When is it a good idea to forgive a client who’s burned you (e.g. paid late, cancelled your article, etc.) and give them another chance?
—Forgive, or Forget?
This is a surprisingly complicated question.
On the one hand, none of us want to work for a client who doesn’t pay on time or cancels a piece we’ve spent months preparing.
On the other hand, if you plan of freelancing for a long time, you can’t blow up every relationship as soon as something bad happens. I’ve found that forgiving clients for mistakes, and being as generous with them as I hope they will be with me, has significantly helped my career.
Here are a few examples of “unforgivable” client issues I’ve had to deal with:
-Sitting on my article for four months before publishing it.
-Sitting on my article for eight months before publishing it.
–Editing my article without showing me the updated draft and misspelling an interviewee’s name.
-Misspelling my name.
-Not paying me for an article published in May even though I’ve followed up twice.
I have continued to complete work for all of these clients. Why? Because a relationship is (usually) more important than an oversight or two.
Let’s take those clients who sat on my articles for months without publishing them, for example. Both times, I thought “Well, I’m never writing for you again.” After all, they weren’t publishing my pieces, which meant I wasn’t getting paid, which meant they were treating me badly—at least in my opinion.
But the pieces were eventually published, and they became some of the most popular pieces I’ve ever written. I got my paychecks. Suddenly I was being treated well again—nothing had changed about the relationship besides my perspective.
Sure, I could have sent a nasty email a few months in, demanding that they run my piece or send over a kill fee. But I waited, things worked out, and I had more opportunities in the future to write and get paid.
When should you immediately stop working for a client? If they ask you to do something unethical, that’s a good reason to walk away. If they never pay you for Article A, it makes sense to hold off on pitching them Article B. Of course, sometimes it takes a while to figure out if a client is never going to pay you or if it’s just going to take several months to get you that check.
If a client doesn’t publish or pay on a reliable schedule, I’ll probably always view it as a B Team client; I need to prioritize the places that send me predictable paychecks. But I still value those B Team relationships to a degree, both for their own sake, and also because they often connect me to better clients. Remembering those referrals incentivizes me to keep my bridges structurally sound and put away the matches.
Also—as I mentioned earlier—forgiving clients for mistakes is good practice because it means they are more likely to forgive you for mistakes.
Here are a few “unforgivable” mistakes I’ve made in my freelancing career:
-Telling a client I couldn’t complete an article, because I couldn’t find an appropriate source.
-Publishing a quotation from a source without confirming that the data stated in the quotations was accurate. (It wasn’t, and my readers caught it immediately.)
-Publishing incorrect statistics because I didn’t double-check my spreadsheet formulas.
-Spelling an interviewee’s name wrong.
But since I already had good relationships with my clients, these unforgivable mistakes became forgivable.
There is nothing wrong with dropping a frustrating client so you can spend more time working for someone who treats you better. But try to do it without making the client feel like they’ve done something wrong. Respectfully cutting ties will get you much further in your career than nasty emails.
There are, of course, polite ways to communicate your concerns with your clients. I have definitely set out the “Checking in about my outstanding article; is this still on the schedule to run, or should I consider pitching it to another publication?” email. I’ve also sent out emails to politely correct editorial errors and to ask clients about ethical concerns.
But the difference here is that I don’t make the conversations about me versus the client. Whenever possible, I try to frame it as us versus the problem.” (Yes, this is the same advice they give married couples. Freelancing is all about relationships.)
But if you can, let it go, let it go, be one with the wind and sky. Because you are going to make mistakes, and your clients are going to make mistakes. People deserve second chances—most of the time.
Nicole Dieker wants to know: What would a client have to do to make you burn a bridge? Send your answers to email@example.com.