Dealing with Ridiculous Client Expectations

By Jake Poinier

Earlier this week, I received a freelance referral from a previous client for a web project — and an object lesson in dealing with ridiculous client expectations.

Nice guy, we got along swimmingly. We went through the sitemap for the new, improved website, I asked my usual rotation of questions, and it seemed like a good match of their needs and my background.

Then, about a half-hour into the conversation, he mentioned that my referral contact had thought the price would be around $1000.

I must have raised my eyebrows halfway up my forehead, because he quickly backpedaled and said something to the effect of, “Now, keep in mind, he had just thrown a number out. I’m a numbers guy, and just wanted to let you know my expectations.”

I resisted the urge to run screaming from the room, knowing there was no way $1000 was going to be even close for a 20-odd page site. We wrapped up the meeting in businesslike fashion and shook hands. I told him I’d crunch the numbers and have an estimate for him the following day.

When I crunched those numbers, they indicated a cost of around triple what he was expecting. I sent the bid anyway, with a mention that I realized the estimate was far higher than he was anticipating. Perhaps not surprisingly, my phone has not rung. But you know, I’m OK with that.

Besides the need to reject lowball freelance work, there’s another lesson in here: You should never, ever try to estimate the cost of someone else’s services. My previous client, in an effort to be helpful, had established a mark that would be impossible to hit, even if my rate was half of what it is. The best course of action is always to let your fellow creatives do their own math — or things aren’t likely to add up.

Jake Poinier busted out of his corporate chains to become a freelance writer and editor in 1999. He runs Boomvang Creative Group and blogs regularly as Dr. Freelance.

5 thoughts on “Dealing with Ridiculous Client Expectations”

  1. Man, that had to kind of freak you out. I got, in a way, a reverse thing. A guy hired me to create a website for his little group of consultants and had a lowball fee. I created the site based on what he paid. Then the members started asking for the moon. I had to remind them that they ONLY paid a certain amount, and if they wanted more, the price would be going up drastically. Lucky for them, I signed them to a monthly maintenance agreement. They’ll get a lot of what they wanted, but not all at once, and certainly not anything fancier than what they’re paying for.

  2. I was on the opposite end of this once–I had just taken over as managing editor for a company that was running some poor web design guy all over creation and back and then were dragging their feet on the payment. I had to wade in there and force the money out of them. Sheesh.

  3. @Mitch, it was in my top ten “shock moments” of my freelance career. I’m sitting there, looking at a fairly complicated site map which needs ALL new text, and he thinks $1000 is going to cover it?

    Thanks for sharing your anecdote. “Not all at once and nothing fancier than what they’re paying for” — words to live by!

    @Joe, some of my toughest days were as a managing editor. I don’t believe many people outside the business realize that you’re the hub of every darn thing that happens…while the editor takes all the glory.

  4. good point.

    I recently learned a lesson of my own. I quoted rates for an editing job by email but didn’t spell out things like a minimum amount, extra fee for rush and weekend work…I began the work and found it needed a lot more time than most.

    After well into it I realized I was not going to break even so added in a charge for extra email exchanges to cover the rush job fee I hadn’t mentioned to this first time client. The client actually challenged the extra fee even though the price was already cut-throat. She did not feel she should pay it.

    My lesson was quote more accurately and in detail because some people take your quote as final price & perhaps preview the work before quoting. (I charge a per word fee.)

  5. @Rosalie, thanks for commenting. That is a great lesson, and your takeaways are 100% on the mark. Even if someone “pushes” you to give a quick quote without all the details, you need to resist the temptation in order to protect yourself. It’s pretty much impossible to raise your fees after the fact.

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