How To Deal With Difficult Freelance Clients

Most of my clients over the last decade have been wonderful and easy to work with. I attribute this partly to luck and partly to my ever-growing standards.

However, I’ve had my share of difficult clients, particularly in the first couple of years of my freelance career.

Here are five types of freelance clients that are difficult to work with and how to handle each one.

How to handle cheap clients

Many experienced freelancers agree that cheap clients are the worst kind. Not only because they haggle over every cent, but they also usually fall into at least one of the four other categories below.

This makes perfect sense. Clients are cheap because they don’t know the value of your work. Not knowing the value of your work, in turn, makes them unreasonable and overly demanding. They tend to make “little” additions and demands as the project goes on, and these quickly add up.

How to handle them: explain that you don’t feel like the project fee properly covers the scope of work anymore and offer them an hourly contract instead.

When you demand that you start charging per hour, one of two things will happen: they will become a lot more efficient (because now wasting your time costs them money) or they will back away from the project completely.

Both outcomes are good. Never hold on to bad clients at all costs. I once took a client from fixed-price to pay-by-hour because they kept insisting on “experimenting with things” after the project was complete. Two days later, they were happy with the product and had no more ideas to experiment with.

Note that, sometimes, client have other reasons to lower your rates.

How to handle micromanagers

Some clients think they have to protect their investment by looking over your shoulder all the time.

Sometimes, the urge is understandable — perhaps they were burned before by irresponsible freelancers, or they’re just the sort of person that obsesses over details.

Two things to do in this case:

  1. Set boundaries — explain to them that you are most productive when feedback is clearly structured and communication happens at certain parts of the day. That allows you to work peacefully in between feedback sessions and it also frees up their time for more high-level tasks.
  2. Make sure you always deliver — build trust by showing them that you are just as responsible (and more productive) when working autonomously without constant supervision.

I’ve only ever had one client that was very difficult in this regard, and this was back in 2012. Ever since then, I start projects by setting up a communication schedule and explaining how valuable this is for productivity.

How to handle unresponsive clients

Ever struck a deal with a client, started work, and then they suddenly disappear for days on end?

We often need client input before we can make a decision regarding the project. When a client doesn’t respond quickly, it leaves you stuck:

  • You can’t move forward without feedback.
  • You can’t take on other work in the meantime because the client might come back at any moment.
  • You can’t abandon the project because, again, the client might come back at any moment.

The thing to do is give them the benefit of the doubt one time — they might have a real personal emergency. But once they come back, do two things:

  1. Define the longest TTR (time to respond) that you will tolerate before taking on other work.
  2. For future clients, let them know in advance about the standard of communication that you expect.

I’ve had clients disappear for a day or two at most, but some freelancers have struggled with getting clients to show up more than once a week. Apparently, this is a lot more prevalent among freelance writers than among freelance software developers.

How to handle know-it-all clients

Some clients are 100% sure that they know better than you. Whether it’s the technicalities of your job, time estimates, or something you spent four years studying in university, they’re confident that their opinion is correct.

Furthermore, they expect you to comply.

In this case, try creating a process where they only give feedback on the outcome of the project, not on the process. If they insist on guiding the process, don’t fight it too much — if they want to take on that responsibility, just let them know that the outcome becomes their responsibility as well.

They insist that Flash is the best language to build a landing page in and won’t have it any other way? No problem, as long as they’re clear that they’re going against your professional advice and they have no one to blame but themselves if it blows up in their face.

I once had a client who asked for information about my tech stack and then Googled for alternatives daily for a week. Finally, I explained to him that his time is wasted on Googling (because I’m aware of the alternatives already) and that my time is wasted on discussing this with him (because he doesn’t need to know what’s going on under the hood).

In the end, we struck a compromise — I would keep him in the loop by writing a short message about the tech aspect of the project once a week.

How to handle insecure clients

The opposite of a know-it-all is a client who needs too much guidance and wants your input on details that shouldn’t even be part of your job.

This has happened to me as a web developer — some clients expected me to guide them through everything from content creation to bookkeeping.

This is the least problematic of the five types of clients listed here — simply create a process for them to follow and they will follow it.

When they ask for things that are not part of your job description, you have two options:

  1. If it’s within your skillset, upsell it.
  2. If it’s not, help them recruit someone who can help (but make sure to charge for your time if this is a regular occurrence).

A few times, I’ve had the opportunity to expand my skill set because clients were insisting that they pay me to do something that wasn’t exactly my specialty. This was how I learned about SEO.

Putting it all together

Freelance clients come from all walks of life and some flexibility will be required on your part if you want to get on with them all.

With that said, you should take care to avoid troublesome clients from the start by detecting the traits above in the interview process itself. Never let yourself become desperate enough to work with someone who makes you uncomfortable and wastes your time.

If you do end up in a difficult situation, follow the principles above and things will turn out alright in the long term. And remember — don’t cry over spilled milk. Some clients are beyond saving and the best thing to do is cut your losses and move on.

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