What Would You Do About a Client Like This One?

Got a note from a fellow commercial writer recently. She wrote:

I have a client who’ll give me two or three days to write something (when I really need a week), insisting such a tight deadline is necessary, and then take a week to review it, revealing the deadline wasn’t real after all. I know they’re not getting my best work because there’s no “dwell” time. I’ve pulled all-nighters to get projects done, and then hear nothing for days or even a week. When they do come back with comments, I might get a day or two to generate a second draft.

The last time this happened, I did ask for a rush fee and got it. But the extra money isn’t worth the extra stress. After all, reducing stress is one of the biggest reasons I became a commercial freelancer.

Yes, I’ve brought this up to them, but it’s come to nothing. They try to do better for a week or two and then the old habits return. Moreover, these conversations just seem to make our otherwise genial relationship tense. And other than this, they’re great clients: they’re fair on other matters, pay promptly and I’ve worked with them for seven years. A commercial copywriting client like this is a godsend in this crummy economy. Is this just the way it is? Or can you suggest some tricks I might be able to use to manipulate them into better behavior?

My reply:

Alas, no tricks, but you may have more leverage than you think. If you’ve worked with them for seven years, obviously you deliver a lot of value and they know it. That being the case, you should be able to make your sentiments known without them freaking out. Clearly, while they may appreciate what you do for them, they’re not showing you much respect. Though, I suspect there’s nothing malicious in their actions, but rather garden-variety cluelessness.

To repeatedly insist a job is a rush job and then repeatedly take a week to review it shows they believe, perhaps even unconsciously, that their time is more valuable than yours. If it were me, I’d draw a line in the sand. But obviously, you have to weigh the value of this otherwise good client vs. the stress this situation causes.

If you decide to have this talk, make sure you ARE prepared to walk. The old sales adage, “He (or she) who cares least, wins” was never truer than here. If you’re truly fine with losing their copywriting business (and it’s totally okay if you’re not), you’ll come across with conviction and confidence. Which, I suspect, might just impress the heck out of them and have them suddenly see you in a brand-new light.

Many commercial freelancers have “come-to-Jesus” chats with problem clients that turn out just fine. The client develops new respect for the writer, AND often, the writer has an epiphany along the way, suddenly “getting” their own value. After all, if their client changes an offensive behavior as a result of a talk, they realize it’s indeed a two-way street, and that the client didn’t want to lose them.

I’d thank them for their ongoing confidence in you, but I would NOT go overboard in thanking them for all the copywriting projects they’ve given you over the years. Remember, this is an uncoerced market transaction: if they weren’t getting as much, if not more value out of the relationship than you are, they wouldn’t keep hiring you. They’re not hiring you out of charity, so don’t go to them hat in hand.

Explain that, as a copywriting professional, your goal is to always deliver superior work, and these conditions make it impossible to give them your best effort. But, that you could even live with THAT if the constant tight deadlines were legitimate deadlines, but they’re obviously not.

I’d wager they don’t kick you to the curb after all these years. How long would it take them to train a new copywriter? And do they want to go through that, when they could simply start making deadline requests based in reality, not whim?

Bottom line, nothing IS going to change on their side unless you somehow interrupt their pattern of doing things as they always have by getting their attention in some way.

What would you suggest she do in this situation?

Do you agree with my take or would you do things differently?

Have you had such a conversation with a client and how did it turn out?

Where do you draw your line in the sand with a “problem client”?

30 replies
  1. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    It’s always a bit difficult to advise without being able to get some follow-up info. So with that as a caveat…

    Part of what I might do is make it clear that as a freelancer, I’m working for more than just this company. My other clients deserve respect for their project schedules just like this company would like respect for their project schedule. But that’s not possible if deadlines are set but then not observed. It throws other project schedules out of whack.

    As a business professional, I can’t let one client affect the value of the services I provide to my other clients.

    And if I’m not pleased with the quality of work that is created because of unrealistic demands, I owe it to my professional reputation to politely remove myself from the situation.

    I’ve also had some long-time clients and it’s a bit flattering in a way that they seem to think I’m almost a regular employee and a valued member of the team. But that often translates into them forgetting I do have other client projects to work on. It’s not that they’re being mean or selfish about it… they just think their projects have priority and the only ones I’m working on.

    But she says she’s tried to deal with it, and it’s come to nothing. She also says it’s causing her stress. I hate stress as a freelancer. Like she says, that’s one of the reasons we become freelancers… to cut down on stress. It doesn’t totally disappear, but why accept any more than is necessary?

    So if a last-gasp effort to explain the problem this is creating doesn’t work, yes, I’d be prepared to walk.

    And this brings us to another issue pointed out in her note. (At least, an issue to me.)

    Sometimes we freelancers get too dependent on a handful of clients. On the one hand, like she says, the client pays on time and is otherwise fine to deal with. But it’s causing her enough stress that she’s looking for help.

    My follow-up question would relate to her marketing efforts in the last seven years or so. I know this will be controversial, but maybe she hasn’t been doing a great job of marketing herself in all these years if she can’t afford to lose this client. Granted, some clients will keep you so busy, you don’t have time for other client projects. That’s generally thought of as a good thing.

    But look at the position that puts you in… you’re almost at the mercy of that one client. At that point, you are lacking some leverage. (Sound familiar? It should. That’s the 9-5 jobs we left. One “client.” No leverage.)

    I might see this as a wake-up call to ask myself the following: Is my client load leaning too heavily on one or two clients? If so, how does that make me feel? Secure? Stressful over losing those clients and not being able to replace them?

    From there, I’d have to evaluate whether I’m doing a good job in marketing myself or if I’ve been lazy. (Personally, I’ve been lazy, but have been working on that in the past few months.)

    I understand her “crummy economy” comment but that can’t paralyze you from taking some risks. In a way, it’s always a rotten economy to some degree. Despite that, tons of businesses are having success and needing services like yours.

    So, you have to develop a marketing plan that is run consistently no matter what is happening from an economic standpoint. That keeps your name out there, it helps you to develop new contacts that may need you down the road, and helps put you in a better position if you do have to walk away from a client.

    Of course, I could be totally wrong. 🙂

  2. Mark Milan
    Mark Milan says:

    She could also increase her rush fee so that it is worth it to take such jobs.

    I think her main problem is that she isn’t clearly defining what is and isn’t acceptable to her. She’s saying she doesn’t want rush jobs, but then she’s accepting rush jobs. If she has the willingness to walk away, she could raise it like this:

    – I value you as a client.
    – The rush jobs are causing me stress, aren’t worth the money.
    – This is what I need in future (more time or more money).
    – If that isn’t acceptable to you, I understand, and I’ll be sorry to lose your custom.

    As you say, she might find that she has more power in the relationship than she previously thought; it could be that the client ends up being the one getting worried — if it’s a client of seven years, then that seems likely.

    I think some clients will walk all over you if you let them. If you set clear boundaries about what you will and won’t do right from the start, and don’t make exceptions, then this sort of problem never arises.

  3. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    I don’t do rush jobs. At all. I’ve engraved my minimum turnaround times in stone so that all parties understand them before the project ever starts. Rush jobs tangle up time that could be better applied toward other clients who aren’t determined to spike my blood pressure. If the client insist that it absolutely positively has to be there overnight, I’ll be happy to refer him to another writer with more free time and less self-esteem.

    I probably earn less, but I sleep better. Your mileage may vary.

  4. Roxane B. Salonen
    Roxane B. Salonen says:

    No feedback at this point. Still just taking it all in, learning for the near future. Really appreciate what I’m gaining through following the conversations here. It’s like my own little occasional coffee with other copywriters. 🙂

  5. Hope Clark
    Hope Clark says:

    I would decline one assignment stating that it’s just too short notice and her plate is full. She needs to say she can’t keep the deadline. She has a seven-year track record, so they aren’t going to toss her aside. As a matter of fact, it’ll probably make they stop in their tracks and wonder what’s wrong. They obviously don’t think their past habits need a remedy, and this one time might open a more sincere dialogue.

    Also, next time they did it, I’d explain to them (again) that this is short notice. The choice is to postpone other clients and charge a rush-fee or postpone this deadline. Make the rush-fee hurt, too. Frankly, if they are eager enough for her work to not bat an eye at the rush fee, she might not be charging enough anyway.

    If after this they still behave this way, either have them pay for the pain or move on.

  6. Paul Chimera
    Paul Chimera says:

    Something seems flawed from the start. If the client gives her 2-3 days to do a job that she says really requires a week, then doing the job in 2-3 days anyway sort of proves to the client that she really didn’t need a week.

    So, what she could or should have done is tell her client, sorry, but I can’t do an effective, quality job in that short a time. Maybe there’s an analogy here, somewhere, like, say, a person who would demand that their cooked-from-scratch soufflé be done in X amount of time, when the reality is that a properly prepared soufflé takes Y amount of time. Period. No exceptions. Just the way it is.

    If a client wants quality work, but then imposes a totally unrealistic deadline while still expecting the same high quality, perhaps the writer ought to tell them their request is impossible to honor. Period.

    In short, maybe it’s time for copywriters to have more self-respect, and to let clients know that what we do is rather special, and we care about doing it right, or not at all.


  7. Rick
    Rick says:

    The advice so far is good, I can only add a few things:

    * Some clients give these “we need it now” directives as part of an effort to “run a tight ship”. When their bosses ask how they’re managing all the freelancers and consultants, the client can say the projects are under control and within budget. And in companies, that’s a legitimate concern; it makes everyone nervous when the outside agencies are taking too long and running up huge invoices. So maybe this company (or this individual) is swinging too far the other way and making life miserable for you.

    * I agree that you can demand better terms but only if you are prepared to walk.

    * I don’t agree that they will necessarily cave in, either. Here in recession land, we have more freelancers than ever, because corporate communication folks have been laid off and they’ve hung their freelancer shingles out there as quick as they could. (Perhaps they’ve seen us freelancers doing well and figured its not so difficult). I had a client that loved me for 6 years and suddenly took the work in-house, due to budget. There are a lot of hungry freelancers who will readily agree to rush projects, and they’ll do it for less than you. At least that’s how it works right now in the Rust Belt.

    Bob Bly had a neat little trick to earn a few extra days. If the client wanted it on Friday, he would say, “I really feel I can do my best job if I get it to you on Monday.” Or something like that. It was less of an ultimatum and more of a “let’s talk about this/work with me” approach.

  8. Alan Allard
    Alan Allard says:

    We train others how to treat us. Our self-esteem and beliefs about ourselves predict and determine what we say and do in our interactions with others. What we say (and how we say it) and what we do, tells others how they should regard us and treat us.

    The first time the freelancer agreed to what she thought was unreasonable, it taught the client that she thought it was reasonable and fair.

    Setting fees and timelines isn’t just about business acumen; it’s also about self-esteem.

    Freelancers who make it a priority to increase both will also increase their bank accounts and the amount of time they have to complete projects.

  9. Pamela DeLoatch
    Pamela DeLoatch says:

    Perhaps when the client says “I need this in two days,” the copywriter can say “Tell me more about your deadline.” FInd out if it is a hard one, what the client has to do next in the process, and explain to the client how long you need to do it effectively. I would not talk about the additional stress of a deadline because, although that is a very real concern for the copywriter, the client doesn’t care. Instead, I’d emphasize 1) providing the client with the very best work and 2) a gentle reminder that rush jobs don’t always take precedence over the work for other clients and 3) a counter-offer of when you can get the job done. Maybe say: “A job like this typically takes 7 days, but understanding you’re crunched for time, let me get this back to you in five days.”

    One more thing: if this is a regular client, perhaps developing the habit of checking in with them periodically to find out what projects they’re doing and what their writing needs might be could help the clients think ahead a little more, and reduce the last minute projects.

  10. Samar
    Samar says:

    In order to keep things pleasant, you can say that you’ve recently taken on a project for a client that requires you to schedule your work more strictly and you will no longer be able to take rush jobs.

    Let them know that from now on you will need at least a week to complete work. Emphasise that you appreciate them as your client and want to give them a heads up for any future work that you will be doing for them.

    After working for 7 years for them, you have more bargaining leverage than you realize.

  11. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    I really appreciate Hope Clark’s advice about declining an assignment. I think that’s a very professional way to send a clear message that (1) you are not desperate for the money and (2) you have other clients you also value. It’s like turning down a last-minute date because your social calendar is already full. If the date is someone worthy of a long-term relationship, he’ll be the kind of guy who asks again, this time respecting your calendar.

    And yes, it does sound like your rush fee is not high enough. Or you’re not applying it consistently enough. Or both.

    Let us know what you decide to do and how things turn out!

  12. Lori Widmer
    Lori Widmer says:

    Upon receiving “the word” on the deadline, I’d push back immediately and state that two days is not adequate. I’d cite other client projects if I have them as many clients think we’re sitting here with nothing better to do. It’s not malicious on their part – many are so used to working with employees that instant availability is taken for granted. It may be that the client needs a gentle reminder each time that rushing isn’t going to happen any longer.

    I have had this conversation before – more than once. I’m not afraid to push back because the relationship has to be mutually beneficial. I’m willing to work hard for the client, but as I’ve said countless times, their fires are not my emergencies unless I’m compensated to put out that particular fire. Just mentioning my current workload and my “expected date of delivery” can be enough. Only one client gave me grief regularly because her bad planning meant I had to turn around project edits within hours. The last straw came when I got sick and couldn’t put out her fire – and she fussed royally. I said goodbye, shocking her. She still wants me back. Nothing doing. Life is infinitely better without the stress!

    I guess that’s my answer to where I draw the line. If it becomes a burden to keep up, if the client’s unruly when I can’t meet unrealistic demands, or when I’m treated like an employee with no regard for my time, I’m done.

  13. Eileen Coale
    Eileen Coale says:

    I echo Hope Clarke’s suggestion. It’s time to test the waters here. Tell them regretfully you can’t deliver in 2 days, but you can have it to them by X. Don’t budge. Then see what happens. Either they’ll take their business elsewhere permanently, take their business elsewhere this one time and realize what a pain it is to have to bring a new writer up to speed and come back to you for the next project, or agree to push the deadline back. I recently had to turn away work from a client whom I have a great relationship with. They gave me plenty of notice, but the happy reality is that I’m solidly booked for the next two months, and I could not meet their deadline. They have a stable of writers they can call, which is fully what I expected them to do. To my surprise, they have chosen to push back their deadline so that they can have me do the project. In my experience, most clients do value the reliability and quality of their regular writers. They don’t like uncertainty, and they don’t like breaking in new writers. That does give us copywriters a lot of leverage.

  14. Eileen Coale
    Eileen Coale says:

    I had another thought. Many of us fret that in this economy, a client will just go out and find another writer. But for those of us who write sales copy, we’re forgetting one thing – our clients profit from our sales copy. In this economy, they more likely want to stick with what’s proven, rather than risk hiring someone who can’t deliver copy that pulls.

  15. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Wow – great stuff, everyone. Sincerely appreciate all of you sharing your broad experience and wisdom here. For those less experienced in our field reading this, note the sense of self these folks have, and the confidence they have in the value of what they bring to the table. As I mentioned, and was echoed many times here, understand that this is absolutely a two-way street.

    Too often, writers take a subservient stance in dealing with clients, when the fact is, that clinet wouldn’t still be doing business with that writer if the writer wasn’t delivering MORE value to them than the money they’re paying them.


  16. Steve Rainwater
    Steve Rainwater says:

    I agree with some of the comments about frank, honest communication as a first step. The nature of the tight deadline is important. In my experience sometimes even if a project is on a short deadline it takes a long time to get back from review because executives or other external service providers are reviewing, so that is why the client asked for the deadline in the first place, to allow time for all the others. Sometimes a marketing person does not push a deadline to management in the same way as to an outside vendor. Also in comment #8 by Rick, I frequently do what Bob Bly suggested because I know clients often request a Friday deadline so they’ll have the piece on Monday. I use the weekend for revisions and make sure it’s in their inbox when they arrive at the office on Monday.

    I also agree with you Peter that you have to be prepared to walk. Just before Christmas I gave a project quote to a new prospect (someone I had not previously worked for, so of course different than a 7 year relationship, but the principle still applies). She shared with me that she had gotten a better price from someone else and sent my quote back to see if I would like to modify it. She also accompanied it with two quotation requests for additional projects (which I read to imply that if I wanted their repeat business I should lower my price). I had a tough year in 09 and on occasion DID lower my price, but I don’t much like the quote vs. quote game. So I sent her an e-mail stating that I would not be modifying my quote and was not interested in quoting the two additional projects – at all, and thanked her for her inquiry.

    Before the day was over I was given a “go-ahead” on the quoted project at my original price and delivered it the following week. Once they reviewed it, they sent me the other two projects again, and asked if I would reconsider quoting, which I did.

    So, if honest conversation doesn’t work and walking away is an option, the writer might get to work according to her preferred terms.


  17. Star
    Star says:

    Two points. First, I heard once you have to teach people how to treat you. You may need to gently get some “hand” in the situation–a la that Seinfeld epi. I would say, “Let me look, well, I can’t have it Monday, but how would Wednesday morning work for you?” You could add, “That way, I could probably get your notes by Friday and have revisions if needed back to you by the next Tuesday.” Some specifics.

    My second point is I believe client relationships sort of have a lifetime. This could be the 7-yr-itch for you, if not for them.

  18. Roxane B. Salonen
    Roxane B. Salonen says:

    This has been a great discussion. I’m wondering, though, if someone can offer advice to a newbie. I’m by no means a new writer with 18 years of solid writing behind me, but I do consider myself new in really going after this copywriting thing full force. I don’t think we newbies have the luxury of demanding too much too quickly, although the discussion definitely has given me some great information regarding setting boundaries early on to make the venture more productive on all ends. But can anyone address this? I’m struggling, for example, with discerning how to set fair fees at this early point, and how quickly to raise them. I kind of see the first year as a building year, so want to give myself and my clients some time to adjust, but after proving myself, I’d like to increase fairly rapidly to sort of catch up. Any thoughts on that?

  19. Alan Allard
    Alan Allard says:


    Base your fees on the value you will provide a specific client, not on how long you have been a copywriter. There are copywriters who have ten years of experience who deliver about the same value they delivered their first year. Time and an accumulation of copywriting projects doesn’t necessarily improve skill.

    Have you written any copy yet that has been proven successful?

    If you haven’t, but have reason to believe in the value you deliver, you estimate the value to the client and charge accordingly.

    Read Peter’s books that discuss factors in setting fees.

  20. Lori Widmer
    Lori Widmer says:

    Here’s one for you to consider, Peter – I have a client I’d fired two years ago. Long story short, she brought in a third party at the end of the book project. The guy wanted the entire focus changed. Mind you, he wasn’t a personal friend of hers – a DJ in another city who’d written one self-help book. After she promised to leave him out of the equation and promptly included his edits in the next email, I walked away.

    She came back this week. Best part – she came back with edits on an article, which of course she needed by the end of the day. And she added, “Did you think we were finished? Soon!” That indicated she expected this work to be done under the OLD project price.

    I did answer (stupid, stupid, stupid) and tell her that I was entirely too busy with other projects to help, but that my cursory glance found no glaring errors. Her response – “That’s okay. I can push the deadline to Wednesday.”

    I’m handling this as I did two years ago. I’m ignoring the emails. Engaging her with any explanation has not worked.

  21. Marlene Oliveira
    Marlene Oliveira says:

    I agree with Steve Rainwater’s comment as he makes a very important point. Having been the client for many years, I know the realities. A seven-day review is not at all an indication of how unimportant deadlines are. In fact, your client may have so many checks and balances they need to cover, seven days may be extremely tight for them. Chasing executive sign-off/review on marketing materials is not an easy task!

    However, it does say something that all of your assignments are ‘rush’ jobs. That, to me, is and indication that your client needs to get organized!

  22. Heidi Fogle
    Heidi Fogle says:

    I have trained people in business communications for most of my adult life. Setting boundaries is easier for some of us than for others. My business partner is, even by her admission, a real wuss but she has even become more comfortable with it and found, as do most people, that setting boundaries is beneficial even though it makes one uncomfortable.

    I think you’ve received a lot of good advice already. Only you can decide if the motivation is there for follow through or if it’s just too risky.

    http://fittingwords.wordpress.com/ is my new freelance writing website devoted to helping people come up with just the right words for difficult situations. I give you four words to ponder:go,face,walk and lead. Is it worth it for you to go to the client and set limits? Is it too fearful for you for you to face them at this time? Is the path that you would be walking one that you can sustain with not only this client but with others? Is it possible for you to lead the way for other writers in your spot by risking the client for the sake of emphasizing a realistic deadline for the sake of all others in our industry?

  23. Tess Wittler
    Tess Wittler says:

    This discussion is really valuable to me! I recently “pushed back” with a new client with a deadline I simply couldn’t work with. I really, really, really wanted to work with this new client, too, but I simply couldn’t fit her project into my already jammed-up schedule. So I told her that as much as I wanted to work with her, I simply couldn’t begin the project until X. She paused, and I knew she was considering my soft counter offer. She agreed to the new date, and pushed back the entire project a few weeks until I could be a part of it. A victory for me and my self-worth! 🙂

  24. Mark Keating
    Mark Keating says:


    I will echo Alan’s advice to read Peter’s book. Lots of practical advice on every page. One of the resources he mentions was to a book written another FLCW named Lucy Parker, “How to Start a Home Based Writing Business.” The two books complement each other nicely. Lucy has an excellent chapter about setting fees, and includes a worksheet for doing so. I found that very helpful.

    What it comes down to is knowing your market. The better you can define it, the easier it will be to capture some of it. First and foremostt – as Peter keeps reminding us – the FLCW market is NOT the $10-per-article Craigslist race to the bottom. You need to find some other writers in your area, tell them what you want to do, and listen to them. Tell everybody you know what you’re doing, and ask if they know anybody who does something similar. And don’t forget Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, meetup – these are your friends.

    Hope Clark, who made an appearance earlier in this discussion, also has some wonderful resources. I found her book “The Shy Writer” particularly helpful.

    Good luck!


  25. Roxane B. Salonen
    Roxane B. Salonen says:

    Mark, thanks so much. What a supportive community you’ve started here, Peter! And I have read “The Well-Fed Writer” and recommended it to others, but perhaps need to read it several more times. I definitely will add Lucy Parker’s book to my list as well, and Hope’s too, in time. Appreciate all of your great insight! Hopefully in time I’ll be able to add some of my own wisdom to the pool. BTW, I have been reaching out quite a bit. It feels very hopeful but still a ways to go before feeling firm in this path.

  26. Hope Clark
    Hope Clark says:

    Thanks, Mark. I’m toying with a third edition of The Shy Writer because I keep getting requests for it. Hard to believe I published it in 2004 and a second edition in 2007.

  27. Alan Kravitz
    Alan Kravitz says:


    Definitely read Peter’s books when it comes to pricing. They’ve been a big help to me ever since I started on my own. Also, Chris Marlow does a lot of helpful stuff in this area. She even does pretty comprehensive surveys that give you an idea what various writers charge for various types of projects.

  28. Lisa MacColl
    Lisa MacColl says:

    I had a client approach me with a brochure request that they wanted turned around in 4 days-over the Labour Day weekend. I needed the business, but I knew I couldn’t produce quality in that short a time frame, because this was a brand new client.

    I advised them that I was not willing to sacrifice quality and could not produce a quality product that would let them shine to their clients in the time frame given, and turned the job down. The president of the company was impressed that I wouldn’t cut quality, and hired me with a more reasonable time frame and I produced quality product.

    Neither the client nor I would have been satisfied with the brochure I would have turned out in 4 days.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] What Would You Do About a Client Like This One? […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Optionally add an image