How to handle difficult clients

If you've never had to wrangle a difficult client, this blog post is your opportunity to prepare. Disagreements happen, some people handle them better than others, how we conduct ourselves in these situations have a profound impact on the trajectory of our careers.

Early detection is key

In our post about landing your first client, we end on this note: Be aware of indicators that this client is difficult to work with.

The most obvious sign is always past trouble. If the client relates stories about how their last freelancer "was a complete idiot" , always keep in mind that the story has two sides and that maybe you're sitting across from the instigator.

Keep a mental image of the perfect client in your mind. Your image may differ from mine, but here are a few key points:

  • They are polite
  • They are professional
  • They honor deadlines and agreements
  • They give back
  • There's a friendly vibe around them

With the image of the perfect client in your mind, notice where your current client differs. They don't need to get a perfect score to be a "good client" - Don't think of clients as potential friends, you don't need to be friends with them. In fact I would recommend that you as far as possible draw a clear line between friendships and business-relations.

Be sure you know what your personal deal-breakers are. In my case, I prefer polite but have no problem with people who are more crass. I greatly prefer to work with professionals, but I won't pull the brakes if I need to work with someone who's more "personally invested".

I will however pull out of a deal immediately if the person(s) I'm dealing with are confrontational, badmouthing everyone else they've dealt with and especially if there's an aura of distrust around them. The problem with people who openly bad mouth others, is that one day they will probably bad mouth you.

Master De-escalation

I once had a colleague who was very soft spoken, very low key. Listening to him speak on any topic could put you half to sleep - And I don't mean boring, just very calm.

I remember one instance, where I had to attend a meeting with him, a contractor, and a client who was red-hot-furious. They we're running Google Ads in several European countries and in one of these countries their CPA was higher than what they expected, which had caused a big stir at one of their quarterly meetings with their investors.

They came in, sat down, and started shouting, threatening to fire everyone involved with the project, expressing disbelief that anyone could be so stupid as to mess up a CPA. Fortunately, I had not been part of this delivery so I could observe the dynamics of the room with complete detachment.

After they had ranted for about 10 minutes while we just sat back and listened, my colleague started to speak - Very softly and slowly as he always did - "I understand your situation completely, there's so much pressure on you guys to perform and you expect the same kind of commitment from your contractors as you yourselves put in. This was a mistake on our part, and one that we have done a lot to ensure won't happen again" ... He kept going for 7 - 8 minutes after which we were all cuddled up in a ball under a warm blanket. Or that's how it felt anyway. Normally there's a vibe in a room that everyone takes part in, but it was very clear that while the room was boiling, he was in his own bubble of comfort - and he managed to pull everyone in to that bubble.

You've heard the term "Speak softly and carry a big stick". Well forget the stick. If there's any tension or negativity between you and a client, just speak softly. It will instinctively make them feel over-dramatic and they will gear down.

Don't be afraid, don't let the situation get to you, listen with detachment and when it's time to speak, speak softly and professionally.

In the extreme cases, where disagreements are so large that you'll have to tell your client that you're going to court, you can still speak softly and professionally. I've never in my 20 years, had a situation where I felt it was necessary to raise my voice with a client. I can be sharp, very direct and even critical, but never abusive.

Be very, very clear

If there's tension on a project, if deadlines are challenged, some freelancers have a tendency to bow down low, accept full responsibility and just try to power through.

That's driven by an emotional response and a want to fix things. Accepting responsibility is good, but don't accept full responsibility if it's not warranted. Did the scope change? Were some of the specs unclear? Did the client delay in getting some material to you?

In my experience when estimates start to slip, several people carry part of the blame so I'm never quick to try and place blame and not take others failings on me.

But whether or not it's all your fault, now is not the time to bunker down and power through (unless the finish line is right in front of you). Now is the time to be very, very clear.

If the "old you" would say something like

"I'm very sorry, I'll put everything else aside and work on this day and night, including the weekends and have it done by Friday"

Then instead try guiding the conversation like this:

"Our deadline is this Friday and with the current scope we have 80 hours of work left on this project. Adding a buffer that's 100 hours split into 6 hour/days, that means we can realistically be done in 16 workdays, which is 3 weeks from now"

The client might say

"That's completely unacceptable, we had agreed to launch this feature on Friday!"

In which case you will say

"3 weeks is the realistic estimate, 2 weeks is our best case scenario. The original deadline is no longer realistic due to <changes in scope>|<missing materials>|<whatever>, but if you wish to launch on Friday we can do so by removing tasks from scope, would you prefer that solution"

These conversations are never fun, but if you gently guide them towards the facts, you'll end up make good decisions with the client. Getting an extension on a deadline can be difficult, even if you're not to blame for the delays. Getting a 2nd extension is painful and a 3rd I don't even want to think about.

Once you've agreed to something that everyone can accept, put it in writing and have all parties confirm. This guarantees a shared understanding.

I've tried it all, they're still a drain

If you've ever said this out loud, or entertained the thought, get rid of the client. There's always a number of reasons to keep a bad client: Your reputation, the income, the project itself - But none of them weigh more heavily than your mental health.

I have a friend who recently got a new boss. The boss was abusive, giving limited positive feedback but much criticism and generally just sucking the joy out of working. I told my friend something which goes for freelancers as well

"Either you stay with this boss and let her suck the life out of you until you can't take it anymore. When that day comes, you'll be searching for a new job feeling like a defeated man and everyone who interviews you will get that impression as well. Or you pull the plug right now, think back 1 month how much you were doing, you were on fire for your job, you got great results, send that guy out to do the interviews".

Life is short people, there are many, many great clients out there, in every part of the world. But you don't get to meet them if you spend all your time on difficult clients.

Happy freelancing!

About the author

Lau B. Jensen is a Danish Freelancer / Tech entrepreneur. He's worked mostly with Software Development and management consulting all across Europe. In 2015 he took a 5 year break from freelancing to be the CEO of a VC funded SaaS start-up.

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