I pounded the pavement for nine months before launching Creativita Consulting and deciding to make a strong push to do freelance public relations. It was not a case of my doubting the ability to handle projects on my own. Perhaps part of it was I wasn’t sure how to promote what I do and gain clients, or what I wanted to offer people in the way of services.

It was very much the client relations aspect of it that made me pause.

I’ve worked in agency for six years, and I’ve had some really great experiences with clients. These clients respected our team and were happy with our work and efforts.  And they were direct, open and offered constructive criticism when we didn’t quite deliver what they were expecting.

Then there were the others.

I have countless horror stories about nightmare clients from those days, too many to recount here on this blog. But everything is a learning experience. And one of the most important lessons I learned is what happens when one has to fire their own client.

It seems crazy to turn down any money in this crappy economy, especially when you are unemployed and need it, and you are just starting out and trying to build a client base.

But that is exactly what I had to do this weekend.

I am going to give you the background on my story, some tips on how to spot difficult clients and protect yourself, and how to extricate yourself from the situation professionally.

My former client started an online business several years ago. In getting it up and running, they were not able to dedicate the time needed for a good integrated communications program. Now, four years later, they decided they needed public relations.

This person also happens to be my spouse’s friend, which added an extra, difficult layer to this situation. But I didn’t see it that way at the time. In my mind, I felt this person was a safe bet, and I was ready to give them a break on pricing and throw some other things in that I wouldn’t do for someone I didn’t know.

A month before Christmas I spoke to them on the phone about their objectives and goals. From there, I developed a plan for them. It took about three hours outside of our initial call to write it. I had no intentions of getting that time (money!) back from them on this.

Because no one is perfect, I will admit the mistakes I made in this too – I didn’t push the subject of budget.

Later the same week, this person wrote me back and asked me to revise the plan with a year-long timeline for each activity and all the steps that would be involved, as well as how each activity and related activities tied in with their objectives.

Okay.

In my mind, that is something that is done AFTER we have signed a contract and I know if I am going to get paid and how much. I gently pushed back and provided pricing for everything and asked again what the budget was for this project.

No response for a month.

I put the whole thing out of my mind until last week, when I received a call from this person asking to discuss next steps on Friday. I agreed to this and spent an additional two hours on the phone with them, as they picked apart my plan, noting with each item, “Well, I can do this and I don’t necessarily need to pay you to do this.” I also received an e-mail from them, in which they took everything I proposed and wanted to only pay me $450 dollars for it.

At the end of the call, the project scope was further cut to simply me drafting a Wikipedia entry and a boilerplate for future press releases and I gave him a price – $150. This price included everything, including research, drafts and edits, and monitoring the Wikipedia entry against online enemies they feared would tamper with the entry. They agreed and I stated I would send a contract the next day, which I did.

Saturday afternoon, I received a curt response e-mail from this person, who had serious issues with my contract, one of them being an item about any additional expenses that might occur. They also wanted to stress that they fully expected me to send them everything for approval, because while they didn’t think I would write garbage, they wanted to be the final word on everything (their words exactly).

On that note, some tips on how to avoid difficult people such as the one described here.

Show Me The Money: I should have pressed for, from the first call, the budget for this project. I should have taken as a warning the fact that the person repeatedly said, “I want to keep the public relations costs as low as possible,” without telling me what that meant. Refusing to talk about money except what you DON’T want to spend is not the move of a shrewd negotiator. It is a sign of brokeassness. And as a general rule, the client who pays the least will expect the most. They also tend to be the most difficult.

Show Me The REAL Money: There is nothing wrong with cutting someone a break. There is something wrong with giving away your services and expertise in a fire-sale. People don’t respect or take seriously what comes easily or on the cheap. Make them see the value you bring and the serious folks will pay you for what you can do for them. The ones that are just wasting time or trying to scam you or get something for nothing will go away, which is EXACTLY what you want them to do.

Lack of Respect for Basic Business Operations: The person that always misses a meeting, is never around for scheduled calls, doesn’t return e-mails and consistently misses timelines is not reliable and will probably be unreliable about other things – such as paying you in a timely manner. I have also noticed in working with clients in the past that this starts to happen right before they are about to dump you as a PR person or agency or you are about to not get paid.

The Client Plays Power Games: In my case, this started with the contract. When a client wants to take out anything in a contract that protects you, relieves them of any responsibility in the partnership, and gives them complete control over you or they simply don’t want to sign a contract, just say no immediately. It is never a good situation – business or personal for that matter – when balance of power in the relationship is too heavily in one person’s favor.

The Client Always Has a Complaint and Is Never Satisfied: If my potential client had a problem with the contract, what else would they have a problem with? In this case, the aspects of the contract they had a problem with had NOTHING to do with their project – it was just a standard item in the contract. I am 100 percent sure that I would not have accrued any additional expenses writing content – I didn’t plan on charging them for ink and paper. And we not only discussed on the phone, but it was in my contract, that I would write and edit the content until they were completely satisfied and approved it. I even stipulated in the contract that they didn’t have to pay me until they got the content and everything was gravy. So what was the problem?

They Question Your Integrity: I felt that I was being accused of trying to get over on them, yet I hadn’t written a word or sent a bill yet. I work hard to be honest and forthcoming and I take it personally when someone accuses me of being less than that.

The Client Doesn’t Know What They Want – But They Want More Of It: Strategy is key to keeping a project on track. A client doesn’t need to know everything about public relations, but they need to know what their goals and objectives are. Scope-creep is also more apt to happen in these situations – a couple of things that you can easily do and wouldn’t charge for can turn into significant work outside the contract and you aren’t getting paid for it. Write into your contract that any significant changes to the project resulting in additional work will result in a new contract in order to move forward.

Does Your Check Arrive On Time – Consistently?: Do not continue to work for clients that don’t pay you on time. Again, a good item to include in your contract is that if they are more than 30 days late paying you, you are going to stop all work until you are paid. And stick to it. Don’t rack up four months of fees working for free. It is a standard business theory that the chances of you getting paid after 30 days drops substantially. Protect yourself.

The Client Doesn’t Know Public Relations – But They Know YOU Don’t: If a client or potential client won’t take professional advice, there is nothing you can do for them and it will probably end badly. I am not saying they have to do and agree with everything you say. But they are paying you for your expertise, right? If they are constantly questioning your recommendations and the work you are doing for them, it probably isn’t a good fit, and this also ups the chances that you won’t get paid in the end. They will feel they didn’t get what they were paying for and you won’t be able to convince them otherwise.

Unethical Behavior: It’s like porn – you know it when you see it. Examples include lying to you or asking you to lie; abusing you or your team; asking you to abuse their team – just don’t do it. Don’t sell your soul for a client. They are never worth it in the end, and you can bet that whatever they do to others they will do to you too.

In the end, I sent my new un-client a very nice note in response to their e-mail questioning the contract that I didn’t think I would be able to help them. I noted that they had the plan and a couple of hours of conversation in which I hoped they learned something about public relations and I wished them well in their future business endeavors. The person wrote back a crazed, angry rambling note in which they said they didn’t understand my tone and that they were simply trying to protect themselves from me.

When my husband called this person – because you know he was going to – this person said that they were being hard-assed about the contract because they were burned twice in the past.  The first situation involved someone who allegedly accrued expenses before they could approve them and they had to pay for them. The other involved a writer who drafted content for them. After DOZENS of rewrites and revisions, they simply handed over the content and said, I can’t help you anymore, but you have to pay me.

So…this person wanted a deal on public relations efforts for their company. They reached out to a friend’s wife to do so because they knew I would cut them a deal and do more for them than most others would. They knew they had no budget. They expected me to work with them in all aspects of this project, including substantially cutting the contract in their favor WITHOUT going into a working relationship with me with trust and openness that I would do a good job for them and not cheat them.

This was never going to work. Know the warning signs and if you do stumble into a bad relationship with a client, cut your losses professionally. Try to get paid first, then send a letter or e-mail ending the partnership. Tell them what the issues were and try to end it positively. Then move on to the next client. Wasting time with a bad client keeps you from doing great work and learning from a good one.

 

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