Ah, difficult clients. As a freelancer, consultant, or agency, few things are worse than a client that really grinds your gears. Perhaps they’re rude, pay their invoices late, or have a business model you don’t agree with (MLM schemes, anyone?).
At some point, you are going to have a difficult client. In a perfect world, you wouldn't: you’d just stop working with anyone that became too much of a pain. In real life, things don’t always work out that way. Clients that were initially great can gradually become worse over time. Or a difficult client might make up a large chunk of your revenue, meaning firing them isn’t financially feasible.
Whatever the case is, you’re running a business. You can’t just run away at the first sign of difficulty or conflict: you have to grow up and deal with it. Adversity builds resilience, and resilience builds success.
So, how can you manage the clients that make you curse? Let’s take a look at five ideas you can start putting into practice today.
1. Pre-Vet Them
Once you’ve been doing this for a while, you start to get a feel for whether a client is going to be difficult to work with pretty early on in the sales process. With that knowledge, you can either prepare for what’s to come or end the relationship before it even gets started.
Do your due diligence on all new clients. Check out their website, LinkedIn, Crunchbase, Glassdoor, and so on. This gives you a feel for 1) the success of the business, and 2) the values and behaviors they’ll likely bring to the relationship.
At the beginning of the relationship, take things slow. You wouldn’t marry someone after a first date and there’s no reason to make a long-term commitment to a new client before you know what you’re getting into. The best relationships often start small and expand over time as both you and your client discover the value you offer each other.
2. Separate the Business from the Personal
It can be easy to let your personal and your business identities become intertwined. While authenticity is important, it’s my view that letting these two versions of yourself become too closely connected is not a particularly healthy practice.
If someone insults your work product, they are not insulting you. Do not take criticisms as an ad hominem attack on your personality and ability.
We work in creative fields. Disagreements make us better. If you cannot take constructive criticism, you should not be in this line of work. Accept that you might be wrong from time to time and be open to changing your mind.
3. Over Communicate
Often, the driver of issues between you and your client is a lack of communication. It could be that there was some confusion over the deliverable or who was responsible for a certain part of a project.
Frequent communication keeps everyone on the same page, allowing clients ample opportunities to correct small misunderstandings before they spiral into bigger issues. One strategy that works well is to have a communication drumbeat: a weekly report sent every Friday afternoon or a recurring bi-weekly meeting at the same time.
Incorporate project management tools like Monday and ClickUp that make it easier for everyone to collaborate. Set up a Slack channel that allows both parties to get questions answered quickly. Don’t overthink it – just communicate, however and whenever works best for both parties.
4. Manage Expectations
Healthy relationships have aligned expectations. As the service provider, it’s your role to manage these expectations and ensure they are achievable. If possible, your best option here is to slightly underpromise and overdeliver.
Set measurable goals that map to the client’s expectations: “we’d like to rank for x keywords” or “we aim to attract y new inbound leads each week”. Take care to make sure these are realistic: a brand new business is never going to rank number one on Google for a high-competition organic keyword.
At the start of the relationship, work to clarify your client’s expectations and ensure you are aligned on how you plan to achieve them together. Revisit these periodically and update them to account for the improvements you’ve delivered.
5. Don’t Be a Doormat
If you let someone walk all over you, they will never respect you.
If a client is persistently difficult even after you do all of the above, call them out on it. Tell them which behaviors are unacceptable and what they need to change if they want to continue working with you. Reference specific examples where possible.
This is an intimidating conversation, but you know what else is intimidating? The thought of you (and especially your team) continuing to be treated badly by a difficult client for months and years to come.
There comes a point when you have to stand up for yourself and your team. It’s the right thing to do and your team will greatly respect you for it.
All Else Fails? Fire ‘Em (Elegantly)
If you’ve done all you can and run out of ideas, there’s no shame in firing a client. Life is too short to work with people who make it a misery. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of being a freelancer, agency owner, or consultant is that you’re free to choose who you work with.
Now, you should not fire a difficult client in a blaze of fury. This isn’t the time to vent your frustrations and get your own back. Instead, you’re going to exit this relationship politely and elegantly by saying something like “we’re not able to take on any new work at this point”.
And then you’re going to get on with running your business with clients that are a pleasure to work with. You know, like the ones we have at Hire a Writer. Want to become one of them? Get in touch today to learn more about how we can help your business.