Ask the cubicle expat: Help! My star client has begun making unreasonable demands on my time!

January 29th, 2011

L. asks: One of my favorite copywriting clients has me on a retainer, which usually works out very well for us both. However, in the last two months a third project manager has been added. My lovely retainer has gone from well-managed to every reason to say “no” to such work in the first place: non-stop emails, minuscule timelines, and repeated fires. When I talk to the PM and try to correct the behavior, her response is, “Just tell me and I’ll get another writer.” (A family member of hers is a copywriter.) My three contacts are peers, so I’m not sure how to best broach the issue. I’d hate to lose the client, but things do need to change. Any recommendations? Thanks!

I answer: Ack! I feel your pain! Obviously this is not a sustainable situation or you wouldn’t be writing to me. Some suggestions (feel free to mix and match as you see fit):

1. Meet with all three managers (or whomever was your initial contact) and tell them you can better serve the company by having one point of contact, not three. Make it about the benefits to their business (more efficient, more personalized attention, whatever) than the benefits to you. If you only meet with one of your contacts, don’t badmouth the others; be diplomatic.

2. Let the client(s) know that the workflow has changed and it’s no longer efficient. (Last minute requests mean you’re not always available that minute or you have to do a rush – and thus, less than ideal – job.) Suggest that they funnel all requests into one daily or weekly phone meeting or email. Any other requests will have to wait until the next meeting/call.

3. Since I don’t know what you’re making on this gig, how many hours you’ve agreed to work, and how many hours you’re actually working, it’s hard to get super-specific on how much more money or what timeframe limitations to ask for. But clearly you’re being subjected to scope creep, which can only mean one thing for a freelancer: you’re working more for the same amount of money, which means you have less time for other clients and essentially are losing money. This has to stop!

Tell your client(s) that the parameters have changed and you’d like to renegotiate. You can put a time cap on the hours you devote to them each week, you can ask for more money, or you can ask to reconfigure the pay structure (instead of retainer they pay you per hour or project). If what’s happening is that they expect you to be on call 40 hours a week but are only paying you for 10 hours’ worth of work, I’d say you’re getting the short end of the stick. If they want you on call all week long, they should give you a full-time contract.

4. Speaking of contracts, do you have one? If so, I’m guessing they’re violating the terms. Even if you don’t, it sounds like it’s high time you mentioned – nicely – that they’re not sticking to the agreement you made at the start of the project and since the parameters of the job have changed, you’d like to renegotiate. And this time, get all the terms in writing so you can point to them later if things go haywire again.

If the client finds any of these requests so unreasonable that they feel they need to hire a family member they can abuse instead, it sounds like you’ll be dodging a bullet by letting them go, regardless of whether they’re friends of yours. It’s just business; in fact, letting them go might prevent any damage this situation is causing to your friendship. Also think of all the time you’re wasting and money you’re losing on this gig. Instead you could focus those however many hours a week on replacing that client with a saner one.

Good luck with this!

Folks, if you want to hash out client problems like this with me and a group of your freelance peers, check out my online class on dealing with nightmare clients, which starts Feb. 5 and still has openings. Details here.

Entry Filed under: Ask the Cubicle Expat,Events

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. GoOctopus Job Search  |  February 20th, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    To be honest, most of problems from workplace are generated from “afraid to talk”. If you don’t take steps, the problem will become bigger and bigger.

  • 2. Michelle H  |  February 22nd, 2011 at 12:57 am

    Ugh. This is a sticky situation to be in. I feel your pain L. Great advice given once again by Michelle G. I hope everything works out for the absolute best.

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Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

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