Freelancers need clients to make a living, but those clients are far from equal.
In this rather fun episode of the podcast, we look at seven distinct types of clients. If you’re already an experienced freelancer you’ll almost certainly recognise all of these. If you’re new to the game, it makes a lot of sense to learn to identify these different breeds!
Included in this podcast:
- “The Gem” (2:15)
- “Mr Flash” (6:27)
- “The Minimal Communicator” (10:53)
- “The Penny Pincher” (13:53)
- “The Realist” (20:16)
- “The Micromanager” (23:31)
- “The Late Payer” (28:15)
- Tactics to help avoid late payment (30:15)
Supplementary Links and Information
We have edited some repeat words and unclear passages to enhance readability.
ALEX: Welcome to the HomeWorkingClub podcast. I’m Alex and here’s Ben.
BEN: Hello, Alex. And a happy New Year to you!
ALEX: Happy New Year to you too! How are you?
BEN: Yeah, all right thank you.
Although, at the time of recording this (We’re recording this on the fourth of January 2021) our local school has closed again due to COVID. So we’re currently at the very start of that process of working out how to juggle work and full-time homeschooling again. So it’s all a lot of fun but we’re all good and healthy, which is the main thing.
ALEX: It’s fun, isn’t it? Everyone spent most of last year talking about the new normal and we kind of all assumed that all of this would be done by now. But hey-ho.
BEN: Yes, indeed.
ALEX: Good stuff. So today we’re going to be talking about the seven types of clients you will meet as a freelancer. Now, that is not to say that there aren’t more types of clients, but broadly, we hope these categories will cover most of the ones that you’ll meet.
BEN: Yes, and this is intended to be quite a fun kind of podcast. It was an idea I had to do of… sort of end of term fun.
ALEX: Don’t sell it up too much.
BEN: Well, we were going to hopefully record this before Christmas but we didn’t have time to do it. So we decided to go for it anyway.
This is the first podcast we’ve done that I think I should probably begin by saying any resemblance to people living or dead is purely fictitious. Hopefully, no-one will take offence or identify themselves as one of these types of clients!
ALEX: Well, I don’t know, because I reckon I’ve been at least three of these types of clients myself and I’ve worked for probably all of them at one point or another so… [laughs]
BEN: Oh, yes, I’ve certainly worked for all of them. And, yes, as you rightly say, I think I’ve probably been a few of them as a client as well.
We’re going to run through some types of clients that we think you’re likely to meet as a freelancer (I’ve certainly met all of them) and talk about how feasible it is and how happy you are likely to be working for each of them.
ALEX: Good stuff. So let’s start with a positive one then, Ben. Go on, give us a good one.
BEN: Okay, so the best of all, we’re going to call “the gem”.
So the gem is the kind of client you want. They will give you… not necessarily a regular supply of work, but when work dries up they will be honest about it. They will pay you on time, which is obviously incredibly important. They’ll communicate fully with you – always make it clear what needs to be done. And with the gem, you will always feel like you’re in a partnership rather than an employer-employee type relationship.
ALEX: That’s hugely important for me. I think you want to feel that you’re collaborating with people rather than just providing, you know, a commodity.
BEN: Yes. So the gem, when you find them, you definitely want to hang onto them. Like I’ve said, they’re not gems because they’re going to guarantee you an endless supply of lucrative work. In fact, you’ll find, just as with any clients, that work might dry up at times. But like I say it is about that openness and that honesty that you get from these types of clients.
ALEX: These are the ones you want to be your regular, reliable client, if they possibly can be. But I suppose in that case, actually, you’re not quite as worried about putting the effort into maintaining the relationship if they’re not.
BEN: Yes, I would say so. I mean, certainly in the early days of freelancing you don’t get to pick and choose what every client is like. But I would say the most important thing is to really identify when you have found yourself a gem and accept and appreciate them for the gems that they are.
They are out there. I’ve got clients who I would definitely put in this category. My wife has certainly got several clients who she would put in that category.
ALEX: And I would have to say, Ben… I know you wouldn’t want to say this about yourself, but I’ve seen the way that you work, and I think you’re definitely in this category yourself.
BEN: Oh, you see, I kind of hoped that you were going to say that.[Laughter] I think the thing is…
ALEX: I mean the 15 WhatsApp messages saying, “Can you make sure that you mentioned me as that?”… I got the hint.
BEN: I haven’t… I haven’t hinted! But I will openly admit that I hoped Alex was going to say that because I think a lot of these gem clients are clients who are either freelancers themselves, or have been freelance themselves, or who are running pretty small businesses. So they know how important it is that their invoices are paid on time, they have empathy for the kind of lives that freelancers have.
And so, yeah, I do like to try to be that kind of client. I like to try to be the kind of client that I would want to work for.
ALEX: Absolutely. And I think I’ve talked about this before, but I think certainly when I’ve worked for larger companies and I’ve been a client (before I was a freelancer myself), I didn’t realise how important it is to make sure that invoices are paid on time or immediately, if at all possible.
And that level of communication as well. It’s at that point of… like you’ve got lots of stuff going on, but actually just dropping a note going, “Hi, I haven’t got anything for you this week, but hopefully there’ll be something next week. Just checking in.” That kind of thing. If you are a client yourself, it doesn’t take a huge amount of time out of your day.
Actually, as we just said, if you are that kind of client, the people that work for you are going to really go that extra mile for you as well because they like working for you.
BEN: Absolutely. I’ve said openness once but I’m going to say it again. I think it’s the openness… some clients seem to want to put their freelancers on like a need-to-know basis. A gem client will make you feel no different to a gem client’s employees in some ways because they don’t see any reason why they need to hide information from you. They’ll keep you fully in the loop about their business and how their business works more widely than what you’re doing yourself.
BEN: So you don’t just feel like you’re doing little tasks in isolation. They will keep you fully in the loop about what’s going on. Which enables you to suggest things and it just feels like a two-way street. They’re great, great clients to work for.
And they are out there. You never know, the next person you find on Upwork could be a gem.
BEN: They may be one of these other types.
ALEX: Let’s go from the really positive one to perhaps, shall we say, a less valued type of client?
BEN: Yes. These are the types of clients I really am not a fan of. We’ve called them “Mr Flash”. Now, I’ve engaged in a little bit of gender stereotyping here, which isn’t something I’m generally comfortable with doing but, almost always, these clients are men.
When I say, Mr Flash, I’m going to use a particular example of one. This was going back many years now, probably about 15 years, and I rented an office in a block of serviced offices.
This guy was new to the building and he’d rented the biggest office. The biggest, snazziest office that we had. It had a glass conference room as part of it and it was just him. He was some kind of financial trader, though it was never particularly clear what exactly he did. He talked a lot about spending time in Monaco and talked a lot about his cars, and all of this kind of thing. And my Spidey-sense was tingling right from the start, when he had me in to talk about his various IT requirements.
Well, to cut a long story short. Within four to six weeks the landlord of the building… who was actually another one of my clients who I was quite friendly with… actually stopped me in the corridor and said, “Have you seen him? Do you know what’s happened to him?” Because this guy had just disappeared off the face of the earth and never paid the rent on that huge office.
And, you know, I could give dozens, literally dozens, of examples of other people like this. The people with big plans. The people who are very ostentatious about the money they have. They will waste a lot of your time, they’ll name drop… sometimes name drop about celebrities, about all the places that they’ve been… and so often they disappear off the face of the earth without giving you any work.
I would say of all the types of clients on this list, these would be the clients I would want a deposit from before I did anything.
ALEX: Absolutely. These are what I would term the shiny-suited chancers. As you say, in my experience it does tend to be men more often than not.
These are the people that will try and get you to work for exposure, as well: “It will be great exposure. I can’t really pay you upfront but, you know, in the long term this is going to be huge. It will be great exposure for your business.” And, as I like to say in that case, “People die of exposure.”
BEN: [laughs] That’s not to say that any client who has lots of money behind them is a bad client, but it’s the people who are very in your face about the money, and the names, and the cars, and the houses, and all this kind of thing.
ALEX: Don’t get me wrong, rich clients are great!
BEN: Yes, absolutely. The rich clients don’t brag about being wealthy.
ALEX: I think the point is you can always… as you say, your Spidey-sense was tingling. I think it’s really important in these kinds of things… and we’ve talked about this actually, I think, with clients before… we’re in people’s businesses quite a lot and that working relationship is really important.
I know this from the world of marketing. They used to have things called chemistry meetings where you’d get together with the agency and the client and see if you could actually get on as people. Because that’s one of the most important things in that working relationship.
If you’re there in a situation where somebody’s obviously selling you a load of snake oil and you don’t massively know what’s behind it and you’ve got a little bit of a sort of, you know, alarm bell ringing at the back your head… that instinct is often very, very useful.
BEN: Yes, I think so. I’ve seen so many of these types of clients who, if you actually start to do a little bit of due diligence and research into them… In some cases I’ve had that Spidey-sense set off and so I’ve headed for Google. And you often find that these clients have a whole trail of failed businesses behind them and often have skipped town without paying their freelancers.
So be very, very careful around people with big plans, big ideas, and big shiny suits, as you put it, Alex.
ALEX: Well, let’s go on to a slightly more positive one. Although it doesn’t sound it at first.
BEN: Yeah, this is one that can be great, can be a bit of a problem. And we’ve called this one the “minimal communicator”.
I’ve got one like this at the moment that I have a great relationship with. It’s just that they don’t say very much. I’ll do writing work for them, I’ll send my assignments in, and when I’ve sent on assignment in that’s literally it. I don’t get a thank you. I don’t get anything, but I get paid on time and it’s done.
These are the kind of clients who… not necessarily in a bad way… but they almost treat their freelancers like a commodity, like a utility company. And it’s just… they’re paying for what they’re paying for, they’re clear about what they want. They’re not up for finding out about your life, about what makes you tick, about your family. They just want the work done. They want to pay for it. So not necessarily a bad thing.
These can be great clients to work for. They can be quite unnerving clients to work for in the early days especially if you’re someone who is quite open and quite communicative. It can be quite weird getting used to dealing with these kinds of people.
ALEX: Well, I was going to say that. We’ve talked about this as potentially a negative because we’re both very similar in that we like a good chat.
Not letting in any secrets but… for the amount of time we record the podcast, we’re probably chatting to each other for about twice that time around it, aren’t we?
BEN: Yeah. [laughter]
ALEX: But I think for some people this is the perfect client. I mean, there will be some people listening and going, “I want one of those. I want one of those.”
BEN: They can be great. But let’s look at the flip side which is when you get one who minimally communicates, but then, as a result, doesn’t tell you enough about what they need doing.
And I have had clients like this as well. And what can also happen with these kinds of clients, if they’re sort of founders of start-ups… as their company gets bigger and they don’t evolve their communication style, they end up with a whole team of people who aren’t being told quite enough. And that can get quite chaotic, and quite unpleasant, and quite soul-destroying.
It’s all well and good for people to be very brief in their communication. It’s not necessarily a reason not to work with a client, but it can have a bit of an awkward and darker side to it sometimes as well.
ALEX: Oh, that sounded quite ominous!
BEN: It did a bit.
ALEX: Yes. But again, I just go back to the positive side… efficiency of communication is a really good thing in a lot of senses as well.
If somebody can get across what they need to be done in a really quick, concise manner and they don’t muck around too much with it… and I actually find myself in that situation sometimes, finding I need to tone myself down a little bit. So, “Okay. This is very clear. This is what needs to be done. It’s there. It’s all there. It’s all understood. Let’s get on with it.”
I think I would put this probably more in the positive than the negative camp in a lot of cases for me.
BEN: Yes, I would agree with that.
ALEX: Well, let’s go for a very negative one next, then.
BEN: Well, yeah. This is a very awkward one. We’ve called this one the “penny pincher”.
Now we talked about Mr Flash. And Mr Flash is someone who at least comes across as if they have tonnes of money, but don’t necessarily have it for real. Often the penny-pinching clients are very independently wealthy and very successful. And I guess one could argue they are wealthy because they’re reluctant to spend money.
But what I find with the penny-pinching clients is that quite often they can become very fixated on saving every possible bit of money. And that can come down to investing in the right people, the right quality of people, the right quality of work or even investing… I saw it a lot doing IT consultancy… a reluctance to invest in the quality of equipment that they really need or to replace equipment when it realistically needs replacing.
I think you can work with penny pinchers. But, it’s almost like it can be a relationship that starts off very well but then gradually starts to deteriorate as you become conscious that they’re reluctant to follow your advice.
This is an awkward one to describe, isn’t it?
ALEX: Well, I get your point. I think these are clients that are very unlikely for you to actually grow that relationship financially with them because once they’ve come to you for a service, then it’s unlikely they’ll turn around and go, “I think I’m going to up your rate.”
That’s not the sort of conversation that you’re likely to have. And these are often… you know, the people that have sprung to mind… are often very successful, often quite well off personally and the business is quite successful.
My experience of genuinely very wealthy people is they tend not to spend a lot of money, and they tend not to flash it around a lot, which is, as you say, probably why they’re quite wealthy in the first place.
It’s not a bad thing and I admire the quality, to a certain extent, of always watching those small amounts of expenditure, because that’s really good business practice. But, as a freelance client, it can lead you to feeling a little bit undervalued, shall we say?
BEN: Yeah, I think where it can lead for a freelancer is that these clients will… You could do very well for them… and I think in the early days with any new client you want to do the best job you can, obviously, because that’s how you get clients and retain clients… but, it’s as you kind of try to step things up…
Obviously, you might be happy with trying to do bits of work without the quality of equipment that you need in the early days. But as you try to ramp things up, what you can find is that these clients will then actually just move on to the next freelancer who’s willing to indulge the penny-pinching ways for a little while.
I would say you can get on well with these clients, I guess, especially if you have a frugal attitude to life yourself as well. But they can just be quite difficult and troublesome relationships to maintain in the long term.
ALEX: Yeah, although I’m aware that we’re about halfway through this so far, and we’ve just basically marked both of ourselves out as massively talkative and financially incontinent in the way that we approach our own lives, haven’t we?
Because, you know, a minimal communicating penny pincher might be absolutely perfect for some people. They’d probably be more successful than us at it.
BEN: I guess so. Yes, I think with the penny pinchers it’s just… I think if you’re finding yourself struggling to explain why things should be done a certain way. And I think with these kinds of client, quite often it doesn’t end up being your time that they want to skimp on, it’s all the other things that you suggest they do and you suggest they get. And I think if you feel like every time you give advice it’s being ignored for the sake of just saving a handful of dollars… it just has the potential to end badly.
ALEX: I mean, I can talk to this from my background in terms of, this is the classic relationship between marketing and finance. I as a marketer am trying to spend money and get stuff out there, and do the biggest, most flashy thing that I possibly can. That’s the traditional view of marketing. And then you’ve got the finance person who is, “Do you really need to spend this here? Can we do it without that? Is that thing…?”
And actually, that relationship can work really, really well because you’ve a cheque and balance on both sides. So it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s doomed to fail. But as you say, when you talked about that relationship with a freelancer and somebody, you’re quite right. It can often end up with them going, “Well. This guy was prepared to do it at that price without all of the bells and whistles. So I’ve gone with him instead of you.” You know?
BEN: Yeah, indeed. While you were talking there I was forming an analogy which I think may be very poorly formed and not very good about the penny pinchers.
ALEX: That is absolutely our sweet spot, isn’t it?
BEN: It is, yeah. Badly formed analogies.
Say you’re employing a baker and you want to have however many loaves of sourdough each day…
ALEX: I’m already strapped into this. Come on.
BEN: So you’re employing this baker and he tells you that to stir the dough manually is going to take a certain amount of time and so it would really speed things up if you bought a stand mixer. And the penny-pinching client would say, “Well, I’d like to see how it goes with you just stirring it manually.” And the baker ends up billing twice as many hours because everything takes twice as long as it would if he had the stand mixer.
Then you get to the invoiced time and they say, “Oh, that invoice is higher than I thought.” And you’re thinking, “Yes, it’s because you didn’t buy the stand mixer.” And then, instead of the next month this client buying the stand mixer because they’ve seen your point, the relationship will just become a little bit tarnished. And then they’ll end up going off with a different freelance baker who’s willing to spend a month stirring dough manually.
Did that work?
ALEX: Let’s listen back to it and find out.
BEN: I’m not sure I have that much time to edit the podcast. So I think everyone will just have to either accept that as an analogy or just… Let’s just move on.
ALEX: I think it worked broadly.
Okay, let’s go on to a nice positive one from that and try and keep the sourdough metaphors to a minimum. What’s the next one, Ben?
BEN: The next one is the “realist”, which kind of crosses over a little bit with the gem. This is one Alex particularly likes working with. So I’m going to let Alex go for it… Hopefully with no bread-based analogies.
ALEX: No, I mean, I was desperately searching for it, but I’ll try and keep it in the realms of actuality.
Having discussions with friends over many years, this is kind of my ideal client. The sort of client that… I wouldn’t necessarily say that they were lazy, but they’re busy and they understand absolutely why it is that they’ve employed you. That they’ve employed you to do a job that they may very well be able to do themselves, but they simply don’t have the bandwidth or the time, or they need more stuff done.
So they understand what it is you’re doing. They understand why they’ve employed you. They also understand that in order to let you do it, they need to get out of your way. They’re not going to get down to the absolute detail of everything.
So if you send something through… say it’s a piece of copy… I’ve had this a number of times, where I go, “That’s fine, except you need a comma in paragraph 12 on page four.” What the realist will do is, “That’s brilliant. There’s a couple of little things, but I can change those. Don’t worry, this is bang on. Thank you!” That kind of thing, where it feels very collaborative.
By the same token, in that kind of relationship, you would then find yourself saying, “Actually, I know you asked for this, but I’ve actually done something a little bit different here. How’s that?” And they’re quite happy for you to sort of maybe add some bits once you’ve worked together. That kind of thing.
These guys, perhaps maybe not necessarily the most prompt of payers, perhaps not the best communicators… but when you’re actually working with them on the project, when you’re actually there, you feel like you’re actually as much as part of their team as somebody who works directly for them. You feel part of the collaboration and, actually, you feel kind of valued in the work that you’re doing because they sort of understand what they’re doing.
BEN: Yeah. So I was thinking while you were speaking… the gem and the realist, how do they diverge? You mentioned they perhaps might not be quite as fast with the payment as the gem.
ALEX: Yeah. I think you’ll probably find with the realist that the gem is much more reliable.
The realist, perhaps, you would get to the point where they might employ you for a bit of work and then… going into that kind of the minimal communicator thing… you may find they’ll go very, very quiet for a few months. There may not be something there. You may not quite know what’s going on in the rest of the business. But very much when you’re actually working with them, in the moment, it’s a really, really strong relationship.
They’re pretty cool but, as somebody said the other day, there are two speeds of replying to emails, which is three seconds or three weeks.
BEN: That rings so true.
ALEX: The realist is very much… you either get an instant response or they’ll go, “I’m really sorry. I’ve been meaning to get back in touch with you.” That kind of thing. Whereas your gem is going to reply at the end of every day without fail.
BEN: Okay, fantastic. So the next one is the “micromanager”.
ALEX: [shudders] oooh.
BEN: Yes. Now this is one that is often bad, I guess, but sometimes it can be okay.
So when I say the micromanager, the example that I will always use is, say you’re a writer and this client wants you to write a 500-word article and they send you 1000 words of notes for how they want the article to be written.
Well, for starters, they might as well have written it themselves if they’ve written that many notes. And whenever this has happened with a client… and I’ve had several writing clients who have been exactly like this… I’ve just thought, “This is going to end badly. There’s no question of it.”
I find micromanagers are generally one of two things. They’re either people hiring their very first freelancers. Maybe people who’ve got their own small businesses who… their freelance hires via Upwork are the very first people they’ve ever managed. It’s a mixture of being inexperienced and getting a little bit power-crazed. So you’ve got people like that. But then you’ve also got people in bigger companies who’ve perhaps got a little bit too much time on their hands. And I’m going to say power-crazed again.
So micromanagers who are micromanaging for those reasons can be very tiresome, very stressful clients to work for.
ALEX: I think you’ve hit on the point, and it’s the inefficiency of this. And I think that’s the same sort of thing with penny pinchers, to a certain extent.
Going back to when we talk about the gem clients, or the realist clients, or actually even the minimal communicator to that extent… their instructions will be clear. For a variety of different reasons their instructions will be very clear.
In one case, perhaps, they haven’t got the time to write you 12,000 words in a brief and they actually just go, “This is what I want.” And they’re quite cool with the idea that if it was quite a scant brief then they don’t expect what comes back to be absolutely perfect for what they had in mind, because they know they did it quickly.
Or if they’re a minimal communicator, it will be, “I want this, nothing else. Thank you very much. Cheerio.”
ALEX: Whereas the micromanager will be, often, the sort of person that will change the terms of the brief. Or they’re so wide in what they’ve written in the first place that they can go back to you for changes and go, “Well, that was what I said in the original document.”
So I think with these people it is really, really important… as you said with Mr Flash it’s important to get paid upfront… with these people, it is really, really important just to lock down exactly what their expectations are upfront so they can’t stretch the work out into 15 different rounds of amends.
BEN: Yes, exactly. I think of all the types of client that we talked about here, these can probably be the most stressful to work for. Because you can end up in really convoluted situations where you think, “Do I really want to spend my time saying, ‘Yeah, but the first brief said that you wanted to me to do that and you’ve moved the goal posts.'”
All of that is just wasting your time. Just building your stress levels up. So, I’m not saying avoid these clients altogether, but do be quite cautious around them.
As you rightly say, getting very clear briefs is part of that.
Just one thing to add on the micromanager. On some occasions… and I talked about some inexperienced managers, perhaps people who haven’t managed teams or managed freelancers before… sometimes there is potential, as the trust builds… and in a way, as their experience builds… to turn these clients… almost by managing them upwards… to turn them into realists or gems.
So there is often potential, especially if it is someone who’s a little wet behind the ears, a little new to the job. Sometimes you can manage and mould them into the clients that you would rather they were.
But micromanagers, in general – still be a little bit wary of them.
ALEX: I always like the example of Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, where the instruction goes, “I’m on it. Leave it. It’s fine.” And you kind of want that relationship where you know that guy is so absolutely brilliant at what he does that as soon as he says, “Don’t worry. It will be sorted.” you can just put the phone down and then he’ll come back.
Obviously, we’re talking about copywriting rather than gangster stuff. But, you know.
BEN: I think it was both a good example and I’m quite chuffed that it’s, I think, the first movie reference that you’ve used in the podcast that I’ve actually understood.
ALEX: Oh, wow. [laughter]
BEN: So yeah, in the future go for really mainstream movies like Pulp Fiction and I will always follow.
ALEX: Right. Next podcast I’m going to be dropping some Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier references for you.
BEN: Yeah. You’ve lost me again.
Right, last one: the “late payer”. [Alex sighs]
Late payment is such an epidemic for freelancers and it is a massive problem. It can make freelance life so, so stressful.
So, broadly speaking, late payers are not the kind of clients that you want. But, let’s talk big companies. Alex has probably worked in more big corporate-sized companies than I have and I think would agree that… I mean, I know that a lot of big companies, and government departments as well, often actually have a policy of only paying their invoices after 30 days. Sometimes even after 45 days, after 60 days.
ALEX: I have been this client, and it hasn’t been intentional. If you’re working with somebody that has to get their finance approved by Finance Department and it goes on a payment run and you work through certain things, then you know… yes, it does depend on your client being able to navigate their own organisation to get you paid quickly.
But there’s also the case in large organisations where you submit all of the papers… maybe it takes a little bit of time to get those papers into finance… you submit everything and then you don’t chase it up. Then you can find people are going 2-3 months without being paid because it’s stuck in the pipeline somewhere.
Now, I’ve also worked for very large companies, and I’ve worked for clients in very large companies, and I’ve hopefully been that client a couple of times where you can make sure that these things go through and they get paid very, very quickly.
So it is perfectly possible in a large company, but it isn’t the case in all of them. You’re absolutely right, Ben. In some cases, however hard and how much your client wants to pay you, there will be someone going, “This will not be paid before 30 days.” And I think it’s important if you find you’re in that relationship that you don’t get into the situation of putting the invoice in and hoping it will be paid a bit earlier.
But if they’re going to stick very rigidly to their 30-day payment terms, then you can stick very rigidly to their 30-day payment terms. And make sure you follow up on it! Most of the ways that you’ll be able to invoice will have some kind of mechanism to chase invoices. If you find that they’re really strict on their payment terms, then you can be really strict on chasing as well. That’s the game.
And actually, if it’s a large company, it’s never going to be personal. You know, that’s just business.
BEN: Yeah, strict and consistent as well, I think. What we’re saying here with late payers is, generally you want to avoid them because late payment is a real problem for freelancers. But, at the same time, you’re not going to want to turn down that massive contract with the household name company because you’re going to have to wait longer for your invoices to be paid.
In those situations, the most important thing you can do is get friendly with the finance officers or the finance directors… so you know who to phone when that invoice is due. And always phone!
You want those people to know, especially as a long term relationship, that the moment that invoice clicks onto 30 days, if it’s not being paid, you’re going to be on the phone. You’re not going to be sending an email that can be avoided. You’re going to be on the phone. And you will find that 9 times out of 10… yes, you might still be waiting your 30 days, their standard payment terms… but you’re not going to be one of the ones whose left waiting beyond that. At least in theory.
ALEX: Yeah. I have had the situation with quite large clients in the past where I’ve ended up with an unexpected windfall of several invoices getting paid at once. Suddenly it’s gone from chasing those around and actually you get to that position of going, “Oh, that’s quite handy. The bank account’s looking quite healthy this month.”
But, yeah, you don’t want to get into that situation because it is… and I think we’ve talked about this on other podcasts… your own discipline and when you’re getting used to freelancing… it’s something I’ve had to teach myself, having been a recovering late payer myself… being a freelancer is making sure that you get your invoices in and chasing them, and actually doing that kind of thing.
If you are quite slack at putting your invoices in and quite slack at chasing them, then that will breed slackness in a client. And you can turn one of these other clients into a late payer.
BEN: Yeah. And I think another important thing is being slack on detail as well. I’ve been both the person who has submitted invoices and the person who’s paid them. One thing that can really delay an invoice getting paid, especially in a big bureaucratic company, is if you’ve not been very clear on what it is you’re invoicing for.
If you’re just going to put “consultancy hours: 15 x $100”, you could end up finding that invoice goes chasing all the way back around the system again while someone else has to sign it off or say what column it should be assigned to in the accounts. There’s no such thing as too much detail on an invoice. Make it indisputable what the work you’ve done is, rather than sending…
BEN: I think people do complain about late payment a lot, but I think… I’m going to be bold and say that sometimes it is the fault of the freelancers.
If you’ve got two freelancers, one of which always invoices at the same time each month, always puts tremendous detail into the invoices themselves, a clear way of how to pay it documented on the invoice, compared with another freelancer who’s really vague, doesn’t have their own credit control very well managed. They could have a completely different experience.
One of them might be, “Oh, that client always pays late.” They might have another freelancer who is perfectly happy with how that client pays.
ALEX: Yeah. It is that point, isn’t it?
Make sure that if there’s purchase order numbers or anything else you need… if internally they’re using a system that has various different codes and things like that… it’s really useful to find those out. When they pay, have a look at the paperwork that comes back to you and see if you can actually match their style. Useful little stuff like that.
I’ve had that with working in large companies where an invoice will get flagged for no apparent reason. There’s one word which puts it out of your budget and into somebody else’s budget, and it’s being questioned because should this be coming out of this budget line or another. Now, that’s nobody actually trying to play games and not pay you, that’s just large company bureaucracy. That’s the way things work.
BEN: Yeah. And it could mean being paid a month later if they do one monthly payment run… it ends up back in that system again.
So, yeah, I think the important thing to put across here is that late payers definitely go into the bad column, but slow payers are not necessarily the same as late payers.
ALEX: True. Good point. Yeah. I mean, if somebody is consistently not paying your invoices on time, and you’re spending time and money chasing it… I mean, you don’t necessarily want to get into the realms of charging them for your time chasing the invoice, but, you know, it gets into that after a while.
BEN: Yeah, I’ve got an article on the site about how to chase outstanding payment. We’ve actually got some template letters you could use if you’re in one of those situations where you’re trying to get the money that is owed to you.
I would say, clients where I’ve ever got to the stage I’ve had to start sending those letters to… I lose all respect for those clients and don’t want to work for them anymore.
Obviously, sometimes you don’t have the luxury of being able to do that. But I would say once you get to the stage that you’re having to be even remotely threatening in your wording to them, that’s game over for me with a client.
ALEX: Yeah, I’ve actually worked for a company at one point as a freelancer and their business was chasing payment for other companies. You know, there is a multibillion-dollar industry in chasing payment out there. And we’re not just talking debt recovery. It’s just reconciliation of accounts.
There are huge amounts of money sat on the books of companies that is not being claimed or paid for invoices and stuff like that. And I think that goes to the point of you can afford to be a little bit… not necessarily aggressive… but certainly business-like in the way that you approach companies that aren’t paying you, particularly if it’s a large company.
BEN: Yeah, I mean my own personal credit control is if people get to 30 days they get chased, if they’re 15 days beyond that I will send out the same letter. It doesn’t matter who they are. It’s a simple matter of process.
ALEX: And then, after that, what? Is it, you know, go around and knock on their door?
BEN: Well, at the moment, I’m not allowed out of my small village. [laughter]
No. You’ve got to be really firm with the credit control. I think we’ve said enough on the late payers. We probably could have done a podcast on late payment, it seems.
ALEX: Yes, I’m not sure that’s a podcast so much as when the pubs eventually open we just sit there and have a moan at each other about it.
BEN: It’s a problem with freelancing. It’s something that every freelancer is going to encounter at some point. But it’s a problem you don’t want to bring on yourself by not being as strict and as firm with clients as you have every right to be.
ALEX: Yes, excellent.
So I think we’ve got the seven different types of clients there:
The gem that pays on time, communicates well, is always honest and open, and feels collaborative.
Mr Flash, the shiny-suited chancer that often appears to be quite wealthy, but maybe there’s nothing behind that, and will offer you great exposure for your work before running off to Bali.
The minimal communicator: pays and goes away. But pays, and that’s the most important thing.
The penny pincher, who can be a great client but who is always looking for that corner to cut and might actually not be worth the effort in the long run.
The realist who is collaborative, gives you a good tight brief, but may not be the most responsive client in the world.
The micromanager who might actually mean that you’re working twice the hours and you’re actually billing and dealing just with their management style.
And, the one that we’ve all seen at some point or another, the late payer.
BEN: Obviously, as Alex said at the start of the podcast, that’s not every client. And I think some clients pull a little bit from each of these stereotypes that we’ve generated here.
If I would end on one piece of advice it is, as you’re starting to deal with people… say you’re putting pitches out on Upwork or other freelance job boards… think, “Well, which of these clients is this? Who am I dealing with here?”
Just to be clear, I don’t immediately categorise every new client I speak to.
ALEX: [laughs] You don’t put it on the invoice?
BEN: [laughs] No. I can assure you I don’t.
It’s obviously not as black and white as just putting each client into one specific category. But I think it could be very helpful to new freelancers to bear in mind that these are all people you’re going to encounter, for sure.
ALEX: Yeah. And, as you said, it will be a case that, actually, what we’re talking about here is the predominant characteristic. That there will be elements of this, maybe a tendency towards one or the other, or a blend of them.
What we’ve actually got here are problems that you will encounter as a freelancer drawn into a caricature with some added sourdough bread metaphors.
BEN: Yes. And what more could we give than that?
ALEX: Well, thank you, Ben. I think that’s been brilliant. I’ve quite enjoyed that. And it’s been, I think, quite useful and informative as well. And you can’t really ask for more than that on the first podcast of the year, can you?
BEN: No. So, yeah, I hope you’ve enjoyed that.
ALEX: Good stuff.
Please do like and subscribe and share the podcast wherever you are. And, if you’d like to share some client sob stories, or just get it off your chest, or tell us perhaps of your own particular characterisation of clients over the years (obviously names and companies withheld)…do get in touch.
How can they get in touch, Ben?
BEN: Just email me.
Similarly, if there are any subjects you’d like us to deal with or chat about in future podcasts this year, email me at the same email address and we’d be happy to add them to our list.
ALEX: Good stuff. Thank you, Ben, and happy New Year.
BEN: Yes, happy New Year to everyone.
Founder of HomeWorkingClub.com – Ben has worked freelance for nearly 20 years. As well as being a freelance writer and blogger, he is also a technical consultant with Microsoft and Apple certifications. He loves supporting new home workers but is prone to outbursts of bluntness and realism.