How to deal with difficult clients

As a freelancer, you will occasionally be forced to deal with difficult clients. Learn how to handle them while remaining professional.

As a freelancer in the gig economy, there is no buffer between you and the client. That goes for good clients and difficult clients.

Rather than handing work to a manager, who then passes it on to paying customers; you are now dealing directly with that person or organization yourself.

This is a good thing because it means that you don’t need to share any of your profits. 100% of the proceeds will go to you, allowing you to beat larger organizations on price, while still making more profit!

Dealing with difficult clients

But with this comes some additional challenges. It is now up to you to manage the relationship with that client. To understand their instructions. And to deal with their most unreasonable demands.

Because sometimes, clients can be difficult. And when that happens, you need to know how to cope.

Types of a difficult client and how to handle them

Whether it’s because your client is trying to get more value for less, whether it’s because they are enjoying the small modicum of power that comes from being “in charge,” or whether they’re just bad people – sometimes you will get a rotter.

Here are just some of the ways that clients will typically try to push their luck, and how you can push back.

Asking for services you don’t offer

As a writer, I have been asked to write college reports, perform SEO, write meta tags for web pages, and gather emails for marketing purposes. Someone even once asked me to find clothes for them to buy and to provide them with all the links!

I am a writer, and not a dogsbody.

On all these occasions, I’ve refused the work, which has almost always been met with anger from those giving the orders.

The point is that I am a writer and not a dogsbody. When one client kept making this faux pas, I eventually explain to them that if someone with zero experience as a writer was capable of doing as good a job, then it wasn’t a writing gig!

While it may seem churlish to turn down work, this can become a slippery slope that ultimately ends with you doing all kinds of work that isn’t worth it for you and that isn’t what you are good at or enjoy. You need to draw a line in the sand, so don’t let clients sneak in work that isn’t related to your main service. And make sure that the work you do and do not offer is clearly defined at the offset.

Being rude and unkind about your work

I can take criticism and I accept that not everything I produce is gold. But I also know that I am experienced and at least somewhat talented. So if someone attacks my work, is aggressive in their criticism, or refuses to pay, I know that they’re at least partially at fault.

And even if the work is terrible, there is never an excuse for rudeness.

That said, if you should receive a string of expletives after submitting your work, you still need to stay calm and professional. Intentionally provoking someone a little unhinged is never a good idea. Neither is wasting a lot of time and energy getting into heated debates when you could be pursuing clients that are more deserving of your attention. If the client is rude by accepts the fee, just be polite and then move on.

There is never an excuse for rudeness.

If the client refuses to pay, your best options are:

  • Offer to make any changes they need on that project. If they refuse this, then they have no leg to stand on when trying to demand free work.
  • Offer a compromise by accepting a smaller payment.

If they insist on not paying, and they did not pay up-front, then often it is best to take the hit and move on. Unless this was a very large project and you can’t afford to absorb the cost, it is simply not worth getting into a protracted argument when they could retaliate by dragging your name through the mud. Ensure they understand that they may not use the work, and see if there is a way you can sell it elsewhere/repurpose it. Even if it simply becomes a sample for your portfolio, this can be useful.

Being slow to pay

Unfortunately, if someone refuses to pay for the work you provide there is very little you can do. Your best bet when a client is delaying payment is to try and be polite and sit tight. Being agitated is hardly likely to increase the speed at which they pay. That said, sending constant reminders so that they know you’re not just going to go away is a good idea.

If you are working through a site like UpWork or Freelancer, then you may have the option to leave a negative review or to involve the platform itself. In some cases, PayPal will even step in and pay incomplete invoices (predominantly if you have previously been using the service for a long time).

Either way, once you do receive the payment, consider that their one chance blown. And certainly don’t complete any more work for them until you have received the last payment.

A good piece of general advice though is to build the cost of bad clients into your fees, such that you can take hits without it crippling your business right away.

Asking for free samples

This is less “bad client” and more “a little cheeky,” but it can still be a big problem.

The issue is that when someone is thinking of hiring your services, they will often demand a sample of your writing upfront. What’s more, is that they will often expect you to provide a sample that is directly relevant to what they need. In other words, if you are an illustrator, they may not consider your existing portfolio to be enough: they might request that you draw the graphics for a flyer or a character for their game.

Free samples

This request might seem reasonable if you squint. After all, they need to see that you understand the brief and are capable of working in that specific niche.

But ultimately, they are still asking for free work. And this is work that they could use in their business no less! Why should you provide them with something for nothing?

If you have a portfolio, then you likely have plenty of examples of your talent and expertise on the show. And if they need a specific demonstration of what you can do for them, then they can place a very small order and pay for it.

Communication overhead

One of the most difficult client quirks to handle is a client that insists on talking endlessly. This is a client who is likely to order $50 worth of work, but who wants to have an hour-long meeting to discuss that project first. Or they send a zip file containing multiple documents and videos with their briefing.

In my experience, clients that wish to discuss things ad-nausea will almost always place small orders. Often these are people who are enjoying “playing business” rather than building anything or earning any money. You certainly shouldn’t be drawn in by promises that a client has a “huge order” after this “first little one.”

Dealing with clients

The big clients that are serious about doing business understand that time is money, and hence they don’t want you to waste each other’s’ time. Thus, my policy is that unless I get a very positive feeling about a client, I say “no thank you” to anyone who needs to communicate via more than a few emails before getting started.

Of course, your industry and the type of work you do will affect this to some degree.

Clients that ask for endless revisions

When you’ve built a website for someone, written an article for someone, or composed a piece of music for someone, it is perfectly normal for them to ask for a few changes. After all, you are representing their brand, and they probably have big aspirations for what they want to accomplish.

But if they continuously ask for changes, this can eventually start to waste your time. What’s more, is that micromanaging clients often end up hurting the quality of their end product.

It’s reasonable to offer a major revision and a few tweaks in most industries. If it goes beyond that though, you should politely explain that you have done all you can and will be ceasing services. Should this issue crop up more than a few times, you can also consider making your terms regarding revisions clear on your website.

Conclusions

This list hasn’t covered every kind of difficult client, nor does it have all the answers. Hopefully, you’ll find that this list is helpful in a range of different scenarios that are likely to crop up.

And the general advice remains the same in most situations: be polite, stay professional, but don’t let clients take advantage of you. Know your terms, and lay them out firmly and politely. Don’t waste your time on difficult clients that aren’t as professional as you are!

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