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Do you have a pain in the arse (PITA) client?

Have you ever heard someone complaining about a painful client? The stories freelancers, agencies and consultants share can be enough to put anyone off going into business for themselves.

The unfortunate reality is everyone will have a pain in the arse (PITA) client at some stage when working for themselves. Some peoples’ expectations are too high. Others we just clash with – we’re never going to like everyone we meet, and that includes clients.

Pre-warned is pre-armed

You want to do your best before taking on any new client to make sure you’ll be a fit. Of course, how much time and effort you invest into this will depend on the value of the client, but it’s worth doing some pre-screening because even the lowest value client can drain your time, confidence, positivity and mental energy.

Where you can, start with a kick-off or discovery call to evaluate fit. At this point, you’re looking for things like:

  • Clarity on the project and background knowledge
  • Seniority to make decisions
  • Budget
  • Timelines
  • Expectations
  • Approach to consultants

Only when you’ve got a feel for a potential client and are confident you’re a good fit should you proceed (assuming they accept your quote and terms, obviously).

But, of course, life’s well known for its little surprises and the Princess Charming client could turn into the troll guarding the bridge. So let’s have a little look at the common traits of PITA clients.

PITA client 1: Unrealistic timelines

All timelines should be agreed on before projects start, but things do often go wrong. Projects can get caught up with stakeholders, leaving you in a waiting pattern, and then suddenly you have drastic rewrites to get done in just an hour or two.

To limit this occurring, try some of the following strategies.

Set clear project timelines

Set a clear project timeline and clearly outline the consequences of background information not being delivered in time or reviews being delayed. It may be that the whole project is delayed, or additional cost is added for rush.

Hold regular meetings

For larger or longer-term projects, set up recurring meetings. As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the project, the more frequently you should meet.

For these meetings, you’ll want to talk timelines and discuss any potential issues or project changes. If there are multiple stakeholders or multiple agencies or freelancers working on the project, get them all together on the call so everyone is always on the same page.

Of course, this extra time investment adds up, so you should include it in your proposal and quote.

Be honest and transparent

More often than people would like to admit, the “unrealistic timelines” are more a matter of the consultant or agency not planning properly rather than unreasonable demands from the client. Make sure you’re honest with yourself and your client about your availability, commitments and how long it actually takes to get the work done.

Tip: Get comfortable having video calls and client meetings. Project and client management is a vital part of consulting and freelancing. As well as keeping projects on track, client meetings help build a human connection so you’re not just “the thing that does that” but a person they know and respect.

PITA client 2: Changing scope

Sometimes projects change direction. They become larger or smaller, they may even change focus. This is completely normal and should be expected, especially when working with larger companies and multiple agencies.

Scope change occurs for a couple of reasons:

  • Budget cuts – it happens. You just need to roll with it.
  • New information – it’s a good thing. It means your project is more likely to hit its targets and deliver for your clients.
  • New direction – the larger the company, the more likely this is out of your client’s hands. You need to be prepared for this to happen.
  • Miscommunication – you and the client were speaking different languages on deliverables.

Dealing with budget cuts

Be aware that even if a quote has been approved, budget cuts can happen at any time. The general rule of thumb here is: if you’ve started it, you can charge for it. But not at the project level if you want to have that client coming back when budget frees up again.

Often, projects are made up of a number of smaller items – a series of blog posts, a number of web pages, ads, video scripts, whatever. When a budget cut happens, you should still be charging for whatever you’ve delivered.

The best way to ensure this can happen is to set clear project timelines so your client knows what you’re delivering and when, and also when you’re starting on certain elements. If you aren’t clear and just say you’ll deliver it all on X date, how will they know where you’re at in a project and what money they need to negotiate to keep?

You can try to charge the entire project amount anyway, but it’ll leave a sour taste in your client’s mouth. Your project was likely just a small part of all their marketing activities. Putting money towards work you haven’t delivered, and no longer need to deliver, means that they have less to go to other activities and are less likely to meet their KPIs.

Most clients understand, especially if you’re a freelancer or boutique agency, that you still need to get paid and that you may have turned down other jobs to work on theirs. So have an honest conversation with them and come to a fair agreement – for both of you – on things that are in progress and give up on anything not started.

Handling new information

Like budget cuts, new information can change the scope or focus of a project fast. Here, it depends on what the change is.

If more work is required, stop working and get on the phone and talk about issuing a new or additional quote.

If less is needed, be prepared to lose the projected income, just like when dealing with a budget cut. Or else, look to other assets that would be a good addition to the project or other ways you can work with the client on future to keep that budget assigned to you and not another agency, even if it’s on another project in a couple of months’ time instead.

I’ve found, the more open and flexible you are in accepting changes and talking about fees and budgets, the more a client will trust and want to work with you. Because never forget – scope changes and money conversations are stressful for clients too!

Dealing with a new direction

In my experience, new direction mid-project has come from major brand refreshes or new insights and data about customers and their needs.

However, sometimes new direction comes because the client didn’t check in with their boss first, or another team member takes over the project.

Brand refreshes and new insights – you just need to roll with them.

Internal politics and team changes – that’s another matter.

Project approval (by someone who can make the decision)

Before kicking off a project with a new client, get to understand their seniority in the business. If you’re dealing with a junior, create a proposal that outlines what’s been asked of you and find a way to (tactfully) invite their manager to a call to go through it (and yes, your client contact must be in that call too!). If you can’t get everyone on a call, send the deck (presentation). You can ask for stakeholder feedback before you start (like legal, compliance, product or sales), or share it as a “good way to show the business what we’re planning”.

Basically, you want to give your more junior client every opportunity to get senior sign off before you get started.

Yes, it is their responsibility to obtain internal buy-in and managerial approval, but two things:

  1. If they don’t, later changes may significantly impact your profits on the project
  2. A huge part of your job is to make your client look good

New team members

When a new team member starts in an organisation, it’s natural for them to want to put their stamp on things. While client X asked for one thing, client Y, their replacement, wants to take a new direction.

Here’s my advice to you: Never assume it’s going to be an easy transition and there’ll be no changes to scope and direction when someone new comes onboard.

Instead, as soon as you hear of the upcoming changes, get on a video call with client Y (and ideally your original client before they depart too!). Go through your side of the project with them, explain what decisions have been made, what assets have been delivered and approved, and share timelines. Send them details and decks and copies of assets delivered by email after the call too.

Basically, confidently present the project as a fait accompli and they’re more likely to keep it going as is.

Of course, if it’s still early days in a larger project, be flexible and work with them to help them deliver their first outstanding project in their new role.

The hard truth about miscommunication

Unless it’s all in writing and signed off, miscommunication is on you.

You’re an expert in your area and your client may use different terminology. Maybe they asked for key messages but they want a messaging framework. Maybe they asked for an infographic but they really meant a statement that could be placed in an image. If you aren’t clear with them about exactly what you’re delivering, you’re both making assumptions and you’re in for a world of pain… and it’s not something you can push back onto them.

Take the time to be clear when quoting on anything. Schedule calls to go through deliverables if it’s a larger project with a new client. Ask questions. Never assume they’re using the same terminology you are or have the same understanding as you do.

If you’ve done all that work, there isn’t room for miscommunication on exactly what it is you’re delivering. If this issue still arises, something else is going on.

Sooooooooooooooooo many things can go wrong when it comes to getting paid. At Engage, we’ve experienced a lot of them and they don’t necessarily make a client a PITA. Often the issue is larger than them.

When you’re dealing with overdue invoices, your cashflow can dry up faster Mr B can eat all the yoghurt in an unattended bowl.

Image from iOS

There’s little more stressful in running your own business than handling late payments.

Here’s a few of the kind of issues I’ve dealt with and how I’ve handled them.

“I didn’t realise how much it would be”

Early on in my freelancing career, before Engage was even envisioned, I had a startup client who’d accepted a quote but hadn’t really thought it through. He was building a business using the funds in his personal bank account. (It’s now three or four times funded and on track for IPO – he’s done well.)

So when it came to the first invoice… there was silence.

He missed the due date. He didn’t reply to my emails about it. He was just silent.

I know many would jump to the conclusion that he wasn’t going to pay but I like to see the good in people and I wasn’t there yet. So I picked up the phone and gave him a call.

The reality? He always intended to pay it but he hadn’t really done the sums in his head and worked out what it all meant because he was excited to be working with me. He was being human – hiding from fear of judgement, avoiding vulnerability, worrying about retaliation.

I gave him a safe space to talk it through, no judgement, and I discussed options openly with him.

Because I enjoyed working with him, I came to an agreement with him on discounted fees, with rates stepping up at 3, 6 and 12 months.

That, of course, won’t work for everyone but it worked for us and 3+ years later I’m still working with his company at Engage’s standard rates. Plus, they now pay every invoice far faster than any other client I have.

The other option if you come up against this one is a payment plan. Half your fee now and the rest later is better than nothing until goodness only knows when.

“I don’t know what to do with this”

Large company? Sometimes you’ll work with a client who doesn’t usually engage agencies or freelancers directly themselves. Other departments do, but not theirs, so they’re not really used to the process.

I had this once and the client just disappeared because she didn’t know what to do and it was stressing her out. I’m not sure what she thought – that my invoice just magically arrived on the right desk and got paid by some unknown entity somewhere else in the business? Probably.

So when it was a couple of months along and I was still facing the silent treatment, I reached out to others I’d talked to in the business – starting with the contact in HR who’d handled the contract.

It turned out my client hadn’t even started the process. I hadn’t been set up as a contractor beyond the legal contract, there was no project details on file and no purchase order (PO).

Thankfully, my HR contact had been across it and took it over and got me paid in under a week.

But that was a huge learning for me: GET A PO BEFORE YOU START WORKING!

It’s also worthwhile asking for a document that details their accounts payables procedures. Learn the internal processes and requirements (like raising POs) so you can help out new team members you may work with down the track, as well as their requirements about where and how to send invoices. And if they just send it to you, ask when it was last updated because…

“Our processes have changed”

Different companies have different accounts payable procedures and some of those companies change them often in their drive to optimise and increase efficiency. When you come across some weird-arse processes that just don’t make sense, remember they’re focusing on internal efficiency and don’t often consider yours because, quite frankly, you’re not their client.

Basically, just because you’ve always submitted an invoice one way doesn’t mean it’s going to be accepted that way tomorrow.

I recently had an invoice rejected because they had a new requirement about the subject line on invoice emails. Did I know about it? No. Did anyone tell me it was rejected? No. It happens and, painful as it is, you just have to roll with it.

My advice? When you’re dealing with major companies, get to know someone in accounts payable. You won’t be dealing with them day to day, but when your invoices aren’t getting paid they’re the only people who can really help.

“I’m not happy so I’m not paying”

I’ve never had this one but I’ve heard about it. My best guess is there’s a problem elsewhere (see miscommunication above and revisions below) and you’ve hit the point of no return with this client relationship.

Having never experienced it, I don’t have firsthand advice but… make sure you have a written agreement in place and consider heading to a debt collector. This isn’t a client you want to be working with again, and you won’t want to work with anyone who listens to them either (because people’s friends tend to be kinda like them…) so have fun burning those bridges.

PITA client 4: Ridiculous revisions

As a copywriter, you’ll know there’s little worse than sending off your first draft and receiving back seemingly endless tracked changes and comments. I know some of the work I’ve sent back to copywriters I’ve hired feels like not a single word has been left untouched.

Feedback is always a good thing, but when the changes are so dramatic you’re left wondering why you were hired in the first place it’s incredibly disheartening. It’s natural that your response might be either “I’m no good at this! I should quit!” or “My client is a pain in the butt!”

But let’s look a little closer.

Not aligning with brand style

The first thing you should do when working with a new client is ask for a copy of their style guide and voice and tone. Smaller companies don’t always have one. Bigger companies always do, but your client might not have a copy (or the regional office you’re working with may not align with the global guide).

When you have a client’s style guide and voice and tone, you should treat them as gospel. Refer back and make sure your work is aligned completely. If reviews come in contradicting it, you can point back to the documents you followed but ultimately, let it go because your client is the one who owns the final asset so it’s their preference that matters.

If you can’t get a copy, spend time analysing previously published materials. From their website to downloadables, social media and emails. If they have multiple audiences (e.g. for B2B they may be targeting both medium-sized businesses and enterprises), make sure you’re focusing on the materials for the audience you’ll be writing for. Create your own mini style guide based on what you find, and keep references so you can point out what you’ve aligned to if needed.

If you’re working with a small business, you can also pitch in creating voice guidelines and a style guide, but I wouldn’t recommend bothering with a larger company unless your agency has the capabilities and bandwidth for extensive global research. 😊

Slashing out massive blocks (or comments asking where the rest of it is)

If the revisions involve huge cuts or lots of “is this all?” comments, it’s worth heading back to the brief to make sure you’ve aligned with their project intentions. You should also double check who their audience is, their audience’s existing knowledge and which stage of the funnel they’re targeting.

This is all information you should be gathering upfront for any project because it defines what exactly you’re delivering.

If you’re targeting a low-knowledge, top of funnel audience, for example, your client might be wanting to give them a teaser about the brand and spark their curiosity. In that case, a super long and crazy detailed landing page that’s focused on SELL SELL SELL, is completely off mark. But if the audience is bottom of funnel and you’re still just introducing the overarching value proposition, you’re not going to nail it either.

Again, this information is on you to gather before you start the work. Clients will generally assume you know everything and can read their minds – and copywriters will often do this with their clients too. Thinking about what you might need and gathering that information for you is hard work that your client doesn’t have time for. It’s better for you to just ask and get the info you need upfront.

Killing the story

As writers, a huge part of our art is defining the story. What does the reader need to know, and in what order, for them to buy or sign up? And that story can change from persona to persona and product to product.

This is where value proposition work and messaging frameworks come in. Again, this should be supplied before you start working, or you should be including that work in your scope.

If there’s no existing value proposition work done, and no budget for it, this is where skeleton drafts work well. A skeleton draft or an outline can be as little as a couple of words showing what you’ll talk about where, in what format (paragraph, bullet points, numbered list, video, infographic, whatever), and how you’ll be positioning it.

By sharing a skeleton draft with a client before you put pen to paper, you can agree together on the story and flow, and ensure there’s no confusion when the final revision comes back to you.

Putting their stamp on it

And, of course, there are clients who will mark up your copy with needless changes. These clients are the equivalent of the dog marking the fence post. Their putting their stamp on it, their style and making changes just to feel like they contributed and it’s their work.

This happens. Very often. And you just need to deal with it.

It’s usually a sign of a more junior or less confident client who’s still trying to impress their bosses. They don’t yet have the maturity to be a little more hands off.

Unless they’ve added in significant issues, I recommend just rolling with it. They’re not trying to upset you or disrespect your work, and it doesn’t mean they’re unhappy with what you’ve delivered.

As you continue to work with them, you’ll find this happens less and less as you get to know their preferences and their confidence grows.

Where there are significant issues (whether accuracy or grammatical), do update them and explain them. Maybe jump on a call if it’ll be easier. While you’re learning to support them better, this gives them a chance to learn more too and you should value that opportunity to share your wisdom.

Want to avoid your own PITA clients?

The best way to avoid those pain in the arse clients is through preparation and nurturing your clients so they don’t have opportunity or reason to become a nightmare. Download our free pre-project template to give yourself the best chance of amazing, ongoing client relationships.

Have I covered everything?

I’m sure there are many other types of PITA clients out there! Drop a comment below and let me know what I’ve missed and I’ll dive into those problems too.

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