How To Respond To Unusual Client Requests

An up and coming freelancer asked me about how to deal with unusual requests. We all get these from time to time. Once someone learns that you are a designer, writer, photographer — any type of creative — you will be presented with requests for some sort of special treatment. I describe some common situations and ways you can respond to them.


Services in trade

It is commonplace for freelancers — especially early in their careers when budgets are small — to trade services. For example, you write my press release and I’ll design your promotional email. In these cases, no money changes hands. There is often no written agreement created for the trade.

I don’t recommend operating on a barter system. It is very difficult to guarantee value for value when trading services. I’ve had people propose a barter for services I don’t need. My goal in running my business is to put food on the table and pay my mortgage. Receiving free massages in exchange for designing someone’s business card is not a value-for-value exchange.

When offered a service in trade arrangement, consider what you will spend on the project, and if it is wiser to spend it on income-producing activities. Barter does not produce income.

If you decide to barter, do it on a contract basis as if it were a compensated gig. Spell out the values of the services and expectations in writing and in detail, including itemized deliverables, roll-out schedules, deadlines, rights transferred. Both parties should sign the contract. Both parties need to give it their best effort and keep it professional to avoid problems arising from assumptions, laziness and lack of communication.



I am often asked to give discounts, especially with start-ups and non-profits. I don’t, for the reason that I’m not selling products but providing high quality services.

Discounts will devalue your work in general. Even if you agree to promise a one-time courtesy discount, the client will expect it again and again. Protect your income by avoiding discounts.

One approach to discounts is to set a higher fee initially, and offer a discount if payment is made immediately. Another option is to reduce the scope of work so that it will fit within the client’s budget range. This is the option I choose.

Another problem with discounts is that the client may refer to you to a colleague. If the client tells the colleague how much they paid, the colleague will expect a discount as well, and then you’re stuck with it.

Whether you choose to offer discounts or not is up to you. Be sure your client understands the actual value of the work, and signs a written agreement before you start the project.


Friends and family

Surely you will get a requests from a sibling, cousin, or BFF, to design their whats-it or write their acceptance speech. Treat any and all projects as business, no matter who the client is. Use a written contract. Outline expectations, deadlines and payment schedules. Friends and family will be least likely to consider the project as a business transaction, and most likely expect special treatment and not follow through with payments.


Use a written contract. Outline expectations, deadlines and payment schedules.


It is easy for me to back-burner a project I’m working on for a family member who is paying me. I have to pay extra attention to be sure I treat that project like any other client project. If it is easy for be to get lazy about it, it’s just as easy for the friend or family member to get lazy about it as well.


Pro bono work

Pro bono for the good projects don’t put food on your table or pay your mortgage. It’s up to you whether you take on pro bono work.

I work with several faith-based and secular non-profits on a paid basis, but I regularly receive requests from organizations asking for deep discounts or free work simply because they represent a good cause.

The best way to address pro bono requests is to have a policy in place ahead of time so that you can respond professionally. Decide what your pro bono policy will be, and stick to it.  For example, for me to work pro bono:

I need to be a donor to the non-profit prior to receiving the work request.

I allot a set number of hours each year for pro bono projects.

I work on no more than two pro bono projects per year, and require requesting organizations to submit an application.

I take on pro bono projects as an in-kind donation, and require a receipt or acknowledgement letter from the organization.

I utilize written contracts for all pro bono projects.

All pro bono projects are for creative fees only. I do not donate expenses.


Things you might consider for your pro bono policy: Limit pro bono projects to a determined number per year involving no more than a certain number of hours or a certain value. Arrange an in-kind sponsorship, documented in writing, so that you can deduct the real value of the work as an advertising cost on your income taxes.

Work with non-profits whose causes you support. I’ve turned down projects because I don’t agree with the cause. I’ve even declined to work with non-profits for pay. If I don’t agree with the cause, I won’t do the work.

Limit pro bono work to projects that fit with your goals and vision. Avoid anything that will pull you off track. It’s a good idea not to let others’ expectations dictate your business decisions.

You make the request. Find a non-profit or NGO that you want to work with and approach them. Find what they need, what problem they need to solve, and work out a contracted project. Again, be sure you have a signed agreement that describes the deliverables, schedule, problem to be solved, and the value of the job. Also, the organization should reimburse for any expenses you incur. Your time and talent can be pro bono, but expenses are costs which should be paid. I pass through costs without markups in these cases.

Sappi Paper and AIGA have established grant programs for designers who want to work on cause-related projects. Check them out.



“I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

Doing work now in hope of being paid later is not good for business. Think about that. The do-this-for-me-now-and-I’ll-pay-you-when- I-get-my-business-going offer makes sense to the one offering, but is not a good investment on your part. Refer them to fiverr or 99designs and walk away. In fact, RUN away.


Spec work

Do this for me and I’ll pay you if I like it. Speculative work is frowned upon by most professional creatives. If you are going to spend time creating someone’s web site, you deserve to be paid for the work, period.

Spec work is unethical and inequitable. You cannot maintain a professional relationship or the health of your business working on spec. Just don’t do it.

Also, spec work is not pro bono work.


Desperate requests

You’ll recognize desperate clients or failing businesses because they are in panic mode. They request work that they need done immediately in order to save or start their businesses.

Because they’re desperate, they’ll have many demands,  fret over schedules and be constantly scrutinizing your creative process.

If you ask the question, “What’s the reason you need this work right now?”, their response will give you the information you need to accept or reject the project.

A good reason not to touch these kinds of projects is simply that their business is in trouble. They’re trying to compensate for or fix something that went wrong. Their I need it NOW demand will not allow you to do your best work, and it’s highly likely that their panic will translate into your frustration. You’ll spend more time managing the client than doing good work.

Additionally, if the client is in trouble, they may not have the ability to pay you. Even with a contract you may be chasing payments for months to come. Refer the desperate prospect elsewhere.

Protect  yourself by having an Ideal Client Description and not compromising on it. Ideal clients are able to pay you and will pay as contracted. If not, they are not ideal.

As a freelancer you have the freedom to say No to any request. That makes your Yes more powerful.


Your Turn

Have you received requests for special treatment? What were they, and how did you handle them? Share your experiences in the comments.

One Response

  1. In the past, a co-worker had requested me to design her a business card and in exchange she would redesign my living room. This person was pursuing a new career in interior design and I was excited for her but I had to respectfully decline. She persisted and offered to redesign another room instead. I let her know that I was not in need of a redesign in any of my rooms and requested that she pay me for designing her business card instead. She was not happy with my response and no longer wanted me to design her business card. The funny part about this was, she was never at my home to see if it even needed a makeover. I didn’t think it needed a makeover! : )