When you work as freelance creative, certain things are a given. Such as setting your own schedule (aka mastering the art of the consolidated, color-coded calendar), preparing for a very eventful tax season, and, of course, working with difficult clients — a particularly delicate situation when you are technically your own boss.
For the most part, there are ways to manage troublesome clients and make sure everyone ends up satisfied. All it takes is patience, transparency, professionalism, more patience, and a strong ability to say no.
Here are my top tips, from experience.
Be Careful Who You Work For
The top way to manage vexing clients is to avoid them altogether. Be sure to vet your clients thoroughly before you agree to work with them and/or sign any contract with them, keeping an eye out for certain red flags:
- The client doesn’t actually know what they want. If the client is very vague in explaining the work you’ll be doing — whether it’s deliverables, the purpose and goal of a project you are managing, or a seemingly endless timeline — it’s not a good look. You are there to complete a specific task, so entering into a work agreement that does not clearly delineate what that task is will only lead to frustration on both ends.
- They don’t want to pay you what you’re worth. Negotiating pay is part of the freelance process, and it can start to feel uncomfortable if your clients consistently try to lowball you or get free work out of you. Set your rate and stick to it. If they even begin to utter anything about the project being “great for exposure,” run for the hills.
- The client has unrealistic asks. Some clients know exactly what they want, which normally is great. But if they are asking for something that seems impossible, like a wild list of deliverables and/or a ridiculous timeline, think twice. Of course, if you are up for a quick turnaround, be sure to tack on that premium rush fee.
- The client doesn’t do what they say they’re going to do. This red flag goes for friends, bandmates, and group project prospects along with clients. If in early talks your client says they’re going to send you materials, and you do not receive them, even after several reminders, it’s probably a good preview of working with them will be like.
One of the most common issues you may bump into with clients comes down to them not having a clear picture of what they want in the first place. You know, the kind of client who shuts down your ideas without providing something constructive that would help you get closer to what they want, but somehow expects you to pull the perfect idea out like a magician. Related to this are clients that give you too much freedom to do what you want — what seems like a dream hands-off gig can actually be neglectful as you are not sure what it is you’re meant to do.
Another common issue with clients is them assuming that your time belongs to them. The client may send you emails at all hours of the night or weekend and expect you to respond or turn work around outside your working hours.
There’s also the scope-creeper, the client who starts to incorporate other ideas and deliverables outside of the scope of work you agreed upon, asking to you to squeeze other mini-projects into the timeline or putting something they were responsible for onto your plate.
Hand-in-hand with the scope creeper is the “money-conscious” client who is constantly trying to get as much work out of you for as little money as possible.
The Best Offense Is a Good Defense
In general, the best time to confront these issues is actually at the beginning of your work with them. Talk in depth to get an understanding of what they want, translate that into what exactly you will be delivering, incorporate feedback opportunities, tie payment to the specific deliverables, and codify it into your contract with them. This will help protect you in the future and give you something to point to if your client deviates from the plan.
But if you already signed an unspecific contract, or your clients are still being difficult, it’s time to sit down, get real (professionally), and get on the same page with them.
Working Through It
Sometimes getting back on track is simply a matter of transparency, translation, and taking charge.
In any creative work, your biggest asset is knowing exactly what you need. That goes for the client and you, so come to the conversation prepared with a list of your needs so that the client can understand where you’re coming from. Do you need certain specs? A deadline? Do you need a communication strategy for the team?
From there, listen to the client and acknowledge their frustration. Clients get frustrated because they feel unheard, and it is your job to listen to their needs. Of course, chances are, if you have to revisit expectations, they may not be the best at expressing their needs in the first place, so you may have to do some translating and interpreting to understand what it is they really want. Acknowledging and validating your client works best when you also come to the table prepared with tangible solutions. You may be doing the heavy lifting of coming up with a path forward, but that is part of the gig.
The foundation of being able to do any of this is making sure you have firm boundaries. In fact, firm boundaries can help you come up with even more creative solutions. Is a client’s budget under your typical rate? Do your homework, acknowledge the budget, and let them know what they would get with their budget vs what they would get with your proposed one.
Of course, if a client is becoming extremely disrespectful or you have reached a real impasse, don’t be afraid to call it quits. Ideally, you would do so professionally and leave things on a positive note.
Calling in Backup
When a client gets out of hand, it’s nice to be able to bring in a manager who can back you up and help find a resolution. Of course, when you’re freelance, you often have to stand up for yourself, but freelancers who work with a firm do have the added comfort of having an advocate. Staffing agencies can step in to help navigate tough conversations with difficult clients — and make sure you get paid.
Dealing with difficult clients gracefully and having tough conversations is not fun. But they are part of the reality of being a freelancer, and they are valuable skillsets that will serve you well in your career and beyond.
About the author.
Sam Mani writes about work, creativity, wellness, and equity — when she’s not cooking, binging television, or annoying her cat.