The Freelance Creative

Are These 4 Client Red Flags Deal Breakers?

Client red flags to look for


One of the most appealing aspects of going freelance is being your own boss; you imagine working on your terms and not answering to anyone. The reality is that you’ll often find yourself answering to multiple clients, some of which may be challenging to work with.

There are moves you can take to avoid dealing with headaches from the start. Below are some common client red flags to look out for and how to manage them when they come up.

Late payments

One of the most stressful aspects of freelancing is getting paid, or rather, not getting paid. Some clients have a “net 30” policy, meaning they have 30 days to pay you upon receipt of an invoice, but some can have terms of up to 60 or 90 days. Still, if a client has fixed terms like these, at least you know when your money is coming in.

What’s worse is spending your precious time chasing missing payments, following up with editors and financial departments to get paid even months after a story is published. If you work with multiple clients and several of them neglect to pay promptly, that translates into a lot of unpaid time spent trying to get paid.

How to handle it: Before accepting a new project, ask the editor about their payment terms. If they have a net 60 or net 90 policy and you can manage those timelines, then this might not be a red flag for you. Publications typically tell you to invoice once the story is published, not when you submit it, which means payday could still be months in the future. If the client is not a well-known brand or publication, you might consider negotiating to be paid a portion of the fee upfront or on submission.

Mismatched expectations

As freelancers, we sometimes wind up doing jobs that aren’t exactly the right fit for us. Say your area of focus is writing white papers, and your client assumes that “writing is writing” and tasks you with creating social media posts. You don’t want to say no, so you accept the work, but your hourly rate suffers because you take too long, given that it’s not your area of expertise.

How to handle it: Don’t be afraid of declining work that doesn’t feel like it’s the right fit. As a business owner, you get to decide what kind of services you offer. Not all content requires the same skillset. One thing I like to do is to refer a friend for work that doesn’t suit me but might suit them. This way, you’re helpful to both — the client, who may continue commissioning white papers from you, and your friend, who might return the favor one day.

Skeletal story briefs

This brings us to the brief. Some editors think giving you free rein over an assignment is doing you a favor when it’s the exact opposite. Without clear guidelines, you won’t know whether your efforts are worthwhile, and you risk spending more time on revisions. If you have a long-term relationship with a client, you might know exactly what’s expected from their two-sentence assignment description, but that’s not usually the case with new clients.

How to handle it: Before accepting the assignment, ask questions to clarify what the editor is looking for. Ask if you can submit an outline and get the client to sign off on it. It’s important to get the details on paper so both parties can refer back to it if there’s a mismatch later on in the workflow.

Never-ending revisions

We’ve all been there: you deliver the assignment after spending hours—if not days—hard at work, only to be told by an impatient client that it doesn’t look anything like what they’d envisioned. They want a full rewrite.

Other times, you’re tasked to decipher comments from internal team members that serve more as conversation starters than direct requests for changes. Worse, they’re embedded in a PDF. Your hourly rate shrinks even smaller as you try to decode which comments need attention and which ones are mere posturing.

How to handle it: Set expectations from the beginning with your assigning editor that your fee includes a specific number of revisions, and any subsequent change requests will include a set additional fee — 20% of the full fee, for example. Clarify your approach to revision before making changes.

Contently addresses client red flags head-on

Every freelance creative should know how to communicate boundaries with clients. Sure, it can feel awkward to set expectations, but it’s worth it for your time and energy in the long run. Most assigning editors appreciate knowing the rules of engagement and will plan their communications accordingly.

If you’re looking for a way to avoid these client red flags in general, consider joining Contently’s creative marketplace. For one thing, there’s a talent team working behind the scenes to match contributors to projects based on expertise, so the work you’re assigned will always be in your wheelhouse. Once you’re added to a client team, your managing editor (ME) will act as a liaison and will help set expectations with the client, whether that’s with detailed story briefs, appropriate timelines with rush fees as needed, or reasonable revision requests. And forget chasing down clients for payment; Contently contributors get paid on submission, not on publication date.

If you’re ready to take the next step, create a portfolio with Contently. Subscribe to The Freelance Creative and The Content Strategist for more helpful tips.

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