Difficult Clients: What to Do Instead of Tearing Out Your Hair

I’ve been very fortunate over the course of my freelance career. A majority of my clients have been nothing short of perfect – on-time payments, clear expectations and prompt communication.

But no matter who you are, or where you are in your career, you’re going to have that one. That one client who, no matter how hard you try, will seem as if he’s trying to make your life a living hell.

There are the clients who scope creep. You know what that means. Initially, the client has asked for a press release. Somehow, he “forgot to mention” that you’d also be responsible for distribution.

Clients will get angry with you for the most stupid reasons. They’ll forget to pay you. They’ll ask for revision upon revision until the end deliverable looks nothing like what the client originally asked for.

Freelance life ain’t easy. Clients aren’t, either. Here are a few things to remember when you’re dealing with a difficult client.

You Could Just Deal With It

Your client pays your mortgage. He is your boss. He’s the one who, if you were in an office setting, would have the authority to fire you.

You, as a self-employed professional, have the option of turning the other cheek. You could allow this client to badmouth you, tell you off and make your workday miserable. After all, losing this client would mean loss of revenue.

But I don’t recommend that you turn the other cheek. Instead, you could…

You Could Ask for Clarification

Before you began the contract, you got said contract in writing, right? If not, that was your first mistake. Even if you have spoken with your client on the phone regarding his precise goal, it’s critical to your success that you get everything in writing.

There are a few reasons for this. First of all, you can always point back to the contract. “Hey, Mister Client… but YOU said…” is usually very effective.

Secondly, there are measures in place through many payment methods frequently used by new freelancers. Platforms like Upwork offer security, as do payment portals such as PayPal. But without a paper trail, you can’t prove your case.

Regardless of whether you have a contract or don’t, whether you’re using PayPal or not, your first step should always be to ask for clarification from the client.

Recently, a client hired me for a last minute project – it was a Friday night. I told him that I was traveling during the day, but that I should be able to get around to his needs during my “evening shift.” He responded, “Don’t stress this one. You seem busy.”

I took that to mean that he wanted me to nix the project, that he’d find someone else or would write it himself.

A week later, I sent an email to ensure that he’d gotten it sorted. He responded, “Yeah, so were you able to get around to it?”

Oops.

I did the project that day at a deeply discounted rate. There was an obvious miscommunication – lack of understanding on my part, and lack of explicit words on his. This can happen to anyone, and it’s frequently cause for frustration.

Don’t let it be. Clarify first.

Clients are People, Too!

Clients are people, too. Just as you don’t share details of your dental exams and your soccer practices with your clients, your client doesn’t share his activities with you.

Your client hired you for a reason. Maybe he’s too busy to write his own marketing emails, and he needed your help. Maybe your language isn’t his native tongue, and he wanted a native voice to speak for him.

Both of those reasons could also be cause for miscommunication. Late payments, scope creep and a multitude of other “sins” could simply be caused by something utterly benign.

Take it in stride, and remember that there’s another human person on the other end of this arrangement. Be understanding of the humanity behind the client.

Become Indispensable to Your Clients

I mentioned in a previous post just how important it is to become indispensable to your clients. You can’t do that if you get pissed off every time they have a bad day.

If you’re new to freelancing, this is especially solid advice. As I mentioned, your clients are people. Don’t forget that. A moody client is better than no client, and there’s a good chance that if you stick with him, he’ll stick with you.

Later in your career, you’ll have the flexibility and the financial solidity to just quit your client. But is that what you really want to do?

I’m an extremely moody person. I go from hot to cold quite easily, and it gets me in trouble at times. But I have freelancers who understand that I’m probably just either high on stress or low on caffeine. Those freelancers have my heart.

Mind you, I never yell at my freelancers. There’s no abuse here – that’s not what the community is about.

I’m the type of person who loves to use twenty words where four would suffice.

My freelancers (and some of my clients) know – if I use four words, it’s best to call back later.

All this is to say that if you’re the freelancer who considers the humanity of the client, you will become indispensable. As a client, I can guarantee you that.

You Can Quit Difficult Clients

I mentioned abuse. There is no place for abuse in your workday. Just as you wouldn’t tolerate it at your office job (you’d call the labor board in a heartbeat, right?) you also don’t need to take it as a self-employed professional.

Name calling, swearing, threats or threatening behavior, blackmail, intimidation or the warning that your pay will be withheld are all examples of abusive behavior.

My advice? No matter how far along you are in a project, there’s no amount of money worth that stress or fear. Quit the client then and there, and don’t look back. Let him do the damn project himself.

I don’t recommend you make a habit of quitting clients. But, with that said, it is one of the benefits of self-employment. No one chooses for you. YOU choose your clients. YOU dictate your schedule. And YOU set your boundaries.

Difficult clients are few and far between. You’ll come across a handful in your career, and my best advice to you is to simply remember their humanity, then roll with it.

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