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.

17 thoughts on “Freelance: Client Promise v. Reality

  1. I know you have put much thought into this decision. Know that your are strong and worthy of creating your own work! You have many of us out here in the world supporting you, Quinn. I will be thinking about you and sending you positive thoughts and energy…

      • yes…this is such a tricky one…business, being in service to others, trusting “verbal” contracts…sorta makes you feel sad…

        Hope things work out for you, Quinn. You are a valuable treasure and your work is so needed! Thinking of you…looks like you are traveling a bit (in your next post) and taking in the beauty of other cultures. A change…moving on…

  2. The ‘something for nothing’ comes from the concept that anyone who is either working at home or outside an ‘established business’ is somehow not really working (or doesn’t need to). Like the assumption many make that a stay-at-home mom or a no-kids housewife is doing nothing of value and has time to burn, so “well it won’t be an imposition if I ask you to watch my kids (for free) or run this errand or do this chore for me.” Well, it IS an imposition. A favor we’re willing to do for friends, but anyone else gets a “Sorry but I can’t.” Translation? “Sorry, but I WON’T.” I’ve learned that those maybe-promises are asked favors from friends, probable profits from established business clients which you are less upset about writing off if they don’t pan out, but definite impositions from strangers: get a contract in writing with a specific payment and not a conditional wishcast.

  3. Oh yes, I’ve been there myself -more than once. (I have a soft heart too). I finally put in place a deposit requirement. No matter how urgently they need it – I must get a deposit for the (scope of work) before I begin. For the most part it worked. I still did get ‘stiffed’ once in a while but the deposit usually covered me. If not, at least it was a smaller loss. I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this. However, you are very sharp and capable, you’ll bounce back even stronger I’m sure. At any rate, thank you for the reminder. And thank you so much for your wonderful comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the long post. It crossed my mind that maybe it was too long so that was nice to hear.

  4. Sorry to read this. How frustrating. No work without deposits and or full payment up front in my world. AND I agree with Phillippa Lack, there is a pervading something for nothing mentality out there…where did it come from?

  5. everyone these days feels they are ‘entitled’ to something, usually for free. I wonder where this concept arrived from? Yes, you should have turned on our heel and ran. But in your situation, since I am a closet soft touch, I probably would have done what you did

    • I think that sometimes it’s a “trickle-down” or “pass-through” situation. The client is being pressured from above, or by circumstances, and they’re passing their pain and confusion on to the freelancer — along with the responsibility (or is it a plea?) to solve their problem. When I’ve been in that situation, if it’s not something I can — or should — fix for them, the best option is to buck it back up the chain and get them to address what it is they had hoped to dodge.

      I try to do this in a positive way, by suggesting what the client needs to do and assuring them that I will help them by doing the part that I can (or should) be doing. Sometimes it works and everybody carries their share, sometimes it doesn’t and I end up having to shovel the whole load. But either way, it helps establish boundaries more clearly for the next time.

  6. Oh no Quinn, I’m sorry this happened to you. Thanks for sharing it though so we can file the lesson away in our minds.
    I always try to keep people’s intentions in mind, but intentions don’t pay the bills.
    Best wishes from germany, tj

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