Elance Blog

Best Practices For Avoiding Drama on Elance

Here’s another post from Sarah Ratliff’s team at Coqui Content Marketing. She and her freelancers regularly share their thoughts on ways to succeed on Elance. 


Drama happens. As much as most people try to avoid it, sometimes it’s just inevitable. Fewer things can cause more stress than when things go awry with a client whose project you’re working on. In the five years since I have been an Elancer, I have seen many flock to the Water Cooler when things didn’t go as planned.

One minute things are rolling along nicely. Milestones are delivered on time, client expresses happiness and the job continues to run smoothly. Suddenly out of nowhere—as Elancers describe things from their perspective—stuff just hits the fan.

Client is upset; he wants to cancel the job or file a dispute, claiming something went wrong somewhere. Elancer is befuddled; she contacts customer service, and for some the advice offered is enough to proceed—one way or another. For others, the response isn’t satisfactory and they wind up seeking advice in the Water Cooler.

By and large most drama on Elance can be avoided. By following seven easy steps, you can manage to work with clients completely drama-free. Interestingly, I find that one, two and in some cases all these easy steps are ignored by both newbies and even veterans on the platform.

1. Learn to Read Between the Lines

When looking for jobs in the open marketplace or responding to invite-only jobs, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of reading between the lines.

Because most freelancers—newbies and veterans alike—read job descriptions, say to themselves, “Yeah Baby! This job was made for me!” and then start writing their proposals, they neglect to heed the obvious warning signs/red flags that are right there in the job description.

Writing job descriptions (JDs) isn’t something all clients know how to do. I have been on the client side of things for over four years, and it’s because I have been a freelancer longer that I have become good at determining a good JD from a bad one.

Some don’t understand the importance of writing out well-defined deliverables (or just don’t know how), and others know but just don’t learn from previous bad experiences. And then there are a few clients out there who actually intend to scam Elancers.

For the first type—he who has no clue how to spell out what he needs—the savvy Elancer knows how to draw this out of him and work with him to define his deliverables. This takes practice, but like getting the hang of anything, once you got it, you got it. 

Learning to read between the lines will allow you to decide whether to try and work with the clueless—but well-intentioned—client and how to avoid the recidivist who just can’t learn from his mistakes and the scammer.

For the clueless but well-intentioned prospective client, how to get the most out of him and his lack of a job description is to simply ask questions in your proposal. If he writes in his JD, “I need to hire a copywriter to freshen up the content on my website.”

After introducing myself, I ask questions like:

·      What is the service or product you are selling?

·      What is the industry you’re in?

·      What tone are you looking for: Authoritative, conversational or a combination of the two?

·      What don’t you like about your current content?

·      If you don’t know what style of writing you want, do you have examples of a website or two whose content you like?

·      Are you open to having a phone or Skype conversation so we can be on the same page before I start working on your content?

The last one is crucial, and for me is a deal breaker. Meaning, if the prospective client is not willing to talk with me over the phone, I am not willing to move forward.


I don’t take on any job without a phone call first, but in the case of someone who doesn’t know how to write a good JD, a phone call can clear up any potential misunderstandings. It also gives me a chance to assess his or her personality.

There are many Elancers who avoid these JDs because they won’t work with someone who can’t be clear about his needs. I disagree. Sometimes clients either don’t know exactly what they want or some know, but don’t know how to express it in their job description.

I have determined through past experience that I work best with a certain type of client. I don’t have an issue with a client who doesn’t always know exactly what she wants—because this allows us to have a collaborative relationship, which is essential in a long-term relationship (for me), but I won’t work with clients who are exacting. It’s nearly impossible to please this person.

If, however, you have come across a JD in which the client has spelled things out as clearly as she possibly can, now it’s time to look for red flags that should have you moving on to the next job.

Prospective clients can be very clear and still have poor intentions. Some have adopted a “mostest for the leastest” business model and some really do intend to cheat you out of your work.

Some phrases to be mindful of that are signs you should avoid this client at all cost:

“If you’re really good at your job, it shouldn’t take you longer than …”

“I am willing to pay you …”

“I can only afford x amount, but if you work with me, I’ll give you plenty of work …”

“I am in a rush. I need this within 24 hours. If it’s late, I won’t pay you!”

“Must pass copyscape …”

“Bids over x dollars will be ignored.”

“I need an expert in (whatever field you’re in) … but I’m only willing to pay (for example) $10 an hour or less.”

“Must be willing to provide unlimited revisions …”

“Must give me a free sample/mock up to be considered. I need to know if you’re the right person for the job …”

If you’re really good at your job, it shouldn’t take you longer than …” translates into, I expect you to drop everything you’re doing and work on my job NOW! It also says he is inflexible, and frankly, how does he know how long it should take you? If he knew, he’d do it himself. This is the same type of person who says, “I am in a rush. I need this within 24 hours. If it’s late, I won’t pay you!” By taking a job where the expectation is to pull off a miracle, the clock is ticking—toward a bad outcome. This client plans poorly or got himself into a serious jam and wants you to fix it. You are setting yourself up for failure, disaster, a dispute and/or a cancelation.

Someone who tells you how much she’s willing to pay for a job is cheap—pure and simple. “I’m willing to pay you …” comes from someone who values price over quality of work, or worse—expects perfection and a job well done but at rock-bottom prices. This kind of client will also tell you she “won’t accept bids over x dollars,” will expect an expert, but advertises the job for $10 an hour or less, and that your work has to “pass copyscape.” A hint about copyscape: if you are writing original work and aren’t copying it from someplace, it won’t pop on copyscape. If clients insist on paying “mostest for the leastest” prices, that’s exactly what he’ll get or should expect to get—copied work.

This type of client will also use the promise of “plenty of work” in exchange for lowering your price. Initially this looks enticing, and to many it is. Who wants to look for work? I know I prefer to have repeat clients than to have to continually look for work. But think about this: plenty of work at rock-bottom prices ties you up till the end of time and makes you unavailable to take on better paying gigs.

Still not convinced? If your new client asks for ten articles (I am a writer, so I automatically use writing examples) for $5.00 each and they take you an hour or two to write them, assuming you can finish all ten in one day, you’ve earned all of $50 for the day. You may be exhausted and have to finish the rest tomorrow, in which case you didn’t even earn $50.

On the other hand, you could charge $50 an article or more, and not have promised all ten in one day, but maybe one or two and you’ve earned $50 or $100, and if you charged more, here’s a high five!

Clients who ask for unlimited revisions are exacting, impossible to please and a cancelation waiting to happen. You only need take a job like that once to know it will end very, very badly.

Although many advocate addressing revisions in their proposals, I don’t. I see that as fine-tuning—which I do in my phone call and in the milestones I create. To me, the proposal is a conversation starter.

Clients who request free work, samples and mockups have no intention in buying the services of any freelancer. In addition to that, it’s against Elance’s Terms of Service (ToS). They’ll often use the rationale that there’s no way they can determine if you’re a good fit. If he can’t discern this from the samples of previous work you’ve submitted, he’s not a serious buyer.

Do two things:

·      Decline to bid

·      Report it as a violation

2. Vetting Clients

Many vets will tell you to never trust a client who’s brand new with no Elance history. I disagree with this because some of our best clients have been Elance-green. A well-written job description with clear deliverables tells me this client’s job is at minimum worth submitting a proposal to. If you think of a proposal as a conversation starter, what have you got to lose?

Chances are good that if you find clients whose JDs commit one, two or all of the above red flags, they will have a client profile that has:

·      Numerous cancelations

·      Many jobs that end in poor feedback

·      A history of paying peanuts

Oh, you don’t look a client’s profile before bidding on jobs? I have talked with dozens of Elancers—both newbies and veterans (who’ve been on the site as long as I have or longer)—who admit to either never or rarely checking out clients’ profiles before bidding on jobs.

Clients’ profiles tell you as much about them as their JDs do. Clients who write out clearly defined deliverables in their JDs will generally have profiles that indicate they hire quality Elancers who charge premium rates. The feedback they give is well thought out, measured, professional and rarely will they have a cancelation or a dispute on their profile.

3. Address Clients’ Needs in Your Proposal

Another way in which many Elancers expose themselves to drama is by not addressing clients’ needs in their proposals. This happens with both newbies and veterans. I know because as a client I see proposals from both, and the majority—yes, the majority—do not address my needs, despite the fact that I am extremely detailed in my JDs. I’m very clear about what I am looking for, the kind of freelancer I envision doing the job, my desired timeframe and even how I want to be addressed.

I remind Elancers not to submit contact information in their proposals (and it shouldn’t be anywhere in your profile either) and that if I hire for a test, I expect to pay you for it. I can’t tell you how often my needs aren’t addressed, contact information is freely given and free samples are offered.

I check out their profiles, and like the client who asks for free work, pays peanuts and expects delivery within an hour after award, these Elancers receive frequent bad feedback and have multiple cancelations.

They’re a match made in heaven.

4. Check Out Your Competition

If your prospective client has used the “throw spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks” method of inviting Elancers to bid on her job, RUN! This buyer didn’t do her homework and just invited any ole ‘body’ to perform her job.

Prospective clients who do this also tend to ignore obvious signs things will end in drama. Inviting multiple Elancers whose company snapshots display 4 stars or less, are 20, 30, 40, etc. percent recommended and have feedback after feedback from clients who were disappointed with the quality of work received are asking for trouble. And they’ll get it.

5. and 6. Listen to Your Gut and You Can’t Be Too Clear

If after reading a job description and checking out a client profile you feel this client looks good on paper, but something tells you to walk away, listen. I have no idea why my gut tells me to run sometimes, but I can tell you that the times I ignored that feeling, drama ensued, and I felt like kicking myself!

Don’t talk yourself into something. Your instincts are on overdrive for a reason.

Create very clear milestones. If it’s a fixed-price job, I let the client know I want to create the milestones. Rarely do they object. Once they’ve agreed, make sure they fund escrow on every milestone. Unless you have a trusted relationship built up with a client, use Elance’s payment protection. That’s what it’s there for. Don’t ask to be taken advantage of.

7. Document everything in the workroom. If you have exchanged email addresses, and you’ve chosen to communicate that way, just let the client know that at least for the first couple of jobs, you want to have everything documented in the workroom. If they balk, it could be a sign they’re hiding something or have bad intentions.

If Things Go Wrong, How to Come Out of Drama Unscathed

My team and I have a nearly perfect record on Elance. Out of 600 jobs, I have had to cancel eight jobs because clients either refused to fund escrow before we started working or, in the case of one client, decided to change the terms and expect more work but for the originally agreed-upon price, which is known as scope creep.

As I said at the top, sometimes things just happen. Despite vetting the client, having a phone or a Skype call, writing a proposal that addresses the job description, being very specific in the milestones, submitting status reports, documenting everything in the workroom, ensuring escrow is funded beforehand and being on time with the agreed-upon deliverables, a miscommunication can occur.

Assuming you have followed all of my advice and you feel you have delivered your best work, you will have to file a dispute.

Nobody likes to go through this process, and on the one and only occasion I had to file a dispute, I am really glad to have followed my own advice. It’s really a non-story. The client claimed we didn’t complete the work as agreed upon. Unfortunately for him, I had created clear milestones and each time we completed that milestone, I submitted a completed status report. He released half and refused to release the final three.

Having documented our progress not just in the status reports, but also in the workroom, I had covered our butts and the dispute I was forced to file to get our money was more of an inconvenience than anything.

One of the things I do to stay drama-free is that I always make sure escrow is funded beforehand. I have seen too many posts in the Water Cooler that begin, “I know I shouldn’t have started work before escrow was funded, but …” For that person, unfortunately, there’s nothing Elance can do.

Have you had to go through a dispute or file a cancelation? What were the circumstances and how did things go?

PS: Looking for more free Elance tips? I recommend Danny Margulies' Top 5 Elance Hacks.

Drama photo courtesy of Michael Couglan



This article is really helpful as it shows I am not alone in a world of sharks surrounded by deception and lies. As a matter of fact, dealing with clients is not easy but yes, we should read between the lines, and yes I do generally analyse the offer and try to explain to client that his or her expectations are too high but '' la mauvaise foi'' of certain clients is something we have to live with .

Thanks for the nice article.



You're welcome. I'm glad it helped. So for the record, I don't believe we live in a world of sharks. I think some people simply don't knkw how to write good descriptions, which means it's up to us, the freelancer, to ask the right questions to elicit clarity. Indeed you'll encounter both exacting people and cheapskates, but I don't believe they comprise the majority.

To underscore that, I've onky had to cancel a handful of jobs out of hundreds awarded. I've had to file only one dispute, which because I was crystal clear in my milestones and because I placed everything in the workroom, it was a non-issue.

So, don't stop trusting. You'll bever get with. Just be aware of red flags.


Oh my goodness! The iPad and its interpretive editing. Apologies for the myriad typos! :)

Hi Sarah, thanks again for answering an I do have the same problem with my phone which for my part is French and English so you can well imagine. I admire your optimism but I do keep my spirits up, and yes as I go , I continue to learn bit by bit and I do hope something positive will come out of this Babylonian tower.
Mazeltoff or cheers (though am sober since my birth and tea drinker as English can be) :)

5 out of 5 . Excellent & extremely helpful

Hi Sarah.

Fantastic article. One of the problems I'm having with potential clients on Elance is with sharing "my approach to the job". Because my work is technical, the solution strategy can be simple (read: not easy.) They usually ask for more specific information regarding that solution strategy to vet me alongside the other candidates.

What I'm finding is that in order to compete against the massive number of offshore resources, I have to justify my "approach to the job" in greater and greater detail.

Once I do this (even though I'm not giving away the horse), I never hear back from the potential client again, after a "oh, great ideas, fantatstic!" response. I surmise what is happening is that my potential solution (no matter how high level) is making its way over to a much less expensive resource.

How would you handle this type of issue? I'm finding this problem over and over, and my competition is quite fierce for the sphere in which I work. I'm finding it almost impossible to win any contracts.

Thanks in advance.

Hmmm how about from the client's point of view? I have had freelancers fall off the face of the earth when clearly expressing deadlines and accept jobs where they clearly did not have the skill set they claimed to. It works both ways.

Hi Margo,

As an Elancer who's aleo a prolific client, I can empathize with your frustration. I've posted more than 1000 jobs and I've spent over $500,000 buying the services of Elancers, and so the advice I guve you is not just willy nilly.

I wrote this blog a while back about how serious clients see Elancers. I hope you'll fund it useful.

One suggestion I don't make in this blog but that I will impart to you is to consider upping your budget significantly. I found that the moment I began paying professional rates for services, cases of flakeitis disappeared instantly and they never returned. Similarly, when I started charging professional rates for my team's services, we attracted only serious clients and these relationships have lasted years.

Although it seems like high prices are too expensive, as with the brick & mortar world, frequent turnover is more costly than doing everything to keep quality staff. As a result, most of my team (with the exception of those I've hired since we expanded last year) have been with me for years.

Take it or leave it, but this is my best advice to you.



Apologies for the iPad errors:
Aleo is also
Guve is guve and fund is find.


I liked your article a lot, it is very useful. I would like to add, that not only some clients try to undercut the market, and get something for nothing. There are also quite a few freelancers who offer to work for absolutely ridiculously low rates - I am in the translation business, and I just refuse to go below a certain rate. Perhaps Elance should step in here, and give some guidelines.

Thanks again,


Hi Sigrun,

Thanks for your comments. I am glad you found it useful. I have to respectfully disagree with you about rates. Keep in mind that freelancing is not what it used to be. There was a time when nobody dared to freelance until they'd had umpteen years of experience in that field under their belt. It's different now. With estimates suggesting that 1/2 of the U.S. and 1/4 of the world will be freelancing by the year 2020, this means not all will have had umpteen years of experience.

For example, half my team comprises millennials who never worked a day in a brick & mortar setting. Either straight out of high school or college, some went directly into freelancing and learned as they earned. While horrifying to many of the more established freelancers, this is the trend.

I also don't feel it's Elance's place to "skool" freelancers or clients. Perhaps what they could do is set up different virtual doors that reflect experience:
Door number 1: inexperienced
Door number 2: still learning the ropes
Door number 3: highly experienced

Again, while this might seem appalling to many, it's moot. This is the future and like it or not, it's the way we're headed.

I don't have a problem that half my team never worked in the B&M world. I wish I hadn't spent over 20 years in it personally. One could even say that I may as well not have, given that I chose to be a writer when I came to Elance, despite that my B&M experience had nothing to do with writing. I too charged ridiculously low rates in the beginning and now my team and I are among the highest on Elance.

I don't see how what freelancer X charges impacts what you charge. Charge your rates and stand by them. Let others charge what they will and if you find clients wanting you to cut your rates because so and so has lower rates, move on. That's what I do. I don't even engage with them.


PS, my family and I lived in Nigeria for 8 years. We left just after the onset of the Biafran conflict in 1968. My brothers were born there.

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for your comments. I am no longer a newbie and have rave reviews, and yet I find it difficult to get new jobs.
Strangely enough, my first job on Elance was the best paid one!


Hi Sigrun,

I never implied you are a newbie. In fact, I made the assumption--looking at your profile and having gone through your portfolio--that you are anything but. This was the basis of my response to you.

I will just wish you well.


Hello Sarah , while am here and readng comments, I am new to Elance and to freelance, I see sometimes freelancers act as contractors, they accept say 9 hrs of audio and then they look for freelancers to work and deliver, I was wondering as experienced freelancer, how do you find a pool of reliable freelancers to do the job if you dont have a team? Sorry if the theme is not relevant but if you can help me to a link.



There are two types of people who do this on Elance (in my experience). One are known as farmers. They accept the job from a client for x amount of dollars and with or without (usually without) the client's knowledge post a job on Elance and find people do the job more cheaply. This allows the freelancer to make money without ever doing any work.

Then you have me. I run a full service content marketing agency. I market myself as a team and when I bid on jobs or market ourselves off the platform, I market the services of us all on the team. I listen to the client's needs and then determine who would be the best writer, graphic designer, coder, researcher, etc. for the job.

The first is easy. I know because I started out that way. The second one takes years to build. It's a LOT of trial and error and it's not something I can give advice on how to build a reliable team in a short reply like this. It's a very complicated and time consuming process that you'd have to shadow me for months to learn how to do. And it's something I charge a lot of money to learn.


Hello again Sarah, thanks at least for giving me a genuine answer, I appreciate3

You're so welcome.

Hi Sarah,

Can I ask what exactly you say to scope creeps? I had this happen recently and it's hard for me to know what to say because I do worry about retaliation when it comes to being rated, as that is so important when getting jobs...

Thank you,

Hi Susan,

If you have had addressed his needs in your proposal (to the best of your ability), had a phone conversation to iron out all the details, put the details of said phone conversation in the workroom, created clear milestones that reflect the conversation and workrokm notes and he has accepted those milestones, don't fear retaliation and/or a dispute. You're covered. Just make sure to get the job funded.

One learns to take the reigns with unclear clients or suffers scope creep and drama.


As someone who spent a considerable amount of time working for "contract houses" and an equal amount of time as a contractor in my own company, I think you have hit the nail on the head with your article. Not only did it bring back memories, it made it clear to me that if anything, things have gotten a bit "worse" as time has progressed. Seems as though way too many people now think that everything should cost less than $10 and should be done and running yesterday!

Great article, and I think I am glad to see that others are just as wary as I am when it comes to gigs!