I was a student and so naive when I began in this freelancing business. Here’s how I thought it would go. A client would come to me with a writing need. S/he would give me the details of what was needed. I would then follow those specifications, craft a great piece of writing (blog posts, ghostwriting, marketing brochure, press release, etc.), collect my fee, and move on. And, that client would be so happy, s/he would return again and again and refer me to others too. I hadn’t counted on difficult clients – those individuals who consume about 80% of a freelancer’s time and yet never seem to be quite satisfied. Ultimately, I categorized my difficult clients and did a bit of interpersonal relationship research to develop some strategies to deal with each type more effectively. Does it always work? No. But it does work more often than not. Here are my categories of difficult clients and some tips for dealing with them more successfully.
“I Need it Yesterday!”
This client is always in crisis mode. Whether it is because s/he lacks organization, simply has a psychological need to live from one emergency to the next, or has a boss who makes unreasonable demands, accept that things will never change for this individual.
You have decisions to make with these kinds of clients. If they are long-term and result in good income for you, then you are probably more willing to be accommodating. If, however, the income is pretty minimal and you dislike the stress his/her demands cause for you, it might be better to cut ties. But let’s say you want to keep this client. Here are some tips that tend to work.
- Be honest up front. Explain what your schedule is over the timeframe of his/her deadline. State that you are more than willing to work longer hours to meet his/her need, and that you will do your best to meet the deadline.
- Do not promise and do not guarantee. Nothing angers a client more than you not keeping a promise or a deadline guarantee.
- Keep this client off of the telephone. You do not have time for long conversations about your client’s stress, frustrations, and unreasonable boss. Tell him/her to email you exactly what is needed with all of the specifications. If you have any question, you can email back. If the client telephones you, don’t answer. S/he can leave a voicemail. You certainly can send a text or an email stating that you working on the project and to email you if there are any new developments.
- Follow your established schedule of other work. But, if you have decided that this client is important enough, then understand that you will be pulling late hours and/or weekend time to get the project completed. That’s part of what freelancing is all about – there are storms and there are dry times. You have to roll with them.
- Keep the client informed all along the way – a short text or email will do. Give an update and get back to work. If you have to give up social or family time to meet this client’s needs, only you can decide if s/he is worth it.
“I’ve Changed My Mind.”
O.K. Now, you are frustrated. You have had a lengthy discussion with the client about exactly what s/he wants, and you are busily doing just that. You send a draft or an update only to be told that there has been a “change of mind” and something different is now wanted. You grit your teeth, hold your tongue and try to be nice. Inside you are seething. Why couldn’t s/he told you about this “change of mind” before now when you are over 50% into this project?
If this is a rare occurrence with the client, then you can probably forgive the setback and take the new specifications/instructions/desires and work with that. If this is a pattern, however, you will need to adopt a very specific strategy.
- Make sure that every detail of the project is in writing and that the client’s approval of it is in writing too – an email will suffice. I don’t have formal contracts with my clients – most of our agreements occur by email, but that is a good written record.
- Send updates far more often over smaller pieces of the project. Get an O.K. or approval in writing by email after each update or draft. You will need a record of what the client agreed to if there is an “issue” later on.
- However you are billing, by the project or by the hour, this client needs to be on an hourly billing. Each time you get a project, estimate the number of hours and provide that estimate. Get a down payment up front. Make sure that your initial agreement includes a statement that changes which require more time will also be billable at your hourly rate.
- When the change is made known to you, provide the client with an estimate of the additional hours it will take, and ask for another payment toward the project. In this way, the client is always aware of the cost and the charge for changes up front. You don’t begin the changes until you get approval and the additional payment.
- You have to do these things pleasantly, of course. Be sure that you tell your client that making the changes will be no problem (while you bite your tongue) and you’ll be sending over a new estimate for his/her approval. Be upbeat and positive.
“I Don’t Really Know What I Want – Just do Your Magic.”
Sometimes, this is the “dream” client, because you can let your creativity loose and have fun. Sometimes, however, this can backfire on you. The project is finished and you hear, “This isn’t what I had in mind at all.” With this type of client, you have to take the reins and learn to ask the right questions to get some ideas and detail from him/her. Here are some important tips:
- Put together a draft of what you think the “end product” should “look” like. Supply the detail yourself, if the client can’t or won’t. And put it in writing.
- Send updates and drafts very often. While these clients may not know what they want, they may have a better idea of what they don’t want once they are presented with something. It’s much better to have them like or not like little pieces of a project as you go along so that changes won’t be so time-consuming.
“I Need a Daily Update”
This is the client who is a bit into power. S/he is unable to delegate well and wastes your time with phone calls, emails, and texts. If you need the money, then you have to stick with this client type, of course, and you have to be pleasant. At the same time, you cannot allow him/her to consume so much of your time. Clients like these make me think that they just do not have enough to do. But I have developed a few strategies that might work for you too.
- Every morning I shoot an email over to the client – really short. Usually, I say something like, “I will be working on your project over the next few days, along with several others I have. I probably won’t have an update for you until (fill in a date).” The point is to let the client know you will not be available, so if you do not respond to calls or emails, you don’t have to feel guilty.
- The other thing that often works is to spell out a timeline up front of when updates will occur – depending on the scope of the project. Then, they can leave voicemails or send an email if there is something urgent. This way, you can avoid long conversations and interruptions.
“I Know More Than You, so We’ll Do this My Way”
Some clients really do have poor taste, poor judgment, or very poor understanding of your business. These are probably the most difficult of all because you really don’t want to do what they want you to do – it will be a disaster. You can try to “educate” the client, but in the end, s/he is the boss, and you must do what is demanded. You can choose not to take the project at all, of course, and I have done this on occasion, rather than produce something that could compromise my reputation. If you decide to stick with it, however, you can do the following:
- As the project unfolds, send an update or a draft that is what has been demanded. As well, send your “version” as a second option. You can frame the conversation like this: “I took your great ideas and actually came up with two options – let me know what you think.” It is possible that your version will be the one selected, once the client can compare the two. You can also encourage the client to present the two options to a couple of colleagues and get their opinions too. Of course, this takes added time, but it may be worth it.
- Send two versions of the final product (again, more time on your part), especially if your client has to show them to a superior for final approval. When the boss rejects your client’s version, that client has another version to pull out right away. You have saved your client’s butt, and s/he will be forever in your debt. What’s more, she may have learned to listen to you more next time. And, your reputation has been saved.
You will never be free of difficult clients. Like “bad pennies,” they tend to return. And, even if you “dump” one, another will be along to take his/her place. Keep your cool, stay positive, communicate often but on your schedule, and just be certain that you have everything in writing all along the way.