Difficult clients can undermine your business, knock your confidence, feed your insecurity, make you doubt yourself and even make you start to hate freelancing – so it’s really important you know how to identify and manage all the different types. Remember that you work with your client, not for them so be proactive, steer the process and manage the relationship.
First, it’s incredibly easy to get yourself tangled up with a problem client.
If in your present or past life you were a PA, then you have always taken instructions instead of giving them. PAs/EAs are facilitators so they’re the people others go to when they want stuff doing – they are not used to running the show.
But you run your own business now and it’s vital you take ownership of it.
I’ve mentioned this in my post on skills you need to be a stand-out VA, but your people skills are actually far more important than your admin skills.
You can be the best administrator on the planet, but if you can’t manage your clients then you’ll soon be in trouble.
First of all, you need to know what a good client looks like because the whole point of working for yourself is to enjoy it – otherwise you might as well stay in your job.
Once you’ve landed an awesome client you will never want to accept any other kind. Identifying traits of a good client are:
- They communicate well
- They reply to your emails and provide any information you’ve asked for in good time
- They’re clear about the task/project, the deadline and their budget
- They know what their long and short term business objectives are
- They’re easy to work with
- They treat you like an equal and not like staff
- They give you interesting and enjoyable tasks
- They value you and your skills
- They respect your business boundaries and your time
- They fully appreciate they are not your only client
- They don’t think they’re your boss
- Your stomach doesn’t lurch when you see their name come up on your phone
- They pay you good money and they pay you on time
- You like and respect them
Everyone else is a bad client.
There are quite a few different types of nightmare clients but I think they pretty much fall into these categories:
Micromanagers and stressers
These ones are quite common and you mustn’t let them bully or take advantage of you as it can be hard to re-establish a balanced relationship once you’ve let them think they’re your boss. This is how to spot one:
- They’re huge control freaks who think they can do everything better than anyone else
- Everything is urgent
- They nit-pick yet haven’t given you enough information to do your job properly
- They contact you outside hours and ignore or overstep your boundaries
- They contact you constantly
- They’re never happy
- You sometimes feel they’re questioning your skills or professionalism
- They make you feel anxious and nervous about your abilities
Cheapskates and late payers
These are another really common client although hopefully you’ll learn to let these ones go once you get more of the good ones! This is what these guys look like:
- They always want something for nothing
- They say “but it won’t take you a minute”
- They say “I could have done that myself”
- They undervalue your skills
- They always want to know about the price first
- They ask you to change your terms and conditions to suit them
- They don’t understand long-term value and want the cheapest of everything instead of quality
- They consistently pay you late and you’re scared that one day you aren’t going to get paid at all
- You worry from the minute you’ve invoiced them until the day they pay you
You may be a VA who loves, understands and feels an affinity this type of client, but they personally do my head in as I like to know what I’m doing! This is how to recognise them:
- They don’t give you the info you need when you need it
- They’re unorganised, scatty and flaky
- They think you’re a mind reader
- They often give you unimportant tasks so you end up not bringing any value to their business
- They don’t know what to focus on first and their thought process jumps around all over the place
- There are constant changes and moving of goal posts
- They might know what they want but they can’t communicate it to you in a way that makes you understand
Some friends can be great to work with but I can tell you from personal experience and hearing a whole ton of stories, that working with them can be a complicated grey area – so they’re going in the difficult client list.
The problem with working with friends is that it starts out being a really small job but then escalates into a huge project. The line between friend and client begins to blur and then it all goes horribly wrong.
How to deal with problem clients
Remember that your client is not paying you to be their friend.
You can be friendly, but if you blur the client relationship then you will definitely pay for it somewhere down the line.
Below are a whole load of different techniques that can be applied to the different types of clients in various different situations. I’ve written it as one list so you can pick and mix the advice based on the individual situation.
- Start as you mean to go on by having a clear idea of how you want to work and what your professional boundaries are. This establishes you as a business owner and not a secretary waiting to be given orders.
- Be very open about what these terms and boundaries are and have your working hours in your T&Cs, contract and even in your email signature and voicemail. No client should ever be unsure what your terms are.
- Make sure you know EXACTLY what the scope of each project or task is, when the client wants it by, how they want it delivered, and how much they expect to pay for it.
- Clarify each task by repeating it back to the client in an email then save the email so you can refer back to it later.
- Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions and clarify the situation. You may worry about looking stupid but you’ll look like a complete plank if you get it wrong.
- Sometimes a client will email you out of business hours. They are not expecting you to reply straight away so don’t. Sometimes you’re the one thinking the client is overstepping boundaries when in fact they aren’t.
- If you get back to clients immediately they will get used to you doing that and can be confused and affronted when you don’t. So don’t start any habits you may not want to continue.
- Clearly, firmly and confidently say no when you have to and restate your terms in a friendly manner either verbally or in an email.
- Some clients need to be treated with a firm hand like you would a defiant child. If they sense weakness they can take advantage so be clear and consistent from the outset and stick to your guns.
- Get part payment for a project up front if you’re concerned about a large invoice not being paid. This is completely standard for many freelancers including Web Developers.
- If your client is demanding or you’re worried about them being a bad payer, then suggest they go on a retainer in order to secure a set amount of your time. This should only be suggested once you have proved your value. Retainers are always paid upfront in advance.
- Have in your T&Cs that you invoice new clients after two weeks. This is to prevent a potentially bad-paying client fleecing you for a month’s worth of work.
- Create a shared Google spreadsheet for all the tasks the client has asked you to do then ask them to order them by priority. You can then enter the status of each task so the client can see what’s happening. This works when a client wants constant progress updates or they are finding it hard to prioritise. This also means you have given the client responsibility of prioritising the tasks. You could even email them each week to remind them to update the sheet.
- Write clear and structured emails to the client stating who is responsible for what and when (“I’m doing this and you’re doing this”). Always keep these emails to refer back to later.
- Arrange a 15 minute chat on Monday morning or Friday afternoon to evaluate the progress of projects or tasks. Make sure the client knows they are being charged for this because 15 minutes a week can equal an hour a month totalling £300 a year – which I’m assuming you do not want to lose!
- When working with friends, make sure you treat it like a business transaction and be very clear about the perimeter of the task to avoid scope creep.
At first you’re going to be terrible at managing clients.
You’ve never done this before, so you simply cannot be expected to know how to deal with a crappy client. But as time goes on (and by using the pick and mix list above), you’ll eventually know how to work well with each client type, get the best out of each relationship and land more of the clients you do want.
I know that you want to make sure you ‘do the right thing’, but sometimes there is no right thing – it’s always about doing what’s right for you and your business.
Remember, you must always keep in mind that you work with the client and not for them. It’s your business so you need to behave like a business owner in order to succeed. Also sometimes it just doesn’t work out. You can try everything and they won’t play ball so then you should consider firing them instead.
Being a business owner is all about making decisions for yourself and I can absolutely promise you that when you’ve nailed that, you’ve nailed the whole freelancing thing and then you’ll always be fine whatever future challenges you come across.
Over to you, how many of these do you recognise and how did you manage them?