Freelance: Client Promise v. Reality

New and experienced freelancers alike fall for it over and over again. Writers, trainers, musicians, artists, quilters,  photographers, even chefs, hair stylists and interior designers fall for the desperate client offer: Help me now, fast and cheap, and I’ll reward you handsomely later, with a bigger, lucrative job. When the offer comes from a client you’ve worked with for a long time, it pushes your loyalty button. When the offer comes from a new client, it pushes the “I can help and be rewarded” button.

"THIS time it will work" (Image from

So I wrote the training program with the promise that I’d be offered the first chance to teach it every time it was offered. See? You already know what happened, although I didn’t figure it out till yesterday.

Before you reach for that juicy promise, do the math: the longer the time between promise and payoff, the less likely it will ever materialize.

The client actually means it when he makes the offer–that’s what desperation does on the client side–promise anything to get the work done. Once the client has the training program, music for the wedding, Beef Wellington, surprise party photos or new logo, the tide turns. The logo doesn’t spark sales, the song isn’t a big hit, the fiance is allergic to an ingredient in the Wellington, and the rest of the promise–to reward you later–vanishes faster than bacon at an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet.

I’ve been writing for decades and I fell for it again. I’d be OK if I thought I’d done it out of loyalty or shoulder-shrugging generosity rather than a cape-and-tights surge of desire to be a hero in a hopeless situation. The client promised, I jumped, and the promise didn’t come through. When I gently reminded the client of the promise, he became affronted–as if I were extorting him. “Things changed,” he started. (That’s the most common excuse.) “You didn’t do all the work, I asked other people, too,” although that didn’t change his promise to me. And then the other responsibility dodger,”My client changed the game, so you have to be flexible.” My real flexibility should have come three months earlier–I should have spun on my heel and run.

Bart Simpson has to write it all the time. . .

Yes, I should have turned down the job. Politely. Maybe simply by saying I was busy. Maybe I should have been bold and said, “I’ve done this too often before, and it doesn’t work out the way you intend and I hope.” But I didn’t. And I’m out more than I can afford to lose–I broke the first rule of investing.

So, the question is, what have you said to the client who dangles a promise in front of you, and you bit? What worked? What didn’t? I’ll be watching the comments.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and trainer with a soft heart and a head to match.