The 7 Scariest Words in the Freelance World

By Jake Poinier

“We have just a few more changes.”

OK, if I haven’t scared you off with that skin-crawling, please-shoot-me-now, 7 Scariest Words in the Freelance World phrase, stick with me. It’s a horror story with a happy ending. (For the background on the client relationship, please see “Your Digital Triage Kit.”)

My design partner and I had delivered everything in the contract for a Fortune 500 company. The incremental changes during the editing/approval process had been tedious, but the files had been appended with “_FINAL.docx”, and we were ready to invoice.

Only FINAL didn’t mean final-final. We started receiving a steady stream of “we have just a few more changes” emails—with the requests now coming from a third-party PR firm that I’d love to name, but I’m too much of a gentleman. (Barely.)

I was floored. I disagreed with most of the comments, which were a combination of silly and this-would-take-another-100-words-to-explain. My partner took the position that we needed to stick to our guns, and I agreed: Either we were done, or additional changes would come at our hourly rate.

She wrote a pleasant, logical, and firm email that explained our position. And guess what? The über-boss of the project gave her a call…and ended up seeing it our way. Which, again, left me floored. This time in a good way!

For me, there were three takeaways:

  1. We were right to stand our ground, knowing that it could have backfired—they could have said we were breaching the contract unless we made the changes. Clearly, that could have been a never-ending process.
  2. We were remiss in not defining the word “approved” in the contract, which was provided from the client end. I’ll confess, specifying the number of rounds of changes has always bothered me, and in my almost 12 years of doing this, I’ve rarely had someone abuse the privilege. I may need to rethink my position.
  3. Third parties, trying to prove their value by criticizing your work, are toxic.

Please share in the comments: Do you specify rounds of changes in your agreements? Does it work? Has it ever backfired?

Jake Poinier runs Boomvang Creative Group, an editorial services firm, and blogs regularly as Dr. Freelance.

9 thoughts on “The 7 Scariest Words in the Freelance World”

  1. Just this morning I began an email with this sentence:

    “These are not ‘minor tweaks,’ these requests represent a major revision.”

    Most of my clients pay me a retainer and are tiny, so it’s a bit different than working with a huge corporation and having other parties involved. I don’t usually limit revisions, but am also rarely asked to make more than one or two changes.

    Congratulations on having the courage to stand your ground and also on swaying the big boss to your view of the situation!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dava. My clients range from big corporations to solo acts, and I’m rarely asked to make many major revisions either.

    Most of the time the honor system is sufficient, which is why it’s so disheartening when someone thinks the editing merry-go-round is a fun, exciting toy.

    And for the record, it was my partner who did the swaying. I’m a fortunate guy!

  3. I grinned ear-to-ear when I read the first line! I always wonder when I send in the final product, if that sentence will pop up or not. 🙂

    I totally agree. Sticking to your guns can be hard, but it’s really worth it!

  4. Glad I could give you a laugh, Catherine. On the Wall Street Journal Community forum where I host a “Creative Freelancers” group, I posted the link, and someone proposed another great 7-word doozy: “Your check is in the mail tomorrow.” No doubt there are many more. Maybe we need to host a “Top 10 Scariest Freelance Client Phrases” contest! I’d chip in for a prize. 🙂

  5. Whether your client relationship is fresh-out-of-the-box or long-standing, it’s always a good policy (especially in these days of tight budgets and demanding project parameters), to clearly define the scope of the project to control unexpected surprises and to manage expectations.

    Even if you’re working with a long-term client, someone new on the staff could be thrown into the middle of a project’s process and may base interaction with you on a previous relationship or worse — just being “clueless”!

    Revisiting Client Agreements and Letters of Engagement at the onset of a client relationship or from time-to-time with existing clients as the industry evolves is just a reasonable precaution that there is a foundational understanding and agreement which can be referenced if “scope creep” or other unpleasantries arise.

  6. I do specify the number of changes in my contracts.Learnt to do that when the uber-boss I was working with on a project delegated oversight responsibility to someone else, and the process got longer. During the development of one newsletter edition, I ended up having to do a complete rewrite of the content (after we’d finished doing the design) because uber-boss was very unhappy with the new direction the newsletter had taken and the info I was given to develop content was out of date. Limiting the number of changes pushes the client to give me a complete brief and the correct info I need to proceed with the project.

  7. Hey Jake-how did I miss out on this site? Have to get it in my feed.

    Thanks to Lori Widmer for featuring it at her blog.

    Anyway, back to your question. Yes, I ALWAYS specify the # of rounds of revisions-standard is up to two rounds. I have never (knock on wood) had a problem with it.

    I seldom am asked to do any edits because the ones done are minor and handled by the client, but I totally agree with Eileen, it’s always a good idea to have the scope spelled out. I do it for every project I receive.

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