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Difficult clients — we have ALL been there. Am I right?
You land that elusive contract, start planning how you will spend the money, and then, as you get into the day-to-day project stuff, you start to notice some issues. The client doesn’t call you back, asks for things that weren’t included in the proposal, or is never happy with your work.
Your heart sinks as you realize what you have signed on for.
Dealing with difficult clients is part of being a freelancer of any type. You will run into all kinds of personality types, and it is your responsibility to learn how to communicate effectively with different people, manage conflict, and ultimately, decide who you want to work with and when a client is just too difficult to continue on with.
Not every problem that crops up in your business is due to difficult clients. It is vital to take ownership of your business, your choices and your work.
It is equally vital to assess how the accounts you work on affect you. Some projects are not worth it and are just not for you.
So how do you distinguish when difficult clients are just a little quirky, and when they are truly toxic to your freelance career? This article will explore the different types of clients, strategies for dealing with your more difficult clients and when you should just say no.
Ready? Let’s go!
7 Types of difficult clients
Some clients are not satisfied unless they are getting a special deal. You quote them a price and they immediately fire back with a lower price, or added work for the original price you offered. While there is nothing inherently wrong with negotiating, if a client is always trying to squeeze more work out of you at a lower rate, you can probably add them to the list of difficult clients.
There are a few ways to deal with hagglers. You can choose to engage, starting at a high price and giving yourself some wiggle room. Or you can choose to provide realistic quotes and gently let the client know that your prices are set. Either way, decide ahead of time, and ensure you charge what you are worth.
Revisions are part of freelance life, whether you are an artist or a coder. But some clients take it a step further and ask for major revisions, over and over, even when you have delivered what they asked for the first (or second or third) time.
These types of difficult clients usually aren’t trying to be difficult. They are struggling to decide what they want. Asking some questions and guiding your client to some solid objectives can help, but at some point you may need to charge for additional revisions, or cut the client off if they can’t understand that your time is valuable.
We have all worked with difficult clients who believe in magic—or at least that you can pull just about anything out of your metaphorical hat. Whether it is an unrealistic deadline, a ridiculous volume of work for a low price, or expecting you to produce something that the technology has not been invented for yet, this client’s expectation isn’t matching up with reality.
It is your job to be upfront about what you can and cannot achieve. If you don’t have time, or lack the skills to do the job they are asking for, trying to do the impossible won’t help you or difficult clients. It will only cause more problems in the end.
Certain clients believe that their project is so exciting, so important, and so far above your pay grade that you ought to be thanking them just for the privilege of working with them.
I’ve seen in startups, where they are so excited about their work (and often short of cash), that they want you to get on board with their vision and provide a hefty discount to get things off the ground. Big name companies in certain industries sometimes have a similar mentality.
If you are really excited to get involved in something, it might make sense to cut your rates temporarily to get your foot in the door. More often, though, clients who believe they are doing you a favor will always see you as just a way to get cheap labor.
You sign a contract and get started on work, and come up against a question, so you reach out to your client…
…and hear nothing back.
It might take weeks to get the attention of some difficult clients. And then, when you do get in contact with them, they want the project done immediately, even though they were the hold up. These difficult clients are infuriating, as they never seem to recognize that everyone is busy and has a full schedule.
With a ghosting client, setting boundaries is important. If they can’t work within a reasonable structure, it may not be worth it to continue the relationship.
These clients want to micromanage every single thing you do. They will nitpick every choice you make, check in constantly, and ask for super-specific results.
Sometimes, a controlling client isn’t so bad. They know what they want down to the last detail, so you can get a project done quickly, get paid, and move on. Controllers become difficult clients when they try to completely take over. They don’t have the same skills as you, but they are still sure they could do a better job.
If you have ever delivered a project and then had trouble collecting payment, you have come up against a dodger client. They may offer excuses, or simply stop replying.
In this case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say. It is best to set up a payment schedule, including a down payment, so you aren’t left hanging after delivering your work.
Tips & strategies for communicating with difficult clients
No matter what type of difficult client you are dealing with, laying the groundwork for good communication is the key to getting past uncomfortable situations. Here are some basic tips for setting up strong working relationships, even with difficult clients.
You should expect honesty from your clients, and you should always be upfront with them. Talk about what your strengths as a freelancer are, how long it will take to complete a project and your work process.
Don’t promise things you can’t deliver, and ask them for the same courtesy. Honesty sets up trust, which is vital in a business partnership.
Communicate your working hours and stick to that schedule. Some freelancers prefer to work evenings and weekends, but this is not true of every gig worker. Let your clients know when and how they can get a hold of you, and when they can’t. You should set similar boundaries regarding timelines, payments, and taking on new work.
It can be tempting to shut down with difficult clients. You might feel you are right, or annoyed that the client seems to be taking advantage of you. This is true sometimes, but other times, asking some simple questions can help you figure out what is really going on and address the problem before it becomes bigger.
Be the expert.
When you are done listening, remember that you were hired for a reason. You have skills that your client does not, and you can help direct the project in the direction it needs to go. Be polite, but assertive.
Use multiple tools.
Not everyone communicates exactly the same. As you work with difficult clients, you will start to learn their preferences, but it is important to remember in the beginning that, while texting might be your preference, an older client may do better on the phone.
Video calls work in some cases, but other times, when feasible, a face-to-face meeting might be worth the trouble. Important documents like contracts, deadlines and approvals should all be written through email, so you have something to reference. Choose the tool that works for both the personality of the client and the situation at hand.
How to vet prospective clients to avoid the difficult ones
It is so much better to avoid difficult clients altogether. How do you do that? Millo has an in-depth article on attracting the right kinds of clients, but I will boil down some of the key takeaways here.
First, pay attention to your messaging. Your website, portfolio, resume and marketing materials should all be directed towards the niche clients you want to attract. You’ve worked hard to narrow your expertise, be prepared to showcase that! High-quality marketing will attract high-quality clients, so invest in this part of your business.
Second, be sure to have an effective onboarding process. You can weed out a lot of difficult clients just by communicating your expectations, pricing and processes up front.
Finally, rely on your network to help you find the best clients. Create a referral program, offering incentives to your current favorite clients. Odds are they work around like-minded people who would be happy to have your services. You can also ask around before taking on new clients. Referrals and reviews go both ways.
Deal with difficult clients properly
Difficult clients are inevitable, but recognizing the problem, communicating clearly, setting boundaries, and standing up for yourself can help you get through those tough situations.
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