How to manage difficult clients

How to manage difficult clients (and what a good one looks like)

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 it pays to proactively steer the process and manage the relationship before it gets out of hand.

First, it’s really easy to get tangled up with a problem client.

If you were once a PA, then you’re probably used to taking instructions instead of giving them. PAs/EAs are facilitators; they’re the people others go to when they want stuff doing… which means they are not used to running the show.

But when you run your own business, you need to protect it – which means take ownership and responsibility for it.

I’ve mentioned this in my post on skills you need to be a stand-out VA, but people skills are actually more important than admin skills.

You can be the best administrator on the planet, but if you can’t manage clients, you’ll soon be in trouble.

First, it helps 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.

Good clients

Once you’ve landed an awesome client you will never want any other kind. 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 as an equal, not like staff
  • They give you interesting and enjoyable tasks
  • They value your skills
  • They respect your boundaries and time
  • They understand and 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.

Bad clients

There are quite a few different types of nightmare clients but I think they fall into these broad categories:

Micromanagers and stressers

These are probably the most common types of bad client. Don’t let them bully or take advantage of you as it can be hard to re-establish a balanced relationship once you’ve allowed them to think they’re your boss. This is how to spot one:

  • They’re control freaks who think they can do things better than anyone else
  • Everything is ‘urgent’
  • They nit-pick yet don’t give 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 question your skills or professionalism
  • They make you feel anxious and nervous

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 favour them
  • They don’t understand value and want the cheapest of everything instead of quality
  • They 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

Vague creatives

You may be a VA who loves, understands and feels an affinity with 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 don’t bring any value to their business – then they question what you’re actually doing for them
  • They don’t know what to focus on first and their thoughts jump around all over the place
  • There are constant changes and shifting of goalposts
  • They don’t know what they want to achieve with their business
  • They seem to be always aimlessly chasing their tails
  • Even if they do know what they want, they can’t seem to communicate it to you in a way that enables you to feel confident that you know what’s expected of you

Friends

Some friends can be great to work with but I can tell you from personal experience (and a whole ton of stories), that working with them can be a complicated grey area – so they’re going on the difficult client list.

The problem with working with friends is that it often starts out being a really small job but then escalates into a huge project. The line between friend and client starts to blur and then the relationship quickly goes downhill.

Friends also push for “mates rates” which means that not only will you jeopardise your friendship, you’ll be out of pocket at the end as well.

A good friend would not try to diddle you out of money; they’d want to support your business by paying your going rate. 

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 too much, you will definitely pay for it somewhere down the line.

Below is a list of techniques that can be applied to the different types of difficult clients in various situations. I’ve written it as one long list so you can pick and mix the advice based on your particular set of circumstances.

  1. 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 lackey waiting to be given orders.
  2. 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.
  3. Make sure you know EXACTLY what the scope of each task is, when the client wants it completed by, how they want it delivered, and how much they expect to pay for it.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Sometimes a client will email you out of business hours however, they are probably not expecting an immediate reply they’re just taking it off their to-do list and on to yours. Sometimes you think the client is overstepping boundaries or demanding your immediate attention when they aren’t.
  7. If you get back to clients immediately they will get used to it and may be confused or affronted when you don’t. So don’t start any habits you don’t want to continue.
  8.  Clearly, firmly and confidently say no when you have to and restate your terms in a friendly manner either verbally or in an email.
  9. Some clients need to be treated with a firm hand as 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.
  10. Get part-payment for a project upfront if you’re concerned about a large invoice not being paid. This is completely standard for many freelancers including Web Developers.
  11. 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. Retainers are always paid in advance and the hours do NOT rollover.
  12. State in your T&Cs that you always invoice new clients after two weeks. This is to prevent a potentially bad-paying client fleecing you for a month’s worth of work.
  13. 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 the responsibility of prioritising the tasks. You could even email them each week to remind them to update the sheet.
  14. Write clear and structured emails to your clients stating who is responsible for what and when (“I’m doing this and you’re doing this”). Keep or archive these emails in case you need to refer back to them later.
  15. 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 time because 15 minutes a week equals an hour a month which comes to £250 a year – which I’m assuming you do not want to lose!
  16. Have a dedicated work phone and turn it off outside your specified working hours.
  17. When working with friends, make sure you treat it like a business transaction and be very clear about what you will deliver and for how much, to avoid scope creep.

You can see my doc on How to Conduct a Client Consultation as well as a link to buy freelancer legal contracts on my Downloads and Training page.  

Conclusion

At first, you’re going to be pretty bad at managing clients. But it’s not your fault.

You’ve never done this before, so you can’t be expected to know how to deal with difficult clients – you may not even be aware that your client is ‘difficult’ and assume that all clients act like this.

But as time goes on (and by using the pick and mix list above), you’ll eventually know how to set boundaries from the outset and land more of the types of clients you do want by replicating the good ones.

I know that you want to ‘do the right thing’ and keep everyone happy, but sometimes there is no right thing. But you always need to do what’s right for you and your business.

Do not prioritise someone else’s feelings, demands or business at the expense of yours.

Try to always keep in mind that you work with your clients and not for them and that, whatever happens, and no matter how a client behaves, you should always behave like the consummate professional you are.

Also, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Not every client is a good fit and sometimes it’s better to let them go instead.

Being a confident business owner is all about mindset and making the best decisions for your business. Because when you’ve nailed that you’ll know how to handle any and all future challenges that may come your way.

Over to you, how many of these difficult clients do you recognise, and how did you manage them?

9 Comments

Anne

I am so glad that I have found this article especially at this time. It is very helpful and thank you for posting it. I have gotten points that are definitely going to help me.

Reply
Alex

Thank goodness for this and your ‘how to fire a client’ blog. I started working as a ‘contractor’ for a creative type as my first job in the USA (moved from UK). She did not want to pay benefits or a salary as the last person left because of it. I took a very low wage as was excited to work in a creative industry and being in a new country just went with the flow!! 3 years later I am now practically running most aspects of the business, as I always say yes! and thought I was in the wrong but reading through your blogs I feel much more empowered that I can try and navigate starting a proper VA business and hopefully either fire the client or at least narrow what I do and have more control over it. I am still just starting out but wanted to say THANK YOU I don’t feel so crazy now!

Reply
Joanne Munro

You are so welcome. It can be hard to manage clients when you first start out simply because you are not used to it. Women in particular, also like to keep everyone happy, so they are very compliant and eager to please. This means they often end up in situations that are not benefiting their business.
You need to stop saying yes! I know it’s second nature but your business will suffer if you don’t and then you won’t have one. The Facebook group is a great place to get advice from other VAs on client management but you definitely need to set and enforce your boundaries – otherwise, your clients will do this for you.

I have a blog post called How to Manage Different Types of Clients that will help you further.

Reply
Karen

I have just started my first job as a Virtual PA through through an agency. The guy I am working for is very nice but despite agreeing to a 10 minute catch up each day and putting them in his calendar he still doesn’t call me. I’ve emailed him to say the time isn’t obviously working and asked him what time would be better. No response. I also send him emails with queries. No response. I have tried to explain that to support him I need to speak with him or he needs to return my emails. I am at a loss of what to do next. Sadly I need the income so can’t tell him its just not working ! Any ideas?

Reply
Joanne Munro

Hi Karen, I am so sorry to hear about your rubbish client. No freelancer should be in the position where they have to deal with this kind of thing simply because they need the money – you need to actively find new clients (as you should be continuously doing already) and then ditch him. And then make sure you always have enough clients and income coming in so you don’t find yourself in this position again.

You are not an employee who has to take whatever is thrown at her, you run your own business now and you have to take control of its direction. You did not go freelance only to be treated like this – being freelance has to be BETTER than being employed, otherwise, what’s the point?

Please ask this question in my VA Handbookers Facebook group too. There are thousands of lovely members there and I know they will also have som additional good advice for you on what to do next. Good luck! x

Reply
Wendy Arleen

Thanks for publishing this. It helps a lot. I have three clients at the moment and two of them fit into the bad category. Well one of them is in a grey area.
I think I have to get out the whip!

Reply
sylvia orr

I just starting – 2 months ago. It’s in the client’s office ( one client only for now. ) I’m 60 and have always worked for someone else. She has all the traits of the 1 st and 3rd combined, it wasn’t obvious in the beginning but it sure is now. She is treating me as an employee ( without the benefits ) or to be truthful I’m letting her. So I need the only source of income I have right now but after reading this I almost feel that she is a test put in front of me, kind of a make me or break me beginning. There is a lot to get my head around and I’m so glad that I found you and the group.

Reply
Joanne Munro

How wonderful to read that. Yes, clients can be a complete pain but learning how to manage them is something you can learn over time. It’s all new but I’m sure you’ll get there in the end. Thank you for commenting and sharing your experience.

Reply

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