how to handle bad clients

Are You in Bed with a Bad Client?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 8 Comments

I’m not going to waste any time introducing today’s topic.

Here’s what I want you to do.

Read the statements below, and tell me if any of them sound familiar.

“I’ll put in a good word for you.”

“I will keep you in mind.”

“Next time we will definitely call you.”

“One of the best auditions of the day. Unfortunately…”

“I loved your take on the script, but the client had final say.”

“Don’t worry if you don’t get the job. It’s still great practice, isn’t it?”

“I wish we could pay you more but my hands are tied.”

“This may very well lead to more work.”

“You were this close to nailing it.”

“You’re so experienced. This will only take you ten minutes.”

“I will pay you as soon as I receive the files.”

“We don’t need a contract. We do this all the time.”

“If we decide to use it, you will get paid.”

“We have someone who is willing to do it at half your rate.”

“We’re a charity. Can you do this for free?”

“It’s such great exposure!”

“We ended up not using your work. Sorry.”

“Nice try, but it’s not what we wanted.”

“We got somebody internal to do it instead.”

“Apologies for not getting back to you earlier. We had to cancel the project.”

“We decided to go a different route with another talent.”

“We had to change the script drastically. You wouldn’t mind recording a new version for us, would you?”

“Trust us. Everything is going to be fine.”

Whether you’re a voice-over, a graphic designer, or a copywriter, I’m 99% sure that at some point in your freelance career some client from hell fed you a few of these lines. Combined with a certain tonality and body language, they all spell the same two-letter expletive:


You just know that when people say “I will keep you in mind,” you will never hear from them again. Ever. The person who said “I wish we could pay you more,” is laughing all the way to the bank because he just saved his boss a boatload of money by hiring a wimp. And when someone says “Trust us. Everything is going to be fine,” he or she is waving a big fat red flag in your face.

Tell me you’re not surprised. Please.

You see, while playing in the sandbox at kindergarten, you should have learned your lesson: not every kid is playing nice. And when these kids grow up, they’re even worse. Why? Because experience has taught them that they can get away with almost anything, and get rich while doing it (no, I’m not talking about the presidential race here).

These clients have two things in common. They were born with a silver tongue, and they’re masters at spotting and exploiting weakness.

Are you desperate to work? Your email will give you away. 

Are you too eager to please? Your voice will tell it all.

Are you just getting your feet wet? Your cheap rate speaks volumes.

Desperate doormat novices are easily manipulated. They’ll work just for the exposure. They’ll record a rewritten script for zero dollars. They’ll send the audio files, trusting that payment won’t be a problem.

Until they get burned, or they get smart.

One of my young colleagues just came to me with a sob story:

“I was so happy and proud that I booked my first big gig, and the client seemed so nice. He said he loved my voice, and he had total faith in me. I worked really hard to deliver the project on time, and I think I did a pretty good job.

Before I got started I asked the client: ‘Should we sign anything to make it official?’ I remember his exact words. He said: ‘Don’t you trust me? We do this all the time. There’s no need for a contract.’ When he said that, I felt kind of guilty. Why would I doubt him? He gave me a great opportunity, and I should be thankful.”

“When did this happen?” I asked.

“Six months ago,” my colleague answered.

“And did you get paid?”

“No,” said my colleague. “Once I had sent the audio files, the client disappeared. It’s a long story, but when I finally spoke to someone at the company he was working for, they said he got fired. No one knew anything about the project I had worked on. They said they didn’t owe me anything.”

Part of me wanted to feel sorry for my colleague, but the other part wanted to tell her:

“I know this totally sucks, but it’s not the client’s responsibility to teach you how to be a professional. You may feel that this guy took advantage of you, and he did. However, you allowed it to happen. You enabled that client to treat you poorly. 

This is no longer a hobby for you. You’re in business now, and you have to protect your business. The best way to do that, is to prevent problems from the outset. Don’t assume that everything will be alright, and that all people have the best and purest intentions. Clients run businesses too, and if they want to be successful, they must do two things:

  1. Minimize expenses
  2. Maximize profits

To them, you’re an expense. It’s not their fault if you don’t stand up for yourself and negotiate a decent fee. They’re not to blame if you’re okay with working without a contract. 

On one hand you are vulnerable. On the other hand you also have power. You have something the clients needs and wants. 

If anything, remember this:

A client cannot make you do anything you’re uncomfortable with. If you don’t like it, you renegotiate, or you walk away.

Before you do any work, both sides need to be clear about their expectations. Ideally, those expectations should be turned into a written agreement. Without such an agreement, you’ll have a hard time making a claim in court, should it come to that.

Before you sign on the dotted line, you have to fully understand what you are agreeing to. If you don’t, ask an expert to explain it to you.

One of the things you must be clear about, is payment. Let the client know that the work you have done is yours, until he pays for it. In other words: the right to use your work transfers upon full payment. Of course you need to define usage too. In case of voice-overs, are you talking about a full buyout, or is there a renewal fee?

Please understand that asking for a contract does not make you difficult to work with. A solid contract benefits both parties. Parties that are about to start an intimate relationship. A relationship that requires protection.”

Mike Monteiro from design firm Mule put it this way:

“Starting work without a contract, is like putting on a condom after taking a home pregnancy test. It is not going to help you at that point. You have lost any leverage you had.”

In summary: clients can make strange bedfellows.

Make sure you don’t end up feeling used. 

Watch the warning signs.

Listen to the language.

And don’t fall for all the two-letter expletives!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: CRASH via photopin (license)