Clients From Hell!!!

Over 40 years in television, video, commercials, promos & documentaries I’ve worked for literally hundreds of clients. The vast majority have treated me professionally – communicating effectively, paying me fairly and on time, never taking advantage of my skills or services, living up to our good faith (sometimes written) agreement.

Beware the Client that…

FORGETS THEIR CHECKBOOK BACK HOME. I had a client for a shoot in Romania that was to pay me at the end of the shoot. (I’d paid all my own travel expenses to work for a handful of clients on the same trip.) They apologized, saying their checkbook was back in America. They’d broken our upfront understanding. I was not happy. (This happened once at a media seminar in Puerto Rico, too.)

WANTS MORE TIME TO THINK THROUGH FINISHING THEIR PROJECT. One difficult client declared that their group now wanted 4 months to decide what to keep and what to cut from the just shot project. Moral: Put precise dates for completion in your contract with them (that also include a schedule of payment terms and dates).

If a ministry, church or missions group…TALKS MINISTRY WHEN YOU WANT TO TALK BUSINESS; TALKS BUSINESS WHEN YOU WANT TO TALK MINISTRY? Run away from this client quickly!

I had a big church in Texas years ago that wanted to hire me as media director. They put me on hold for 6 weeks re-interviewing me by phone almost weekly. Talked ministry the whole time. Promised to fly me out with my wife for more interviews. They reneged (because they’d found another leading candidate in the meantime). It was a waste of my time and theirs, and I eventually told the administrative pastor that too. He was stunned, but apologized.

TRIES TO CANCEL WHILE YOU’RE HEADED TO THE AIRPORT. It’s happened to me twice. One client had second thoughts about hiring me. It was all about the money. Called the very day I was leaving on an around-the-world trip, including their shoot in East Africa. I persuaded him to reconsider.

Another client hired me for a shoot in India, called days before I was to leave, asked what the consequences were to cancel? I said, “I keep the money, which I’ve put toward airfare. If you cancel? I’ll just sit in the hotel in India. Or? I can shoot a project for you if you go through with the contract. Your money will go toward a story.” They reconsidered.

Moral: In the contract have terms stipulated with dates and cost amounts if there is a cancellation. Remember, if you’ve already prepped the shoot, you have a right to keep a certain percentage of the budget for your time and effort. And try to get some money upfront. That helps reduce your financial risk.

DECIDES NOT TO TAKE DELIVERY OF TAPES, SD CARDS OR FILES. I had a client from Canada that refused to take delivery of videotapes I’d shot for them involving a great project in Zimbabwe. The main person knew that as soon as I delivered the tapes to his group he was obligated to pay me my final check (which I needed). We went back & forth on the delivery issue. He got mad at me that I didn’t understand his TV ministry’s lack of cash. I was made out to be the bad guy. So I reminded him that he and I had a contract, I’d shot his project, please take delivery, I need final payment. He did, reluctantly. (He later said bad things about me to good people.)

WANTS YOU TO COVER TRAVEL COSTS YOURSELF. I had a well known humanitarian client ask me to cover the costs with my own credit cards (to be reimbursed later) for a full camera crew going to Uganda  Not one penny upfront. That was a lot of risk on my part, not theirs. Instead, after some back and forth, we arranged for one of their group’s traveling executives (who was also on the trip) to cover the Uganda hotel and food costs from his company credit card. It finally worked out okay.

WANTS DELIVERY OF SD CARDS OR FINISHED FILES WITHOUT PAYING FIRST. Please DO NOT give a client their source material or final files without payment first. (I have too many horror stories of chasing clients – who had the finished files or tapes – for final payment.)

WANTS YOU TO TRAIN ONE OF THEIR RELATIVES OR STAFF MEMBERS ON HOW TO DO YOUR JOB. Soon you will be fired or laid off, the relative or staff person then will take over your position. In Ghana shooting an event, I once was asked to train a truck driver on how to run one of the main stationary cameras. I was never hired by the group again.

WANTS YOU TO DO THE FIRST PROJECT FOR FREE. Don’t do it. Once you’ve done a freebie upfront? They’ll never call you again – unless it’s another free shoot. They will lure you with possible future work down the road. It will never happen. Tactfully say, NO.

Just before traveling to Kenya for a media conference, I had a group from Ethiopia ask me to take a side trip to their nearby country (after speaking in Kenya) to teach at their film school for free (while my also covering all travel, food and hotel costs personally). “It would be a great start for our mutual relationship” at their new film school, they said. I politely had to say, No. I knew from past experience that If I spoke and traveled for free for this first event? Then that’s what would always be expected of me in the future. A servant is worthy of his hire.

MAKES MULTIPLE CHANGES TO THE PROGRAM WITHOUT ADDITIONAL PAYMENT! In my contract I stipulate the client gets a rough cut and a near finished cut (a “fine” cut) to which they can make a certain amount of changes. Any other changes? $$$ per hour. Period. That way they can make changes to their heart’s delight…at a cost to them, not you.

Amateurs can’t make up their minds. Professionals know what they want.

FINALLY, BE CAREFUL ABOUT DOING TOO MANY LOW BUDGET SHOOTS OR PROJECTS. Once you do low budget? You’ll be known as a low budget producer or director or camera person. When the client eventually gets more money they will hire a more expensive director. You’ve determined your value early on – low budget.

Yes, you may have to do low budget at first, but once you’re established with experience & talent? Raise your price.

This is good enough for now. If you’re doing freelance “hired per day” work? Just write down your agreement, send the client or hiring person a simple email covering your understanding of days, price, role, out-of-pocket. You can go back to this email if there is a misunderstanding.

Now, if it’s a project? Create a DEAL MEMO spelling out start, production, editing, finish. With dates, prices, cancellation details, delivery, responsibilities. Get it in writing! (And…watch your back.)


(You will feel so much better after you do.)






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