This is one of those How To guides where it’s easier to start at the end.

Like when you re-enter the dating world after an inappropriate marriage and inevitable divorce, to work out your ideal person, it helps to recognise what is less than ideal. The deal breaker. The non-negotiables.

The problem client.

The reason this works is that once you are sure about what you don’t want in a partner (adultery, immaturity, inability to build a damn thing) or client (*insert your list here*), a very clear picture emerges of the rock-your-world person.

You lucky ducks! I learned from my mistakes and this blog will help you avoid the traps and save you from the dreaded “…well at least I learned from it” scenarios.

For clients, anyways. We’ll see how Marriage No. 2 turns out.

So, what did I learn about spotting the NOT ideal clients?

There are warning signs:

1. I learned that just because they are paying, it doesn’t mean they can micromanage/call you on Sunday morning at AusKick/expect you to answer their 64 co-dependent emails a day.

When I started out, I was so grateful that people were willing to part with their money for my home-grown goodness that my take-what-you-can-get attitude turned into resentment for not being more assertive and discerning.

This was: Entirely. My. Own. Fault.

You have to put together your own set of boundaries, don’t expect your paying client to do it for you.

2. I learned that if they can’t afford it, they shouldn’t buy it.

Harsh? Maybe. And I always reserve the right to give a community discount if and when I choose (and I do!) And sure, there are many goods and services up for negotiation, but I found out the hard way that clients who start out bidding your price down will end up wearing you down.

The under-valuing of freelance services by the business community is well documented. Once you stop with the commodity mindset and set your pricing to reflect your value and skill, engagement with motivated and meaningful clients will follow.

(I know, this is oft-promised and seems like a massive leap of faith. I’m not telling you to manifest while dancing skyclad under a harvest moon, but I do recognise you sometimes need to cross your fingers, figure out what your value is, shove it on your website, and hope like the bibbitybobbityboo it’s going to fly – and it usually will).

3. I learned the ragingly unhappy client is not going to be cured just because they work with you. If you know the last 37 copywriters your new copy client has used, and she bad-mouths them all – guess what? You’re unlikely to be the shining saviour of copywriters in her future stories.

The dissonant client, this one’s a gem. This client pays for your skills and expertise, but then questions or worse, dislikes every single thing you send through. Even though you’re 100% delivering what they say they want. Stay away. I learned here that after I tentatively hit send on draft number 3 (above what they have paid for mind you) I probably should have politely just excused myself; ‘cos you know you are good at what you do, and if after x amount of versions they are still not happy, they probably won’t ever be.

The problem is, you usually got a warning shot with these folks. There was something about the way they spoke about every other website developer/copywriter/graphic designer that made your gut uncomfortable.

You just didn’t listen.

4. I learned the client who can’t make decisions won’t.

Bonus: they won’t like the decisions you make either.

They’ll either leave everything up to you then panic and overdo it at the last moment, or outsource the final decision making to their board. The board they didn’t mention during any of your briefings. Or their mates. Or – worse – their family who once had a dog who attended a free marketing seminar for an afternoon.

I’ve had every single one of these less than ideal clients, I undercharged every single one of them, every single time. In most instances, they ended up costing me money.

And most times, I heard something that gave me pause.

I just didn’t listen.


Wait! There are some things you may need to try before you wipe out half your client list in one fell swoop.

Sometimes, spending a little extra time with a client can go a long way. You could win more work with them or they could start singing your praises from the rooftops – referral nirvana. Tune into your gut, or previous experience, you should have an instinct about whether a little extra investment in a client will pay off.

There may be times where you reduce your prices or accept a lower rate for services. Just make sure this happens on your terms and you can qualify the benefit to you/your business in doing this.

Sometimes a gentle reminder that you are the subject-expert, or some time spent explaining why your way is the preferred industry way can shift a client to relinquish control and trust that you can deliver what they need.

I usually try a, “you picked me and you’re paying me for this advice. Could you please take it?”

(Feel free to borrow that!)

Boundary setting can be hard. Especially for people who are relational and good at working a room (even a ‘virtual’ one). As long as you set clear expectations from the beginning and stick by them, this one should just become a natural process for you. Or, if you’re like me, it never will, and you’ll need to remind yourself with every new client. Oh well, can’t win ‘em all.

Now it’s laid out, try it. Jot down the enraging things clients do, shortlist the ones you absolutely won’t stand for and then your “ideal client avatar” will start to appear.

Do a little exercise (no, not the jogging kind):

I value the following in my clients to ensure a successful business partnership:

Now you know who you want and who’s out, you can take a ‘prevention is better than cure’ approach. While it’s tempting (especially when you’re first starting out) to say yes to every potential client that approaches you, it’s better to let them self-weed. You not only save bucketloads of time, energy, and money wrangling less-than-ideal clients, but you also free yourself up for your perfect people – those who pay invoices on time, are lovely to work with, and are on your wavelength.

Setting up a bit of self-weeding copy is actually easier than it sounds.

If you tend towards being a straightforward communicator anyway, you can absolutely throw a ‘who I won’t work with’ list onto your website. I have one here, take a look.

State clearly that you don’t accept clients such as evil megacorps, loggers of old growth forests, or people who kick puppies. Or whoever is on your no-no list.

A bit of subtlety can also do the job. If you blog about social justice issues that are important to you, sprinkle references to your love of death metal through your copy, or have a photo of yourself with your pet tarantula on your face, those who have a natural aversion to your particular things will decide you’re not quite their cup of tea and opt out. And boom, you’ve stayed true to yourself AND gently nudged away your not-quite-rights.

Sure, sometimes after doing all this you’ll still have some problem clients sneak through, and this is where your gentle break-up skills will come in handy.

But by identifying your not-ideal clients, setting your boundaries, and working on your self-weeding copy, you should soon have your client list full of brilliant humans that you love working with.


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