Ever been suckered by a client? It’s a freelance writer’s worse nightmare.
You’re left with nothing but an unpaid invoice and a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, while they display your stolen work on their landing page.
It happened to me. Once.
He was a sweet-talking, bible-spouting church pastor on a mission to protect his flock.
Little did I know he was really a ravening wolf in sheep’s clothing. And I was a lamb to the slaughter.
It took me weeks to come to terms with what he did, until the scales fell from my eyes and I saw the light. I wasn’t a victim. My scummy, cheating church pastor had done me a favour.
You see, he may have stolen from me, but whathe gave me was resilience.
What he gave me was the know-how to make sure it would never happen again.
What he gave me was the confidence to grow my writing business. And the urge to save other freelance writers from the same mistakes I’d made.
What he gave me was 4 powerful business lessons.
And for that I say thank you, preacher man —for your sins have shown me the path to righteous growth. Now let me hear you say Hallelujah!
Lesson #1: If it Looks Like a Duck and Quacks Like a Duck, It Could be a Shark
He had a website and a weekly radio gig. He talked about his beloved wife and children. He contributed to a religious blog and had written two books. He quacked like a God-fearing duck.
But he circled the internet waters like a predatory shark, looking for his prey.
And he found me.
I took him at face value. I answered all his questions about my costs, the way I work, and what I could do for him. But I didn’t ask any questions in return.
I never questioned why his social media accounts were inactive, or his latest blog post was more than 6 months old. His bio referenced his radio shows, but when I looked for them — much later — I found nothing.
And his website disappeared.
Every Google path I went down led to a dead end. By then it was too late.
Now I’m a fact-finding ninja, with a check list of 8 basic questions for every new client, before I start work:
1. Have they ever worked with a freelancer before?
2. What is their preferred method of payment (ie PayPal, credit card or bank transfer)
3. When will they pay my invoices?
4. Who will own the intellectual rights to the finished work?
5. What is the name of the company the invoice should be addressed to?
6. What is their phone number and street address?
7. How long has the company been trading?
8. Are they willing to give me the contact details of a supplier for a trade reference?
Once you get the answers to these questions, check them out, follow them up and prove to yourself that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it really is a duck.
Lesson #2: Never Start Work on a Wing and a Prayer. Draw Up a Contract.
He said he loved my website. He beguiled me with his emails, “I really like the ads you wrote. I like that one powerful sentence that draws you in. If you could do that for us, it would be magical!”
This is how these swindling thieves operate. They seduce you with false praise and avoid your direct questions.
We agreed a price for his landing page, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
Or had we? This was his response to my one-line quote: “Okay.”
Okay? It’s not exactly a binding contract, and 2 emails later he was already changing the scope of work.
Here’s what I do now.
I issue a formal quote, which includes my terms and conditions and exactly what the client can expect to receive for the price.
At the bottom of the quote is an agreement form for the client to sign, date and return. It’s professional, clear and binding.
And most importantly, for new clients I charge a 50% deposit upfront. No payment, no work.
Lesson #3: Put a Process in Place to Deal With Scope Creep
I delivered the first draft. “Wow! You hit the target dead on! Everything you wrote is exactly where we’re headed.”
And then this: “BTW, I’m now convinced that email marketing is the way to go. So, I would like you to create content for an email campaign as well.”
Scope Creep. It’s a common problem for freelance copywriters. Your client accepts your quote for one job, then asks for something more or goes in a different direction. And this isn’t limited to lying, cheating church pastors. It can happen with the honest ones too.
I responded: “Would it be OK if I invoiced you for the work done to date on the landing page, so we can start fresh on the email campaign when you’re ready?”
I heard nothing from him for a few days, then he said: “I am so sorry, please forgive me, I did not see your invoice request. However, we are ready to proceed with our emails. What information do you need from me?”
And so, I ploughed on with the revisions to the landing page and the additional emails (ignoring the little voice inside my head that said how could he have not seen my invoice request?)
Never just plough on.
Here’s how I handle scope creep today:
I address it straight away. This is most important. Down tools, and make sure everyone’s on the same page. I explain how the work falls outside the scope of the original quote and make sure they understand why.
Then I send a separate quote for the additional work and get a signed approval (see point#2).
If I can — if there’s a clear line in the sand— I send an invoice for work done to date under the original contract
Lesson #4: Listen to That Little Voice Inside Your Head that says WARNING!
Warning! ‘Okay’ is not a professional response to a quote. It’s the response of a man who never intends to pay.
When your gut tells you something’s not right, listen to your gut.
But I kept listening to my seductive, swindling preacher man. After all, there was the possibility of more work. He knew other church pastors. “You have been wonderful and you received huge compliments from people here who saw the revisions. I’m looking forward to seeing your work on the emails…can’t wait!”
By now the little voice inside my head was getting louder.
Warning! Why does he use two different email addresses?
Warning! Why does he keep deflecting my questions?
But I was already in too deep. I delivered the final draft, the additional emails, and my invoice.
I heard from him again the next day. “I will get your invoice processed and paid. I have some more work that needs to be done. Let’s re-connect the first week of January. In the meantime, have a wonderful weekend and Christmas season!
I buried my little voice in a bucketful of Christmas cheer and checked my bank account every day for a week.
Christmas came and went. No payment.
My gut started to churn, but I clung to the limp hope that he’d been busy. It was the height of the season for church pastors, after all.
My little voice returned.
If only you’d started with a proper contract. If only you’d sent that first invoice for the landing page before you started the emails. If only you hadn’t allowed him to dazzle you with the possibility of future work.
If only I’d listened to my little voice the first time it spoke out.
I do now.
It took me a long time to realize the true value of my pastor experience. Mainly because he kept stringing me along well into the New Year.
January 5: I had no idea your invoice is still not paid. . . I submitted it to my accounts payable person. . . It’s Friday evening here and everyone is gone for the weekend. . .I wish I had known sooner.
January 15: I’m trying to reach my accounting person to understand what’s going on. .. It’s a holiday here for us today. . .trying to reach people is a bit difficult.
January 24: I have not heard that there was a delay. I’m so sorry, this is as frustrating for me as well. ..I will find a way to expedite the payment on my end.
I gave up, stopped emailing him and put the matter into the hands of a debt recovery agent.
Two months later, they gave up as well.
I felt duped, humiliated, and angry.
But slowly the power shifted as I realized I was making changes to the way I dealt with clients because of my experience. Today I provide them with more clarity around my quotes and payment terms. I’m a more professional and self-assured writer.
And my business is growing.
Don’t Wait For Your Own Lying, Cheating Church Pastor. Make Mine the Salvation For Your Business.
Here’s the really good news.
You don’t have to wait for your own scummy client to take control of your contracts and business processes.
You don’t have to lose money, time and a massive chunk of dignity before you learn how to grow your writing business.
Because, thanks to my lying, cheating church pastor, you won’t make the mistakes I made.
You’ll avoid the sharks circling the internet, and the seduction of false praise. And you’ll listen to that little voice in your head when it says WARNING!
Now, stand up, put your hand on your heart and say “No-one’s going to sucker me, Mister!”
Amen to that!