You’ve had nightmares about this moment since starting your own business: your first problem client. Now you’re face-to-face with this nightmare, and you need to learn how to deal with difficult clients on your own.
But you don’t need to let a difficult client ruin your day. Actually, you don’t even need to put up with them at all. It can be easy to forget, but as your own boss you have full control over who you do or do not take on as a client.
Sometimes, though, you can’t just walk away from a tough client. Maybe you’re relying on their project to pay the bills this month. Or, maybe, they have the power to open up future opportunities within your field.
Whatever your reason for working with them, knowing how to deal with difficult clients will make your professional life much, much easier.
How to Deal With Difficult Clients Like a Pro
Whether you have several years of freelancing experience under your belt or just launched your first small business, a difficult client can flip your work life upside-down. Honestly, it’s one of the most cited reasons people choose to leave the freelance world and return to regular employment.
But if you want to know the best way to deal with a difficult client, you need to be able to put yourself in their shoes.
No, this doesn’t mean you need to agree with or even sympathize with their position. It just means you need to understand why they behave the way they do.
Once you’ve identified what type of difficult client you’re dealing with, it will be much easier to deal with them like a professional.
The Flaky Client
Perhaps the most common type of problem client is the one who disappears without a trace, only to reply to your email or voicemail a week later.
If you have a flexible schedule and no set deadline, this behavior might not bother you too much. But if you’re balancing several clients at once and need to meet a contractual deadline, a Flaky Client can leave you wanting to pull out your hair.
Unfortunately, by the time you’ve started working with a Flaky Client, it’s already too late. Instead, you need to address this behavior in your initial contract terms. By outlining the consequences of delayed communication in your contract, you can protect yourself from missed deadlines or other incurred costs down the road.
When it comes to a Flaky Client, you should also seriously consider getting payment — whether full or partial — upfront. Someone who is slow to respond to project-related questions probably won’t change their bad habits when it comes to paying their invoice.
The 24/7 Client
On the complete opposite end of this spectrum is the 24/7 Client. This demanding client has no concept of working hours or weekends. Instead, they will contact you whenever they like and expect a near-immediate response.
Many freelancers and business owners maintain flexible schedules, so it can be tempting to accommodate clients who behave this way. Before you know it, though, you could be answering non-urgent emails on Christmas Day rather than enjoying time with your family.
If you’re worried about a client overstepping their boundaries in this manner, don’t hesitate to set specific “office hours” for them. Of course, you also need to hold yourself to these hours by not communicating with them outside of your agreed times.
The Stingy Client
Creating and following a budget is crucial for a project to succeed. However, there’s a big difference between negotiating a fair price and cutting corners wherever possible. When a client tries to do the latter, you might question if completing their project is even worth the trouble.
Typically, Stingy Clients target creative freelancers or business owners more often than others. At the end of the day, though, you’ll find penny-pinching clients in every industry.
This type of client comes in many forms, including:
- Questioning your rates at every step
- Telling you they could find “someone cheaper”
- Arguing with you over billed hours and other expenses
- Asking you to make revisions for free
- Requesting things outside of the agreed project scope
No matter which form your Stingy Client takes, the best way to deal with these difficult clients is with a simple “No.”
For your own good, never agree to cut your rates, do work outside the project outline, or exchange work for exposure. If you give this type of client any leeway, they’ll just keep pushing for more.
You might worry that putting your foot down with a client will anger them or cause them to go elsewhere for future work. But if they’re willing to pressure you into doing free work, they’re not a client worth keeping around in the first place.
The Indecisive Client
If you’re someone who loves a creative challenge, then you might be drawn to clients who don’t know what they want. When it comes to running a business and earning a sustainable income, though, this type of client is far from ideal.
The thing is, pretty much every client knows what they want. While an Indecisive Client might seem flexible and open to anything at first, it won’t be long before they’re shutting down your ideas or asking for countless changes.
If there’s one good thing about the Indecisive Client, at least as far as difficult clients go, it’s that they’re easy to spot right away.
Depending on your exact line of work, you should have a series of questions prepared to ask about new projects. If a prospective client is unable to answer these questions, even if they seem easy to work with otherwise, your time is probably better spent elsewhere.
The Nitpicky Client
Finally, we have the Nitpicky Client. In any contract-based relationship, it’s normal to have differing opinions and make revisions as the project moves forward. However, many clients take this too far.
Yes, you want to fulfill your client’s vision and deliver a final product they love. But your client also needs to respect your collective skills, experience, and knowledge when it comes to your business.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make with this type of client is accepting their every demand. While you should try to avoid confrontation, don’t submit to overbearing behavior or let your client treat you like an employee. They might be paying you, but they are not your boss.
To avoid being taken advantage of by a Nitpicky Client, be assertive with each new client from the start.
By showing that you are confident in your work and your abilities, while also accepting input from your client when appropriate, you can stop a Nitpicky Client before they have a chance to take over your project.
When Is it Time to Dump a Problem Client?
Terminating a contract, no matter how small, can be an uncomfortable process. In many ways, it can feel like breaking up with a significant other. But, like dumping a romantic partner, terminating a contract is sometimes best for everyone involved.
Obviously, terminating a client’s contract should be a last resort. Doing so is pretty much guaranteed to end your working relationship and, depending on the situation, could affect your reputation with future clients.
So when is it better to call it quits than to put up with a difficult client? This depends on your contract’s terms.
Before you can gracefully terminate a contract, you need to have an early termination clause in place. While most freelancers know to include a “kill fee” in their contract — in the case that the client chooses to terminate the contract early — they often overlook the need for their own termination clause.
Hopefully, you’ll never need to use this part of your contract. But if you do, your contract’s termination clause can help protect you from difficult clients.
On top of outlining how terminating the contract will play out as far as giving notice, balances due, and other terms, you should include circumstances that will trigger a termination.
Some client actions that could result in terminating a contract include:
- Failing to answer messages for an unreasonable amount of time
- Refusing to deliver materials or information needed for the project
- Demanding work outside of the agreed upon project scope
- Behaving rudely or unprofessionally
If you don’t already have a detailed termination clause in your work contract, add one before taking on any more clients. When you do come face-to-face with a difficult client, you’ll be extremely glad you thought ahead.
Dealing with clients, even the good ones, can be annoying, draining, and frustrating at times. But when the project is done and your invoice sent, it somehow all seems worth it.
Learn more about how invoicely can streamline your client communication with professional invoices, online payments, expense tracking, and more.