I never thought I’d have to distance myself from a client of mine who I’d worked with long-term, but it happened. And it sucks.
She asked me to edit a marketing project of hers about five days before the due date, and I told her my time frame, the cost it would be per page, and when I could have it back to her in context to when she needed it for her class. We agreed on the task I’d be doing (editing two sections of the project), set our deadlines, and said we’d talk again the day I had the edits done. And of course, this is all being done remotely, via text message and email.
The red flags started early on.
For context, I had been working regularly with this client since 2017 when I was in grad school and she was in a returning adult education program at the same university.
Flash forward to the incident:
I told her my per-page editing price, and she instead asked me to change to hourly cost as “it would be a lot of editing for me, and hourly makes more sense”. At this point, I was under the assumption I’d be editing a total of six pages of text because that’s what she had told me. Naturally, I said yes to changing to an hourly rate rather than per-page because we’ve worked together before and I wanted to do her a favor, trusting she had my best interests in mind.
Her “six page” assignment ended up being 32 pages long. I lost out on hundreds of dollars by switching from per-page to hourly because she withheld information from me.
But wait – it gets better.
The day before I was due to submit the edits back to her, she said she sent over some other documents for me to “incorporate into the paper if I wanted to,” which didn’t make sense to me as this was an editing project, not a writing one. She said she could explain more if I could get on a call with her, but I couldn’t. It was a Saturday, and I go hiking in various forest preserves on Saturdays. I wasn’t home, and I surely wasn’t taking a work call while I was on a hike. I told her to leave me a voicemail if there was more I needed to know. She never did, so I figured we were fine.
The next day, I finished editing the documents (eight hours total), sent them back over to her, put my payment request through Zelle, and said thanks. Not long after she paid me, she sent me panicked messages asking what have I done?!
I told her exactly what I did (copy and structural edits and proofreading), reiterated the time I had spent, and showed her the old and new documents back-to-back to emphasize the changes. She then proceeded to tell me she “never asked me to edit” her project, and eventually let it slip that she wanted me to rewrite the two sections of her project she had previously asked me to edit.
After some confusing back-and-forth, I told her that her directions were not clear, but that I would help her as much as I could in the short amount of time left (10pm Sunday evening, and she needed her project done by Monday morning 8am).
Instead of accepting additional help from me – that I wasn’t going to charge more for – she shot me an accusatory message saying it was my fault that I didn’t do what she wanted because I was “too busy to get on a call with [her], but had PLENTY of time to go walk in a forest preserve”.
That was my last straw.
I kindly, but firmly told her she had no right to police my life outside of work, and that I work a full-time job on top of doing side work, so weekends are my time to spend doing what I want – and I don’t have to justify it or clear it with her for approval.
She tried backtracking what she said, and I had already promised to continue helping her, so I worked from 10:30pm-1:30am to get work back to her. After working three additional, unpaid hours to appease her, I went to bed. As I went to lie down, I saw another text from her at 1:35am telling me that what I sent her wasn’t long enough (three pages) and that it needed to be five pages long. I didn’t reply. I went to sleep.
I don’t know what ended up happening with her assignment because she didn’t message me any further about it. But a week later, she texts me asking if I can work on a new series of questions for her class (writing them for her). I said, “No, sorry, I don’t have time to work on that.” I did, but I didn’t feel comfortable working with her anymore. She said she understood and thanked me.
A few hours later, she text back apologizing for how she acted toward me the week prior. I didn’t reply, and we haven’t spoken since.
While I feel a small tinge of guilt for not responding, my patience and kindness had been spent. I lost over $300 dollars by changing the way I charged her from per-page to hourly; when I offered additional help, she still found something negative to say; and most importantly, she made me feel like I shouldn’t be able to enjoy my weekend time off when she tried guilting me into feeling bad that I took time to hike like I do every single weekend.
Other than putting a not-so-great situation on paper, you might wonder what the takeaways from this were – and I’m here to tell you.
Here are six ways you can set better boundaries with your clients going forward:
- Don’t apologize for living a life outside of work – there’s nothing to apologize for.
- Regardless of how “close” you feel to a client or connection, make sure to set boundaries that aren’t easy to break.
- If they want a different rate of pay, say no. Do what works best for YOUR bottom line as it’s your time and hard work going into the deliverable.
- Emphasize your “off hours” and let people know you’re not accessible 24/7, and that you’ll respond when able, not when they want.
- Stop working past a certain point in the evening (e.g. 11pm on Saturdays and 9pm on Sundays, or whatever works for you).
- Don’t offer additional help that you aren’t getting paid for because it’ll likely be looked at as an expectation rather than a favor.
The next clients I work with, I’ll make sure to heed my own advice going in so something like this doesn’t happen again any time soon.