If you’re in the freelance game for a while, it’s only a matter of time before you strike them: the “difficult” client.
Difficult clients can seem to suck the oxygen out of your business and your daily life. You dread having to deal with them and your work is often held up as a result.
Of course “difficult” is going to look different to different people, but generally speaking, we are talking about clients who might display the following characteristics:
- They never like anything, or they want you to do things in such as way which you know is not best practice.
- They try to make lack of planning on their part an emergency on your part.
- They are rude or abrasive.
- Their check is always “in the mail.”
- They go AWOL in terms of communication, putting your work behind.
- They keep wanting to add things which were not part of what you initially agreed to and think those things should be part of the fee agreed to in the first place.
If you’re faced with a difficult client along the lines of any of the descriptions above, here are a few strategies for dealing with them.
#1. Keep A Clean Paper Trail
A common mistake made by freelancers lies in not keeping clear paperwork right from the beginning with a client. It’s difficult to turn around and say that the request they’re making was not part of your original agreement if you have nothing to refer back to.
First of all, you should always have some kind of contract and Scope of Work (or Statement of Work) written up before undertaking any work for the client. Your scope is going to become a key document for you if you find “extras” starting to creep in. The Scope of Work should clearly state exactly what you will deliver for the project as well as anything that is absolutely NOT included.
You might also include delivery dates of each element, as shown in this sample Statement of Work from About.
Your contract should include things such as how much you are charging for the project and any clauses around that (for example, number of revisions). You may be able to help prevent “scope creep” by clearly stating in the contract a rate at which you will charge for additional items outside of scope. This may be sufficient to cause clients to think twice before adding extra requirements.
Tip: In a situation now where you’ve already started work without documentation? It’s not too late, you can always get the docs written up and sent to the client “for their records.”
Keep A Record of Conversations
Sometimes scope items or certain courses of action will be discussed and agreed to outside of the project documentation. If this happens to you, make sure you keep a record of those conversations, even simply by sending an email summary to the client afterwards.
This helps to protect you from any of those “he said, she said” situations where everyone denies who is responsible for what or what exactly was said.
Source: Search Engine Journal
#2. Keep An Eye On Communication
Communication problems are often at the root of client relationships that go sour. Here are a few things to look out for:
Method of Communication
This is something that it’s best to sort out early on in the relationship with the client: how will you communicate? Are there certain agreed check-ins you will follow for updates?
The problem with email is that it often takes a long time writing in updates, emails go missing or get lost in crowded inboxes and some people just aren’t good at managing email. You may want to consider another channel where you can communicate and easily find past conversations. Certain project management softwares will do this, or even a chat app like Slack.
Clarify For Understanding
Assumption frequently leads to mistakes. Clarify everything with the client to ensure you’re clear on what it is they want you to do. This could be as simple as going back to them with a few bullet points summarizing your previous conversation.
Hold Up Your End
Don’t be that freelancer who disappears for much of the length of the project, only to reappear right at the end. Check in regularly and respond to any queries your client sends. Meet deadlines and generally hold up your end of the bargain.
This is 101 stuff really, yet there are plenty of freelancers out there who are overly casual about communication and deadlines. These are the ones who prove to be a nightmare for clients, in which case difficulties in the client relationship may be the fault of the freelancer.
Raise Any Issues Early
If something isn’t working with the way your project is going, don’t let issues escalate. Speak up early and clearly explain whatever the problem is to the client. Usually this is better done either in person or over the phone.
Again, make sure you record any outcomes of the meeting and send them an email or message confirming the points which came out of your meeting. This could be any of the issues we listed at the beginning or even a problem with the project brief (such as something not being defined enough).
The other point with raising issues early is that if the client doesn’t listen, or says that they’ve heard you but revert to the same behaviors as previously, you have a record that you at least tried to resolve the issue early.
#3. Have Evidence Or Examples
This is particularly important for that client who is insisting that you’ve “done it wrong” or that their way would be better, even when you know that what they’re asking is not best practice.
The first thing is to always be patient and listen to their point of view: where are they coming from? Could there be something you’ve missed? Often, they’re not trying to be difficult at all, they’re just may be nervous or passionate about their project.
If you consider their opinions and still need to explain why what they are asking won’t work, be ready with evidence to demonstrate why what they are asking does not follow best practices. Give examples of projects which do and why.
If they still don’t want to listen, you can always either a) pull out of the project or b) write them a message saying you will continue, however you have some reservations. Clearly spell out what those reservations are so that they can’t come back later and say they weren’t warned!
#4. Be Firm On Payment
Payment issues have to be one of the most common pitfalls of freelancing. In fact, it’s such a common problem that The Freelancer’s Union is building entire campaigns, such as #freelanceisntfree on the issue of non-payment.
One of the key lessons many veteran freelancers will tell you is to always get some payment upfront. You’ll have your own preferences to work with, but either 50% upfront and the rest on completion, or 20% upfront with milestone payments along the way are not uncommon terms.
If your client falls behind, make sure you follow them up immediately. It really doesn’t take much for them to suddenly be months behind and many freelancers are still owed from well over a year back.
If you’re still not getting any payment out of them, you may want to stop work until they’re up to date on payment. It’s fair enough, you don’t expect a carpenter to keep working on your house for nothing, do you? If you’ve already finished the project and it’s that final payment which is not turning up, sometimes a small claims court or simply giving it up as lost are your only forms of recourse.
#5. Know When To Walk Away
Freelancers always tend to be concerned about preserving their reputation, often to the point of hanging on too long and trying to salvage a relationship that’s not working.
If a client has become so difficult or rude that it has become impossible to continue working with them, then making a break for it is probably your only option left. Send them a brief, polite message explaining that you feel it is best for all parties if you resign from the contract.
You may choose to let them know you’ll help them out until they find a replacement, but you’re under no obligation to do so, especially if you did raise those issues early and they haven’t been resolved.
Above all, the lesson here is to keep it professional. You want to minimize the likelihood that anything can be used against you.
Source: Confessions of The Professions
It’s virtually inevitable if you spend any length of time freelancing that you will come across difficult clients.
To begin with, make sure you set up the whole relationship correctly. This includes using documentation such as a contract and Scope of Work, making sure both parties clearly understand what is and isn’t included and setting up a communication system which works for both parties.
Be firm with your standards, clear about reasons and requirements and raise any issues early. Most reasonable people will try to work things out, but if you strike the client who escalates from “difficult” to “impossible”, your best course of action may be to simply walk away.