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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  1. Sarah

    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. April Klimley

    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.

    • Carol Tice

      If you have another writer you really trust, I think this can be a solution in a pinch.

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