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Freelancing as an Artist Part 3: Good Clients, Bad Clients

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Freelancing as an Artist Part 3: Good Clients, Bad Clients

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Previous: Freelancing as an Artist Part 2: Getting Paid

It’s important to charge properly for another reason: attracting good clients and getting skirted by the bad.

A note on this list: there is a difference between bad clients and well-meaning but inexperienced clients. Bad clients tend not to learn or change or be particularly nice people; inexperienced clients may well be nice people and learn to be good clients down the line. Don’t go crying ‘Bad client!’ the moment a job gets hard or a negotiation tenuous – everyone is learning. The ones who have stopped learning, or refuse to learn, end up being bad freelancers and bad clients.

Related: Just start: How we went from idea to launch in just 4 weeks

Good Vs. the Bad

If you’ve encountered neither yet, here’s a short guide to telling the difference between good clients and bad:

Good clients pay. They are business people. They understand that services get paid for. Bad clients come in all shades of uncertainty; from inexperienced and non-committal to the outright deceptive. Bad clients are coy about money and talk about ‘exposure’ and that working for them is good for your portfolio. That’s as may be – only you know what sort of job you’d do for free, but generally good clients talk about money upfront and in plain terms.

Good clients write single line emails. Two lines if they want to ask how your day is. Bad clients obfuscate with huge paragraphs of text. Their emails leave you feeling annoyed and confused, even attacked and guilty. You’re unable to draw a solid conclusion about what they want, what’s happening with the project, or where your money is.

Good clients have a clear direction and appreciate clarity in dealing with you. They push for as good they can get for the time they can afford you. They do their research, give you reference for the things they can’t describe accurately and answer all your questions until they are certain you see what they see.

Bad clients are insecure in their vision and expect others to execute it via telepathy, without any legwork on their part. They blame others for their lack of experience and effort.

Good clients treat you like an adult and keep things professional. Good clients pay you well and expect good work, done on time. They NEVER talk down to you, hoping their brutish phone-manner or backhanded comments will drop your self-esteem and price.

Good clients DO NOT ignore your emails asking following up on late payments. They do not accuse you of being money-hungry, or retroactively degrade your work as an excuse not to pay, or overshare their personal life and drag you into their problems to elicit sympathy and make you feel bad for putting pressure on them to pay. That last one is a major red flag.

Related: Just start #2: Why I launched a business with no logo

Bad Clients and Money

The PH-test of a bad client is always how they react to the question of money.

It’s not that they’ll be uncomfortable – even under the best circumstances, it can be difficult to talk about money – but they’ll be evasive and distracting from the subject and not want to commit themselves, or conveniently forget what they’ve committed to. Avoid clients who say they don’t want to discuss money until the work has begun (or even until after the job’s finished) or won’t put anything in writing.

Yes, email threads count and are legally binding. I go off email agreements all the time, for short, fast jobs. Even verbal agreements are legally binding, but can be difficult to prove.

Sometimes a bad client may get upset and angry at the mention of money. They may try to undermine the amounts agreed upon when it’s time to invoice (“I thought you meant per film, not per image!”). They hope to frighten you into doubting yourself and changing your mind on the spot (“Oh… we can make it per film, I guess?”) or feeling too intimidated by their tantrum to mention money ever again.

As I said, money is a difficult subject to talk about, even in the best of circumstances. It’s hard to sometimes be explicit about your financial expectations, but it really is best to do it up front and be consistent. Lies are much, much easier to tell in omission, to conceal in an atmosphere of unspoken assumption. Ask the questions, clarify, put it in writing saying, ‘As we talked about in our phone conversation…” etc. It’s better all around.

Related: 10 Reasons Why Entrepreneurship is Bloody Hard

Dealing with bad clients

If you are in bad-client hell right now (and you’ll know), then chances are you’re way undercharging and you’re being far too understanding.

You’re trying to play their game rather than demanding they sit up straight and behave appropriately. Being stern with a bad client often works. They shape up, especially if they feel they misjudged you as a noob.

If a client is being ‘difficult’ ie. throwing a temper tantrum hoping to make you go away without invoicing, it’s best to treat them exactly as you would a two-year-old. Do not to try reason or bargain – you’re not negotiating here – or get upset and drawn into a screaming match. Take no notice of their temper and be firm and consistent with your message. Last recourse: threaten punishment and mean it. Make mention of being willing to settle in court if they prefer. They will not prefer.

It’s very empowering to ‘win’ against a bad client; it’s an enormous confidence booster when you realise that you’re not so powerless as you think.

Sometimes, however, we’re too young and scared, or people skip the country, or we move cities or we feel culpable in the situation. For a host of other reasons, we have no choice but to let a bad client get away with it and put the whole nasty experience behind us. It’s okay. It happens and it sucks, but it won’t happen often. You’ll be ready next time.

If you’re inexperienced or just not great at seeing bad-client warning signs (it’s definitely a learned skill) you may want to put some protective measures in place. A friend or mentor that you trust. A 50% upfront rule. Making a practice of signing contracts before work begins. Getting an agent.

Above all, trust your gut and believe you and what you want are worth the fight.

Article reposted with permission from Drawing Money. See original post here.

Next: Freelancing as an Artist Part 4: Questions?



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I’ve been a freelance artist in the film and animation industry since 2012 and I’m still alive! I am not a financial advisor nor am I legally enabled to give you financial advice. I’m a storyboard artist and a writer who’s made a lot of mistakes with money and consider myself well-read on the subject because I had to teach myself. The content on my blog is for educational purposes only and is my own experience and opinion and research.

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