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Dealing with bad clients

Last updated on 
January 3, 2020

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It doesn’t matter if you’re freelance or agency-based; at some point, everyone runs into a bad client. From seemingly endless demands and creative conservatism, to an entitlement to free work, some client relationships seem unsalvageable. So how do you respond to them? To give you some ideas, we’ve broken down three common examples and solutions for dealing with bad clients.

1. Unreasonable expectations and demands

It’s not uncommon for some clients to have unrealistic expectations, or to simply be too demanding. Whether it’s asking for multiple revisions or expecting you to put your life on hold, these problems can be extremely frustrating. And they’re more prevalent than you might think; so much so, that they inspired the creation of a whole new term in the creative industry: “scope creep”.

But some demands are downright unreasonable. If a client in a different time zone expects you to be in their 9AM video conference – even if that’s 3AM for you – think very carefully about whether or not it’s worth your while. If saying “no” means they choose someone else for the job, so be it – it’s not worth taking a job if it’ll have a negative impact on your wellbeing. Bear in mind that the more compromises you make, the more the client might feel they can get away with things – and that’s a precedent you don’t want to set.

To help try and cap extra requests, be clear from the outset about what work the project will entail, asking the client ask as many questions as you can. Does the client have everything you need to start work? Do they expect you to attend meetings, whether in person or virtually? Getting a fully formed client brief is the dream, but it’s not always forthcoming; so try and piece it together as much as you can upfront before you start work. If a client emails you an unreasonable request, phoning them can sometimes nip things in the bud; it shows you’re taking their unreasonable demands (semi) seriously, and allows you to talk frankly about it too.

2. Issues with payment

Payment is a big source of contention, and this is especially hard felt by freelancers. You feel disrespected when a client drags their heels over paying you, but equally, you also feel like you’re taking them for a ride if you send a bill that’s higher than your estimate. So ensuring your quotes are watertight from the beginning makes things much easier. You just need an accurate record of past project activities and task durations to get going – see our guide for a walk-through of how to do it.

Be sure you factor in client communication – meetings, phone calls and email – in your estimate too, and let the client know your rate covers this. You should also be clear on the number of amendments included in your initial quote, to avoid wasting hours on “minor” requests. You can always state that you’ll do further revisions if required, but these will be billed at your hourly rate. To help establish your own reliability, consider offering itemized reports detailing exactly where the client’s budget went – with the right apps it doesn’t take any extra effort, and clients really value the transparency.

Remember, even the best clients can get a little behind with payment now and then. Try to make sure you have savings that can tide you over for at least two months – that way, late payments won’t impact your lifestyle. If you find yourself fretting about whether you’ll get paid, or that you’re spending too much time chasing payment, it’s a powerful sign the client probably just isn’t worth the hassle.

3. Expects free work

Ever heard phrases like “Can you take a quick look at this and give me some pointers?”, or “You can do this extra little job, right?” These are just two ways some clients try to get free extras – but it doesn’t take long for these “quick looks” and “quick jobs” to mount up, and you spend hours working on jobs you won’t get paid for.

Another classic example: before you ‘officially’ begin working for a new client, they might ask to meet up with you to “pick your brain”. They could simply be trying to see whether you’re the right person for the job…but they could also be trying to see how much they can get out of you without paying. Follow your gut; if you feel uneasy about helping them without being paid, say so. As a business, you’re not in the market for free work!

The best way of dealing with issues like these is to avoid them altogether – something that can only happen if your expectations are aligned from the very beginning. Your initial agreement should outline the full scope of the project, your working relationship, communication methods and payment terms. Bear in mind that if a client expects limitless revisions, this can be seen as “free work” too!

Know your boundaries

As we’ve seen, many of these problems stem from unclear expectations and poor communication. The key thing is to establish boundaries from the very beginning and draw up a clearly defined contract. Remember that you’re not subject to the client’s every whim, and trust in your own instincts: it's never a good sign if a client is making you feel uneasy from the start.

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