Dealing with Difficult Clients

by Gurpreet Sihat

At one point or another, all freelancers find themselves dealing with clients who reject every piece of advice given; who refuse to put in the work, expecting you to do everything but not happy with how long that will take; who refuse to pay because they suddenly decide that you either haven’t done the job the way they imagined it would be done or that you’ve charged them too much.

The pandemic really shone a light on the latter for me this last year. So many of us were hit by the various lockdowns, but some clients tried to get out of paying their freelancer rather than asking for help. Other clients simply didn’t want to pay for professional services – this type, I’ve learned from freelancing friends, would try to wiggle their way out of an invoice, COVID or no COVID. 

At one point, a client called to accuse me of taking advantage of them and I will tell you now, I’m not great with conflict. I run through flight, fight, or freeze on extreme levels in arguments, and occasionally do just the opposite and laugh hysterically. But you can’t do that in professional situations, so I bite my tongue and try to find a calm, thoughtful response. That works wonderfully in e-mails but, on the phone, you end up standing there, your mouth open and not a sound coming out. You feel small and pathetic. I lost a lot of money on that job. Months of hard work, doing and redoing tasks to fit the client’s every need, and not a penny to show for it. Nothing, that is, except for questioning my own value.

Not just professionally, either. It affected me personally, too. I found myself wishing I was more hard-hearted. That I was the kind of person who could happily disregard the things that were happening in my clients’ lives, to not be lenient on those who were going through family tragedies, not give payment plans to those who were struggling. I wished, just once, I could demand payment in full or refuse to hand over the work. 

It took me the better part of a year to recognise my worth. I was catering to clients who didn’t value the job I was doing, or who thought they could get the same quality of work done cheaper elsewhere. After talking to many other freelancers, I realised that I was charging half the hourly rate of what peers with the same experience and skills charge. Through my research, I learned that it was my mindset I needed to change, and not my prices or services. 

In hopes of helping just one person through a situation of the like, here are the biggest lessons I learned this year: 

  • Everyone tries to haggle over your hourly and project rates. It’s rare to find a client who will happily accept your rate without trying to have it taken down a notch or two.
  • Always stay firm on your price but ask your client what their budget is and try to find a solution that suits you both. 
  • If your client has a lot of work but a small budget, try suggesting that the client writes and edits the content, and offer only to format it for their website, social media etc. 
  • Let your client know how long it will take you to complete A, B, and C. Once you’ve reached that limit, should your client wish to continue the work, ensure that they give you explicitly written permission acknowledging that extra work equals extra cost. 
  • Offer the option to get back in touch. Should there be work that isn’t immediate and doesn’t fit the client’s budget, let them know they can always reach out when they have some more room in their finances. 
  • Remember that some clients just aren’t meant for you. Even if you know you can do the job perfectly, you can’t be the perfect freelancer for everyone. Stay true to yourself and stop trying to cater to everyone. It’s impossible – in all aspects of life!

And what about clients you currently have that have turned out to be nightmares?

  • Acknowledge what they say, but don’t agree with them. Acknowledgement does not admit guilt, it simply stops an argument that could be detrimental to your working relationship. Remember your worth!
  • Make sure there’s a conclusion to your conversations. Whether that’s a final payment and never seeing each other again, whether that’s a solution to a problem, make sure there’s a conclusion that no one can argue with. 
  • Make sure there’s a paper trail. As we’ve learned, I’m terrible with phone conversations, but keeping detailed notes of all conversations (including times and dates), and perhaps even following up with an e-mail that passes on that information to the client, is a must.
  • Concede defeat. Difficult clients take their toll – physically, mentally, and emotionally. If you can’t handle that difficult client anymore, cut your losses and move on. Stop wasting time on clients who waste your time. 

The world stopped. For many of us, it’s only now starting to spin – albeit slowly – again. Yes, we are all in this together, but that’s no excuse for clients to treat us badly. It’s no excuse for any of us to take advantage of each other. Be considerate, but remember that, at the end of the day, this is business, not personal. Don’t go out of your way to make your client’s life easier at the expense of your own, and don’t let them walk all over you. We all deserve better than that. 

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