In the years that I’ve been freelancing, I’ve had a mix of clients. On the whole, 80% have been brilliant. They communicate well, pay on time and generally make the job enjoyable. I love working with them and giving them the results they want.

Then you’ve got those that make you question whether the work is really worth it.

Difficult clients are par for the course in freelancing. I’m not talking about demanding clients here (I actually love working with clients who work as hard as I do to get the results they want). I’m talking about the ones that move the goal posts constantly, are late paying (or come up with reasons why they shouldn’t have to pay you) or take advantage of your good nature.

So, who are these difficult clients and how do you deal with them?

The constant late payer (or non payer)

I invoice on the 24th of each month. My favourite clients are the ones that pay by the end of the first week of the next month. It means I can pay the mortgage. My least favourite are those that require constant chasing – and they’re often the ones that I stop working with if I have to spend large amounts of time requesting payment. My opinion is, if they can afford to pay their staff for their work, they can afford to pay their freelancer for their work.

Solutions:

  • Make your payment expectations clear in your Terms and Conditions, and put into place late fees for those that pay outside that set period.
  • If you’re working long-term with a client and they’ve continuously put off paying you, stop producing any work for them until they pay up. It’s surprising how many clients suddenly find the money when you do this.
  • If you’re working on a project (or you’re unsure of the client), you should also ask for half the payment up front.
  • If all also fails and it’s a sizeable amount, you can take legal action against them.

The goal post changer

Goalposts
Goalposts (Photo credit: Adam Bruderer)

The goal post changer, is the client who constantly changes their mind about what they want you to do. This isn’t the same as a client who challenges you so you’re constantly learning and improving. They might want you to do Facebook, then change their mind a week later as they’ve not had the 1,000 likes they had hoped for. Essentially, they want instant gratification. More often than not, this client wants to have all their correspondence on the phone.

This kind of client is often in charge of a start-up business (my personal experience is that they often fail, as actions are not seen through.)

Solutions:

  • If they insist that all correspondence should be done on the phone, make sure you follow up with a summary email of your confirmation and ask them to confirm it. This should help if they ask to change direction again, as you can forward that email as evidence of what you’re currently doing.
  • Go with your gut when deciding to work with them. If your gut says no, it’s probably right!
  • Ask for 50% deposit for a project

The vague one

The vague client isn’t necessarily a difficult client. They just need a little guidance. They want the results, but they’re not quite sure how to get there. The great thing about this client, is that they’re generally open to suggestions and are great to work with on a project. Managed well, working with this client can actually be great.

I have a feeling these clients are toughest for web and graphic designers, who get vague directions like “I’d like it to ‘pop’ more” or “Can you make it…better?”

Solutions

  • Sit down with them (online or offline) and discuss a plan going forward. Set deadlines and targets, so you both know what is going on.
  • Have a thorough discussion of what they do and don’t want, so it’s clear what both parties want.
  • Keep them constantly informed.

The 24/7 one

Watch-vi

The internet has completely revolutionised the business world. Sadly, it’s also meant that some clients expect you to be on call all the time.

This is particularly frustrating when clients call you at 8 or 9pm at night, without forward notice. Especially when you’re at the pub.

Solutions:

  • Include your work hours in your Terms and Conditions, and explain what your client can expect
  • While you might work at the weekends, I wouldn’t let your clients know that unless strictly necessary.
  • Request that phone conversations be booked in advance, rather than spontaneous.

The manipulative one

The manipulative client is the most difficult client. They’ll probably have attributes of all the above. They won’t pay on time (but they’ll have dozens of reasons why), they’ll constantly change the goal posts so you’re unable to finish anything (which they’ll use as an excuse for not paying you) and they’ll play constant mind games.

They’re not always easy to spot. Some manipulative clients will play on your good nature, and spin you a sob story for why they can’t pay you. There are definitely cases where clients can’t pay, and I’m sympathetic to that. But if it’s month after month, they’re probably not genuine.

Solution:

  • Honestly? Get rid. No matter how much they’re going to pay, it’s probably not going to make working for them any easier.
  • If the money is amazing, or you’re really passionate about it, stick with them but create some strict guidelines.

Have you experienced working with any of the above? Let me know in the comments how you dealt with them!

(It should be noted that there are just as many difficult freelancers. Neither party is perfect!)

5 Comments on Five difficult clients and how to deal with them

  1. I too have experienced most of these customer types over the years. I can’t honestly say I’ve developed a successful strategy for handling them other than to trust my gut instinct more – 9 times out of 10 the warning signs were there (huge alarm bells sometimes!) yet I foolishly chose to ignore them…

    http://www.facebook.com/TheRightWords

  2. I’ve just started a new policy of only emailing clients during standard working hours (other than in emergencies or if it’s pre-arranged). I’m often working at 5.30am or 9pm – although not both on the same day if I can help it – but my clients don’t need to know that!

  3. Let’s not forget the Low Payer, who knows you’re doing twice the amount of work for half the money – yet doesn’t acknowledge your sacrifice! As a freelance I often took on jobs to broaden my portfolio rather than as money-spinners, and sure, that was the advantage for me.

    But clients need to be aware that expecting the world for very low rates can quickly become exploitation, even when it has some benefit to your CV. There is a limit to how far this excuse will stretch – particularly when (as in my case) the client is also one of those lovely 24/7 ones who ‘forget’ you have other jobs! This doesn’t mean paying more if they can’t afford to pay – just a little honesty combined with acknowledgement that you’re doing a great job at a fantastic rate for them

    • Yes! I think when a client pushes to pay less, I automatically give them less too. Where possible now, if someone wants to pay less, I agree less hours so I can still do the work without compromising on quality.

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