Damn … I missed the red flags. Now what?

Deidre RienzoPeople are always talking about “red flags” when it comes to clients.

If we can avoid these red flags, we’ll be safe from bad situations.

But sometimes, we still might get bamboozled. (I did.) Then what do we do?

A smooth-talking wedding deejay found me online. Of course, looking back now, I realize he was “too smooth.” Yes, I should have heard the giant red-flagging subwoofers a mile away, but … I didn’t. He needed help writing his website copy, and I agreed.

Here’s brief rundown:

  1. He said, “If we can keep it to $600, I’d appreciate it.” So I did.
  2. He said, “Can I pay less up front?” So I billed 25% instead of 50%.
  3. I sent an agreement with the deadline of September 1, 2011.
  4. Halfway through the project, his response time lagged.
  5. September came and he told me he had to switch design firms.
  6. October, November, December, January, no response.
  7. I emailed. I left messages. I said, “I’d love to finalize this project. Please call me back.”
  8. His website was up … with the copy I wrote. Still no response.
  9. Finally, I said, “I’m sending the final invoice,” and I did.
  10. And I followed up, again, and again, and again.
  11. It seemed he was trying to skip the bill.
  12. I got in touch with his assistant, and followed up with her—again, and again.
  13. Obviously annoyed by me not just going away, I received an extremely rude email from him.

He owed me $450. But since his going missing prevented me from completing the last outstanding pages, I suggested he pay $300. He said, “I’m NOT going to pay $300 – if you want any monies, I suggest you take my $150 while it’s still on the table!”

Wow. It was like a smack in the face. He was nice in the beginning. He got what he wanted. Then he went missing.

I felt like crying. I felt angry. I felt nauseated. I questioned whether or not I was a failure. Was this my fault? The feelings crept up in my stomach, my throat.

Alas, this post isn’t about this unprofessional meanie.

It’s about me—and how I dealt with this situation.

I spared myself the negative feelings, the crying, the anger, the nausea. His rudeness wasn’t because of me—it was because of him. I momentarily felt bad for him. (How could he treat someone this way?) I momentarily felt bad for his other vendors. (Has he done this before?) I took five minutes to contemplate—and then I moved on.

I’ve written before about how there’s no room for (negative) feelings in business. This was one of those days.

No matter how good, creative, professional and accommodating we are—we can’t change other people. If this guy wanted to treat me like crap, my getting upset wasn’t going to fix anything.

What did I do?

I bit my tongue, and I said, “Sure. It was a pleasure doing business with you.” He paid the $150 and I learned my lesson. Yes, my lesson is about paying attention to the red flags, but beyond that, it’s about NOT internalizing, and it’s about moving on.

Take the good, leave the bad. Because no matter how hard we try, sometimes a jerky wedding deejay might sneak past the radar, and we can’t break down because of it.

What might I have done differently?

I would have noticed the red flags:

  • He found me online, and had never worked with a copywriter before.
  • He wasn’t my usual client (I usually work with web designers).
  • He wanted “the works” for a lowered price.
  • He asked me to lower the initial payment.
  • He sounded “too smooth.”

But here’s the thing: even if I’d noticed these things, I’m still not sure it would have stopped me. I would have never predicted this outcome, even now.

What could I have done differently and when? Would you recommend different policies for first-time clients?

BTW: If this is something you struggle with, come to CFC in June in Boston and hear Marcia Hoeck on “Skillful Communication with Clients.”

17 thoughts on “Damn … I missed the red flags. Now what?

  1. Anne C. Kerns, AIGA

    I’m sorry this happened to you, Deidre. I think two rules to ALWAYS follow are 1) get a signature on your contract, and 2) get a 50% deposit for small jobs of new new clients. If they balk at paying the deposit, they aren’t serious. Period. Move on.

    If your contract states that copyright or usage only transfers upon payment in full (which it should), then your s0-called-client would be infringing on your copyright and you could have a lawyer send him a nasty gram.


    1. R. H.

      This is the way to do it, as Anne describes…
      50% up front, an exact explanation of deliverables and exact timing of final 50%, then and only then – transfer copyright, and accompanying copy. I also suggest another sign-off at that time = “as the client I have paid for, agree and receive this is what I have now paid for in its entirety.”

  2. Matt

    Maybe offer your services in smaller packages? Especially for new clients, ie where a $600 solution sounds great, but really not appropriate for them at where they’re at, ie they have enough problems. So, to help screen anyone new, just have the smaller, starter plan, minimizing risk for everyone. Maybe instead of offering to do the whole site, it’s just one page, or pay as you go until the first job is done. Having it in a plan could help to formalize the process a bit for others.

    For good clients or a better fit, they’ll probably cruise through these anyway. Anyone problematic or too new for your professionalism, will probably have a hard time with anything, no matter how small.

  3. Henry Alpert

    Sorry about your experience. I think everyone gets burned from time to time. But I’ve learned through over the years how to minimize taking on clients like this one you had.

    First, be firm with your policies. You weren’t in Number 2 above when you gave your client a break on the deposit. I recommend writing these policies down somewhere, things like your deposit requirements, your rush fees, and so on. If you have them in writing, you can refer to them when need be. That will also give you the fortitude to tell your client, “Sorry, my firm policy is 50% down, no matter what.”

    I agree with Anne that if they won’t pay it, they won’t be a good client.

    Also, I agree with Anne about putting something in your contract about intellectual property. You own the copy until you’re paid in full. So when your copy shows up on a site without your permission, the site owner is breaking the law. You can sic a lawyer on him/her or complain to the site’s hosting company about a Digital Millennium Copyright Act violation. Legal avenues might not necessarily work (or might not be worth the time it takes to enforce), but they can add more arrows to your quiver.

    You might also add something to your contract about project delays. So if the client is taking too much time to get back to you, invoice for time up to that point and don’t do any more work until paid.

  4. heather parlato

    we have all had a situation of letting a flag or two slip by. i think you’re dealing with it really well–i’ve had times like these where it makes me question whether i’m cut out for this type of business, and i have to build myself up all over again. i’m going to write out my “best case scenario” advice, but please know there are plenty of times i haven’t followed it myself.

    i had to sue someone early in my business ownership [not early in my career, but early in owning my own business] and while i think it was the right thing to do in terms of sticking up for myself, i also felt it was a huge waste of time that i never want to go through again. now that i have that experience behind me, i decided to take advice that made the most sense in hindsight to avoid court entirely.

    make time for fit-finding with a sit-down meeting. some people think this takes too much time, but it’s far more costly to assume you know someone well enough when they turn out to be this guy. it helps weed out people who aren’t into making a relationship with you, and rush job people who don’t value your time and work, but the main benefit is, it allows you to look into their eyes and see just that much more if they’re on the level. this is a great time to explain the whole process, from what happens when you accept the job, writing & revisions, payments, the whole shebang.

    set a minimum engagement fee and stick to it. i think this is a good policy in any case, but it got me thinking of all the basics outside the actual work, like: what does it cost me to do a fit-finding meeting, write up a proposal and contract, and collect payments? and then add that to what is the smallest job i can reasonably do well, and where is my cut-off for what is worth the time and money? i think when you add up the business services and project management plus the work on a small job, you’ll have a number that makes it easy to say sorry to those who come in below it, or to say no to smaller deposit payments to those right on the border.

    don’t falter on the deposit. i’d be curious to ask why the client wanted a smaller upfront payment when $300 should be perfectly reasonable to anyone undertaking a project that also involves web design [which is presumably far more costly]. the deposit isn’t just paying for part of the job, it’s a trust measure, and a valuable one to use to gauge a client’s respect for you. now, i have colleagues who offer the paypal route in this case [charge it if you don’t have it], and i’ve thought about that, but ultimately decided against it. for one thing, the fees would take your overall income down, and for another i’m against credit card debt, and i don’t believe in encouraging people to spend what they don’t have. [i try to remember this: people who can’t afford a web site can always make a free facebook business page. tell them to do this so they can market themselves while they save up for your services].

    the part about intellectual property is always a good one, but i’d warn anyone who thinks there’s room in a barely-paid $600 invoice to cover a lawyer’s fee for even a nasty letter. when i had a client who owed $2k on a web site he didn’t intend paying for, the legal advice i got was that no lawyer would take on a case that low even on a contingency. if you retain legal services, perhaps you can get a takedown letter sent. many times the web designer will place a credit on the site, so you can contact them, or have a web-savvy friend help you figure out where the site is hosted, and send the host a takedown request, citing that the web site in question is hosting content owned by you and not licensed to them. now, technically, you’re supposed to be able to follow this up with a law suit, or the bad client can lie and contest it and get the site put back up, but i think it’s worth a shot. i wish i went this route instead of court, in fact. if you don’t retain legal services, it’s probably best to start with the cease and desist route, sending a letter that warns that if appropriate action is not taken, legal action will be sought.

    all that said, it’s about what kind of life you want for a few months. i didn’t enjoy having to think up how i could get paid or use the system to my advantage, and i certainly didn’t like thinking about how i got ripped off. for a few hundred bucks, i’d probably bite my tongue and be over it sooner, rather than draw it out just to make a point and/or heal my ego. so, i always stick to the first 2 rules: meet them in person, explain the process and hold firm on the price and deliverables. real clients will stick with you through it, fakers and con-artists will find a more vulnerable victim.

  5. Jean Feingold

    I once had a client who was reluctant to pay. I know a modestly priced collection agency and told the client if payment was not received by a certain date, I would turn the matter over to the agency. The check appeared quickly. Sometimes simply threatening to get outside help is enough to get action.

    But like your situation, Dierdre, it was a job I should have refused with plenty of signs from the client they would be impossible to work with. Unfortunately, at the time I needed the money. That’s probably when we are most likely to ignore our own rules.

  6. di

    I actually think there should be some follow-up action to customers like this. One of the reasons customers do things like this is because they know they can get away with it (or, sadly, they can pick out people who will likely let them get away with it).

    Even though the dollar amount isn’t worth paying for legal action, you can do things like pass his name along to further copywriters so they don’t get stuck, blog about him by name in a non-emotional but factual manner, report him to the Better Business Bureau. And, of course, be sure to tell him of your actions. Sometimes threats of these actions in a legalese-sounding letter are all it takes.

  7. Deidre

    Wow, this is excellent advice. I really appreciate all of these helpful comments!

    I didn’t realize there was so much I could have done to avoid this from happening. And I’m looking forward to implementing these measures to keep it from happening again!

    Anne: You are absolutely right. I will be sticking to those two rules from now on.

    Matt: Pay as you go is definitely an interesting idea. I wish I had taken more of a pay-up-front/per piece approach to this particular project.

    Henry: You’re absolutely right. Yes, I do have 50% down in writing, but now I realize the repercussions of bending this rule. And I am definitely going to take your advice and add a much-needed clause about project delays.

    Heather: Thanks for sharing your story. It’s definitely interesting to have your perspective as someone who has taken the legal route before. Since I work with clients everywhere, I don’t think I can always do an in-person meeting, but maybe implementing more video meetings could help. As far as holding firm on my initial payment, I’ve totally learned my lesson. Also, I really like the idea of a minimum engagement fee. Thank you!

    Jean: that’s an excellent point. By continuing to find ideal clients, hopefully I’ll be less tempted in the future to work with less ideal clients like this one.

    Di: Yes, initially I felt like I wanted to write bad reviews and shout from the rooftops about what a dud he is. But then I decided I couldn’t handle any more tension. At least this bad experience led to this blog post and all these wonderful responses. Maybe it will help someone else, too. But like Heather alluded to earlier, for my own sanity, I’m better off just learning and moving on.

    Thank you!

  8. Nando

    Great read, Deidre.

    I don’t want to reduce the importance of the sound business practices mentioned here. I’m a stickler for clear scopes and contracts myself. I think the bigger lesson here is about how we conduct ourselves emotionally in business.

    It seems to me that because of the whole “feelings should be left out of business” what happens is we over do it, instead of embracing our humanity, and learning to deal with it in a healthy way, like Deidre demonstrated she did.

  9. Lin

    Small claims court is your best friend in a situation like this. Each state has a set amount that qualifies for small claims. You can download the forms, complete them, and file them yourself. Just be sure to have all your backup paperwork in order (signed contracts, proof of delivery, records of attempts to contact/collect. You have your day in court and can gain a judgement requiring payment.

    In all my years of freelancing (over two decades), I’ve only had to use this tactic twice. Once, the client paid up as soon as he received the court notice. The second time, I won the judgement, but couldn’t collect as the “perp” had shut down his business and could not be located. But it was forever on his “permanent record” (smile).

  10. susanedits

    Kudos for being able to move beyond this. I would have been livid and stayed that way.

    Did you have an agreement with him in writing? I’m hoping that my contracts protect me, but contracts don’t enforce anything all by themselves.

  11. Mike Hannigan

    One thing we’ve started to employ in our contracts is language about non-payment, and that the client is responsible for paying for any collection efforts we have to undertake, in addition to the amount they owe us. We haven’t had to resort to that yet (knock on wood), but I know of others for whom it’s been effective. Just my $.02….

  12. Damien Golden

    Thanks for sharing this sometimes brutal side of being an entrepreneur Deidre. Your scenario can be found, unfortunately, across a number of professions. Solo-preneurs from a variety of backgrounds would be wise to implement the shared advice above.

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