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5 Freelancers Share Their Worst Client Horror Stories

By Aja Frost March 30th, 2016

Every freelancer has at least one horror story of a crazy, ridiculous, or even illegal client request—one that made them spit out their coffee and stare at their laptop in horror and say, “You want me to do what?!?”

In fact, it was after going through a traumatic freelancing experience of my own that I decided to write this piece.

One of the marketing employees at a virtual-reality startup reached out to ask if I’d be interested in writing blog posts for their brand-new company blog. I said sure. He wanted six pieces, each around 1,500 words, complete with visuals and interviews with experts. After he signed off on the last piece, I sent him an invoice. Next thing I know, he’s saying his boss hasn’t “officially signed off” on the blog as a strategy—would I mind getting on the phone with his boss and selling him on the ROI of blogging?

As politely as I could, I said that wasn’t in our agreement, and I’d like my payment, please. He messaged back saying he wouldn’t have the money until his supervisor agreed on the blog. I kept following up, sending about two emails a week (after all, he owed me around $2,400). Finally, three months later, he sent me a check. Today, there’s still no blog.

Things like this happen all the time when you’re a freelancer, and it can be helpful to know you’re not the only one out there. These five stories, all from sources who requested anonymity lest they anger clients, will make you feel less alone the next time a client does something crazy.

1. What happens in Vegas

This copywriter applied on Upwork to write copy for Las Vegas: The Game, a business in Las Vegas that plans and executes outrageous pranks on the target of your choice. Things quickly went downhill.

“They wanted me to write five two-sentence descriptions of their ‘attractions,'” she said. “The prank packages included things like staging a hot girl to pee on you and setting up elaborate kidnappings.”

After she sent the copy, “They wrote back asking if I sent the wrong document, because it was completely wrong.”

It took a 30-minute phone call to figure out they wanted a different writing style. To be professional—and get the job over with—this freelancer wrote 10 extra taglines so the clients would have options to choose from.

It still took two more revisions to get their approval.

To add insult to injury, these clients left a public review on her Upwork profile saying she “lacked quality, skills, and cooperation,” even though she gave them 15 descriptions to work with instead of five, and “for less than half their projected budget.”

2. Keeping it in the family

Here’s a story from a video freelancer who did what many of us do in the beginning stages of our careers: work for free.

“When I first began freelancing, I’d run across more than my fair share of clients who preferred to pay through ‘exposure,'” she explained.

Eventually, she accepted an unpaid gig.

“The client was desperate for a trade show commercial to be completed with a one-month deadline,” she said. “While not impossible, it was extremely demanding. I gathered a group of my peers who agreed to help as a favor to me, and within the first three days we had all of the pre-production work completed.”

So far, so good, right? But this freelancer said the client “grew greedy” and wanted more work done as soon as possible—all for no pay.

“Within just a week, I found myself being called at all hours of the night, his demands incessant and insatiable,” she said. “Distinctly, I can recall my family waiting for over an hour at the Thanksgiving table while this man lectured me about how I wasn’t delivering on all of his spur of the moment ideas.”

The next morning, the freelancer called the client and pulled out of the job. After hearing about about his abusiveness, her teammates quit as well.

The story doesn’t end there, however.

“I hadn’t heard anything more from him until about two years later, when my brother mentioned a particularly abusive client he was dealing with,” she said.

It turned out to be the same client.

“I explained my experience, but my brother shrugged it off, saying that he could put up with some annoyance as long as the man paid. But when it came time for the payment, suddenly the client was backpedaling.”

Although her brother kept the final product and refused to release it, he still couldn’t make up for the time and energy he’d wasted.

3. A few white lies

Two freelance résumé consultants recently worked together with a client who “just about pushed us over the edge,” they said.

“Not only did she demand quick turnarounds, but she refused to approve the content until we stretched the truth and elaborated on her experiences.”

For example, the client asked the freelancers to say she was a “skilled, highly experienced manager” despite never having held a management role; use terms like “revolutionary” and “rare” to describe basic skills like using Microsoft Word; and include a degree even though she never graduated from college.

After going back and forth with the client several times, the freelancers gave in.

“After the third draft, she called me and was actually happy with the end product,” one said.

She chalked up the impressive (but fictitious) résumé to “her guidance and pep talks,” then “passed along her email password” because she wanted the résumé consultants to apply to jobs for her.

“She even passed along a specific position that she advised we ‘start with,'” the freelancers said. “We told her applying to jobs for candidates wasn’t included in our services.”

4. “Dazzle me”

One freelancer told the story of a 70-page white paper on social networking he wrote for a “particularly eccentric” client.

“After I’d already written about thirty-five pages—with no advance payment—this client asked me to pull in screenshots and examples from my own social media accounts,” the freelancer said. “I had to do mini-experiments, like log into Twitter and post four inspiring quotes, to see how many retweets and likes I got.”

Since he needed the work, the freelancer agreed.

But when he sent the client the completed white paper, “she sent it back to me with a note saying, ‘Great job! I’ve indicated ten places for you to include dazzling graphics,'” he said.

“I had no idea what ‘dazzling graphics’ even meant.”

The freelancer hadn’t included a “scope creep” clause in his contract, so he could either walk away or do what the client asked and hope he’d get paid. He ended up hiring (out of his own pocket) one of his graphic designer friends to create graphics, “like, bar graphs showing how many likes my Facebook posts got.”

The client paid him, and the freelancer learned “never to work without including a provision for scope creep—and a fifty percent advance.”

5. Easy money

When you’re just beginning your freelancing career, figuring out your rights can be tough. That’s what one new writer discovered when he applied for a seemingly straight-forward gig on Craigslist.

“The listing said, ‘500-word blog post: $70,'” he said. “I thought that sounded pretty good, so I applied.”

Within a few hours of submitting his writing samples and pitches, he got an email from the poster saying that he’d gotten the gig.

“She said the blog post she was originally planning on publishing tomorrow had been pulled, so she needed another one ASAP,” he explained. “Then, she gave me her PayPal email address, which I thought was a little weird, but [I] thought maybe it was for invoicing purposes.”

Eager to impress the client (and get paid), the freelancer worked overnight so he could send her the finished blog post in the morning.

When he did, “she emailed back, ‘I got the draft, but I didn’t get a notification from PayPal that I’d been paid.”

Turns out, the client wanted the freelancer to pay her for the “promotional privilege” of being published on her blog. He asked how many readers she had—she declined to say.

“In the end, I told her there was no way I’d pay her,” the freelancer said. “She never published the post, and I definitely never got my money.”

If you have any crazy client requests to share, tell us on Twitter.

Image by Getty Images
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