What NOT to say to clients

Using the right words at the right time, and striking a suitable tone of voice, can make the difference for freelancers between a one-off job, repeat work and no work at all.

But in the current climate, with competition for creative contracts still fierce, the freelancer's focus should also be on the 'no-nos' - what to AVOID saying.

Whether on the phone or face-to face, drop a howler just as you were about to receive a commission, or commit a faux pas in the bidding stage, and the chance of working as a freelancer for the end-user can be lost forever.

FreelanceUK spoke to freelance writers, journalists, PR practitioners, marketers, copywriters, designers and recruitment agents, to help us establish 12 things you should never say to a new or prospective client.

1. "Yes, Yes, Yes - I can cater for ALL your needs"

Nobody likes a 'yes-man.' And no matter how tempting the fee, avoid always saying ‘yes’ to every part of the project when all you have is its outline, says freelance designer Sasha Kader, the founder of Sakr Design.

Even after careful consideration of the full project brief, freelancers should shy away from the all encompassing - 'Yes I can do everything your business wants.' Those wants may change or evolve with the project, but all the client will remember is you promising to take care of their needs entirely.

Kader also says freelancers should be comfortable to show themselves as specialists first, and generalists second. It follows that a freelancer who shows up on a project, or at a pitch, claiming to have a solution for every problem will make the client doubt just how specialist the freelancer's skills really are. Worst case scenario is the client will see right through the overzealous approach, lose trust in you and even buy something you never actually wanted to sell.

2. "Yes that shouldn't take long; sure I can probably do it by then"

Never say 'Yes that bit of the project looks easy, I should be able to finish it by then' if, in fact, you don't know that you can, advises freelance marketer and copywriter Gill Taylor. The client WILL take your statement to mean that you can definitely deliver by their suggested date.

"I always work on the 'under promise, over deliver' approach -" she explains, which is a mantra that speakers of statement 1, above, should also remember. So, "ask for more time if you think you might need it - but then deliver in the timescales that they originally requested if you can."

3. "Yup that's all fine, so what do I get as expenses?"

If there are certain expenses that you can bill the client for, or certain costs related to travel that may entitle you to tax relief, know that the right time to ask about these is not initially. Your accountant may even be a better source to consult than the client.

Either way, such allowances will normally be relayed to you in good time. Avoid the mistake of one freelance PR assistant whose first query to the conference team engaging her was to ask how the telephone worked, and what number she'd need for an outside line in order to call her boyfriend. At the time, the team had just been told that certain calls, relating to the conference, would be covered by the organisers.

"Within minutes she was on the phone to someone making social arrangements," remembered flabbergasted team member Rona Levin, a freelance PR and Comms consultant.

4. "Whenever's fine as a start date; I'm not busy"

Of course freelancers want to sound accommodating and flexible, but utter the above statement and the client will wonder WHY you're not busy, warns Gill Hunt, managing director of Skillfair, an e-marketplace for freelancers and end-users.

"It's much better to say you're terribly busy but could squeeze in a meeting on Friday, even if it's not true," said Hunt, addressing freelancers.

5. "I've pitched enough - it's time you decide"

One freelance writer put the death of his proposed story to a magazine down to him getting vocal to its editor about how much detail they wanted in the pitch.

"They kept on coming back to me for more and more information," said Richard Willis, recalling his early days as a freelance columnist.

 "I said to the editor at one point, 'I think that the time has arrived where I should not be expected to provide any further information about the article I'm going to write.'"

What followed was an unhappy and retaliating editor, an apology from the freelancer and, worst of all, no commission.

6. "No I don't work then; that's when I walk Fluffy"

Making clear to the client from the outset that you can't work certain days because you will be walking the dog, "hamster" or doing another domestic chore, is a mistake that too many freelancers make, said Hunt.

"It may well be OK with the client," she reflected, "but they really don't need to know about it until AFTER they've decided you're the one for the job."

7. "Sure, we can do costs later - money's tight for us all"

In the current climate, client companies will be agonising over their bottom line, although they may give a less concerning reason, such as the financial director being on holiday, in order to delay setting costs and payment terms.

 But pricing and charging are key for the freelancer and with these issues "there should be no grey areas whatsoever," said Taylor. "Always make sure you have your costs 'on the table' before starting work," she advised, "especially where you know that a project is probably going to take longer than a client might expect." She urged freelancers never to agree with or say 'I'll get the project under way and will cost it up later."

Freelancers blurting out a related, follow-up statement - "No worries about your payment terms being unavailable, we can sort it later" is equally unwise, said Taylor, managing director of Freelance Copywriting .

"Don't say [that], as you might find out later that their standard [time to pay] is 90 days - and as a freelancer that could cause real issues. To get round this problem, send every new client a set of terms and conditions which include your payment terms."

8. "I'm an expert; any idea how I can use my expertise?"

This clanger of a statement is too often heard from freelance writers and journalists approaching editors. Willis said the would-be contributor to a publication should always be "as specific as possible" when pitching stories or ideas, which should be their own! He urged freelance writers not to say: "I'm an expert in X, Y and Z, can you suggest anything I can write about?"

9. "You should do it my way; I'm the expert"

For Skillfair, freelance consultants saying they know best, and that the project shouldn't be done how the client proposes, is the "all time" taboo, which can "kill the opportunity stone dead."

Hunt added: "The client has posted a project or made a request for a particular service - and the consultant responds with 'you don't actually need/want that - what you need is something else entirely'."

She explained that the freelancer is effectively saying 'Client, I think you're stupid and/or ignorant.' "You may need to tell the client they're barking up the wrong tree, but try building a relationship before coming straight out with it!"

10. "You'd see my 'jimjams' if we had videophone"

Companies know that technology has changed how their suppliers operate, so don't be tempted as a freelancer to give your client a 'warts and all' account to prove it!

Speaking from personal experience, Taylor explained: "My immediate thought when thinking about 'what not to say to clients' is the answer to a question which every client asks at some point.

"The one about freelancers working from home in their pyjamas! Yes, we all do it, but no, we shouldn't necessarily admit to it when asked, even by the friendliest of clients. It just gives the wrong impression!"

11. "I once had this hellish client who..."

Bad-mouthing former clients to current clients is plainly bad for business. Your horror story might be funny and get you a laugh at the time, but ultimately it will make your listeners nervous, and you look bad. Quite apart from the scary thought that your current client may actually agree with your former client, and disagree with you, it can also make them concerned about becoming your next target.

Addressing freelancers, Taylor reflected: "In a tense meeting, where everything is more formal, you run the risk of the client thinking 'I wonder if this will be his/her next story" about a supposedly bad client?''

12. "I was once so unprofessional that I..."

Similarly, never recount a tale of when you messed up really badly, however
amusing. "We've all done it," admitted Taylor, "and sometimes they make great stories - but in the cold light of a sober day, it will definitely undermine your client's confidence in you."


Jun 10, 2010
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