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How Freelancers Can Deal with Difficult Clients

Updated on December 2, 2020

Life of a Freelancer

As bills pile up on your doorstep, rent/mortgage is due soon and clients are making your life impossible, you start wondering: when did I sign up for this? Freelancing should be all about having more freedom and more flexibility, including being able to choose whom to work with!

Well, dear freelancers, sooner or later we all have to face difficult clients. Let's see what you can do to either solve the issue or fire unprofitable clients before you start resenting your career choice.

1 The Late Paying Client

Off all the types of clients out there, clients who don't pay or pay late make the top of the list of difficult clients. Why are they late? Do they have budget issues? Are they unable to plan?

Find out with a polite request and try as much as possible to get to the root of the problem. Recurring late payments will disrupt not only your cashflow but also your productivity as your mind is preoccupied with credit control instead of the current project.

Early warning signs that the client may be late paying the invoices or not pay at all is the constant mention of costs, having a limited budget and demanding value for money.

What you can do: you can break down your invoice into tasks, each charged individually and with a set deadline to pay. Then add interest if you haven't received the payment and send another invoice reminder. You can also charge an administration fee. As a last resort, there is always the option of taking court action – in the UK, for example, you can use the Small Claims Court to try and retrieve the money you are owed. The risk is that the client may still not pay the bill and you will need to absorb the court fees too. Fees are on a sliding scale according to the amount you are owed.

Ideally you would have set these conditions at the start, when you signed a contract or agreement.

Difficult Clients


2 The Messy, Panicky Client

Some people are messy by nature and can't plan for toffee. To them, life is a series of catastrophes and constant firefighting. You may feel sorry for them or maybe you see that there is good potential in them (or maybe they commission really interesting projects). If you can salvage the relationship, then there is hope.

What you can do: you have an opportunity to coach your client to become more confident and organised. It takes time and effort but it may also lead to bigger projects in the future.

Keep Calm and Think of the Money

How much are you willing to compromise and get out of your way to please a difficult client in order to earn money?
How much are you willing to compromise and get out of your way to please a difficult client in order to earn money? | Source

3 The Overly Friendly/The Over-Sharing Client

There are some clients who, either because of loneliness or because blurred work/life boundaries, think that their suppliers are also their personal friends. From opening their heart and soul at the first meeting to gossiping about people, these clients are quick to turn from friends to enemies. Sometimes they will make negative remarks about previous freelancers they hired, highlighting all their flaws and wanting you to be the best freelancer they've ever worked with.

The over-sharing client may think it's appropriate to tell you, a complete stranger, about marital affairs or other relationship problems. You did not sign up to be a counsellor (I am assuming you are a freelance writer/social media consultant, not a qualified talking therapies practitioner) so you need to be firm and get the conversation back to professional issues.

The warning sign you are dealing with a potential over-sharing client is when they say that their organisation is like a family: that's code for they expect you to work overtime for no extra fees and you should therefore run a mile.

What you can do: never engage in conversations about previous freelancers or personal issues. Politely change the subject to the project you are bidding for or that you have started working on.

Are you dealing with difficult clients?

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4 The "Make Me Famous Now" Client

If you specialise in social media and marketing you may have come across clients who want to become overnight successes. For example, they expect their website to be the first result on Google and/or have 10,000 followers on twitter within a week of you starting on a project. These clients are also likely to tell you how to do your job, even though they may not have any previous experience or qualifications to back up their claims. Do you envisage being able to deal with divas? Are you armed with extreme patience?

What you can do: spreadsheet at the ready, work out how long it takes for a brand to appear on search engines and to develop a following. Use examples, either from your own case studies or from the public domain, to prove your point. Freelance editor and writer Ren Zelen says: “Have to deal with academic writers. If they get difficult I tell them my main aim is to make THEM look good...”

5 The Micromanaging Client

Hand up if you like to be micromanaged.

I rest my case. Micromanagers will contact you via email, telephone, Skype, text message, social media to check on progress several times a day. They may even insist on the specific formatting of the emails you send to them. Some may interrupt you while you're in full flow to check that you're working on their project, while you're working on their project. Some micromanagers want to be safe in the knowledge that you are glued to your computer 24x7 and will do their best to see that you respond to any of their queries within 5 minutes. They will go absolutely ballistic if you reply after 7 minutes. If you have a masochistic streak, then go ahead and keep that client.

What you can do: there may be an underlying issue of lack of confidence, lack of trust and anxiety that triggers micromanaging behaviours. It has nothing to do with you. Buy more time by communicating clearly when you are available to talk and when you cannot pick up the phone or answer emails.

Difficult Clients: Scenarios and Strategies for Freelancers

Type of Client
What You Can Do
1 Late Paying
Send reminders, break down invoice into tasks
2 Panicky
Take time to coach the client
3 Overly Friendly
Keep communications professional
4 Make Me Famous Now
Prepare detailed spreadsheet
5 Micromanager
State clearly when you are and when you aren't available

So Many Sharks Out There!

Handling sharks is sometimes easier than dealing with difficult clients...
Handling sharks is sometimes easier than dealing with difficult clients... | Source

Let's Recap

You have two choices when you have difficult clients: if these clients are good for cashflow and you know you can work on improving the relationship, then have clear communications with them, offer solutions and listen to their concerns; if these clients are not earning you enough and they are being difficult for the sake of it and are making your life miserable, it's time to move on.

A large majority of happy clients will spend more with you and are willing to spend more for better customer service. At the same time, unhappy customers are very quick to tell as many people who bother to listen about a negative experience with their supplier.

As a freelancer, you need a strong exit strategy if you decide you no longer want to work with a difficult client. Tact and diplomacy are absolutely essential. Have a few standard answers ready that you can customise. It's good practice to thank the client for their custom and that you appreciated working on their projects.


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