Difficult Clients Happen To Every Freelancer
As freelancers, we all run into a difficult client situations here and there. Sometimes, it’s payment or contract negotiations. Other times, the client wants more from us than we anticipated. And every once in a while, we work with someone who just seems too difficult to please.
But the majority of the time, we can avoid difficult client situations by setting expectations upfront. The more that you, as the freelancer, control the process, communicate clearly, and explain what your clients should expect, the happier clients you will have.
The best projects run smoothly when you establish your rules of engagement early on.
1. Listen to the client’s needs and expectations upfront
Getting started on the right foot with clients can pave the way for much happier client interactions throughout a project
In your first discussions with a potential client, focus on learning what the client truly needs. The more you understand their expectations, the more you can tailor your estimate or proposal to satisfy them.
Often, a client has expectations around what is included in a project that you may not regularly provide, but they may assume will be included. Understanding these expectations upfront is one of the keys to establishing the parameters of your proposal.
For example, if the project is a website design, questions you should ask include:
- Will the client want assistance with writing or editing copy?
- How often will the client want to meet with you?
- What level of design/creativity is the client looking for?
- Does the client expect or need help with technical setup?
You also should use early conversations to understand how much hand-holding a client may need for a successful project. The same scope of work may require different time investments with different clients based on how much contact a client expects during the process, or how many decision-makers are involved. If you make yourself aware of this upfront, and price your work appropriately, you will be prepared to happily be available for the client since you’ve worked the appropriate project management time into your proposal.
2. Discuss your rules of engagement early – meetings, deliverables, and support
Discussing how content should be delivered, the number of concepts you will provide, the number and frequency of meetings and revision rounds you plan to make – prior to creating a scope of work – helps protect you later when the client makes a request outside of that scope.
This does not have to be a one-way conversation. But you, as the freelancer, are the expert in helping frame this discussion. Provide your suggestions and get their feedback, so you can appropriately shape your pricing and scope of work.
Clients will often want to say yes to everything you offer, so help them understand their decisions in context of price. “I hear that you’d like [insert time-consuming request here], and I’m happy to provide that. Just be aware this will increase the cost.” If they push back on the mention of increased cost, this is your chance to modify your planned deliverable while helping them understand a shared commitment to the agreed upon scope of work.
Don’t forget to talk through these points as you work on the project as well. If your client requests a 5th round of revisions and your contract mentions only 2 rounds, it’s easier to remind them regularly. You can say something like, “After this, we’ll have just one more round of revisions before we publish the site.” You can even help enforce this by politely explaining that you’ll start on the last revision only after they’ve provided all their feedback.
3. Detail the scope of work in writing
A one-page estimate, with just a few words covering each item you plan to deliver, may be easy and quick to write up, but it leaves too much open to interpretation once the project begins.
Writing a detailed scope of work is your protection against all unknown requests that may come up during your project.
Include everything you’ve discussed with your client in your written estimate – revision rounds, number of concepts, administrative time, whether or not you will be helping editorially, etc. This may take several pages. The amount of time you spend in writing a detailed scope of work will be saved in avoided trouble later.
4. Don’t be the bad guy
It’s easy to feel upset when a client asks for more than was included in the scope of work – you can feel taken advantage of and may immediately want to say no.
But instead, consider the opportunity behind the request.
Instead of getting upset, state the consequence of their out-of-scope request as a simple matter of extra cost to them, based on their needs. Don’t take their request as a reason to say you can’t help them (unless you truly can’t). Think about what it will cost to them – i.e. how much you would need to make it worth it for you – and state it as such.
5. Include terms in your contract to protect you
Your proposal or contract should include terms separate from job-specific deliverables that you will include.
You may want to include statements about:
- Who owns the source files of your work (PSDs, vector art, uncompiled code).
- What happens if a client abandons or seriously delays a project.
- Consequences and/or fees for late payments.
6. Create a project timeline
Too many projects begin with an agreed upon deliverable date, and clients continue to expect their deliverable on the originally agreed upon date, even when they’ve delayed in providing the items needed for the project when you asked for them.
The answer to helping clients back off timing demands is to create an upfront, agreed-upon timeline.
The beauty of the timeline is not in the fact that the client will stay on track with it and all will be delivered to you on time (if only!).
Instead, it’s the fact that, once the client gets behind schedule on their deliverables, they know that it is due to their own delays, because the timeline details their culpability in delaying the schedule.
Create a timeline up front which includes milestones for both your production and their delivery of required items, and you can clearly show your client how their delays will affect the schedule, and help them respect your time.
Now You’re Off To A Good Start
Getting started on the right foot with clients can pave the way for much happier client interactions throughout a project. Your time spent upfront to frame the project and your expectations will be well worth it when you set your project in motion.
However, sometimes you’ll run into difficult client scenarios even when you’ve established the rules of engagement and expectations. Coming up later, I’ll share strategies for what to do when a client interaction starts to go poorly, and how sometimes you can even turn an unhappy client into your best advocate with the right responses. In the meantime, if you think of any other tips to deal with difficult clients, post your comments below!