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Freelancer's Guide to Managing Difficult Clients

Updated on March 22, 2013
3 Simple Steps to Keep You From Being Frustrated
3 Simple Steps to Keep You From Being Frustrated | Source

3 Key Tips to Build Happier, Richer Client Relationships

Being a freelance worker, or a freelancer, can be tough work. Instead of managing the satisfaction of one boss, you may be managing a dozen or more!

Conflict is inevitable, and its hard to keep everyone happy when unique personalities collide and tempers start to flare.

Here’s 3 simple tips to managing difficult clients:

Separate YOU from Your DELIVERABLE

YOU, as a freelancer, are a unique service provider, with complex attributes and a distinctive profile of skills and accomplishments. YOU, as a person, have a personality and an amazing history.

Your DELIVERABLE, on the other hand, is supposed to be a reflection of your employer’s personality, and an answer to their wants and/or needs. Your DELIVIRABLE is what you are paid for, not your personality.

When an employer criticizes your deliverable (“This website is too chunky”, “This article is too casual”, “This Facebook welcome page is too generic”, etc) you need to recognize that the fault isn’t with you; it’s with your deliverable. At worst, it’s your fault as a provider for not interpreting the employer’s needs appropriately. Don’t take it personally; just strive to do a better job interpreting next time.

Fix The Problem, Not The Attitude

When I was managing a call center team, we had a simple saying - “Respond to the problem, not the attitude”.

While no one should have to put up with abuse, in the realm of client care, your job is to address the issue at hand, not the tone in which it’s delivered. I’ve personally talked to people whom I would have cheerfully shoved off a cliff and danced as they plummeted to their deaths, and yet I’ve rarely encountered a customer for whom I couldn’t at least understand WHY they were upset.

When you find your blood pressure rising at the tone of a client’s message, imagine that you were reading a transcript of the conversation, instead of listening to them bark at you (via email or phone). Would your interpretation of their comments be different if it wasn’t shaded by them shouting in your ear? Probably. It doesn’t make it any less palatable, but it makes it easier to separate your outrage as a person from your job as a provider... and respond to fix the problem, rather than the client’s attitude.

Love Your Client to Death or Kill Them Trying

Sometimes, god bless them, you cannot meet the client’s needs.

There’s a trifecta that’s recognized with all project managers – TIME, COST and QUALITY. The joke amongst experienced managers is this - tell your clients they can only have 2 of the 3. Your clients can have high quality work fast, but it’s going to cost them. They can have exceptional work for cheap, but it’ll take some time. They can have fast and inexpensive service but they’ll get what they pay for. When the client can’t or won’t recognize this trifecta, you will experience a conflict.

The only solution in this situation is to kill the client with kindness – provide the best quality service you can. At the very least, you can sleep at night knowing “I did everything I could”.

If you struggle with how to manage this without flying off the handle, simply imagine that there’s a third party watching your proceedings, or better yet, imagine that there’s a potential client who is watching everything unfold. Pitch to that prospective client with all your communications, not to the one pain-in-the-profit client you’re dealing with.

Ultimately, if you can’t meet the client’s needs, kill them by severing the business relationship. If you’re not the right provider for them, you are doing them a favour by letting them know that fact and freeing them to find a better match to their needs. You’re being an exceptional provider if you do this professionally, without rancour and possibly even providing them with references who would be a better match.

There are just as many bad employers out there as there are bad providers. If you’re a freelancer who is determined to build a strong stable of satisfied customers, follow these three simple tips to build rich, healthy relationships with even the most difficult clients.


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