Been There, Done That: Be Professional


Professionalism is something that everyone pays lip service to but often doesn’t get put into real practice, whether out of laziness, ignorance, or spite. While this list doesn’t contain all the possible ways you could be unprofessional, it pinpoints the most common and self-destructive unprofessional behaviours that people who rely on commissions and freelance work engage in.

I get it; sometimes clients are so irritating that it’s hard to resist being unprofessional, but for those of us who rely on their money to pay the bills, it’s important to just take some time to whoosah and do things professionally so that you don’t screw up your business.

If you’re professional with an unpleasant client, they might still complain about you but at least, they’re the ones who are going to sound like assholes.

So, with that said, here are the areas where a lot of unprofessional behaviour arise:


1) Rejecting a client

A friend of mine was looking for a graphic designer to do a illustrations for a presentation. I contacted a few on her behalf since she had no clue how to commission work (this is going to be another post) and sent them the pertinent details, including a deadline within four months.

One illustrator responded this way: “If I’m ever interested in the project, I’ll email you.”

The hell?

I said, “Is this a ‘no’?”

And he said, “Sure, I’ll let you know.”

I understand that some people might have trouble saying no because they’re afraid people won’t like them, but behaviour like this simply accomplishes the same thing and more.

Other terrible, unprofessional ways of saying no include not replying back and ghosting, making up ridiculous conditions (one illustrator who clearly did not want to do the project said that she would only participate on the condition that the illustrations could only be printed out and could not be used in electronic format), making fun of the project or client, or agreeing to take on the project and then passing it on to someone else.

If you don’t want to do a project for whatever reason (it doesn’t pay enough, it’s raining, you just don’t feel like it), there is one very simple answer:

“Thank you for considering me, but my schedule is too full at the moment (or at the time period requested), and I’m afraid that I can’t give your project the attention it deserves.”

This is a classy response that says no in a very clear and direct way without insulting the client (and even tosses in a subtle compliment about the importance of their project) and at the same time, makes you look like you’re very sought-after.

If you like, you can also include “However, I know someone talented who might be able to take it on” and refer someone else. But that’s not as important as simply saying no clearly and politely.


2) Correspondence and clarity

I’m an old coot, so I may be biased here, but for God’s sake, if you accept a project, do not try to negotiate contract terms or jobs over social media like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter or through chat apps (unless it’s with someone you know well).

You don’t have to write this out and send a letter via post, but please use e-mail. Write a proper letter that includes the following:

– An expression of thanks

– A reiteration of the project

– Any conditions you want to confirm

– Payment details and deadlines

– Any questions you may have

A short example would be something like this:

Thank you again for considering me for your project!

Just to confirm, the details are as follows: 8 full-colour illustrations total for a brochure on silver jewellery, with notes and information each illustration, including sample images, to be provided by you.

Once you send me the information for each illustration, I will provide a sketch within 1 week of receipt, with up to 3 revisions. We can do more revisions but with an additional charge of (x).

Each illustration will be completed within 3 weeks of the initial sketch.

Total project fee is (x) with a deposit of (x)%. Balance is due within (x) days of project completion. If we terminate the project before completion, I will keep the deposit.

Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns about these terms, and if you are interested in commissioning me for the project.


It may not be fair, but a client can be as casual and unprofessional as they like with their correspondence, but in order to cover your ass, it’s best that you aren’t.

Don’t be like this dude who replied:

yehh ok. Where u based? u can paypal me or bank transfer, no problem lol. when u wanna start, is this urgent?

This dude may be extremely talented and disciplined but this makes me reconsider hiring him, and I don’t think I’d be the only one. Also, please don’t include abbreviations like “lol”. Please.


3) Paper and audio trails

Always leave a paper or audio trail. This is why e-mail is fantastic.

Otherwise, during meetings, either write down notes or ask permission to make a recording. All good meetings should have someone doing minutes anyway, but it’s always good to have your own notes to refer to, just in case.


4) Deadlines and conditions

Always confirm time lines and conditions before starting the project. Set your boundaries ahead of time before they become problems.

Also, the shorter the deadline, the more expensive things have to become. A friend of mine was commissioned to write a 50,000-word book in six weeks. Six weeks! He decided to quadruple his fee, and the client backed down and gave him a more reasonable deadline. At first, he was worried that the client would find someone else, but he realized that the stress of completing the project in such a short period wouldn’t be worth the payment, so he put his foot down before anything got started.

There’s a Singlish expression that has been succinctly explained by the Coxford Singlish dictionary:

AI PEE, AI CHEE, AI TUA LIAP NEE (Contributed by K. Ang)

Teochew saying which literally translates as ‘Want cheap, want pretty, want big breasts!’ It is used to describe someone who wants the earth, ie. someone with unrealistic or unreasonable desires or expectations.

“Singaporeans all very hard to please, one. They all ai pee, ai chee, ai tua liap nee.”

The Western equivalent would be “Fast, good or cheap: pick two.”

It is only professional to (politely) make this clear to your client instead of being passive aggressive about it or avoiding the topic for fear of losing your client.

Your conditions should also be spelled out very clearly. A lot of clients don’t know what they’re doing, and if they suddenly want to make drastic changes, at least your ass is covered by your early conditions.


5) Messing up

On the other hand, if it’s you who suddenly can’t meet your own conditions, make it clear from the start what the penalties are for yourself. When it comes to admitting your mistakes to clients, I know life just throws curveballs sometimes, but you have to remember: “explanations, not excuses.”

If you know you’re going to miss a deadline, don’t wuss out and avoid the topic. Let your client know as soon as possible, and offer options.

Aside from deadlines, maybe you had a lot of sudden personal obligations and your work quality suffered or maybe you misunderstood something. If that happens, don’t blame other people, be professional and take responsibility. And do something to fix it before you go to the client.

I once made the mistake of working with someone terribly unprofessional for a launch event for a big furniture company. I was meant to handle the communications and public relations, while he handled the nitty-gritty details of the event, but by the time we were edging towards the event date, I was doing most of his work due to his sheer incompetence, which he blamed on various things, like being too stressed and overworked.

One of his responsibilities was to book the event entertainment, which included a dance troupe. He was given a budget of HKD15,000 for five dancers, which, because he didn’t have a paper or audio trail to confirm the details, he ended up misremembering as HKD20,000. When he realized he screwed up, his first reaction was to confront the client and blame them for changing the budget. Yes, he thought it would be a good idea to just bluster and bullshit through his mistake.

I suggested it might be a better idea to come clean to the dancers. If they wouldn’t do the event for less than HKD20,000, then it was his responsibility to pay the difference. Fortunately for him, the dancers agreed to the original budget, and his ass was saved.

But I can tell you now that he’s never worked on another event again. Word gets around.


6) Criticisms

Yes, clients often say stupid things and make stupid decisions. That’s why, as part of your fee, you should include the pain-in-the-ass tax. From the way your client approaches you about a job, you should get a feel for whether or not they’ll be trouble. If you sense that they are, charge for that.

Like they say about prostitutes, clients are not paying for the sex, they’re paying for the prostitutes to leave afterwards. Clients are paying for you to put up with their indecision, idiocy, and bad choices, so charge them and just whoosah it away.

I know it’s hard. I once had a client tell me about copy I’d written: “Make it more exciting but don’t change it.” I’ve also dealt with cultural ignorance. It’s fine to get annoyed, even angry and upset, but as a Buddhist monk once said, “I cry but my tears have no roots.”

Don’t reply right away. Go do something good for yourself, and then consider whether or not the client has a point. It’s possible that they’re just terrible at communicating a true concern. Be as objective as possible. Ask an honest friend, if you can’t.

Then go back and thank the client for their input and clarify things. If you’re lucky, it may just be a misunderstanding. If not, think of the pain-in-the-ass tax and grit your teeth and just get it done.


7) Bad clients

The unprofessionalism I was most guilty of when I first started out doing commission work was getting angry at bad clients. I was that person who pounded someone’s locked office door and yelled, “Pay me, you motherfucker!” (He still has not paid, and it’s been ten years.)

Some clients are just truly shitty people, and it’s really hard not to lose it. But really, the best way is to work on your whoosah before you reply.

Rally people around you. Don’t make threats. Just be factual and civil (at this point, it’s hard to be polite, I know, so just write like a cold-blooded lawyer).

And most important of all, know when to walk away. Know when it’s a sunk cost and just let it go. That will be the best thing you can do for your mental state and for your business. There’s no winning or losing with bad clients.


I didn’t cover the obvious things like plagiarism because I figure that this is beyond unprofessionalism, it’s criminal behaviour, and most of us know that it is wrong. If you are not aware of what plagiarism entails, I suggest you read up on it before you completely destroy your reputation because this stuff always catches up to plagiarists.

Just remember, the one thing that may separate you from the other talented people out there is how you behave towards your clients, so do yourself proud by being professional.


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