only, say, 21 hours.

So, it all evens out in the end. Not necessarily with the same client, but across your client base as a whole. As such, you’ll ensure your happy longevity in the business by taking that long view, and knowing that while you may have to give here, you’ll get it back over there. And if, in the process, you can make solid money, and enjoy your work on most days, and, on your lifestyle terms, life is pretty good.

What’s your philosophy on projects that go beyond scope?

Do you take them on a case-by-case basis or stick to a firm policy?

Have you had a similar situation to the above, and if so, how did you handle it?

Any other comments or insights to share?

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31 replies
  1. Joseph Ratliff
    Joseph Ratliff says:

    Yeah, I’m with you Peter.

    It can be a tough conversation to have (about scope creep), and sometimes you can concede depending on the situation. But from my perspective, if you do concede, you do have to have the conversation in a “I’ll take care of you, this one time but…” type of manner.

    Allow the client an opportunity to give you the impression that it is a one-time deal … and move on. If they give you the impression it isn’t, move to deciding if firing the client might be better. Decide cautiously, but sometimes that decision must be made.

  2. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Agreed, Joseph! Getting any kind of out-of-the-ordinary concession requires that you let the client know that it IS an out-of-the-ordinary concession, so they don’t think it’s the norm. In this case, since I didn’t have any direct contact with this particular client in question, I don’t know exactly how my agency clients put it to the end-user, but I know they said (diplomatically), that it couldn’t happen again.

    Many clients who haven’t hired writers may not know how this sort of thing should work, though even that rationale doesn’t hold much water. Speaking of water, I’ll use a plumbing metaphor: Say you had a plumber come to your house and do some agreed-upon work. When he was done, if you said, you know, now that I see this, that’s not really the way I want it, would you expect him to redo it the way you wanted, for free? The very idea is laughable. Same here.

    And yes, if the client acts as if this should be standard, you need to either have a “come-to-Jesus” conversation to set them straight, or let them go.

  3. Larry Elkan
    Larry Elkan says:

    Peter,
    I think after thinking it totally through, as you definitely did, you came to the correct decision in this case! Not only did you hook him up at no extra charge, and in a way he won’t easily forget, you can also feel good about yourself for doing so.

    Doing an occasional good deed such as this, whether karma or what have you, has a way of paying you back sometimes more than you ever imagined! Funny in life how that happens!

    Happy Holidays!
    Larry E

  4. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    I take a pretty strict line on scope creep, but even I bend from time to time (if I wasn’t clear about the terms in that sense, if I’ve been working with the client for a long time and this is rare, etc.). But it’s rare.

    It does get trickier when you’re dealing with middlemen clients though. In that case it sounds like it fell on the design firm to make the scope creep issue clear to their own client, and they didn’t do it up front. Normally in that case the middleman client would still owe you and they’d eat the cost rather than the contractor. But I can understand that you’d want to cut them a break if you’ve had a longstanding relationship with them. I’d ask about the conversation they had if they wanted you to do work with this client again though, just to make sure you’re covered. And it might be worth having a conversation with them as well — you covered them once, but if they don’t make sure end clients are clear on these things, it’ll fall on them to cover increased costs in the future.

    In the end it sounds like everyone’s happy, and that’s what matters most.

  5. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    Joseph, you covered the first question that popped into my head. Did they let the client know they were making an exception? And agreed, it is a difficult situation at any time. I’ve done both. Conceded and not.

    Funny, one where I initially conceded and then later had to part ways was also a non-profit. My contact played the “greater good” card and explained how I would reap the rewards when they became huge. I don’t mean to sound flip but the choice to donate time and skills should be yours and not because the non-profit can’t afford you. I explained after the first project with scope creep that I was making a one-time exception. When it became clear that the client was looking to make it their way of doing business, we parted ways.

    I would say it’s a case-by-case basis (but leaning toward standing firm). Of course, factors like business relationships is huge. Tough nut, Peter.

  6. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Good feedback, all!

    You’re right, Larry – gifts like this DO go a long way. In this case, it just solidifies my client’s perception of me as a team player, and someone who can roll with the punches. And at the same time, there’s a fine line here…

    If you find yourself giving ground more often than not in situations like these, you might want to examine whether you’re just avoiding conflict and uncomfortable conversations as opposed to being that team player. First and foremost, this is a business, and if you set a bad precedent, it’s hard to turn it around.

    And right on all points, Jenn. In this case, we all knew that this was an anomalous situation – it absolutely doesn’t happen with these folks with any regularity. And more often than not, as noted, I make more than my estimated hourly rate. So, in that sense, it’s goodwill that costs me very little.

    Thanks Cathy, and love the “Greater Good” card – how true. In the case of non-profits, let’s be honest, a good chunk of these folks, given that they enter their field out of a strong desire to make a difference, leave the world a better place, etc., aren’t usually the best business people.

    But, a contract is a contract, and to invoke the “GG” after the fact, and only after you hit a rough patch, is a bit tacky, to my mind. If you choose to proactively offer it up – either because of steady work or, yes, a strong belief in their cause, fine. But to have it foisted on you is another story.

  7. Lori
    Lori says:

    I’ve had similar situations, Peter. In one case, a long-time client said “The owner decided not to use the piece you wrote, so we’ll just skip payment this time.”

    Huh?

    In that case, I had worked with them for six years. They had been easy to get along with, though we’d had a few of what I call the “dictatorial” moments —the foot was being put down on revisions that went counter to what they’d originally requested (and I’d recorded, repeated back and verified what they said because of this). So how should I handle it? This is a company that never asked my rate and paid whatever the invoice said.

    I decided to roll it into the next invoice (and mention it tactfully, of course). However, their outside marketing firm handled it for me. When he heard they weren’t paying, he insisted, saying their lack of direction shouldn’t mean I work for nothing. I got the check.

    I do take it case by case, but I make sure it’s clearly stated in the contract that any change in scope results in a new contract. With new clients, I will send them a message that goes something like, “Sure, I’m able to make the change this one time without extra charges” so they know there’s a price for flipflopping.

    One of the strangest encounters was with a freelancer who requested work from me. I sent over my price only to hear “Sorry, I didn’t mean I’d pay for it — others are donating, but if you can’t I understand.”

    Donating? This wasn’t a charity, either. It was a writer making money off a product my “donation” would have been part of.

    I think clients will understand if you explain it to them cordially and in hours-spent terms. Though I did have one client fire me (and amen she did) when she wanted me to rewrite a 2000-word article with three new interviews because the only source she insisted I interview didn’t run it past his company lawyers. I explained to her up front that in order to do that, I’d have to spend at least five more hours on it. She told me I had two hours that she’d pay for and no more. I warned her again that two hours would not get her a completed article.

    Mind you, the mistake that voided the first article was entirely hers. She called me unprofessional when I wasn’t able to do what she asked in the time allotted. She was expecting me to donate to the greater good, just like Cathy’s client. Not a chance.

  8. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    I remember that situation you had with the other freelancer Lori. What’s worse is they had no expertise in what they were trying to sell (which was a product that pitted them as an authority), and they were planning to completely ride the coattails of actual professionals who agreed to contribute.

    I’m all for helping colleagues out with interviews, guest posts, etc. even if the end product of theirs is paid for. We all help each other out in different ways. But that was a case where the entire product depended on these “donated” contributions. It was like one of those Craigslist or Elance clients who ask for free samples, never hire anyone, but go ahead and publish (and profit from) the samples they receive. Anyway, that freelancer had already ripped off another colleague’s brand while having the nerve to ask her to contribute content as well, so no love lost there. 😉

    The client you mentioned sounds crazy controlling. Can you imagine telling a lawyer, mechanic, or any other independent contractor that you expect them to do a five hour job, but you’ll only pay them for two? I’d try it for kicks when I’m back at the mechanic’s, but I’d probably get a wrench thrown in my general direction.

  9. Karen Wormald
    Karen Wormald says:

    Peter, given your relationships with the design firm, I agree that you totally made the right call. They’re your client, and they’ve been good to you, so making an occasional concession to help them keep a third-party relationship smooth definitely makes you more valuable to them.

    The key here is not forgetting who your client is. I was once offered a months-long contract by a firm to produce work for their only client, the federal government. Their contact stipulated that I would get paid only after the firm got paid by the feds, which I knew could take many months.

    I reminded them that the contract was between us only, and I wasn’t comfortable with my payment contingent on the behavior of an unknown third party.

    They conceded and agreed to my usual net 30 terms.

  10. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks, all!

    Those were a couple of mighty nervy clients, Lori! “We’ll just skip payment”?? What planet are they living on? And love the donating scenario. I get it if it’s a non-profit, AND you spell it out upfront. But, to assume people are OK with that, and for a for-profit business?? That sounds like a serious entitlement mentality. Where does that sort of thinking come from?

    And to any budding freelancer in ANY arena who’s trying to get people to donate services for free, just remember, as long as you believe it’s perfectly OK to ask and get free services from other practitioners, it’s going to make it that much harder for you to convince others (AND yourself…) that you deserve to get paid well for your services.

    Your third example (of the woman who wanted to only pay you for 2 hours of a 5-hour job) is a good teaching example. To those relatively new at this, don’t let yourself get intimidated by a client who calls you unprofessional because you won’t do what they ask, when it’s THEIR error that necessitated the rewrite (or any other “additional-time” scenario).

    It’s easy as newbies to want to be pleasers (we’ve all been there). But, assuming you put all the details of project scope and fees for that scope, in writing, you’re not obligated to offer any free time if it’s not your fault. If you choose to, make sure the client knows it’s NOT standard.

    And Jenn, love your mechanic example – just like the plumber. They’d NEVER expect that from them so why from us? Maybe some clients take advantage of writers because they perceive we’re a different class of practitioners (perhaps not as professional, more flexible, less likely to be good business people, etc.). And maybe that’s because they’ve run into a lot of writers who act that way.

    Whatever the reason, it’s our job to disabuse them of that notion. And we do that by being buttoned-up, having contracts, being specific about scope/terms/fees, etc.

    As Lori’s case shows, that’s not always enough, but as long as we’re doing our job, we can comfortably draw our line in the sane.

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Karen, and good for you, for sticking up for your rights! And that’s the thing: Just because a client asks for something, or puts it in a contract, doesn’t mean they’ll walk away from the deal if you don’t agree to it. Just because others haven’t questioned something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!

  11. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    Peter, I returned to this post because I’m looking for advice on a recent scope-creep situation. The client had red flags from the beginning—(1) she’s not comfortable with technology and seems to “lose” emails or can’t download attachments; (2) she’s an emotional and occasionally dramatic person; (3) she’s a friend of my parents. I completed a project for her a couple of months ago, and I ended up “donating” many hours because I knew she wanted to stay within a certain budget. The finished product was four paperback copies of a full-color photo book that chronicled her family history. Today she told me she had been stewing about it for the past two months because she was expecting hardcover books and she couldn’t believe I thought she would be satisfied with paperbacks. I reminded her that I had told her the difference in price between printing paperbacks and printing hardcovers, and she had agreed that the hardcover price was prohibitive, so we proceeded with paperbacks. This was a phone conversation because at that time, her computer wasn’t working and she couldn’t get email. So now she’s angry that she has to pay more money to get the product she says she wanted all along. And I’m angry that I have to donate more time to give her what she wants now, with no guarantee that she’ll be happy with it later. I do plan to fire her as a client, and I’ve composed a very professional letter to that effect. My question is, should I go above and beyond and offer her a refund?

  12. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Hey Melanie,

    Yikes, what a crazy situation that is! First things first…

    Absolutely, positively, under NO circumstances does she deserve a refund. That’s not going above and beyond – that’s being a doormat. The ONLY time a full refund is in order is when you screwed up somehow, mismanaged the project or some other transgression completely NOT the fault of the client. In this case, you didn’t do anything wrong. Sounds like she’s one confused and angry woman, and taking her own mistakes, oversights, and bad memory out on you.

    I don’t even think you owe her the extra time to help her with the getting the hardcover photo books (given the conversation she acknowledges you two had, where she decided NOT to go the hardcover route), but if you do, THAT, to my mind, qualifies as “above and beyond.”

    Contrary to the old adage, the customer is NOT always right. And yes, sometimes, when they’re wrong, we have to suck it up (if they’re in a position to spread bad news about us). But you’ve got the truth on your side, so if you decide to give her this last chunk of time (and even if you don’t!), you can sleep well, knowing you gave her more than she deserved.

    Good luck with it!

    PB

  13. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    Whew, that’s good to hear! I do wish I could be like Nordstrom’s or the Ritz Carlton and absolutely guarantee customer satisfaction. But this is a big chunk of cash, and it represents a big investment of time and patience. I had toyed with saying something like, “I really appreciate you coming to me with this special project and giving my services a try. While I enjoyed the opportunity to share in your family history, and I am proud of the beautiful books I put together for you, it is clear that you are unhappy with the end result. For that reason, I feel it’s best to part ways, and I’m refunding your money/half your money. You may wish to find another service provider who can give you what you’re looking for at the price point you set.”

    I also follow Seth Godin’s writings, and he often talks about “delighting” the customer. He makes it clear that you can’t delight everyone, so not everyone is your customer. But the select group of people you choose to serve—those are the ones you focus on. I felt like throughout this process I was in fact delighting this client, right up until she received those paperbacks. And no, because of her erratic relationship with technology, I do not have any documentation that confirms we agreed on paperbacks, and that feels like a rookie mistake on my part.

    Maybe offering a refund is an attempt to finally delight her, or maybe it’s penance for that rookie mistake. But it’s probably naive to think it would accomplish either.

  14. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    “Maybe offering a refund is an attempt to finally delight her, or maybe it’s penance for that rookie mistake. But it’s probably naive to think it would accomplish either.”

    Agreed, and I don’t see it as a rookie mistake to not have secured documentation of the paperback decision. When you enter into a working relationship with someone of seemingly sound mind and body, you don’t assume that they’re going to completely forget that they decided on a very specific and important part of the process.

    And I’m thinking that to have asked for that in writing at the time would likely have struck her as a bit insulting. NOT that that should stop you from getting confirmation of similar such important “process” decisions in the future. Is she denying she ever agreed to paperbacks, or agrees and is just unhappy? Again, just because you don’t have documentation doesn’t mean she’s any less wrong, and you’re any less right in this situation.

  15. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    I appreciate you helping me think through this. Do you think I should even bother to put in the extra time it would take to prepare the files for hardcover books? Or just send her the message I mentioned above (without offering the refund of course!) and be done with her? Which is more professional? Which is more doormatty? 🙂

  16. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Just one man’s opinion, but here’s how I see it. You have no obligation whatsoever to help her with this final step. If she’d remembered that she indeed HAD agreed to go the paperback route, then she’d have already walked away from the deal feeling totally delighted with you. But, thanks to her faulty memory (in no way, shape or form your fault OR responsibility), now she’s unhappy, and the job is unfinished.

    In your shoes, I might offer to help her out for a reduced rate. “While I feel I’ve done an excellent job in delivering the product we agreed on, I understand it’s not finished in your mind, and as such, I’m willing to help finish the job, and will do it for a reduced rate. Instead of X$/hr, I’ll charge Y$/hr.” Then figure out how many hours you think it’ll take, and give her a flat fee.

    If you offer it free, it’s almost like admitting that, at the very least, you’re not 100% sure that she’s NOT right in her recollection. By doing it this way, you’re making it clear that you KNOW your recollection is correct, and that you’d charge at all reinforces that assertion.

  17. Karen Wormald
    Karen Wormald says:

    Agree with Peter 100% on your next move. If you concede to her with 1) any amount of refund, or 2) additional work for free, you will NEVER delight her, but fall even lower in her esteem because she knows you’re someone she can walk all over. She may be knowingly trying to take undue advantage because she considers herself a “family friend.”

    If she weren’t friends with your parents, it might be best to end the project now, but since there’s that other relationship possibly at stake here, I’d follow Peter’s suggestion to offer to do the additional work at a reduced rate (half off?). Even if she turns you down, she still has the book in a perfectly acceptable paperback form, albeit not her ideal. And you can’t say you didn’t try to make her happy, while maintaining the ethics of your business.

  18. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Well said, Karen!

    And I suggested what I did, in part, because of the “family-friend” angle (though I didn’t mention it). Do that, and you have every reason to move forward with more than a clear conscience (ditto even if you DON’T do it).

  19. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    It is so good to be part of a community like this! Thank you for creating it, Peter, and thank you for participating in it, Karen! Here’s how I’ve implemented your input:

    I re-read the upset text messages I had received from this client. (Yes, she can text, but she can’t email. Go figure.) Then I re-read any written correspondence I’d had with her—texts, a few emails, and the paper file I’d kept of her handwritten notes, my jottings, and the monthly invoices I had sent her. (I was wary of scope-creep from the outset, so we had agreed to an hourly arrangement. My invoices detailed how much time I had spent, and what had been accomplished in each session.) This review and your encouragement convinced me that it would not be wise for me to invest further in this relationship.

    I composed a text similar to what I proposed above (in my previous comment), removing any suggestion of a refund. I also referred her to services like Snapfish or Shutterfly who might be able to meet her needs better than I had. I reminded her that I had already provided her with a CD of the photos and slides I had scanned for her, so she had all the ingredients to create an heirloom she could treasure. I thanked her again for the opportunity and wished her the best.

    It was late when I sent this text, so I wasn’t expecting a reply right away, but I got one. And it confirmed that I had made the right choice not to be involved with her anymore. She could not believe I was sending her this message so late when she was not feeling well. (She had started the conversation at 6:00 that morning!) She could not believe I was not going to “do the right thing” and simply turn the paperbacks into hardcovers that I could “be proud of.”

    I debated for a few moments whether I should reply or not. Then I went ahead. I told her I was very proud of the paperbacks I had created for her. I told her it was the best work I was capable of doing, but it was not meeting her needs, so I had to refer her to other services that might be a better fit. She sent me one more terse reply that concluded with, “Yes we are finished.” So I will print that entire text conversation and keep it in her file.

    Yes, part of me feels bad that I wasn’t able to please this client. She feels like she paid an exorbitant amount of money for something she’s unhappy with, and I wish she didn’t feel that way. I wish I had documentation confirming that we had agreed on paperbacks, but I don’t think even such proof would make her feel any better about her books. She regrets the money she spent, and I regret the time I invested. That’s sad, but like you’ve said, a refund would not restore the relationship—and it would only make me feel more resentful!

    Anyway, sorry for the lengthy play-by-play. I just thought you might want some closure. 🙂

    Thanks again for your advice and support!

  20. Karen Wormald
    Karen Wormald says:

    Melanie, after how it all went down, I hope you’re giving yourself a pat yourself on the back that you absolutely played it correctly. This woman resorting to emotional manipulation in a last-ditch effort to get her way should be all the confirmation you need.

    Thanks for taking the time to give us the full story. It sort of serves as a testament to the cliché that “no good deed ever goes unpunished,” but at least you didn’t end up going unpaid!

  21. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    I agree with Karen. Tell that one part of you to “Stop feeling bad!” She clearly is a living, breathing offense-seeking being.

    All we can ever control is our own actions, and we should feel bad if we did something wrong that had a negative impact on a client. But, if we did everything right, and in fact, went overboard to do our part to the best of our ability, and the client’s still unhappy, it’s not our problem anymore.

  22. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Had another recent experience that’s relevant to this discussion…

    Had a client who’d hired me to do some web copy and a brochure. I’d turned him onto one of my graphic design partners. I ended up managing that part of the process as well. Why? Because the guy was foreign, had a very strong accent, and while I could follow what he was saying (I have a really good ear), most people wouldn’t. So, I felt I needed to ride shotgun so my designer wouldn’t end up incredibly frustrated, and having every conversation take twice as long as it should have.

    As such, he’d gotten used to calling me for every little question/concern, even though most of the stuff he was asking me about was well beyond the original scope of the project. And let’s be honest about this: While he still owed me money, I wasn’t going to be a hard-ass about all his beyond-the-scope requests.

    But, after he paid me, well, interesting how it changes the calculus, no? Especially, because, I saw him as a one-shot client. But, rest assured, I’ve gotten to that lovely point in my career where I don’t have to endure anything I don’t want to.

    In any case, I let him call me a few more times with questions, but then, nicely, I put my foot down, saying, “I’ve been happy to handle your questions about design, photography, etc., but in truth, none of that was in the original parameters of the project, and I’m just getting really busy with other work of late. I’m happy to continue to work with you, but we’d need to go back on the clock. If you were to buy a few hours of consulting time, you could call me whenever you liked.”

    Well, I’ll give you one guess what happened next. Right – the calls stopped completely. Which means three things:

    1) He really wasn’t interested in paying for extra time (which was fine with me), but more importantly…

    2) The silent phone made it clear that he didn’t really need to be checking with me on everything.

    3) This is a guess, but I suspect, given that he had precious little experience working with a professional writer, that he didn’t realize he couldn’t keep knocking on my door for help, and so it was up to me to explain “The Facts of Life.”

    Now, I grant you, on #3 above, I’m probably being charitable. Most people realize that if you pay someone for a service, you can’t keep calling and asking questions beyond the scope of their original task, and for no charge (try doing that an attorney…).

    In his case, given that he was foreign, it may have been a cultural difference. Who knows?

  23. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    Peter, your story makes me wonder if there is an inherent “likeliness” in our industry for this kind of thing to happen. Yes, we can compare our services to those of a plumber and expect clients to treat us with the same professional dispatch. But the fact is, there are many times when the relationships we build with our clients are almost as personal as they are professional. People trust us with their stories, their memories, their treasured photos, the details of their lives. And I know that I often encourage this kind of relationship—the better I understand and “feel” my client, the better I can represent her in writing, and the better I feel about the finished result.

    So I guess it’s no wonder that you “still wrestle” with this “after 22 years.” And it’s no wonder that we writers have to rely on each other for help maintaining perspective. 🙂

  24. Karen Wormald
    Karen Wormald says:

    I have several regular newsletter and proofreading clients who call or email me between projects to settle questions of writing and grammar that crop up on other work. Sometimes these conversations/explanations can be lengthy. But I always accommodate them because:

    1) It’s good that they turn to me as their “expert,” which often means less push-back in my work for them. And maybe they’ll refer me to someone else because they trust me.

    2) It has led to me being invited to do in-house writing workshops for the whole staff, which were lucrative days.

    But there’s the old 80/20 rule, where 20% of your clients will create 80% of your work, and I find it’s usually the one-shot, usually small projects that cause this. Peter, I handle them the same way you did. Switching the meter back on always seems to do the trick!

  25. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    I take a pretty hard line on scope creep, which I treat as a variety of re-concepting (since I feel that the scope IS part of the concept as agreed to by all parties). But I will sometimes make an exception the first time the issue comes up, especially if I know I was unclear about the ground rules. So if the scope creep is partly my fault, I deal with it and then clarify the rules going forward. If the client knew the rules and is ignoring them, the meter must be fed before I resume work.

    Re the point about written contracts: A friend of mine who is a contract lawyer likes to warn business owners about not using email conversations as “contracts.” He notes that not only might this stream of hazily-phrased statements be filled with loopholes, but the reverse situation can also bite you — you could accidentally bind yourself to some horrible condition or other without realizing it.

  26. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    You bring up a good point, Melanie… It’s good and often necessary to connect with a client to do a good job (more in the type of work you do than in straight copywriting), but get too close, and it can be tougher to be the hard-nosed businessperson we also have to be. And that can make it easier for clients to assume they can get away with stuff.

    I think writers get taken advantage of more than, say, plumbers, for a few reasons. One: what we do is a bit more undefined/fluid. Shouldn’t be, but compared to a very specific plumbing job, a writing job that just goes beyond scope a little bit here and there, I mean, what’s the big deal, right? Which leads to…

    Two: I think many writers do a lousy job of putting their foot down, somehow thinking that if they do, they’ll scare the client off. Many have this “just-happy-to-be-here” attitude, while is a wonderful way to get walked all over. And even the ones (and I’ll admit to being in this group sometimes) that can put their foot down, but are uncomfortable doing it, in a sense “legitimize” a client’s belief that it should be OK to push the boundaries.

    Plumbers don’t wrestle with this probably because they never have given their customers any sense that their prices are negotiable and their project scopes were fluid. So, no one assumed they could get away with anything.

    Karen and William, sounds like you’ve struck a good balance, which, I guess, is the whole point of this – we need to be tough business people (when it comes to money), if we want to stay in business, but we also need to be flexible.

    And, perhaps a bit ironically, it’s when we ARE hard-nosed about such policies, and our clients understand those policies that our exceptions mean that much more to a client.

  27. Star Lawrence
    Star Lawrence says:

    Don’t know where to begin on this colloquy. Over a 35-yr career, I experienced almost every one of these skirmishes. Yes, people see what they can get away with from a writer and not a roofer or plumber. Those guys might whack them with a hammer, a writer will most likely whine, beat themselves up, and feel terrible. I edited a book for one gal that had recipes–I left the word “loves” instead of “loaves” in one recipe. She melted down, said she would bad mouth me to her friends and she did–well, no more work from her, boo-hoo. Or them! I lived. I have had people say well, we are not doing a mailing anymore, so I guess we won’t need to pay for this five-part thing you did. I said, you can use it for TP, but you have to pay–it’s written in the contract. These things are why I always got half on deposit–in case they got cute. I had one guy say, well, you charge too much anyway–$40 an hour (the old days) for a woman and a woman who works at home? Yes, I often threw in an order card for a different list or a sidebar or something if I felt like it. But my contract specified “one reasonable rewrite–defined as under three hours. Beyond that, a change order will be executed.” Reading this, I guess I was such a b-word, no wonder I need to be writing cartoons now.

  28. Star Lawrence
    Star Lawrence says:

    Thanks, Peter… Yeah, me with the red lines. But you have to remember that often these requests for change of direction or additional pieces come long after you have switched to other projects and it is very dreary to return.

  29. Dennis Briskin
    Dennis Briskin says:

    Peter, You need a written contract that covers these contingencies BEFORE the creative mind hits the keyboard. “But we never talked about that” is a perfect defense for the client. A written agreement is a great practice, but whatever is not in the writing might as well not exist. Oral agreements are binding, sure, but the written text prevails.

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