How to Recognize and Handle Risky Clients

When I first began as a web writer, I was mainly afraid of two things:

  1. Being taken advantage of.
  2. Messing up so severely I would never get work again.

As it turns out, you can't mess up that badly. If you mess up (and the chances are really slim), people are almost always willing to give you another chance. If they're not, there's always another company or even another niche.

However, it is possible to get taken advantage of. This is even truer if you don't know what to look out for and if you don't protect yourself.

I recently learned my lesson about shady, risky, or unethical clients and I'd like to share my theory so you can recognize and protect yourself from them.

But first, imagine this scenario …

You're sitting in your office working hard on a project, but in the back of your mind, you can't help wondering what you're going to do when the project ends. Where will your next job come from?

Then, you hear the familiar and comforting ding of an email arriving in your inbox. You immediately switch to that window and forget all about your current project.

The email is from a company you've never heard of, but they visited your website, like your style, and want you to rewrite every piece of copy on their website. They need all of their emails critiqued and revised, all of their sales letters rewritten, and they even need your help to get their new book on The New York Times Best Sellers list.

It sounds too good to be true, but you're already imagining your career taking off from the repeat business and referrals.

So what do you do?

If you're like most people, you're not taking any chances that this potential client will get away. Instead of finishing your current project, you put it to the side, and reply to this new, potential client right away.

You spend way too much time evaluating their website and company. You share all your best advice to impress them. And, just in case that hasn't hooked them, you offer them a great deal (since you'll be doing so much work for them). Finally, you tell them you're available to talk whenever they want.

What's wrong with this response?

Well, first of all, it seems needy. And, needy seems scary. What’s worse is, if they don't think it's needy, you've just set them up to take full advantage of you.

You might be thinking, "How could this be so? They want a ton of writing and that's what I do. I need this gig!"

Before you get ahead of yourself, I'd like to share my theory …

Consistently, the more a client wants, the more likely they are to take advantage, disappear, not pay, or be difficult to work with.

More ethical clients won't trust all of their projects and all of their marketing to you until you've proven yourself through other assignments. Even then, larger companies like to diversify and work with several freelancers. They're just following the "don't put all your eggs in one basket" advice.

Also, the more professional the company is, the more likely they are to have a lot of their marketing and web copy in order. They don't need everything because they already have some good copy in place.

But, less ethical companies try to lure you in with promises of a lot of work. In most cases, they are either trying to get you to reduce your rates or they're just starting out. If they're just starting out, they probably have a limited budget.

Here's how to handle a potential client that raises the red "I need everything" flag

1. Proceed cautiously.

Don't drop other paying projects or stop your marketing efforts just to reply quickly. If they really like your style that much, they won't just disappear because you took a few hours to get back to them.

Then, give these clients the same quote and time investment you would give to other potential clients. Don't cut them a deal just because there might be more work down the road — and don't tell them all your secrets up front.

2. Don't discount your rates.

The promise of future work isn't a reason to cut your rates. Think about this: Even if it turns out they do have a lot of work, do you really want to be stuck doing it at discounted rates?

3. Ask what their budget is (sooner, rather than later).

Like I mentioned above, if they're just starting out, they probably have a limited budget. Find out what it is as soon as possible. There's no reason to waste time trying to impress a client that expects a rate you're not willing to work for.

4. Ask who will be in charge of the project and revisions.

Ideally, you want one person with the final say. If more than one person — or a committee — is in charge, this should also raise a flag.

Risky clients frequently run your copy through many different staff members (who often disagree). This leads to more time spent, frustration, and a less-than-stellar final version. A client once sent me three separate revisions — each done by a different person — and each revision contradicted the other.

Another perk of finding out who will be in charge is you can get better details about the project before beginning. Why interview and write for one person if another person has the final say-so?

5. Explain your policies up front.

Decide how much time you're willing to give away to a potential client and then stick to that. For example, you might say, "My first phone consultation is 30 minutes and that's free, but after that, it's $XX per hour."

Having these guidelines in place ensures you won't be giving advice to the owner of a small, start-up company who plans to not hire you and write all the copy herself.

6. Always, always, always use a contract.

Web writers seem to debate over contracts. Some say they never begin work without one, others say they've never used one and have never been burned.

I personally can't afford to not be paid, so from now on, I'm requesting a signed contract — along with 50% of the project fee as a down payment — from every client.

My reasoning is this: If they don't want to sign a contract, they must know something I don't. Either they don't want to pay and know it ahead of time — or they don't want to be legally bound to pay in case their funds run out or something.

Either way, if they don't want to sign a contract, I don't want to take the risk.

If you need help writing a contract, here’s a great series:

So what about you? Do you use a contract? Why or why not?

This article, How to Recognize and Handle Risky Clients, was originally published by Wealthy Web Writer.

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Published: October 3, 2012

3 Responses to “How to Recognize and Handle Risky Clients”

  1. Loved the article, Christina. Thanks!

    I'm just starting out as a copywriter (Bootcamp 2012 will be my FIRST!!!). So my position is similar to yours: Professionals sign contracts. Period. If you don't know each other, the contract protects the integrity of the deal. If you do know each other, then contracts preserve friendships by keeping them off the table. But no matter how you slice it, professionals sign contracts. And if you get a bad vibe from someone, don't walk - RUN the other way!


  2. Thank you for contributing this article and I want you to know that I really enjoyed reading it.

    It is important to be a professional and also be perceived as a professional by your clients and prospective clients too.

    That means having the courage of your convictions to be up front and honest from the start.

    I think it would be wise to work on a "retainer system," so you are not taken advantage of at the end of your job.

    Continuous evaluation means a step by step approach where the client can pay you in installments as you move ahead with the project. That's a good choice.

    Archan Mehta

  3. I've read hundreds of articles since April and this stands apart as a subject not normally addressed in the copywriting/web writing circles I'm in. THANK YOU!

    Gina Ritter

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