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How to deal with difficult or unreasonable clients

Posted by Claire Beveridge on Nov 26th, 2018 | Get paid

Deal with difficult clients by improving your backhand, image of people discussing business issues

As a freelancer, working for a difficult client can feel like going three sets against Serena Williams. You think you’re serving aces but each shot is sent right back at you. You’re run ragged and making returns gets harder and harder. Before you know it you’re battered, exhausted, and suddenly realising you’re not enjoying this at all.

Unreasonable clients are, unfortunately, something that all freelancers will encounter at some point. When you’re used to dealing with clients who are rays of purest sunshine, the rain delays caused by a troublesome client can become all the more frustrating. So how do you deal with unreasonable demands and bad behaviour from your client?

“I know this isn’t in the brief, but I want a lot of changes, right now”

If you’re a super savvy freelancer, you’ll have drawn up a contract between yourself and the client that clearly lays out the scope of the work. A contract is your security, and offers protection from unreasonable client requests – a good contract will cover you for any unreasonable requests that come your way.

If you work in the creative sector you may have revision rounds written into your contract to stop picky clients monopolising your time with endless tweaking. For example, the client gets three chances to revise your original work, but anything above that comes with a price tag.
Boundaries need to be set. If the client is asking too much, don’t be afraid to refer back to your contract or quote for the extra work.

Need extra help putting a contract together? Check out our article “Protect yourself with these contract samples“.

“I’m not going to pay you”

A client withholding payment is understandably frustrating. Not only does that leave you out of pocket but also can affect your credit control and cash flow.

A client can decide to withhold payment for a multitude of reasons: they’re unhappy with the finished work, they don’t have the money to pay you, or they’re just not nice people.
Make sure the client knows that withholding payment isn’t okay and that you’ll take action.

It’s worth utilising our free late payment letter templates to show them you mean business. There are also some other simple steps you can take – outlined in our credit control guide – that can help when you’ve invoiced a client and received no payment.

“Can I just pick your brain about…”

When you start a new relationship with a client they’ll be sure to ask you some questions. But do they just want to pick your brains and see if you’re the right fit, or are they trying to take you for a ride? Do they seem genuinely interested in your work, or are they testing you to see how much they can get out of you for no payment?

How much you give clients for free is always a personal choice. Many freelancers always refuse speculative work in principle, whereas some might agree if the contract is particularly lucrative or they have nothing else on.

Again, state your position up front. If you decide to go for it, be clear this isn’t a permanent arrangement.

Awkward client basics

Be polite

While a client making unreasonable requests might make you want to go all Marcos Baghdatis, it’s imperative you keep your cool.

Leave their request until you’ve had a chance to calm down and reflect – whether this takes twenty minutes or twenty hours. Of course, deadlines are important but it’s worth taking the time to respond in a manner that will strengthen your professional relationship rather than destroy it.

People hire freelancers because of their skill-set and expertise, not as a dogsbody. If a client is going against your professional opinion, you have a right to explain why you think they’re wrong. If they don’t respect this, the options are simple: grin and bear it, or fire them.

Be straightforward

When a client makes a request that is unreasonable, ensure that your subsequent communication is clear and concise. Received a daft demand via e-mail? Why not pick up the phone or meet face to face. This will not only let the client see that you’re taking their (possibly ludicrous) request seriously, but also allow for a more honest conversation.

It’s a lot easier to bash out an antagonised response via email than be the bigger person and thrash something out over a meeting. Communicating with clients is really important in getting to the bottom of their concern.

Be free

If your client is truly abysmal to work with – get rid, life is too short!

Yes, they may be paying lucratively for your services (or, even worse, paying you very badly – in which case, why are you sticking with them?) but are they really worth the hassle?

Think about the additional hours you spend working with a bad client. Not just in terms of answering emails, adapting or changing work – but the emotional time. Spending hours feeling angry or annoyed or stressed is damaging to your health. Wouldn’t your time be better spent working with a supportive client?

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