How to be a good client

A writer, editor and a website designer walk into a bar. And once they have ordered their drinks, they fall to complaining about their clients.

The non-payers. The scope creepers. The ghosters. The ones who say “that’s not what I wanted” even though they never did say what they wanted. The ones who want you to work for free in return for “exposure.” The ditherers. The ones who said the work would be with you by a particular date and then only deliver it three months later.

Sadly, the trio in a bar are not joking. These are the ways in which they and their work are treated at least some of the time, by some people.

I know all this because I belong to two professional organisations, the Southern Africa Freelancers’ Association (Safrea) and the Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG). Both run email groups, and both email groups see a fair number of requests for advice on how to deal with bad clients.

A frequent refrain in these emails is the comparison with other kinds of commercial interactions:

  • Imagine asking a plumber to work for free in return for exposure!
  • Imagine saying you don’t want to pay the supermarket for a particular tin of beans because they are different from the beans you thought you wanted! But you still want to keep the beans!
  • Imagine ignoring emails from your tax person and then demanding that they get the work done immediately!

And these comparisons get to the nub of the problem. Many problematic interactions between people in the creative industries and their clients arise from the feeling that clients have that they are not getting something real. (The concept of credence good is useful here).

A plumber’s work is visible and immediate (especially if they fix your overflowing toilet). But the benefits of a subtle website redesign, or a piece of writing, or the work of an editor, are not immediately obvious. And so this kind of work doesn’t get treated seriously.

However, if you need this kind of work done, and would like not end up in an unpleasant altercation, there are several things you can do to make sure you get what you want.

Here’s how to be a good client

Do your research. Just as you would check if a plumber in fact works in the area where you live, find out if the creative person you are engaging does the kind of work you want doing. If you need a thesis edited, ask the editor if that’s what they do before asking them to quote and then saying they don’t meet your needs.

Spend as much time as you can clarifying what you want – make a list, find examples of the kind of thing you are looking for. Write as much as you can down. Make sure that all these documents are available to the person you are engaging. Here’s my guide to writing a good brief.

Make sure that the timeframe works for you. Don’t promise to have your novel with the editor by March if you know that you are having a baby in February. And if for some reason, the timeframe has changed, let your writer or editor know as soon as you can.

If the quote is not acceptable to you, a simple email saying “thank you but no thank you” would be polite.

And finally: don’t engage the person if you can’t pay them. That’s just plain wrong.


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How to tell good writers from bad
Editors – how to tell the good from the bad

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Main picture: 傅甬 华, Unsplash

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