Freelancers, like any other small business owner, have to deal with difficult clients from time to time. Whether those clients lack good communication skills, don’t know what they want, have difficulties articulating their thoughts and desires, are stubborn or just mean by default – it doesn’t really matter. The result is usually the same – the freelancer’s inner balance is distorted and the pleasure of doing your job – vanished. Don’t let difficult clients get you out of balance!
Here are 5 tips to dealing with difficult clients – remember, the focus is on freelance clients but I think these tips are applicable to all.
Be patient and balanced
In case you are dealing with a difficult client, there’s no better partner than patience and staying calm. There are many different reasons why the client could get on your nerve – to name a few:
- They are incompetent
- They lack proper communication skills
- They ask dumb questions
- They have very poor technology skills (and I mean VERY poor)
- They cannot understand that your price is what it is and that they get value for it
- They cannot understand why the timetable they suggest is unrealistic – no matter how many times and in what different ways you explain it to them
It doesn’t matter if your difficult client has one of the above – or some other way to get on your nerve – you must stay calm and in control. You should patiently explain with different words and in different ways; you should stand by your position; until you reach an agreement.
If you are emotional in your dealings with the difficult client, reaching an agreement won’t happen. For that reason, stay calm and be patient, always.
Never tell your difficult clients they are wrong
When the clients award their projects to someone (freelancer or not), they secretly (or not so secretly) think themselves as masters of both the project and you simply because they give the money and do the hiring. Don’t think of this as a con. Use it for your advantage instead.
For example, if a client wants to get 5000 new fans on their brand new Facebook page in the next 2 weeks, don’t tell them they are wrong to ask this of you or of anyone for that matter.
Turn their lack of knowledge in your advantage by explaining what YOU could do for them and why you’d recommend that. Explain to them that you as a social media marketer can deliver 100 highly targeted new fans per month (provided there’s little to no advertising budget, of course). More importantly, you’d focus on building their brand and raising awareness on Facebook in the long run. Your focus would be on the quality of the fans, not their number.
Tell them also that you are sure there are plenty of freelancers who would promise them 5K fans per month and would deliver them. But the quality of those fans would be very bad. Those fans would never really read anything on the client’s page, let alone engage or make a purchase in the future.
Explain also what the purpose of social media marketing is and that the purpose of their Facebook page is not direct sales or quick sales. This way you’d demonstrate your analytic skills and professionalism. You would be sure that if you are chosen for the project, it won’t be based on unrealistic expectations and false promises.
Similar examples could be given in any niche of expertise, not just social media marketing.
When dealing with difficult clients, don’t tell them they don’t understand
Remember that at some point, every client has the feeling of being the master who pays their freelancers. Having said this, it’s good you approach a difficult client with the presumption you cannot explain well, not that they cannot understand you.
Don’t say “no, you didn’t understand me“. Instead, tell them “sorry, I couldn’t explain, let me try again“. Repeat what you are trying to say as many times as needed – just not using the same words. Use screenshots, graphics, tables, examples, stories – whatever is needed to get your ideas through, visually or not. Once you find a common language with your difficult client, every next conversation will be easier for you.
Yes, it may be unpleasant sometimes but truth is –
Difficult clients like attention and when you pay it more to them, they become less difficult. 😀
For example, you got an email from a difficult client. Reply quickly – if not with the desired info, then at least with a deadline when you’d give them the desired info.
Another example – they want a meeting with you today or tomorrow. Rearrange your schedule and meet with them when they want. But make sure you make it absolutely clear how much inconvenience it has cost you. Don’t be arrogant or rude, just delicately show them you bent over backwards to meet with them at the desired day and time.
Which leads me to my next tip to dealing with difficult clients:
Learn how to “manipulate” them and make the most out of the situation
How to show delicately you have bent over backwards to meet with them and make the most out of the situation? A sentence like “I had to cancel a couple of other meetings to make it for our discussion today but I believe both of us will be happy with the outcome of the meeting!” can do wonders on 3 different levels:
1) you discretely showed them your schedule and other clients’ meetings have fallen victim to his demand to meet here and now – boom, you just feathered their ego; now they think they are more important than anyone and everyone! So they are happy 😀
2) you give a hint for a good outcome of the meeting – which is a real predicament for the meeting to have a good outcome indeed
3) you pave the way for your end of the negotiations – the client should be thankful for you bending over backwards so you too should be happy with the meeting outcome 😉
To recap how to deal with difficult clients if you are a freelancer
To successfully work with difficult freelance clients, set your ego aside.
Accept that you will cross paths with clients who are always unhappy, nothing could satisfy them, and they never say thank you. You should be patient with them. You should stay calm, always. You should watch your tone. You should learn how to “manipulate” them (in the good sense of the word – to drive them in the direction you want them to go).
Oh, and the most important piece of advise and lesson learnt – never take up another project from the same difficult client 😉
Debra Yearwood says
Great post Diana and I know that your advice will be difficult for some people to follow but it’s the right advice. It’s a challenge dealing with difficult clients, they have the ability to destroy a perfect day, but I do think that you can often turn your most problematic clients into the best clients by taking the time to listen and respond. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when I worked as a consultant I would say that the more challenging a client was at the onset, the better they were once we got into a rhythm.
Oh, Debra, you are SO right! I sometimes wonder if i myself don’t qualify as a ‘difficult client’ because i demand too much and/or i am too principled and like things to happen certain way. And if you team up with me (as a client, or a project manager) and you know my way – you would love working with me. but if you don’t adapt to ‘my way’ quickly enough, well – i can be awful – hahaha.
But amen to this – “the more challenging a client was at the onset, the better they were once we got into a rhythm.” – thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation!
Diana Schneidman says
In dealing with a difficult client, it is especially important to have pricing and payment schedules in place and to enforce them.
When a client is difficult, refer back to your contract or any other form of agreement. If they are supposed to pay a percentage up front, hold them to this even if you have started work prematurely.
If your agreement promises only one set of revisions, remind them of this.
They may be intentionally difficult to create an excuse for not paying on time or not paying in full. Beware!
I may be lucky but i have never had problems with difficult clients when it comes to payments. My problems with them have most often been on the communications front.
You make good points there about payment schedule, contracts and all – thanks for stopping by and for adding to the conversation, Diana!
Diana, these are great tips. I especially like “learn to manipulate them and make the most of the situation”. By being understanding, then using the right wording, you can definitely manipulate someone into thinking differently, turning the whole thing around, and in the end the difficult client is the one apologizing, lol, and then you can tell them “it’s okay”.
hahaha, right – and then you tell them it’s okay LOL – thanks for your comment, Lisha – we are in agreement 😉
Lorraine Marie Reguly says
I think the number of times I shared this post speaks to how highly I regard your excellent tips and information. 😉
yes, it does – thanks for your support, Lorraine! 😀
I’ve noticed difficult clients are each unique in how they are difficult. And in general, it is never a good idea to tell someone that they are wrong. If they have money to pay you, chances are (if the business is legal), they have done at least something right. A current client doesn’t listen enough. I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with this issue, but I know that criticizing her would be the *wrong* approach.
Thanks for your comment, Leora! I agree with you half way. I agree that if the client has money to pay me and their business i legal, they must have done at least something right. But it doesn’t make them a good client either, right? Actually, “good” is not a proper term since i have some difficult clients who are otherwise pretty good clients LOL
But yes, i totally agree criticizing is never a good idea. Don’t know what your client’s situation is (the one who doesn’t listen) – but in my experience, most clients who don’t listen are easily overwhelmed with new information and they kinda shut down (aka stop listening)… so giving them all new information bits by bits can work wonders. Little steps ever day – chances are she will start better understanding when she has time to absorb all the info at her own pace. Hope this helps 😀
Ashley Faulkes says
Some great ideas from what I am sure is real experience here.
Dealing with difficult people in any way shape or form actually takes quite a lot of skill
I used to use the attack option, and have since come around to the more moderate calm option which has an amazing effect.
Even yesterday a silly woman at the supermarket went off at me for going in the exit (which is conveniently located at the front, unlike the entrance which is way at the back). I of course knew this, but just looked at her slightly confused and said “oh really, so sorry” and continued through the exit. I got a smile on the way out :>
anyway, it was a better tactic for sure. be sorry, don’t argue. simple
hahaha, right, playing it dumb works sometimes; actually – almost always LOL – at least in every day situations. Not so sure about working with clients though – you risk ending up wasting a lot of time as it won;t cut it for people who pay you to do something. But i hear ya and agree – attack option is more often hurting your relation with the client than helping so it’s great you found a better approach that works for you. Thanks for stopping by, Ashley!
Jeannette Paladino (@jepaladino) says
If you’re in the client service business, you have to accept that some clients will be difficult. But some cross the line. I had that experience a couple of years ago with a client who would always try to add to the project without paying and want things turned around overnight. It finally got to the point that I had to fire him. He was shocked and tried to come back, but I had had enough. I knew he would never change. Sometimes you just have to give up and move on.
Thanks for your comment, Jeannette! You make a great point – maybe it wasn’t clear in my post – when speaking about dealing with difficult clients, i in no way aim to imply we need to bend over backwards to deliver everything at any cost, no matter how irrational or unreasonable the client’s demand is. No.
I totally agree with you – i am so happy i now can fire clients (i couldn’t fire my boss when i was at my 9 to 5 job, right :D). Thanks for adding to the conversation 😉
Diana- People are people and every business has difficult clients. The first thing is do not take it personally. Their problems may have nothing to do with you at all. Listen and keep your mouth shut. What I do is I am sorry you had a bad experience, what can I do to make it right? The customer usually will calm down and then I am able to go from there. If they come up with something unreasonable, I will say I understand how you feel, but I am only able to do…….. Then I ask can we make it work? By this time the customer relaxes and exhales and they calm down. If the customer doesn’t and is unreasonable, you do not have to keep them as a customer. You do have the right to say no.
Thanks for your comment, Alreen! What you are saying is totally true for business-client relationship. It can be slightly different when it is freelancer-client relationship though… for one, you cannot fire the client in the middle of the project if you have not held your end of the bargain. Sure you won’t take another project with them (now that you know he or she is difficult to work with) but you still have to work with the person until the project is complete. If not else, You have your reputation to protect and you don;t want people to think you don’t complete projects, right? 😀 Thanks for adding to the conversation.
Johnny Bravo says
Great points Diana. Especially about never telling the client they don’t understand. It’s so true that YOU are the one who has a message to relay. It’s not their fault they don’t share the vision on the first try. It’s your job to tailor the message to them.
right, being persuasive is a skill you definitely need when working with people. Thanks for stopping by, Johnny!
P V Ariel says
“Be patient” thats the key here to deal with such difficult ones!!!
Thanks for sharing this point in detail.
Thanks for stopping by, Philip – i am glad i could help!