Five ways to pull your freelance project from the flames of disaster

Abidemi Sanusi
Mar 11, 2017 · 5 min read

Some insights from running my last writing business (Ready Writer, a boutique content agency), which I think many freelancers will appreciate.

It was going so well. You were hitting your milestones. The client couldn’t stop praising your professionalism and you were permanently bathed in a warm, project-love glow. Then, it started going wrong. And the worse part is, you don’t even know what happened, or why it’s happened. Only that your project has suddenly taken a turn and the client who couldn’t praise your ‘professionalism’ enough is now calling you unprintable words and you both wish each other dead.

Sounds familiar? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Even better, the situation is redeemable. Here, in no particular order, are five signs your content project is heading for the abyss and what you can do about it.

1. First, the project has no defined objectives

Chances are that when work commenced on the project, there were clearly defined objectives, goals and milestones, each one carefully marked in the project schedule and added in the project calendar. But somewhere along the line, the goal post changed. The client decided to ‘tweak’ the project deliverables, which is fine, except it’s not, because something as simple as a ‘tweak’ can have a ripple effect on every area of the project, like:

  1. The tone of voice and overall message of the content, which you have already spent a gazillion hours on, perfecting it to the client’s wishes. Tweaking the message would mean going back to the drawing board again, resulting in further delays to the project
  2. The real possibility (and danger) that one tweak could result in endless tweaking, which is a sure sign that the client doesn’t really know what they want. Cue lots of to-ing and fro-ing between you and the client, as the project goal posts are continually moved

If you’re fine with one tweak, by all means, proceed. If the tweaks are getting to three, four, then it’s time for a chat with the client. Explain the challenges of working with changing goal posts (conflicting messages and deliverables, which also leads to increased costs). Ask the client to make a final decision regarding the project scope. If for whatever reason, the client is unable to do this, ask for a budget increase. And if they refuse, you have two choices: do what you can with what you have (and no more) or make the difficult decision to walk away.

2. There is no clear messaging

One of the best things a client can say to you is, ‘I know we haven’t got a style guide or brand guidelines, so creating our content may feel a bit like a stab in the dark. But, be patient with us.’

Such statements make your life easier, because it shows that the client understands the creative process behind your work.

If your client hasn’t got a style guide or a brand message, spend some time explaining what they are and why they’re important. If possible, offer to create one for the client as part of the project deliverables (this would be an upsell. Do not offer it for free). Doing this earlier, rather than later in the project will save you another gazillion hours going back and forth with unlimited content versions, trying to figure the client’s albeit vague ideas about their corporate style (‘It’s a bit like Virgin meets Innocent, but not really ifyouknowwhatImean’. Yes, really) and eventual complaint: ‘I thought you were writers?’

3. Things are lost in translation

I once worked on a project where the client said all we had to do was edit the current text on his website. Contracts were signed, project schedules were drawn up and the edited text delivered on the scheduled date. However, the client was unhappy. It turned out that his idea of an edit (a complete rewrite of the content) and ours (an edit in every sense of the word) were different.

After that project, my team ensured we took our time to explain the industry’s terminology to new clients BEFORE starting work on their project.

Moral of the story? Communicate, communicate, communicate!

4. Unrealistic time frames

95% of enquiries my agency got were from prospects who wanted their content project done yesterday. It’s always ‘urgent’. Yet, somehow, those urgent web projects seemed to lose their urgency once we started working on them. Or, even if they are urgent, the project seems to be lurch from crisis to crisis, as there is no time to assimilate, learn and put corrective measures in place to prevent similar crises from happening again.

If your project seems to lurch from one crisis to crisis, with nary a break in between, push back; ask for more time. It is better to deliver a great project late, than it is deliver a dud project on schedule.

As an agency, the temptation was to push on at all costs. We wanted to prove that we could do the work for our clients. But the truth is that there were times when the right thing to do was to push back. The client might not have liked it, and as a business owner, you might feel a certain loss of face, but surely the outcome (a successful project) is worth it?

5. Too many cooks

Sometimes, we worked with multiple agencies for a client: marketing, advertising and web development … At such times, it was difficult to determine the project lead for certain areas of the work. The only way to prevent the too-many-cooks-situation is by having a designated primary contact (plus a secondary contact for emergencies) for each. It was the only way to maintain order.

So, there it is: five way to rescue your project and restore your relationship with your client. What else can you add to this list?

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Abidemi Sanusi

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Author. Nominated for Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Helps writers write better & make more. Write your first book:

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