Thursday, January 27, 2011

Suckerpunched (or Why Friends and Family Make Lousy Clients)

Dante's circle for unscrupulous businessmen
Tim Berry at Planning Startups Stories wrote a nice post earlier this week titled "Tip: Mistakes are more fun than tips." In that spirit, allow me to share a doozy of a stupid that I committed a few months ago that finally imploded yesterday.

As a general rule, I don't do paid work for friends and family. My experience is that they expect too much for too little, and emotions play too much of a role — i.e., they're lousy clients.

But in late fall, during a slow week and as a favor to a family friend, I took on a referral for writing the content for a small website. The owner seemed nice enough, her website was ghastly, and she needed a few business letters written. I offered a modest bid. Which she promptly accepted.

The two business letters were the top priority, so I promptly and heavily rewrote what she'd sent me, and she signed off on them after a round or two of revisions. So far, so good. I commenced on the website copy, and she seemed to be happy with the initial two pages.

She's an event promoter, so the remaining items were brief summaries of the various events she handles. And that's where things got sticky. It turned out, there really wasn't any source information on the events other than what she'd posted in previous years, and some of the events had no information at all. So, I asked if I could interview her in order to gather some raw ideas about what she wanted. She was unresponsive. I MacGyvered it as best I could, but she wanted more and fresher information. I reminded her of my offer to do it interview style, and again, she just seemed more inclined to grumble than to help me help her.

At this point she wanted to know exactly how much her tally was. I provided a summary, subtracting out what she claimed was unusable. She asked me to send an invoice, and I did.

Then I didn't hear from her. Then I sent a second notice, and a polite email asking when I could expect payment or if she'd like to break it up into two installments. No response.

Fast forward to yesterday. I called her, and again, as politely as possible, inquired about the status of the invoice. At which point she informed me:
  • She had to heavily rewrite the letters I'd given her (which was news to me, since she'd approved them)
  • She had to rewrite the copy I'd provided for the web page (which was an outright lie, based on comparing what I sent her to what's currently posted on the site)
  • She had shown my invoice to another writer she knows (!) who thought that it was too high (unsurprising, given that the other writer charges her about half my hourly rate)
I'd been suckerpunched. I asserted that she did indeed sign off on the items I'd provided, and she retorted, essentially, "Nuh-uh-no-I-didn't." I stood by the invoice, in which I'd been painfully generous, and she basically spat on it. After a bit of back-and-forth, I simply said, "You know what, Sandy [not her real name], clearly we're not getting anywhere here. I think it's best if you just send me a check for what you believe you owe me. If that's $0, that's your prerogative."

I've already wasted the time, no sense in wasting further mental energy, and the piddling amount isn't worth pursuing legal action. Even after full-time freelancing for almost 12 years now, evidently I occasionally need to re-learn stupid mistakes in order to remember them. Tattoo it on my butt and carve it on my tombstone: No more friends and family clients.


  1. Been there, done that.

  2. That was a painful one to read, amigo, but I'm giving you 5 stars and a free bonus nebula for posting it as a warning and a reminder.

    We could all tell similar tales-- you are not alone! And now I'm going to make a voodoo doll, name it "Sandy," and stick some pins in it. Take THAT, ya dirty #%^&*!

  3. Haha, mrstrongest, I will provide the stars & nebula a place of dignity on my office shelf.

    I think you might be onto something, by the way, as a marketing venture: Bad Client Voodoo Dolls!

  4. Jake, I'd have done the same. Sometimes the bitching comes afterthey see the bill. They want it for free. Fine. If they can live with knowing they stole from someone who worked hard, let them have it for free. Karma is a bitch, and she bites hard.

  5. Sorry, Jake. It sucks to end up in a situation like that. I have one client who asks for 90 revisions on EVERYthing I write, I have to call and ask him if he plans to pay his invoice every, single month, and he ignores my advice at least once a week. Sometimes he sends an email asking if I could call him after 11 pm (he doesn't want to wake my family by calling me!). I cannot wait for the day I make enough to fire him.

    But even with all of that, your story is worse. You didn't get paid at all and had to endure a pointless confrontation. I agree with mrstrongest: dirty @#%^!^$

  6. This is the exact reason I don't do family and friends unless I'm donating services. And if she knew another, cheaper writer she trusted to look over the work, why didn't she just hire them in the first place?

  7. @Lori, I'd prefer that they end up in the Dante Inferno Circle (Bolgia 5, if you're counting) that I used as an image, but I'll settle for karma.

    @Dava, that one's in the top 5% of high maintenance, yikes!

    @P.S., I actually asked her that question. She basically said "I hired you first expecting that you could get it done." But have you ever heard of anything slimier than having someone else critique your invoice? Plus, I invoiced lower than the estimate that she approved.

    I've had clients ask me to review *estimates* from designers as a reality check, but how the heck can you argue against work that was actually completed? *facepalm*