Freelancers, Here’s Why Your Clients Hate You

December 1st, 2014

Some freelancers are fast, clean, follow directions, and are on top of the freelance project every minute of every day. So why is your client so angry and upset with you? The truth is, THEY are not efficient and your abilities, which should be welcomed to make a project run smoothly, is just a reminder how screwed up the client side is and how you’re making them work harder to try to show you they are in charge… and smarter than you. It’s an odd power struggle but what can you do to make sure the project isn’t affected but not have the client feel like a total douche?

woman knock out

Being Efficient is Not a Human Trait

The cave people would barely leave the cave to go to the bathroom and the bones of their meals sat in piles or hung around their necks with rope made of intestines. Filing papers are not a natural act and thank goodness the computer came along to help us collect digital piles on our desktops.

I was a messy child, but I always knew which pile of junk I’d have to go through to find my homework or baseball glove. My parents put up with it because I was a “creative child.”

They say a clean desk speaks of a professional attitude and aptitude. HA! It speaks of anal-retentive people who spend too much time cleaning their desks or not working so there’s nothing to sit on their desk. Still, there’s a stigma about a clean, or messy desk, and how people perceive you as an organized worker, despite your ability to run a creative project as opposed to crunching numbers.

Your Desk is Different From Your Brain

My first supervisory position forced me to either stay 4 hours late every night or learn a better way to organize a bunch of creatives, a budget, and dealings with an incompetent boss. The manilla file folder became my weapon.

It was really easy. New Project—new file folder. Mark it with the project name, date the project was received, from whom, contact information and expected deadline and milestones. Into that folder went the creative brief, any emails that referred to the project, bills, services, copies of different versions of the project, etc. My supervisor hated it.

It seems my ability to go to the folder and say, “no, here’s the email where you asked for light blue lettering on a neon orange background” really bothered her, and I guess excited her because the sexual harassment would usually follow proving her wrong. She would call each folder a, “Book of Damnation” and then assign a volume number to them.

I did the same at a larger corporation and my supervisor had the same reaction. The folders were feared by certain people. Yes—certain morons!

The key use for the folders were not to embarrass anyone. It was to assure the project met every parameter of expectations, costs, and deadlines. If a few feathers were ruffled on people who would only get in the way and make the project late or off target, then so be it! You can’t please everybody, so why not metaphorically execute the bottom feeders?

Frazzled Offrice Worker

Do We Suspect Neat People, More Than Messy Ones?

While I admit, in a corporate situation or working freelance, you do need to CYA (Cover Your Arse). Being organized and having the ability to tightly track a project is imperative—just don’t mention having a collection of emails.

When you’re dealing with budgets, the misspending of any amount will bring you over budget and out of the front door. So what’s important to you? Keeping your job or a few mercy bullets in the heads of some handy, willing victims?

Most neat people have OCD. They’re the frightening ones. They are suspicious, jittery, paranoid and, usually germaphobes. Being organized is something completely different. It is a choice you make to be efficient and not a driving emotional need that leads to self-cutting and suicide upon the slightest setback.

According to an article in Forbes, The Dangers Of A Messy Desk:

A new survey of over 1000 workers by staffing firm Adecco, a majority of Americans (57%) admit they judge coworkers by how clean or dirty they keep their workspaces. Meanwhile, nearly half say they have been “appalled” by how messy a colleagues’ office is and most chalk it up to pure laziness.

“With so many open office plans today, more people can see into your workspace, and they do judge,” says Jennie Dede, vice president of recruiting for Adecco. “It’s often personal. They think that you must be a slob in your real life.”

In the article, The Dirty Truth About Messy Offices, the author writes:

For the rare few of you who work for bosses who believe a messy desk is proof of your competency, I recommend keeping a fake stack of papers on your desk for the purpose of looking disorganized. To create your fake mess: assemble five inches of papers from the office recycling bin and wrap a large rubber band around the stack. The bundling will make the stack of papers simple to pull out of a drawer when you need it to influence your boss, and it will also make sure you don’t get any important papers mixed in with the decoy stack. Think of the stack of papers similar to a potted plant (which, oddly enough, researchers have discovered gives the impression to your coworkers that you’re a team player, so put a single plant in your office if you don’t already have one).

But we are talking about creative people here and not pencil pushers or accountants. The article, Messy Desks in the Office Can Actually Lead Employees to Think More Clearly, Say Researchers states:

A messy desk can actually lead people towards clearer thinking, say researchers from Germany.

The researchers found in a series of linked studies – using a messy desk and a messy shop front – that people actually thought more clearly when all around was chaos, as they sought to simplify the tasks at hand.

Visual and mental clutter forces human beings to focus and think more clearly.

Famous thinkers and writers such as Albert Einstein and Ronald Dahl have been notorious for their untidy desks.

Messy desks may not be as detrimental as they appear to be, as the problem-solving approaches they seem to cause can boost work efficiency or enhance employees’ creativity in problem solving.

Google, a powerhouse of creativity, teaches us a valuable lesson about clutter and creativity. In the article, , it uses a lesson from the leaders and their discovery of how Google employees stay in the forefront of creativity:

On former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s first day at the office in 2001, he just saw a mess. He asked head of facilities, George Salah, to “clean up the place.”

The next day, Salah got an email from co-founder and current CEO Larry Page: “Where did all my junk go? I want you to bring it back NOW.” It hadn’t made it to the dump yet, and soon everything was back to normal.

Page’s reaction made Schmidt realize that he had mistakenly toyed with the fabric of Google’s culture. He is now a convert to the Google lifestyle, and says that you should let your employees make a mess of their desks if it’s a natural expression of their creativity and doesn’t hamper their productivity.

The problem is—it’s perception vs. the ability to be organized. Organization is, of course, the key to success—and proving it’s always other people’s fault. Another problem is the perception of creatives. We are seen as twits, fools and stupid enough that stories about “rich friends” that will give us paying work, “plenty of money later,” and “being the go-to person for all the company design needs” are used globally for free work.

My desk was never clear of piles, along with assorted toys and bric-a-brac the company produced. As with my childhood, I knew which pile held what and I never lost anything from a pile, unlike my easy-to-find file folders in my filing cabinet.

I’m not a bit surprised that some people had deep suspicions about my files. They were secret and hide something, and interfered with those people’s tin foil hats to stop government mind readers. Still, in an office, one must play to the team and everybody’s a part of the team. That’s when I went freelance.

Clients Want Efficiency—Right?

As time marched on, the digital joys of Google Drive and workflow systems killed off physical folders—and the thefts thereof. I still, however, kept my filing system and now everything could be put into a digital folder forever, and ever, and ever. It seemed the perfect way to track projects for freelance clients.

Confused Asian business woman

“Oh, you don’t remember approving that extra money for a complete change?” BING! Here’s your electronic copy via email. Clients had the same reaction as some former weasely coworkers—they were afraid of the digital evidence. Contracts, emails, version upon version of changes and spreadsheets of rising costs were powerful reminders that design costs money.

So, what can a freelancer do to “dumb down” their organization, but still remain in control of a professional project? Do you lose money when scope creep starts happening, or shrug when the client doesn’t remember ordering $1,000 worth of changes? There are steps that need to be followed for harmonious relationships.

It’s All a Power Trip

An efficient freelancer is frightening to a client. They want to be the smartest kid on the short bus. They want to be the one in control, who calls the shots, terms, money and process. Unfortunately, they also want more and more for less.

When you show you’re organized and have an answer for every misunderstanding, to be polite about most feigned “misunderstandings,” many clients feel they have lost control. Moreover, a client doesn’t like smart “artsy types.”

At a recent cocktail party I attended, some man was chatting about his new business and needing a website and social media. My date chirped about how that was what I did for a global clientele and Fortune 100 clients. Naturally, the gentleman offered me the honor of doing all of his design and social media work for free. He claimed, of course, that he had rich friends who would see my work and pay me “a bundle” to to work for their companies.

I smiled and started to tell him what I would charge. He came back with the other ubiquitous excuses to not pay for design work. I shook my head and told him I didn’t work for free.

“Well,” he said angrily, “then you’re stupid for not taking this great opportunity!”

After exclaiming that I was stupid and didn’t know wrong from right, and would stab him repeatedly with the cheese knife, stuck in a wheel of Brie, he ran from the room.

More Control or Less?

There are two extreme sides to what’s best for client dealings. At an evening event at a local design studio, the account manager spoke about the need for transparency with a client. I agree that it’s important to keep the client informed at every step, almost daily if they seem the nervous type.


I’ve done this via email reports that also, when appropriate, listed the hours spent, changes made, and any other billables so the client would see where the budget was being spent. I’ve been told I send too much information, and have been told the client didn’t read most of the reports.

The other end of the spectrum was a creative that claimed the process should be “enigmatic wizardry,” leaving the client out of the process completely and then presenting the finished project. As that never happens in the real world, we nicknamed this man “Dumbledork” for his love of wizardry.

Somewhere in the middle, closer to reality, of course, is the perfect blend of control, and letting go.

Give the Power to the Client

It wasn’t so much the threat of a cheesy death that drove that prospective client running from the room as it was he lost the control position. Suddenly I was in control and he hated that. So, what did I do wrong?

What I should have done, was worked on gaining him as a client, rather than a murder victim. Sure, he was an ass and the excuses to trick me into doing free work were aggravating, but there is a way to use efficiency to turn that around.

Firstly, when confronted by the insistence of doing free work, you need to prove the need to be paid but not seem insistent. You should have a good idea of what you need to earn to make a living and not work at a loss to your business, because that’s what freelancing is. Turning down free work is not a loss, so there is no gamble on losing a client if you reply with a monetary figure. Naturally, increase the figure you need and discount from there. While you end up with your basic rate, the client will think they are in control and getting the best of you. It’s not a pride thing on your part because you’re making your fee. Who cares if the client thinks they got the best of you?

Office frustration

Let them boast to their rich friends and let those people line up to take advantage of you in the same manner. In the end, you haven’t lost any money and have new clients who think your fees are below market rate. You can only go up from there.

Keeping efficient files of terms, progress and “blame” files are things you should keep quiet about. Pick your battles and you will win the war. The files that prove the client is wrong are usually only good if you need to go to court or show the client why your fee has increased due to excessive changes or scope creep on the original project outline. Don’t mention or show that you have compiled a paper (digital) trail.

Playing dumb isn’t a sin, nor is it something that should hurt your pride. Jerry Lewis became a millionaire playing a clown, although I personally don’t know why, but it proves that everyone loves a fool because it makes them feel superior. Let the client lead and when it comes to standing up for your rights, as with a line in an old Sinbad movie, “trust in Allah, but tie up your camel!”

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices. Follow him on Twitter @speider.

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Kelsey @ Brosix
1 year 9 months ago

Interesting perspective. I never thought that my clients would not welcome an organized and efficient freelancer working for them. But I see your point… However, not clients are created equal and I have some super organized clients and I love them! I just hope they love my efficiency too!