Client feels AKA Anxclienty
Earlier this year, I went to a networking day for the brilliant group Freelance Heroes. That was probably the first time I really heard (and took in) the word ‘client’ in a freelance sense and began to relate it to myself. You see, I didn’t think I had clients. I had commissioning editors, features editors, and editors. But that day, I began to realise (perhaps a little late to the party, sure), that these people and their publications were my clients. I didn’t have set contracts with them – I would pitch to them as and when, and if I got a commission they were my client directly for that time.
A client in the more business sense of the word to me felt more like someone you work exclusively with. So perhaps someone you are providing a service to (web design, consulting on a pitch), rather than someone who’s said yes to an idea.
It’s a grey area, for sure, because as I write that, those are of course, sort of, the same thing.
But here’s the rub. For me, those clients aren’t on the same level as when someone has a ‘deal’ with them.
A commission (in my world) is often a one-way transaction. You get the ‘yes’ and then you are usually expected to provide copy to their deadline, to their brief, and you have to accept their edits which might come through the next day, the next week, the next month or 5 months later.
Whenever the ‘client’ decides it’s time to edit it, whether you’re at home, on another project or on the moon, they kind of expect you to be available (ok within slight reason) to manage that project once they’ve scheduled it.
If you are someone who has clients with whom you draw up contracts and set boundaries to the project, that probably sounds chaotic, like it’d make you feel out of control, on the back foot… perhaps sometimes taken for granted. And you’d be right.
It’s not easy – either time-management wise, nor on your mental health.
And it’s reached a crescendo for me as I’ve worked on Freelance Feels this year. The more events I’ve been to where people talk about how THEY set the rules with their clients (for example at the IPSE National Freelancers Day, one panelist spoke about how she writes her working hours into the client contract along with scope for being available during the length of the contract), and the more edits I’ve had back from editors which feel a little bit ‘on their terms’, the more I’ve started to think about how I choose, work with and indeed whether I keep current clients.
But… well, it’s scary. Because clients (especially ones that you have worked with for a while), pay the bills, right? Hmmm. Let’s think about that for a moment. Sure, yes, the work they agree to collaborate on does go into the coffers, of course.
But there is a bit of a tangled web behind a fee, right? Or almost like a code which changes as things update, like it would behind a website.
A fee might be, say £500, for an article. If that article then takes a total of one week to write and edit, including any interviews or photographs being arranged, that’s not too bad, if you try and calculate an hourly rate.
However, if that article is written and submitted within a week and then a month or two later the editor wants to change the angle, or add an expert, or has lots of questions, well, that £500 starts to spread thinner. The code begins to change.
And then when they think it clashes with another feature they’ve planned, and they put it back a few more weeks in the schedule, because of a wonderful (read: not wonderful) thing called payment on publication (google it – essentially we’re only often paid if a feature runs. If not, we get offered a so-called kill fee. I’ll go into this more in Financial Feels Pt2!) the invoice payment isn’t made…
Suddenly that £500 could take up to three months to appear. And that original offer suddenly starts to make you feel frustrated, confused, annoyed, angry and used. Plus skint. Not a good feeling. Negative Freelance Feels.
This has happened so many times in my career, I’ve lost count. And I guess I started to take it for granted, really. That was just ‘the way things were’ in journalism.
And then I went to Freelance Heroes Day. And, I got chatting to a freelancer who was telling me about her client ‘wish list’. What’s that?, I asked. As you probably just have done, too.
Well, she had a list of the top criteria a client should ‘tick’ before she’d consider working with them. Things that aligned with her values (eg they’re polite, they’re considerate, they respect boundaries around working hours and won’t call at 10pm on a Wednesdsay or 1pm on a Saturday without prior arrangement). There were other criteria – they paid on time was a key one. So I started wondering about the clients I had and whether they’d fit with a hypothetical list for me.
Clients give me anxiety a lot of the time. I’ve begun calling this Anxclienty. I know! Good word. Well, good word – not such a good feeling. It’s not all of my clients, but there are many who, when I see their name or the name of the brand in my inbox, I get anxious. That I know it’ll be a demand that’s on their terms, or something that’s going to be a big ask, above and beyond the original brief. All while being held to ransom – kind of literally – by the fact that if I don’t toe the line I might not be paid.
Examples range from being away on a ski trip and getting two emails from the same features desk, one saying the feature was good to go, the other saying it needed some edits and then listing questions, to being up Catbells in the Lake District with emails pinging in from an editor because they needed them RIGHT NOW. Others include being told two days into a new contract that I was on the rota to work on Christmas Eve (we negotiated, and no, I didn’t but I was close to tears), and being told that I had to go on a payroll system even though a few months earlier they’d paid me via invoice (god bless IR35 – another one to Google and for the financial feels pt2).
Writing these examples, I feel a little scared. What if the client sees, and knows it’s them, and.. and….. what IF? Well, they might not work with me again. But actually, it’s almost like ‘what if I annoyed that bloke I hate dating, so much that he ghosted me’? Wouldn’t it actually perhaps be the best piece of self-sabotage? There is nervousness with writing them but then at the end of the day, they happened and I have learned from them, so there’s no shame really in sharing them is there?
I’ve wondered if it’s me, not them (ah the dating analogy again, eh). Is it me that’s too sensitive, not flexible enough, that I should push back less and just say ‘this is freelancer life’? Hmm. One check with fellow freelancers would say ‘NO’. One example is my partner, who I sit next to at home for work (we share a home office) and is astonished at how my clients have often demanded something on their terms. Why don’t I push back, he’ll ask. Because I’m scared there’ll be no more work from them and they’re my clients. Is this a bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome?! Do you relate?
But that leads us onto the second part of client feels. Just like with dating, there’s a choice here. You can keep dating the bad boys/girls, keep going out with the ghosters who call last minute and promise or demand the world – or you can find some new ones.
Say, whaaaaat?!!!! Yes. That’s what I’ve begun to say to myself and work on and it feels… scary, but VERY empowering.
I began to think about MY client list. And guess what – not a lot of it fitted with many of the clients I had or people I pitched to.
Here it is, a work in progress but a start:
They say please and thank you
They consider my workload and how their request fits into it (Eg ‘We know it’s short notice but is there any chance we could get this back in 24 hours?’ rather than ‘We need this by Wednesday morning latest, thanks’ (that’s the wrong kind of ‘thanks’ – and that’s not a quote from anyone!)
They stay in touch and don’t expect things at the last minute with no warning
They pay well and on time (on time is more important to me, even!)
They respect the people I work with, be that experts, case studies or authors
They have a wider reach values wise – eg they are a site that publishes on mental health, or champions good causes, and they are respected in the wider world
I feel proud to say I work with them
They respect me as a contributor, not ‘just a freelancer’
They’re kind. To me, to themselves, to their staff and to the other contributors
They consider freelancers to be part of the team, not just someone who is giving them what they need/when they need it and that’s it
They pay on time (this is so important I’m adding it twice)
Finding new clients hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to switch my whole mindset about it, and it’s only something that I’ve begun to truly embrace through the summer of 2019 and into the winter of 2019.
As I write this it’s December 2019, and I have two new clients who are ‘actual clients’. I draw up working frameworks with them, we discuss a rate per day or per job, and we discuss when and how we’ll liaise.
It’s so refreshing it makes me want to weep.
There is also a client who I am working with who has been a client for over a decade. A large media publisher, it’s one I go back to time and time again, and love going even when the commute is tricky, because they fit with the fun, respect and paying on time parts of my list, which are so huge for me.
It’s interesting to think that a client I first worked with in my 20s is still a valued client in my 40s because of how they treat me and other people.
It’s that simple. Kind clients earn loyalty.
So what of finding more of this vibe? More clients who make my values go ‘yay’?! Well, the plan is with freelance feels that I’ll be doing more collaborating, and talks on panels and at events from January 2020, as well as beginning my training as a coach. So all that will push towards clients that deal with wellbeing, and mental health.
Finding one or two clients who tick those boxes has spurred me on, and it’s why I’d encourage you to make your own list. The list can even be printed out and pinned by your laptop. When you think about reaching out to someone for work, think about the impact on you and your mental health. If it’s not going to be positive, then they could pay you a trillion quid. No good if you’re going to need to spend it all on therapy, coaches and retreats to try and get your balance back, right?
The thing is at the end of the day that a client’s behaviour can really impact your mental health. I’ve found that hugely over the years and while it’s only now that I’m making some changes, it’s about baby steps. Saying ‘no’ to that client who never says ‘please’ today will give you the space to look for other clients. Instead of being bogged down in the work they’ve asked you (without saying please, again) to do, you can browse for new opportunities, follow some like-minded possible clients on social media, or look for openings on LinkedIn that might be of interest. You can even spend that time working on your CV or website, to make it appealing to the clients you want to attract.
I know that changing my client base won’t be an overnight thing. But, step by step, I am learning to say ‘no’ to the ones that don’t align with my values and instead of feeling angry or used, I have begun to feel super powerful. And that’s a great ‘feel’.