Freelancers: it's not you, it's them

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October 09, 2012
Freelancers: it's not you, it's them.

ThumbnailThe customer is always right? No, not always, especially not when you're a freelancer.

Had a bad experience recently? Don't worry, you're not alone.

Many freelancers deal with less-than-ideal client interactions that spiral out of control and leave both parties frustrated, stressed and jaded.

More often than not, the difficult situation could have be prevented if the freelancer had taken the necessary steps to weed out the good prospects from the bad.

A common problem

The practice of client relations is not for the faint of heart: you finish a portion of the work and the client changes his mind—your draft just became garbage; the client is forgetful and accuses you of doing a job you didn’t discuss; you finish a project and you can’t get a hold of the client when it is time to finalize payment; the client expects a song and a dance and you end up in a vicious cycle of working for nothing.

So how do we deal with these issues? Let’s turn to our fellow freelancers for advice.

I asked several experienced freelancers to tell us about their most grueling client interactions and to offer us their best piece of advice about what to do when dealing with difficult clients:

Brad Hines

Internet Entrepreneur/Freelance Writer at

Problem I had a client who was from hell. Designing a company logo for him as a freelance graphic designer; there was no pleasing him. He was so Steve Jobs-esque that he dragged out the minutiae of editing to ridiculous levels. Everything I did required a re-do, dragging out my hours that weren't billable.

Solution To ensure against wanna-be-steves, educate the client about the perils of being penny-wise pound foolish. As Facebook's company motto that works is: "Done is better than perfect". Lastly, outline the billing upfront, that additional edits will cost them, or charge hourly.


Frustrated image via Shutterstock

Philippa Gamse

Author of 42 Rules for a Web Presence That Wins

Problem My biggest nightmare was with a client who insisted that she simply wanted to improve her current website look and feel, rather than a complete makeover since she didn't have the budget to do the latter. She approved the work during the process, and then when she received the closing invoice she threatened to sue to get her initial payment back because the final product looked too much like her current site - which it was supposed to!

Solution A key defense against difficult clients is to listen to your gut during the initial conversation. I've always regretted taking a client on after something inside me heard major warning bells while talking with them for the first time. This can indicate that nothing you do will satisfy them, or that they'll ask for so many iterations, or be so unclear about their needs or expectations that you'll spend way over your time budget with them. If I'd listened to my gut, I would never have taken on the above client.


Frustrated image via Shutterstock

Michelle Gower

Lead trainer/developer at Gower Power Consulting, LLC

Problem She was literally Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I learned too late that I was just the latest web designer; the rest had fired her before I came along (and several since me). If I was nice to her, she would bully me; If I indicated anger or leaving the project, she would immediately turn to begging and 'whatever you say.' The experience ended with a thousand-plus dollars lost and her saying, "You need to learn how to deal with difficult clients like me better in the future!"

Solution Create a contract that outlines how difficult clients will be handled. If they become difficult, stick to email, and outline each communication, no matter how benign, as if a judge were reading it out loud. I now have a clause in my contract that allows me to withdraw from the project for whatever reason and drop a refund check in the mail. You have to decide what is important to you in your business; my sanity can't be purchased, and I learned it the absolute hard way.


Frustrated image via Shutterstock

Kurt Elster

Co-founder and design director at Ethercycle

Problem The Micromanagers: One of our first clients years ago didn't want a designer so much as they wanted a voice-controlled WYSIWYG editor. They bought a maintenance contract, and would call up and ask for revisions by the pixel. They would put us on speakerphone and hit refresh on their page and ask paddings to be changed by the pixel. This was the first of only two clients we ever formally fired. The last straw was when the client demanded to come in and watch over our shoulders to make sure they were getting their money's worth.

Solution Difficult clients rarely intend to be difficult. You're the expert; they've hired you for your expertise. It's your job to educate them not just on design, but on the process of working with a web designer. Push back not just on bad design, but also bad relationships.


Frustrated image via Shutterstock

Paige Taylor

Freelance writer

Problem My worst example is a client for whom I worked for four years. While he was always a curmudgeon, his personality became more and more abusive in the last year, including belittling me, claiming I made frequent mistakes but offered no proof, and finally ganging up on me with several of his employees. I finished the project I was paid to do, then fired him.

Solution The first step would be to try to talk to them. If that doesn't work, then the only solution available to a freelancer is to fire them. We have almost no other choice: because we are not employees, we can't go to human resources. It's important that, as independent business people, we take care of ourselves and not let clients abuse us.


Frustrated image via Shutterstock

Harmony Major

Owner at Excellent Presence

Problem I firmly believe that Web design is supposed to be results-based, and when clients refuse to trust the designer to implement their ideas in a results-oriented way, the experience becomes horribly difficult to manage. As a designer with years of marketing and conversion experience, I'm constantly thinking about whether the goals a client expresses mesh with what they want to "see" in their website. My worst experiences always come down to the emotional and time drain involved with trying to help clients new to the Web understand that their exact vision will not translate into the results that they want, and who refuse to think of our partnership as the "team" connection that it is.

Solution Never compromise your integrity and work ethic just to make a few dollars. Sometimes, you simply must refuse certain projects to save time and sanity, especially those you wouldn't feel comfortable adding to your portfolio. However, if you aren't yet in a position to refuse work, stay true to what you know to be effective design, and be empathetic and persistent in trying to help clients understand. Oftentimes, the most "difficult" clients end up being the most appreciative and loyal, once they realize that it wasn't about the money, but that you truly do want to see them succeed.


Frustrated image via Shutterstock

Nicholas Chase

Freelance web programmer –

Problem Just recently I volunteered to help manage a client who was not only threatening to cancel a contract, but also to take several other clients with him. When I finally did get to talk to him, he spent several minutes screaming at me, and then left the rest of the call to his business partner. Even so, you have to keep calm. After I finished talking to his partner about what was actually possible on the project, I received an emailed apology from the client.

Solution Remember that client attitudes don't happen in a vacuum. Something has happened to make them the way that they are, and the best thing that you can do is acknowledge that and get on the same page with your client so you can move forward together. If you've made a mistake, apologize and promise to make it right. In most cases, though, the problem is a failure to manage the client's expectations; make sure you both know what the project is — and what it's not — before you start.


Frustrated image via Shutterstock

Thanks to all of our contributors for sharing their unsatisfactory client interactions and offering helpful advice!

Additional thoughts

As a successful freelancer and the owner of my own content writing business, I can honestly say most of my clients have been a pleasure. A few have made my life quite difficult, however those situations could have been avoided had I taken some necessary precautions.

Here is my freelancer checklist. It will help you avoid attracting and working with difficult clients:

  • Don’t expect difficult clients to come your way. Have you ever heard of positive thinking?
  • Get everything in writing. This includes deadlines, detailed pricing structure, edits, communication specifics, expectations, etc.
  • If clients are unsure about what they want, they will either never be satisfied, or you will spend hours strategizing with them. Before I work with a client, I send them a detailed questionnaire about their business, brand, future goals, competitors, etc. This helps me get an idea of what to expect should I move forward. If they are unsure of what they want, I add strategy consulting as an add-on and get paid for my time.
  • Address revisions upfront and include a set amount on the contract.
  • If you feel the job is outside of your comfort zone, don’t take it. It’s fine to tackle a project that expands your skills, but when it is completely outside of your skill set, in the end, it could equate to disaster.
  • Request payment upfront. This keeps both parties attentive and active. I receive 50% upfront on most projects, especially for first-time clients. If the project quote is more than $1,000, I take 1/3 upfront.
  • Remember—YOU are the expert. When clients sense a lack of confidence, they may feel uneasy about their decision to work with you and this can manifest into difficult communication. Don’t be afraid to speak up and show off your expertise. Your clients will not only respect you, but they will also feel confident they made the right decision to work with you.
  • Sometimes, clients are simply difficult because they are unhappy with life and angry in general. For these clients, nothing you do or say will change them, and their negative attitude and jaded perception of the world has little to do with you. Know when it is time to say, “I’m done.” And never settle for abuse.

If you are dealing with a large number of difficult client interactions, try some of the above freelancing tips. You may find that with some simple adjustments, your work life can become much more enjoyable and a whole lot easier!

What's your worst experience of a nightmare client? How did you resolve the situation? Let us know in the comments below!

Jenna Scaglione

Jenna is the owner of Lady Content, a unique “content makeover” service. She is a successful writer, internet marketer, and a lover of family, friends and life. She enjoys helping her clients boost their conversions and increase brand awareness on the internet through content writing and social media. Connect with Jenna on Twitter or chat with her on Facebook.

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