Freelancers’ Communication with Problematic Customers

Problematic Customer Profiles #1: The “Next Time” Customer

Freelance writers who operate their writing businesses encounter many different types of customers through their everyday business dealings and soon become adept at customer service in addition to writing. Eighty percent of the time, freelancers and their customers enjoy a smooth business transaction from job to job and a mutually beneficial business relationship. However, in certain cases, a certain type of customer appears one that causes trouble for various reasons. The communication skills of the freelance writer become paramount in these circumstances. What follows are a few communication tips for self-employed writers to continue to receive payment and referrals from even the most problematic clients.

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The “Next Time” Customer (Customers who don’t Pay on Time…or not at all)

Does this sound familiar?

“Oh, right! The check! I left it at my office/in my car/in my other bag/in my briefcase/in my hockey bag/at the cottage…”

Or, how about, “Oh, right! The check! My wife/girlfriend/administrative assistant/mother was supposed to mail it to you. I’ll remind her…”

Or, my personal favorite, “You mean you didn’t get it yet? I mailed that weeks ago!”

Sometimes customers do forget to pay. Everybody is busy after all. Nevertheless, if months go by and still no sign of the money, you may have a “Next Time” customer on your hands. These types of customers will try to wait for the freelancer out in the hopes of getting the work done free of charge. These types of customers are few and far between…however, they do exist. The number one communication tip for freelancers who have trouble with the “Next Time” customer is to conduct all business, including quoting for jobs, revisions, and invoicing, exclusively on email. Avoid talking about money on the phone or in a personal conversation – these are too easily forgotten.

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Email provides a record of every transaction that you can use to prove to the customer that he or she indeed promised to pay you three months ago, and still has not. Rather than argue with the customer about dates and times, simply forward the email that includes the invoice. An email has the bonus of a print function that provides a hard copy of all correspondence, monetary figures, and agreed-upon parameters of the work and associated costs.

“Next Time” customers often have a habit of asking freelance writers to continue to do work for them on a second job while the payment for the first job remains AWOL. The second most vital communication tip for freelancers in this position is to say, “I will be happy to do that work for you once we have settled our accounts for the first piece of work I did for you,” and specify the outstanding amount and the agreed-upon date of payment. “Next Time” customers will attempt to gain maximum while giving minimum; the onus is on you as the freelance writing professional to break the cycle and refuse to allow the “Next Time” customer to exploit you any further.

Sometimes the “Next Time” customer will also use the excuse of revisions to delay the payment. He or she may say something to the effect of “I’ll send you the payment once you re-do these paragraphs.” The third most important communication tip for the “Next Time” the customer is to ask for a partial “good faith” payment upfront in the case of excessive revisions, or if you suspect that the revisions are a ploy to defer payment.

As a last resort, another communication tip for freelancers to use is to ask a lawyer to send an email to the customer on your behalf. Often you can avoid paying large legal fees by asking an articling lawyer or law student to send the email on your behalf. Reserve this tip for the times when the “Next Time” customer owes you several thousand dollars and continues to avoid your calls.

Problematic Customer Profiles #2: The “Make it Better” Customer: Customers Who Cannot Articulate What They Want

Freelance writers may come across another type of difficult customer, known as the “Make It Better” customer. Typically, this type of customer struggles to offer the freelance writer useable feedback in the revision process, thus rewrites, revisions, and fixes grind to a halt or become so repetitious that the writer loses money, time, and energy trying to understand what the customer wants and achieve some clear direction for the project. Comments from this type of customer remain vague and unfocused. Examples include “just fix it,” “make it sound better,” “make it work,” “do it right,” “make it more interesting,” “write it better” or “this is wrong” – in other words, generic, non-specific feedback that the writer cannot get his or her teeth into to inform the direction of the revision or understand the customer’s vision.

The most useful communication tip for freelancers dealing with this type of customer is to take the time to come into each meeting with at least three different versions of the revised material and say to the customer, “we could do this, this, or this,” or “we could pursue this style, or this direction, or this angle.” In essence, the freelancer communicates the vision of the work via multiple versions until the customer hears and sees one that matches with the idea he or she has in mind. This type of customer typically involves a good deal of extra work; his or her vision is buried deep, and the words to express that vision remain out of his or her grasp.

Another communication tip for freelance writers engaged by a “Make it Better” the customer is asking for a second set of eyes on the material, preferably from a work colleague of the customer. This second individual is someone who knows the customer well, has worked with him or her for several years on creative and written projects, and enjoys a strong professional bond with him or her. This second body in the room can often translate the ambiguity of the customer’s feedback in a way that gives the writer insight into the customer’s vision.

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A final communication tip for freelance writers working with a “Make it Better” client is to communicate using drawings, paintings, photographs, or videos. Freelance writers who need to communicate with a “Make it Better” customer can benefit from employing alternative methods such as visual, tactile, or even aural modes of communication to derive the feedback they need to complete the order to the customer’s satisfaction. For example, “Make it Better” customers who cannot articulate their vision verbally often become extremely clear and focused when allowed to communicate it visually. Sometimes a quick online image search during a meeting can save you hours of rewriting in circles with only imprecise and fuzzy verbal feedback to go on.

Problematic Customer Profiles #3: The “Micro-Manager” Customer

Freelance writers may come across another type of difficult customer, known as the “Micro-Manager” customer. As a rule, this type of customer has a hard time letting go of work. Essentially, the “Micro-Manager” customer is the opposite of the “Make it Better” client. This individual has an overdeveloped ability to articulate exactly what he or she wants from the project, and cannot give the freelance writer enough space to complete the work.

The “Micro-Manager” typically barrages the freelance writer with emails and phone calls asking for updates as to the status of the work, sometimes more than once a day, and often disrespects the freelance writer’s time and personal space and calls at inappropriate hours such as very late at night or extremely early in the morning. The “Micro-Manager” client also goes beyond the bounds of normal revision expectations; he or she may return a piece of work because he or she believes a period is out of place, or rewrite a freelance writer’s work. The “Micro-Manager” sometimes will fancy him or herself a writer and feel it incumbent upon him or herself to “correct” the freelance writer’s work.

These types of clients can be demoralizing. However, the most effective means of communication with the “Micro-Manager” customer is to set firm boundaries: no calls after a certain time of night or before a certain hour and no rewriting. The “Micro-Manager” client typically responds to a professional yet firm posture on the part of the freelancer.

Problematic Customer Profiles #4: The “Nickel and Dime” Customer

Freelance writers may also come across another type of challenging customer, known as the “Nickel and Dime” customer. Typically, this type of customer constantly seeks to underpay. He or she will ask the freelance writer for freebies, unpaid revisions, reduced rates, and discounts. The main difficulty with this type of client is that he or she remains relentlessly obsessed with paying less money for the freelance writer’s services and often keeps asking for discounts even after the freelance writer has made it clear that none are forthcoming.

The most important communication tactic for this type of customer is twofold: money must always be upfront, and the freelance writer must never agree to a discount or reduction in his or her rates. Once the freelance writer provides a discount or reduced rate, the customer will know that it is available and will ask for it relentlessly. Under no circumstances can the freelance writer ever agree to the terms of the “Nickel and Dime” customer. In some cases, this means no repeat business or even a negative referral; however, the “Nickel and Dime” customer is one of the toughest that the freelance writer is likely to face in the working world, and frankly, the less of these types of customers the freelance writer has, the better.

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StudyCorgi. "Freelancers' Communication with Problematic Customers." January 30, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Freelancers' Communication with Problematic Customers." January 30, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Freelancers' Communication with Problematic Customers'. 30 January.

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