Freelance horror stories

Sometimes bad clients happen to good freelancers. Here, three anonymous creatives tell Anne Wollenberg about their worst ever commissions and the invaluable lessons they learned from them.

You don't need to read the Clients From Hell blog to realise that difficult clients can be one of the real downsides of freelancing, from offering payment in Maltesers and demanding you use Comic Sans to ignoring invoices or suddenly deciding they don't actually feel like finishing the project after all.

Luckily, there are ways to weed out nightmare clients and make these scenarios much less likely, as these three creatives (who've remained anonymous to protect all those involved) only wish they'd known sooner. They've talked us through their worst-ever freelance jobs so you can benefit from the lessons they had to learn through bitter experience.

One of the key pointers you'll pick up from every one of these sorry stories is the need to get things down in writing, from when you'll be paid (not just how much) to the timescale and revisions that will be involved. No matter how exciting the project, or how keen you are to impress, ticking these basic boxes will help to ensure you don't have experiences like the ones documented here...

Horror story #1: Non-payment

Freelancer A
Web designer
Ireland

"I took on a website design for a large estate agent firm, and had an initial consultation with the big boss in his high-street office. We agreed a fee for the project, but not a payment schedule which would come back to bite me.

We emailed back and forth for weeks, making sure everything was perfect. Like many freelance designers, I don't have room for constant meetings in my budget, unless I'm working on a very big or complex project and the time and travel expenses are included in the fee. In the end I met my deadline comfortably, but content wasn't forthcoming from their end, which held things up.

Once the website was completed, I heard nothing from the client. I presumed that everything was fine because they hadn't asked for any further amendments. I sent my invoice to them, but still heard nothing. I then contacted various people to chase the payment, but received only total radio silence in response. In the last communication I had with them, the boss said that he would 'Look into it and report back.' I heard nothing else.

Out of sheer frustration, I took down their site and replaced it with a message saying the website hadn't been paid for. I also wrote a name-and-shame article on my blog, which appeared at the top of the company's Google results. They noticed and demanded that I remove it or, apparently, they would take legal advice. They also accused me of building an inferior site, something no-one had suggested during or after the site build. I published the correspondence so that people could see what they were trying to do, and they eventually went quiet again.

I took legal advice to see what would be involved in going to court and to check the name-and-shame piece wasn't libellous. I did consider going ahead with legal action but, if I won, all the client had to do was say they had no money and they would still get away with it. If the fee was bigger, I might have considered it, but I felt they'd wasted enough of my time.

They managed to regain control of their web address by requesting a password reminder and redirecting it to their own holding page, which is still there today. They basically got hundreds of pounds of web design for nothing."

What to do

It's not enough to agree that you will get paid at the end of a project. To protect yourself completely, ask for a deposit upfront, ideally 50 per cent of the overall fee, then draw up a comprehensive contract that sets out a schedule for payment and defines the scope and length of the job.

Horror story #2: Differing ideas

Freelancer B
Illustrator and designer
United Kingdom

"This should have been a really great commission to work on. I won a pitch to do the poster and general graphic design for a local music festival after another arts client passed on my details. However, as soon as I sent the first draft, warning bells started ringing. It quickly became abundantly clear that the organiser of this festival did not have any idea about contemporary design. Put it this way: he asked why we couldn't just use Comic Sans, because he didn't want to pay for the font that I had chosen.

The client wanted to make changes that I considered to be in totally bad taste, and he also kept asking me to change the order of the bands on the line-up, because every band wanted to be higher up than the others. These changes happened every day, and went on for three weeks. Then he started asking if he could come to my studio to oversee every single thing I did, while constantly requesting further changes that I felt would reduce the poster to looking completely cheap and nasty. I wasn't happy.

The amendments and changes just kept on coming. The client constantly changed his mind about everything to do with the festival line-up and the overall design work. He was clearly out of his depth, but he also had a complete inability to trust anyone else's judgement, even though I had plenty of relevant experience and expertise - which presumably was why he'd hired me in the first place.

In the end, I completed the work to the extent that it could actually have gone to print, had it not been for the constant changes. I was paid by the hour, so the client's indecision resulted in my financial gain, but it got to the point where I just couldn't bear it any more. It was a total waste of his money and my time, so I actually decided that I should take steps to sack him as a client.

The same thing happened with his PR team: they also walked away. Once we had all left, he had to get a relative to finish all the work. He got the advertising out so late, and it ended up being of such poor quality, that nobody bought a ticket despite the festival getting some great coverage in the national press. He ended up cancelling the whole event and losing thousands of pounds."

What to do

It's so easy to conduct all your business by phone or email, but that makes it harder to suss out new clients. Set up a face-to-face meeting before you start the work and you'll get a better feel for their expectations and modus operandi - and hear any warning bells much earlier on.

Horror story 3: Left without work

Freelancer C
Graphic designer
America

"A large athletics company asked me to design a prototype, which would require me to spend a whole month designing, refining and perfecting. It seemed like the perfect client had suddenly come along and delivered the perfect project. They gave me a very vague, open brief, simply asking me to work my magic.

Naively, I didn't send them any sketches before the first in-house meeting. When I showed them my initial design, they didn't get it. I agreed a set of revisions with the client, the plan being that I would create a second prototype, fixing the issues they had with the original. After completing the agreed changes, I went back for another meeting.

"We would like to see a few more variations," they said, "just to make sure. And we want to try another colour." A further two meetings followed, and in each meeting the client specified a larger amount of work than I'd previously expected. By the penultimate meeting, I had become reasonably comfortable with the idea that I was going to be very busy. I refrained from taking on any new clients or projects so that I would have no problem completing this one.

Fast-forward to a month of unreturned telephone calls and ignored emails, after which I received a message from the client saying: "We are unsure if we want to move forward with this project. We'll get in contact after we decide." While they paid a nominal amount for the work I had already done, which didn't even cover my production costs, I had cleared my schedule and now had no work.

I had zero legs to stand on because I'd failed to develop a contract. I was blinded by the fact that this large, well-respected company praised my work and seemed to be giving me all this creative freedom, so I failed to ask the essential questions and enforce limits on revisions up front. There weren't enough constraints in the brief to follow the proper design process and I should have discussed things in much more detail before agreeing to take on the project.

It was a big company with the possibility of future projects with different departments, so there wasn't any sense in burning bridges. I felt I had no choice but to cut my losses and walk away."

What to do

Don't be blinded by the prospect of an exciting new project. If you get carried away and keep your schedule clear for work that hasn't actually been confirmed by the client with a written contract, you could end up out of work, and hugely out of pocket, if the project falls through.