Interview Your Clients Before It’s Too Late

As a freelancer, I always feel like I’m the one being interviewed. I present proposals, provide estimates or bids, and generally answer every question a client has with honesty, integrity, and the hope of landing the job. Over the years, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: I’m not the only one who should be evaluated for appropriateness for a job; I need to evaluate the client.


Early on in my career, I accepted a job writing stories. I was pretty naïve and didn’t really ask much. I mean, the client told me how many words and gave me specific guidelines for content and asked me to be creative. The stories were to be about women who wore high heels despite bunion discomfort. I didn’t ask any questions. I honestly thought it was for a podiatry office or a new product for making shoes more comfortable. I submitted the first story about a woman at a conference, on her feet, preoccupied with bunion pain. She returned to her hotel room, soaked her feet and put them up. That was it. And then the client admitted he was a foot fetishist and needed these stories to… you know. After I washed my hands and sterilized my keyboard, I tried to cut him loose. He kept asking for more stories and pictures of my feet. Obviously, I have blocked him from communicating further.

How could I have prevented this uncomfortable situation? I should have asked questions. There are writers out there who would have gladly written his shoe stories, but I wasn’t one of them. If I had only asked the audience for the stories, perhaps I would have come to the realization that this wasn’t the client for me.

I have avoided requests for erotica or content that I wouldn’t want on my professional resume. If that’s your niche, then go for it. For me, I was interested in a more broad range of other professional topics.

That’s when I was asked to write a book about relationships.

The specific job was to write a book aimed at men who want to rekindle a relationship that has gone stale over time. I started out with a discussion of the psychology of a long term relationship and worked my way into what is necessary for “upkeep”. I submitted this chapter and was told that I needed to get to the nitty-gritty physical side of things. I questioned my client and said, “I don’t write porn”, and was assured that he only wanted to explore the physical part of improving a relationship. Okay, I can do physical. With the aid of photos from Gray’s Anatomy, I explained the female genitalia. I pointed out that foreplay is a good thing as is setting the mood.


You can probably guess how this was received by my client. He wanted me to “be more graphic”. I tried to explain sexting and gave examples and just as I was about to move on to more about creating excitement and anticipation, he sent me the proposed title. It contained the words “wet” and “begging”. I refunded the money he had paid for the first chapters, told him not to use my content, and told him that I had clearly stated that I would not write porn. He tried several times to get me to reconsider and offered to change the title, but what he wanted me to write wasn’t what I signed up for. It hurt to refund his money because I had earned it, but I was working through a bidding site and didn’t want my reputation to take a hit, so I did it.

And then there was Mary (not her real name). I met her in a Linkedin group for Professional Women. She wanted a collaborator for a white paper. At least that’s what she said. We spoke on the telephone and we clearly discussed what she wanted and agreed that I would provide portions of content for her review and we could discuss any changes.

I posted on Linkedin that I was taking on new clients and to contact me via message or my website. Mary got very upset. Apparently she thought I could only work one job at a time. Then she was angry with the content I presented to her, though it was exactly what we had discussed. I was working from her notes. She sent me terrible notes, calling me names. Apparently, all she really wanted was a proofreader for her own version of her white paper, but this was NOT what she had said. And I didn’t have it in writing. She refused to pay me for the work and research that I had already done. I was shocked. Such unprofessional behavior from someone who appeared to be professional from her profile was definitely unexpected.  And her white paper? It wasn’t a white paper at all. It was just a sales article.

These are my biggest mistakes. I’ve made others, for sure, but these offered the most learning. Save yourself some aggravation and learn from my mistakes:





  • Ask questions. Find out exactly who your client is and what they want. If the job is unusual, don’t be afraid to ask what it is for or who the intended audience will be.
  • If the scope of a project changes, don’t be afraid to discuss this with your client and try to come to a compromise. If the project is something that goes against your morals or is not what you signed up for, quitting is not a bad thing. Having to work on something that really bothers you IS a bad thing.
  • Get everything in writing. Use a contract. Make sure there is a clause stating that the client owes you for any work done, even if the job is cancelled partway through. You need this to protect yourself from people who don’t know what they want and will try to get free work or simply stiff you for your fee. I also use a recorder for Skype conversations and send follow up emails with notes from the conversations.

Yes, as a freelancer I’m used to being interviewed to make sure I’m a good fit for a job. Now I know that as a freelancer I have to interview the client to make sure they are a good fit for me.

This article was written by Dorothy Distefano. You can find her online at Writer on the Verge and LinkedIn.



2 responses
  1. Slave Avatar

    Ask for 50% upfront.
    Serious clients won’t mind paying it.

  2. Stephanie Faris Avatar

    I have seen many clients post that when they hire someone, the first assignment is a paid test to see if it’s a good fit. That test goes both ways. I recently had a client that was one of those, “You start writing and I’ll tell you when you get it right” types. I thought I understood what he wanted, but he kept demanding complete rewrites with vague requests. When the second request for a full rewrite came in, I decided it was time to cut my losses. I walked away and told him he didn’t have to pay me–it simply wasn’t a good fit. Yes, I lost that money (although I can resale the article eventually), but in the time I would have spent writing the same article 25 times, I can make a whole lot more!

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