How To Manage Difficult Clients As A Freelancer
Managing client relations are the hallmark of a freelancer’s life. Do it right and you’re setting up a sweet business deal that can last years. Do it wrong and that negative experience can make you question your whole business.
This post is about managing clients and how to turn difficult clients into reasonable ones, even if you swear never to work with them again!
A client, at the end of the day, is simply a person who pays you to do a job.
It’s a pretty basic concept but client management is people management and that means a whole different set of skills.
My very first freelance client was awful. Worse than any of the difficult client examples above, and my experience with him put me off freelancing for years. His name was David and I used to cringe every time I answered the phone and heard that familiar northern English brogue.
I was a young, naive graphic designer in my first job out of university. We were allowed to freelance on the side for, I think, about $20/hour. Which was a lot as an already underpaid junior designer.
David was the kingpin of difficult freelance clients - rude, aggressive, demanding and manipulative. The crux of my project with him was a pricing dispute and I lended up losing a couple of thousand dollars, which I could barely afford.
Kingpin David managed to combine a whole bunch of difficult client scenarios. You know, like people who...
Haggle over the price
Spend ages in initial emails and questions then baulk when given the quote
Keep changing the start date
Always want “just one more little thing”
Take ages to return revisions
Ignore your requests for a testimonial
Complain that the project “isn’t really what I was thinking of” but can’t explain why
Needless to say, this list isn’t exhaustive!
I could also include clients that want stuff for free, to “see your style” but I’ve managed to avoid these freeloaders in my freelancing experience. Probably because it’s easy to see style on my website, and I have my design portfolio, blog and links to my articles there. So, there’s no point playing that line on me.
I do get emails from companies and blogs who want me to include their products or write guest articles “for exposure”. I don’t even bother going there. If someone’s going to make money from my work, they’d better pay me. End of story.
One of the big mistakes I made with David is that I didn’t have a contract. So when everything went pear shaped, I had nothing to backup my claims.
And that is point #1 on how to manage difficult clients - or any clients for that matter.
Always have a contract
These days, I have a solid contract for all of my clients. Though to be honest, I only really put it together properly this year. I avoided it for a long time because I thought contracts were all legal eagle documents with fussy language and zero flexibility.
That’s actually the opposite of what a good contract should be.
You’re not trying to coerce your client, you’re reassuring them.
A contract should says simply that you’ll do X and the client will pay you Y, by this date. And any deviation from that by either of you, will result in Z.
It’s very rare that you’ll have to use your contract in court or something extreme like that. But it’s freelancing 101 and can very well save you thousands of dollars.
2. Set the timer
One of the fundamental things in managing client projects is the timeline. That’s why adhering to start dates are so important. Firming up a start date shows the client that your time is important and that they need to prioritise that time too.
If you can also show an end date, that’s even better. The more you can define the parameters and lead your client through a very structured process, the more confident they will feel about your abilities.
I typically offer a 2-week turnaround for my standard web design projects. This is a winner for clients - they know they will have a brand new website in just 2 weeks!
But it’s not just good for the client - this is a great way to keep clients on task and meeting deadlines. It doesn’t actually take me 2 weeks to set up a site. I also factor in revisions times and emails and waiting for feedback.
But knowing there’s a short time frame, the client also understands that they need to commit to the start date, and to respond to my emails and feedback requests promptly. So, it really is a win win.
3. Explain how it works
Once a client has paid their deposit, I send them a Welcome package. This includes a timeline of my web design process - a step by step rundown of everything I’m going to do from “register your domain name” at the beginning to “send final invoice” at the end.
I find this hugely helpful not only for the client to see how the process works but also for them to appreciate what happens when, and how much work goes into their project.
I wish businesses that I hire would do this for me - it would be great to see what my dentist does for $300/hour or exactly what a telecoms technician does with my phone that justifies me waiting 4 weeks for an appointment.
But if you run a services-based business, consider doing this for your clients. It’s definitely above and beyond the usual treatment. And if you can throw in dates of what will happen when, then even better.
By being transparent in your processes, you’re showing the client what they can expect from you and when. You’ve got a great handle on the process and are keeping them in line the whole way. They’ll feel reassured that you’re in control and are less likely to nitpick details.
Project management systems like Asana are also an option here. In Asana for example, you can input your timeline for each new client and then Asana notifies clients when a particular task is done and requests their input when necessary. You don’t even have to send your own progress emails to the client, and it’s all managed professionally.
4. Set expectations
I think it’s really important to be transparent and upfront about what clients can expect working with me, and how my business works. I’m very open about my prices, payment, processes, number of revisions and everything else involved in the project.
I won’t promise anything like getting on page #1 of Google, even though my SEO services aim to do that. It’s a common request for many of my clients and I’d love to say that I can do that but I won’t.
Setting expectations is also a way to channel potential clients from the start. Move them through the process you’ve designed. Make them feel comfortable and reassured working with you. Answer their questions but keep the flow moving.
I have a FAQ section on my contact page so people can read about me and how I work before even contacting me. It answers simple questions like site maintenance and SEO. So, by the time clients contact me, they have a pretty good idea of what I do. It saves a lot of time down the track.
I also want prospective clients to know the kind of person I am and how I work. For example, I’m not going to answer emails on the weekend; I’m a mum and that’s family time. So, clients (and starts ups are often like this) that want that kind of out of hours commitment aren’t going to suit me.
Being upfront allows me to weed out the clients I don’t want to work with and vice versa. So by the time we start, we’re more or less a good fit.
RELATED POST - What To Expect From Your Web Designer
5. Lock in the start date
The start date is one of the first things I set up with a new client. I want them to lock in the date and commit to working towards it. It’s not just a random date on the horizon, it’s part of a timeline. I then tell them what we need to do in the meantime, including working on the brief, having our strategy session by phone and getting their content together.
I also tell clients that if we have to move the start date, it may not be reset anytime soon. It’s important that they respect my time as well as theirs. Even if my calendar stretches free to the big beyond, they don’t need to know that.
I want clients to lock in a start date and start to get excited about our project. They can see that I’m clearing my schedule for their project but that I also expect a commitment from them too.
6. Get a deposit upfront
Show me the money! There’s nothing like investing hard earned dollars in a project to commit to it. That’s surely how the Weight Loss industry exists - upfront payments.
As soon as I’ve set a start date with a client, I send through my 50% deposit email and Welcome package to get the ball rolling. I do this asap because I need to know that the client is serious about the job.
Otherwise emails go back and forth and I’m spending unpaid time answering questions and persuading them to work with me. I don’t do that. I’m not investing any more time in the project until I’m convinced of that, ie there’s money in my bank account.
Paying a deposit upfront means a) your cash flow stays healthy, and b) the client is committed to the project. I also have a clause in my contract that says 25% of the total project fee is non-refundable. I’ve never had to enforce that.
7. Be friendly but firm
As a typical introvert, I’m not the best at setting boundaries and being firm. But I have to remember that this is my project. I’m in charge.
Once the revision stage is over and the project is ready to go, it’s my responsibility to wrap things up. By this stage, the client is probably used to me setting the pace. I can’t stop now.
Some end dates can stretch out a bit because you’re waiting on final revisions or the client wants to take a few extra days to mull things over. That’s normal. Hopefully, they’ll come back and say “Looks great, let’s go!” But maybe they’ll suddenly want an extra 25 little changes sprinkled over the next 2 weeks.
You need to know when to draw the line. Remember the contract and if the job is done, it’s done. Just call it.
I have a special discount rate for past clients that I like to mention to clients in my wrap up email. “I’m happy to make these little changes today but after that, I can charge your my special client rate of…” It keeps things friendly but also sets the boundaries.
8. Don’t haggle over price
This is a big one. Freelancers are always agonising over their fees. Am I charging too much? Too little? Is my work being valued?
A couple of years ago, I decided to put prices for my web design packages [link] on my website. There’s a whole argument around that but basically, I don’t want to waste time with the same old pricing queries. Also, when I’m looking for services myself, I get frustrated by businesses that aren’t upfront about their prices. I would rarely contact someone for a quote without having any idea of their fees.
Whatever. My point is that you have to decide on your prices and stick to them.
If a client queries your price, you have two options. You can either say, sorry but these are my rates, and perhaps suggest another freelancer. Or, if you really want the client, you can ‘amend’ your prices without actually reducing your money in the bank.
For example, you can omit services from your package, offer a discount for a certain number of services, or offer a lower rate as if they become a retainer client.
Just don’t haggle over your fees. It’s unprofessional and looks like you’re doubting or under-valuing yourself. Clients that ask you to reduce your prices are a red flag. And if you let them sway you on this point, you may be opening a can of worms for the rest of the project.
RELATED POST: How To Save Your Sanity And Say No To Clients
At the end of the day, client management is all about building long term relationships and positive work experiences. Some clients are difficult because they don’t understand the process or because they doubt your ability. Don’t give them the opportunity to do either. Make them take your project seriously by committing time, money and focus to it.
At the end of the day, most clients are pretty awesome. Maybe a few won’t be. But you’ll figure them out and learn to read the warning signs.
And remember, they may be the paying customer but it’s your show.
Tell me, have you had a difficult client?
About the author: Lilani Goonesena is a freelance communications specialist for small businesses and organisations, based in Canberra. She works on Squarerspace web design, SEO content and digital marketing strategy. She writes an awesome newsletter on digital marketing, social media, blogging, web design and "all that online stuff".