How to Keep Your Freelance Clients–When Everything Goes to Hell

How to keep your freelance clients when everything goes to hellI’d only been a freelance writer for a couple of months when I scored a regular gig with a large web design firm.

The pay was decent, I loved the assignments, and the editor was a breeze to work with. It seemed like my fledgling career was ready to take flight.

Then my son got sick.

Because of a chronic medical condition, we need to check on him every two hours at night when he’s ill. My husband couldn’t cover, so I was on duty for the entire ordeal. All alone. Seven Days. No sleep.

Of course, this was when my client called with an emergency assignment.

The previous writer had flaked, and he needed me to step in and write two pages of automotive content ASAP. Against all logic, I took the job.

Unfortunately, my fatigue got the best of me, and I screwed up hard. My writing was garbled, and I made mistakes that could have led to a lawsuit.

To say my editor was pissed would be an understatement. I was on the way out the door.

I turned to the Freelance Writers Den community for advice on what to do, and how I could save what I felt was a floundering career. I got some great tips and loads of supportive sympathy. I came up with a plan to win back my client’s trust.

Here’s how it went:

I owned it

I spoke to my editor, acknowledged the tough spot I’d put him in, and apologized. My fatigue was understandable, and being fuzzy brained was excusable, but being sloppy wasn’t.

I asked for another chance

My body of work with this client was good, and I didn’t have a reputation for being completely boneheaded so, he grudgingly gave me another shot.

I worked hard

I valued this client, not only for the work he sent my way, but also for the patience he had shown an untried writer. I worked hard to earn back his confidence by continually doing my best.

It took a good two weeks to get my editor to relax and trust that I wasn’t going to drop the ball again. He was sending me short, light work at first, so this was 15-20 assignments total before he was done emailing about every comment and fact.

I learned

I took the experience and used it to streamline my projects so that this kind of mistake wouldn’t happen again.

The easiest (and most obvious) lesson I learned was to write one article at a time. No more hopping back and forth from assignment to assignment!

I also got organized. My client is a large ad firm, so I’m writing for multiple businesses. Each one has their own specific way of doing things. It can get confusing. I keep binders for each business with notes about past assignments and examples of copy that has worked well.

Finally, I started running multiple computer screens so I can write, research, and see the requirements for the assignment simultaneously. Seriously, it looks like NORAD in my office. A secondary monitor and cable cost me $20 at Goodwill.

This is especially helpful when it comes to making sure I’m putting keywords where they need to be. SEO is still important for online copy.

When I don’t have access to enough screens, I use post-it notes to remind me of the assignment’s parameters.

I forgave myself

No matter how careful you are, it’s impossible to be perfect. I hated myself and lamented my incompetence for a good two days. Then I got over myself and got back to work.

In the end, things worked out. My client was impressed by my dedication and work ethic and has since sent me assignments that are more lucrative, making him my top source of income.

I learned a lot from the experience, including my own limits and when to set boundaries with freelance clients. I’m sure that in the years to come, I’ll stumble again, but with the lessons I’ve learned, and the support of my writing community, I think I’ll be fine.

Have you ever royally screwed up a gig? Tell us how you recovered in the comments below.

Patricia Willis is a full-time freelance writer based in Washington State. She specializes in web content and translating geek-speak into English. Follow her on Twitter @willispl.

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27 comments on “How to Keep Your Freelance Clients–When Everything Goes to Hell
  1. Sarah says:

    It’s amazing how often great advice like this falls under the category of “being a good person.” We’re all human and make mistakes… but it’s people who value relationships and step up and admit when they make a mistake that will always get the follow-up work. Great advice here!

  2. Patricia. I have a story for you that relates to what happened to you–an emergency situation–although I handled it differently. No one has mentioned this possibility, but I want to describe it since it involves collaborative work shows we are not all working in a vacuum. It is not something I would recommend on a regular basis, but was useful in an emergency. Some years ago, a regular long-term client asked me to write a brochure that was a follow up to something I’d written earlier. They liked the “voice” I used, so it was not simply a matter of putting together certain facts. However, it was a lengthy piece. Unfortunately, I had just run into a serious medical problem that took me “off line” for at least a month. However,I knew that after the first month, I’d be able to work on the project and give it the “voice” they wanted. My solution was to ask a well-respected colleague, with whom I had previously worked, to research and produce an initial draft. Of course, I provided an outline and instructions on how to find the right information (which didn’t actually come from the client.) Then, after he put together a rough text, I was able to double check data, restructure and edit the text, and insert the “voice” the client was looking for. The finished product came out very well. For me, this was a good solution: the client was happy, and I could continue my ongoing work for them, and, of course, I shared the fee with my colleague.

  3. Jessica says:

    A slightly similar thing happened to me recently. I’ve been getting regular work through an SEO company so I went from having barely any work to being overbooked in about a week. At fist I didn’t know how to organise myself so I screwed up a lot. The stupidest mistake I made was not even keeping track of the articles I’d written so when it came time to send the invoice, I didn’t even know how much to charge! I think the idea of only doing one article at a time is very good advice that I will try in the future.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your story! Your advice is priceless. I think coming clean and being honest is always the best policy, too. Life happens, and we can learn from negative events.

    I like your multiple monitor advice. (It beats having to peer—and squint—at an iPad mini perched next to my laptop!)

    On the bidding and fee side, I just finished a project with a client that I really underbid, not realizing just how much hand holding I would need to do to complete the project. In the process, I learned a lot, though, and minutes after the event, (program event planning with invitation and program copywriting/editing), he told me he wanted to do four or five more events like that one with me, AND initiate them with another non-profit he’s coordinating! I don’t plan to raise my rates because the next go-round should be easier and smoother. (I’m hoping, at least.)

    I’m also learning how to say “No” more often; and I actually overbid on a project several months ago because I really didn’t want to do it and knew they wouldn’t want to pay that much. She tried to niggle me into reducing my fee, but I knew it would be a headache I didn’t want to suffer. (I’d worked with them on a previous project.) They turned me down for someone with less experience, and I was good with it. I picked up other work; and they ended up having to delay their event, which would have made my life a nightmare. Thank you, Providence!

    Thanks again, Patricia, for giving us tips on how to avoid screw-ups, and recover so gracefully from them! Your story was educational and encouraging. I’m going to be refiguring my writing space!

    • Patricia says:

      I’m so glad it helped you! And glad to hear you’ve mastered the art of saying no.

      Valuing ourselves and the service we provide is such an important step towards getting those professional clients we all seek, and making the money we deserve. Good for you!

      Good luck with your new setup too!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Andrea, thanks for telling this story. I think when we don’t get a gig on price, we want to beat ourselves up about it. But so often, you look back later and realize you are so LUCKY that didn’t work out. I have a philosophy that these things generally work out the way they’re supposed to.

  5. Quinn says:

    Kudos!

    Thanks for sharing your story, and for the info on the multiple screens! I’ve been trying to use my desktop and a small laptop, but your way sounds much easier!

    • Patricia says:

      It’s really easy on a PC, and cheap if you go second hand!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Though we have many screens around here…only one is mine. I run it all from my MacBook Pro, and I love no longer having a desktop and having to go back and forth. At one point I was using GotoMyPC for the road, and now I love having it all in one portable spot.

  6. Two screens is gold! My husband got a second when he was finishing his dissertation, which involved comparing two texts and recording differences. I’ve been using it ever since, and it saves so much time and mental energy.

    Thanks for sharing – life is so unpredictable, and I’m afraid of getting hit with something like this, too.

    • Patricia says:

      I agree! I have six screens. Six. It’s ridiculous. It’s like the NSA went rogue in my house. I cover my work, my son’s medical device, and our security system (those packages won’t retrieve themselves) all from my desk. It’s incredibly helpful and, when I’m done working, Netflix!

      • Katy Reiber says:

        You’ve really got me thinking about adding another screen or two…

        It had never occurred to me that it might help me, but now that I think about it, I spend A TON of time trying to resize and drag around windows to be able to see my notes and my research and my writing while I work. (And, let’s be honest, a Netflix window…)

        I also take care of my grandmother and I had thought of putting up a few video baby monitors on the high fall risk spots in our home and the front door, because as it stands now, I’m constantly feeling like I need to get up to check on her. But, now that I’m thinking of getting another screen or two, I love the idea of doing web enabled cameras and not having a bank of baby monitor screens that could take my focus off of my work. Plus, you’re right, packages.

        I think just writing this comment I’ve sold myself on the idea.

        To Best Buy!

      • Carol Tice says:

        Well, you’ve cheered me up because I feel it’s ridiculous that we have 4 computers around here for 4 people. Can’t we share? And then of course 2 smartphones, a Kindle, and an ipod touch (though right now those last 2 are not in circulation). So maybe that is 6 or even MORE! And of course, the TV screen. I find it a little ridiculous. Several of the computers are old and dying, and I’m hoping we’re going to consolidate and buy one decent one for the kids to share.

        • Katy Reiber says:

          I’m definitely not the person to talk to if you want to reduce the number of electronics in your house! We have one laptop each, plus a Mac desktop, an iPad, a chromebook, two smartphones and three TVs… and now I’m pretty much sold on getting another screen for the Mac…

        • Ava Jarvis says:

          Even when I was at a software company where most people had two screens, I ended up loving my laptop. I could take it anywhere, and learning to work on a single screen meant I learned a lot of alt-tab and alt-` tricks, and also multiple desktops and switching between them.

          Not being tied to my desk meant I could go work on the patio. 😀

          Also one laptop ultimately meant that in a collaborative meeting room session I was better prepared. 🙂

  7. I’ve had similar experiences with new clients, especially when I was just starting out. I have difficulty understanding instructions due to a learning disability, and I’ve learned how to communicate with my clients to make sure we’re both on the same page. Honestly, I’ve never “saved face” with a client I messed up with. I didn’t understand them nor they me, and I simply had to move on and take it as a learning experience.

    • Patricia says:

      I think it’s important to know how you communicate so that you can get your point across clearly. I’ve had issues with clients who were unclear and had to go back and ask, and re-ask for clarification. I find that having an example of the format they want or a style they are looking for is immensely helpful.

  8. Patricia says:

    Kevin,

    I always try to give my clients more than they paid for, but you have a point, setting boundaries includes knowing your value and communicating that!

    Sounds like time for you to benefit from those “screw-ups” and raise your rates!

  9. Patricia,

    Great and very timely post! I’ve been dealing with a similar situation for the past couple of months and feel bad that I’ve let things slide a bit with my freelance assignments. I’m also trying to put help and contingency plans in place so that I can continue to be productive even if things don’t improve.

    It’s a struggle, I’m glad you addressed it here.

    • Patricia says:

      Leanne,

      I’m sorry to hear you’re having a rough time. Balance is he toughest thing for me to deal with, wearing so many hats. Good luck finding your way, maybe you could keep us posted in the Den when you find the plan that works for you?

      Best of luck!

  10. Too right, Patricia, I’ve well and truly screwed up on a freelance writing gig – but in precisely the opposite way.

    On several occasions, I’ve either grossly underquoted or done far too good a job for the money.

    That might sound like a good way to screw up. But it can be equally damaging.

    Once you make this mistake, you set a client’s expectations. And if you don’t deliver the same value next time, they feel like they’ve been short-changed.

    I still sometimes do this now – through fear of what you’ve experienced.

    Successful freelancers almost seem to instinctively know when their writing output is good enough to go – so they can swiftly move on to their next client project.

  11. Cheri says:

    Thanks so much for sharing! Being new to the field, I am absolutely terrified of something like this happening! The best piece of advice you offer here is setting boundaries. Knowing when to say no is a huge lesson we can all learn.

    • Patricia says:

      Cheri,

      It really is. Early on you’re so eager for the work and to prove yourself that it’s hard to say no. Learning to do that hurt my income in the short-term, but has since boosted it and my quality of life.

      Best of luck to you!

  12. Ava Jarvis says:

    Ouch! That sort of thing hurts the ego and turns up the fear.

    Even at unforgiving workplaces, I’ve found that it pays to be upfront with your manager about problems that occur in your life. A chronic condition was a constant thorn in my side.

    I only came to this conclusion after a particularly bad incident that almost brought down the company’s ordering system; lack of sleep contributed to the bad decisions that led to my near downfall (fortunately I’m paranoid enough to put a lot of fail-safes into any launch plan). Coming clean about my PTSD-driven insomnia prevented me from being fired and led to a period of an easier oncall schedule for me.

    While the company in the end did not let me recover with grace from the situation, I learned valuable lessons about looking at projects from the manager’s (or similar) point of view, and lessons about managing myself and my chronic condition.

    I eventually left the company for other reasons, but not for that screw-up of mine, nor did I ever commit another screw-up like that.