My clients used to treat me awfully – here’s how I fixed it

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When I started freelancing full time, many of my friends and colleagues believed I completely ditched a boss to work for myself.

Hold on a minute while I stifle back some not-so-discreet chuckles.

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Seriously?

Sure, freelancing comes with some pretty awesome perks, but ditching all of my bosses is definitely not one of them.

Here’s the truth: each client is, in a very real sense, your boss.

If you have one client, that’s one boss. If you have two clients, that’s two bosses. Three clients equal three bosses… and so on.

And, while we’re being truthful, here’s another dose of honesty: every client won’t always be the best, just like every boss isn’t always the best.

I consider myself lucky because the beginning of my freelance career brought me some incredibly amazing clients/bosses, who I’d drop everything to work with again.

They are the definition of what makes freelancing so incredible and freeing.

But I can’t ignore the several clients that managed to make my life miserable.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

These are the clients that treated me awfully and I’ll remember them well not for their charm or willingness to help guide a project to completion, but for their challenging nature, mockery, and poor treatment of me as a colleague, resource and asset.

Human nature’s first instinct is to respond to poor treatment with poor treatment. Fortunately, we know better and we can resist that instinct.

You won’t always be dealt the greatest hand when it comes to your clients.

Chances are you’ll get your fair share of unruly ones. But always remember, you get to control the dynamic of the relationship.

The bottom line: don’t tolerate poor treatment from your clients. You’re in the power seat.

Here are a few tricks I used to stop awful client treatment. You can use them to stop it, too.

Make sure your client understands you’re rooting for the same team

One of the greatest ways to change the tone of your not-so-enjoyable conversations with your clients is to remind them that you’re both rooting for the same team.

When your client succeeds, you succeed.

In no situation will it ever benefit you to see them fail or watch the project fall apart.

When your client understands that each of you want this to work, priorities will shift and your relationship will change.

You’ll begin to waste less time bickering about the stuff that doesn’t matter and focus more of your attention on how to reach the project goals.

Discuss how the client prefers you to communicate

You’ll likely hit bumps in the road throughout the course of your project.

When it comes time to discuss these bumps, your less-than-pleasant clients might not respond well.

Some will moan and complain quietly, while others will take to the streets with their anger.

When the “blow up” has subsided (and it will subside), take the opportunity to discuss how your client would prefer you let them know of future bumps, should there be any.

Ask your client, “How do you prefer I bring up future obstacles?”

Take notes on their response and reiterate their words back to them to be sure you understand fully.

When the time comes to discuss future “tough stuff,” deliver it in exactly the way that your client described.

By abiding by their requests, you certainly won’t avoid conflict, but you’ll bypass lots of the unnecessary “noise” resulting from client shock, anger, and frustration.

Speak face-to-face whenever possible

When waters started to get choppy with one of my clients, I suggested we get on the same page via Skype video conferencing.

The video call approach worked wonders with this particular client who had previously plagued my inbox and cell phone with less than forgiving messages of criticism and cruel words of frustration.

Your clients may feel courage to be rude or disrespectful when they sit behind the shield of their computer screen or telephone.

Consider changing the dynamic of your meetings to be face-to-face whenever possible.

Of course, it’s always ideal to meet in person, but if that’s unrealistic, face-to-face meetings over a video chatting application will suffice.

Always stay levelheaded, even during the tough conversations

It’s never easy to deal with angry clients.

You’ll have some that calmly express their dismay and frustration, but you’ll have others that irrationally lose their “cool.”

While listening to clients during those difficult conversations is never easy, it’s important to remember that the rest of the conversation depends, in large part, on how you respond.

If you fight fire with fire, the fire will only grow.

Keep that in mind when a client says something particularly hurtful.

Stop. Think. React calmly.

Remember, this is your reputation on the line.

Even if this conversation is the last you’ll have with this client, you’ll want them to remember you for how well you handled yourself in spite of their criticism.

Keep your cool but stand your ground

While on one hand, it’s important to stay levelheaded and keep emotions aside when dealing with upset or “rotten” clients, make sure to stand your ground.

It’s okay to allow your clients to vent, but it’s not okay for you to be their punching bag.

You’re a professional and you should be treated as such. Be stern and command the respect you deserve.

Let them know that you don’t believe they are treating you fairly.

Explain that you pride yourself on offering expert, professional services to clients who agree to work in healthy, productive, and mutually beneficial working relationships.

No matter where you are in your career your clients must treat you with respect, and you must demand it.

Recognize when it’s time to break away and take the loss

Perhaps you’re hesitant to cut the cord because you want to avoid damaging your reputation.

That’s fair, and a totally normal thought process.

But keep this in mind: you’ll never do your best work when you’re unhappy and working under poor conditions.

Never sacrifice quality of your life or the quality of your work to avoid losing a client.

You won’t win every battle, nor should you try.

If you are water and your client is oil, it’s time to cut your losses and respectfully part ways. Other projects and clients will come.

How do you handle clients that treat you poorly? Tell us in the comments!

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About Eden Fried

Eden Fried is a freelance writer, blogger, and web designer.  In early 2016, Eden quit her day job and bailed on her plan to attend law school so that she could start a blog and launch her freelance career. When she’s not at work, you can find her at the gym throwing around some weights or at home snuggled up to a good book. Follow Eden on Twitter (@edenfrieden) or check out her site directly at EdenFried.com.

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Comments

  1. Great article, and full of great options. I have been through just about every level of “client hell” in 18 years of running my own business. Thankfully I can say I have kept the end goal in mind (remember your reputation) and have learned to spot the red flags much earlier in the process. Cutting your losses and walking away is sometimes the only option.

  2. Great Article. After 4 years, I have been lucky that I haven’t found a client that was to harsh or treated me as a “punching bag”. This might be becuase I usually working with long term contracts. Also because, I try to bring positiveness into the equation many times since the morning by saying “Happy (day)”. It brings a smile to their faces and also mine. But at the same time, I show my professionalism through my work. Great points, Eden! I will keep them in mind next time I have a hard cliend

  3. Great article Eden. It all resonates.