In the Case of an Unhappy Client, What’s a Freelancer To Do?
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In the Case of an Unhappy Client, What’s a Freelancer to Do?

The perfect freelancer scenario goes something like this. Client desperately needs help. Client finds superstar freelancer based on a referral or their incredible portfolio. Both parties collaborate on award-winning work, leading to multiple engagements and the day when said freelancer gets champagne-toasted at an agency happy hour as a conference room or wing gets named after them.

Best. Case. Scenario.

Worst? This relationship does not go as planned. Goals are not reached, and the client suddenly becomes unhappy for whatever reason, leading the freelancer to fall out of favor and one or both of these parties to cry foul. That’s when it gets interesting; when feelings get hurt; when morale suffers. I’m guessing this is what companies and freelancers would like to avoid at every expense.

In efforts to help freelancers understand how to keep things running smoothly after getting hired by a client, I’ve invited six high-level individuals who work (or have worked) in advertising to share cautionary tales from their experience: a chief strategy officer, a brand director, a former agency VP, two creative directors, and an account manager (none of which have used freelancers via ClearVoice). Each has offered up an anecdote for you, freelancer extraordinaire, to learn from: real-world examples of situations where the freelancer/client relationship didn’t go swimmingly and left the client less than thrilled. In the name of practicality, I’ve added on specific tips that could help avoid said predicaments.

In each of these cases, the storyteller and subjects’ names have been kept anonymous to keep stories honest and to protect the parties involved. It should be said that this topic is not designed to vilify any one freelancer (or freelancers in general), but simply to provide a compass on how to do things the right way to keep clients coming back for more.

All work “relationships” are nuanced, and sometimes goals change or communication breaks down. But it should be noted that in the examples below, a positive attitude and basic professionalism would’ve helped head off *most* of these unfortunate situations. We get that sometimes things happen, but given the rising popularity of freelance and an Accenture report that predicts 43% of the entire workforce will be freelancing by 2020you’ll want to watch out for a few things to reduce margin for error wherever possible.

It certainly couldn’t hurt.

With that said, here we go…

Six real-world anecdotes from unhappy clients (who didn’t use ClearVoice) — and cautionary lessons for freelancers

Freelancers, how to deal with unhappy clients: Exit gracefully.

Example #1: The time when… the freelancer became smug, complacent… and straight up, just quit.

Here’s the story:

Freelancers typically have a level of depth and expertise that enables them to solve problems quickly. But sometimes, more junior types are freelanced as a trial run for full-time. At my last agency, summer interns would roll in, all with hopes of landing full-time gigs at the end of their run. Occasionally that would happen. But first, we’d freelance them to get a feel for how they’d perform under real-world pressure and actual assignments. 

Our last group had a copywriter who showed promise, so we extended his contract. Within weeks, his enthusiasm and drive turned into complacency and laziness. He was as jaded as someone with 10 years in the business. At our last creative review, he rolled in late with four half-baked ideas scribbled in a pad. We were days away from a client meeting. Other teams were struggling with the assignment, but were working hard and putting in the hours and effort required to crack a good idea. 

When I told him that this was totally unacceptable and would not be tolerated, he looked at me like I was totally out of line. I told him to roll up his sleeves, jump in and try. We would meet again in the morning to see progress. The next morning he showed up on time and quit with fervor. If he had as much passion for writing as he did quitting, he’d be unstoppable. I’m just glad we freelanced him first.

Anonymous Creative Director at a Top Advertising Agency

Advice for the freelancer:

As a freelancer, you don’t get the luxury of complacency. Staying sharp and on point is sort of the nature of the gig. You’re there to fulfill a specific task and to not let your ego and/or eccentricities get in the way. Your number one job as a gun-for-hire is to do great work and make your boss look good for finding you. In many cases, that means you have to shine brighter than the full-timers and show at least max effort when it comes to producing work, hitting deadlines, and keeping a positive attitude.

That’s why you should always try to blow them away with your ideas, lines, designs, whatever, and check every box of professionalism along the way. It’s true that collaboration is the name of the game, but the more you can outright crush so that the client doesn’t have to micromanage you, the more you’ll be winning at the freelance game. Passion, persistence and productivity are what it’s all about, so master those things. Remember the ABCs from ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ – Always Be Closing?

Well, in the case of freelancing:

  • Always Be Concepting.
  • Always Be Communicating.
  • Always Be Completing.

I think you get the picture.

'If he had as much passion for writing as he did quitting, he’d be unstoppable.' Read this and more ad agency cautionary tales right here. #freelancing #contentmarketing #writerslife Click To Tweet

Freelancers, don't forget the Golden Rule: Treat every client with respect.

Example #2: The time when… the freelancer straight-up forgot the Golden Rule.

Here’s the story:

One of the female brand managers I worked with at a previous agency was working with a freelance digital producer (male), and from the very start of the project, she always felt a tone of condescension in his emails to her, and was generally pretty dismissive. As things progressed, she started observing that he wouldn’t talk to other men in the same way, nor would he interact with senior females (i.e., me) with the same attitude. They never talked about it, and he ended up leaving when his contract ended. So there’s no real conclusion to this story. 

But, I guess in the current climate, whether you’re a freelancer or full-time employee, it’s important to never behave in an egotistical manner, as you never know when someone will come back to hire you at another agency… or prevent you from being hired.

– Anonymous Brand Director at a Top Advertising Agency

Advice for the freelancer:

It’s an old Hollywood adage: “Be kind to everyone on the way up; you’ll meet the same people on the way down.” The same applies to advertising. If you’re a freelancer, mutual respect for your colleagues is of foremost importance – especially given the sensitivities of today and the gradually thinner ice we all skate on in the workplace.

Whether you’re at a small shop with 20 or one with 220, be on your best behavior when it comes to email etiquette, office relationships, and the order of things. If you get shackled with a reputation for being anything less than a positive, polished and professional worker bee, it could follow you. Not everyone excels at people skills, we get it. But word has a way of getting around like the ‘Outbreak’ monkey. Reject old-world attitudes that are as antiquated as Don Draper’s six-Scotch lunch. The Golden Rule always applies, especially when it comes to freelancing.

Freelancers, make your client happy by executing on their ideas and plans, without going off on your own without approval.

Example #3: The time when… the freelancer forgot to do what was asked and created a logjam.

Here’s the story:

Even when you are clear on expectations, sometimes freelancers deviate and deliver things that weren’t necessarily asked for. With staff, that bigger thinking is always welcome. But if you are hiring someone for a very tactical job, and they deliver something in the clouds, it creates problems for everyone. If there is a need to broaden a concept, it’s important to make sure the other work is covered off first. There was one occasion where we simply needed Facebook posts, and bigger social ideas were delivered instead.

– Anonymous VP/Creative Director at a Top Ad Agency

Advice for the freelancer:

As a freelancer, showing initiative and proactivity isn’t a bad thing. But as mentioned above, make sure you crush the original ask first. Then, if there’s time, feel free to overdeliver and show out-of-the-box thinking that demonstrates smart, on-strategy examples if you feel compelled.

Just be responsible with other people’s time and make sure whatever extra credit you do shows some degree of fresh thinking. If you do that, you’ll assert your value, stand out from the pack, and up the chances of working together yet again. If you don’t work in this order, whoever ends up handling the original assignment will be less than thrilled.

As a freelancer, you’re often perceived as a luxury.

So don’t be a liability.

Freelancers, never oversell your skills to a client. Be honest.

Example #4: The time when… the freelance designer oversold their skills and abilities.

Here’s the story:

Our main man, a graphic designer who just knows what to do and puts up with all the insane last-minute requests at 8 p.m. on a Monday night, was going on vacation. A freelance graphic designer came recommended by someone in the agency: “Does great work,” they said. Great, bring him in for the week. The template was already set. All that was needed was to change for this week’s deals, and make it look good. 

Unfortunately, this graphic designer wasn’t prepared for it. The experience he had was apparently not as much as was advertised. The first round took quite a while to get produced. Plus, couldn’t send that one to the client, too many errors and looked like a kid did it. Second try, little better, but the idea is still not getting through. Since its getting late on a Monday night, and the ad is due to the paper by 10 p.m., I decided to move the process along. I pulled up a chair next to him at the computer, and started giving a little guidance, “Move this over just a little. Wait, no, go back just a tad”. Might as well done it myself while he goes off to find a better career. 

– Anonymous Account Manager From an Agency Marketing Group

Advice for the freelancer: 

It may sound obvious, but don’t sell yourself to a client as having skills, abilities or work experiences that, in fact, you don’t. It could help you win the gig, but chances are better than good that you might be asked to use these skills on the job. Not unreasonable.

If the above situation happens where there’s a disconnect between what was professed to be known and what was actually known, it could present the need for a cleanup on aisle three. On that note, give an honest representation of your software proficiencies, whether it’s in your portfolio or job interview. You’ll manage expectations and set yourself up for success once you start. Deadlines can come fast and furiously in the freelance game, and there’s rarely a buffer built in for you to teach yourself Adobe InDesign on the fly. So ask questions and be straightforward about what you can do. You’ll all be better for it!

Freelancers, never go ghost or go AWOL on a client and cause them fire drills. It's a surefire way to get blackballed.

Example #5: The time when… the freelancer went AWOL and caused a fire drill.

Here’s the story:

Several years ago we hired a trusted freelancer to help perform a social media audit for a client. We set it up together in a Google Doc, but they duplicated it and were entering their data in a separate Google doc (that we couldn’t see). We kept asking for updates as the deadline approached. They said the audit was going great and they’d share the doc soon, right after they cleaned it up. 

Then, the week before it was due, the freelancer disappeared. No email responses, not responding to texts, not picking up our calls. 

Once we realized the pickle we were in, the entire team mobilized, divided and conquered. We conducted the audit from scratch, burning the midnight oil, and finalized it a day before it was due. 

We learned an important lesson through that experience. We no longer allow freelancers to work in a vacuum — for their sake and ours. 

As for the freelancer, they circled back several months later, saying they’d had a personal crisis. As a compassionate agency, we decided not to take any further action against this freelancer — we did nothing to besmirch this person’s name or reputation. However, as a smart agency, we no longer hire nor recommend this freelancer… to anyone. 

– Anonymous Chief Strategy Officer at a Boutique Agency

Advice for the freelancer:

Being a freelancer allows you certain freedoms that other employees may not have.

Many freelancers work off-site and/or for other people as opposed to under the roof and nose of just one client. Taking advantage of this by not communicating or showing your progress – and straight up being deceptive about what you’ve done – is a recipe for nothing good.

If you do have a personal crisis, which can of course happen, be honest and forthcoming about it. That’s the best way to get the understanding you need to get an extension or to have the client pivot to another freelancer. But leaving them in the lurch? Not a sound plan… and certainly not worth burning a client over or the karmic backlash you could suffer in the industry.

Freelancers, one of the simplest things you can do to please a client is to just be present and professional, whether you're in-house or remote.

Example #6: The time when… the freelancer forgot to bring his stuff (all the time).

Here’s the story:

I brought in a freelance producer recently… and the dude kept forgetting to bring shit. He talked too much and just pissed me off the whole time. And had no eye. I had to dictate everything. Drove me NUTS. I literally wanted to fire him every single day, but I couldn’t because the video had to get done. So I stuck it through. Will never work with him again. 

– Creative Director Who’s Worked at Several Top Creative Shops

Fresh off this experience, this creative director had his own advice to profess to the freelancer:

1. Don’t talk too much:  You might not know know the history of the account, all the different rounds other creatives have gone through… Come in. Crush the assignment. Enjoy the pay. That’s all.

2. Be prepared:  Bring your gear. Your computer. Your hard drive. Your mouse. Wacom pad. Headphones. Whatever. You’re a plug/play creative. I don’t want to babysit you.

3. Know your software:  Be fast. If you’re an art director and you’re bad at InDesign, Photoshop or Illustrator, don’t freelance.

4. Don’t get involved in the politics. 

5. Shower and wear fresh clothes:  Seriously. Don’t smell bad.

Think of being a freelancer as a different mentality. You’re the special force. We call you in… You take care of the issue.

No drama.

Get paid.

And that’s that.

In the case of an unhappy client, what's a #freelancer to do? Check out these six cautionary tales to see how keep positivity – and productivity – at an all-time high. #freelancing #writerslife Click To Tweet

Want to find reliable freelancers to take your next project across the finish line? Check out what the ClearVoice stable has offer.

Gregg Rosenzweig

About Gregg

Over the past two decades, Gregg Rosenzweig has spent his career writing, producing and publishing engaging content for American mass consumption in the digital, TV and branded content spaces. From serving as a Creative Director on commercial spots to pitching/winning/executing branded content campaigns for Fortune 100 companies, Gregg's been fortunate to work for (and with) top advertising and digital media agencies... as well as some of the most highly respected publishers across the media landscape.

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