5 Tips for Freelancers on Dealing with Difficult Clients

Aug 01, 2013 - Joe Matar

As a freelancer, it’s unavoidable that you’ll encounter a client every now and then who’s difficult to work for. Whether you’re running into communication problems, aren’t being paid on time or other obstacles get in the way of completing the project, a variety of situations could challenge the client-freelancer relationship.

Freelancing can be a risk because you can’t always anticipate how the other party will react to a particular situation. Of course, checking references and doing some research before taking a job can help you to handpick good clients, but these processes are hardly foolproof.

Yet many of the common problems can be anticipated. Follow these five steps to help you survive, get paid and perhaps even continue the working relationship despite hardships that may arise over the course of a project.

1. Clarify your role from the beginning to manage expectations

Some freelancers focus on one piece of the big picture, while others dabble in a variety of aspects of a project. This is especially the case for Web designers and developers, but it also rings true for freelancers who write content, edit copy or input content onto a site.

If you’re signing on to specialize in one aspect of a project, make sure this is clear right from the start. Some clients simply assume you’ll participate in other phases of the project as well. Trying to explain to them halfway into the project that you won’t help with other aspects can cause unnecessary tension.

Manage expectations before you start working. Make sure the client knows exactly where you stand and what the limitations of your role are before the project takes off.

2. Adapt your communication style for your client

After exchanging a couple of emails and a few words on Skype, you should get a feel for what type of communication a client prefers. You should also be able to tell immediately if there are any language barriers that need to be addressed. Early on, adapt your communication style based on how the client communicates to make the project as successful as it can be.

If you notice the client tends to write long-winded, stream-of-consciousness emails that confuse you, then make some changes to your approach right off the bat. For example, if you feel like your questions aren’t getting answered, send them in a very organized structure—perhaps as a numbered or bulleted list—and ask the client if they can address all of these questions one at a time in their reply.

Trying to go with the flow when the communication style isn’t working can potentially erupt in the end. If you tell the client halfway through a project that you don’t understand the instructions and communication is too scattered, the client will probably wonder why you didn’t say anything earlier and will react negatively or defensively.

3. Archive all discussions and instructions to reference later

When you begin working on a project, you never know if you’ll encounter problems down the road. A large majority of problems arise over issues of what you’ve done versus what you’re “supposed” to do. That’s why you should archive all your discussions and keep all your tasks in order so that no one can accuse you of not doing something you were allegedly supposed to do.

Clients who outsource pieces of projects usually have a lot on their plates, and you’re probably not the only person working for them at the moment. So they might forget things you discussed or simply make errors.

Be prepared and keep excellent notes of everything that was said and promised. Keep records of what you agreed to do, how much money you agreed to do it for and in what period of time you agreed to have it done.

Also, make sure you have records of the client signing off on everything so no conflicts can manifest from a case of your word against theirs.

4. Supply data to support your decisions

A lot of clients won’t know anything about the type of work you do for them (which is why they hired you in the first place). But you’ll find some clients to be very opinionated about your work. They’ll ask you questions about the reasoning behind decisions you’ve made.

This can get on the nerves of many freelancers, and your first reaction might be to tell the client they don’t know anything about the matter. They should just let you do what you already know you do well, right?

But a defensive reaction will only lead to further problems. Insisting you know your craft better than your client is won’t accomplish anything. Instead, organize information that you can show them to explain your rationale. Give examples of similar work that functions well and try to explain the rhyme and reason behind why you used a particular word or color.

If you can give enough information supporting your work and the reasons behind it, it will be harder for the client to dismiss your work with a simple “I don’t like it.”

5. Stay level-headed no matter what happens

This is probably the most important aspect of dealing with difficult clients, and it cannot be stressed enough. Avoid reacting immediately and take the time to think things out.

If you get an email from a client that’s aggressive or pushy, or if the client phrases something in a way that rubs you wrong, don’t reply immediately. It’s always important to take a step back from the situation to avoid acting on impulse. Try to diffuse the situation instead of intensifying it.

If you’ve followed all of the other tips, then you have all the facts on your side, and you’ll be able to present your case clearly and assertively without confrontation.

David-Lazar Galic is a regular blogger at PDF Converter Blog. With a background in journalism, he specializes in writing blogs on a variety of topics, including freelancing, careers, finances, technology and new media.