You get a call from a new potential client. You are so excited about the new prospect you spend an hour or two on the phone with the potential client. Then, you quickly negotiate a deal and pricing for the project. After you hang up the phone you get a strange feeling that maybe you missed something. However, you get to work on the project right away, because you are super excited to have a new client and a new project! You are also excited to have some money coming in.

Over the course of the next few days additional requirements keep coming in on the project, but you agreed on a price and want the client to be happy so you just do the additional work. Then, one Friday afternoon you get a call from the client. They are all excited to launch the site on Monday. This is there first website project so they don’t see any reason why the site can’t be launched on Monday. It is really easy, right? You know that even if you worked all weekend and didn’t sleep it would not possible to finish the project by Monday. The client is disappointed and you are both frustrated. You curse the day that you agreed to do this project.

A Freelancer’s Guide To Handling Difficult Clients from Damon Schopen

Business Vs. Your Craft

Most freelancers are great at their craft. They build outstanding websites, come up with amazing designs, write great works, and produce great results. However, most freelancers that are getting started do not have the skills and experience needed to run a successful business. Most “difficult” clients result in a lack of communication or planning. In the following sections we’ll outline ways to make sure the projects you do for clients are successful.

Interview Your Clients

When a new client approaches you it is important to make sure the client is a good fit for you just as much as the client needs to make sure you are a good fit for them. When you interview your clients to make sure they are a good fit you are saving yourself a lot of trouble in the long run. It is much better to realize that a client is not a good fit in your first discussion versus figuring this out when you are half way through a project.

Instead of spending an hour on the phone with a client unexpectedly and throwing off your schedule for the day plan several interactions with the potential client to see if they are a good fit. Limit your first interaction to 15 to 20 minutes and meet over the phone. This gives you enough time to build up some initial rapport and make sure that you can provide what the client is looking for.

If you are an awesome back-end developer and client is looking for a logo to be designed you can figure that out quick and refer them to someone else. That way you don’t waste their time or your unnecessarily. As a freelancer your time is money. So the more efficient you can be with your time the more successful you will be. When someone isn’t a good fit refer them to someone else when at all possible. Over time that will make you the expert that everyone turns to first because if you can’t help them you know who can.

If a potential client seems like a good fit schedule future interactions with them. The size of the project will help you determine how many times you need to meet before you are able to provide a proposal. Those who are truly committed to doing the project will be happy to meet with you. Those who object to several meetings are most likely not going to follow through on the project. They might just be trying to get a price to talk down another vendor.

Off To The Races

It is very important to invest enough time before starting the project to get all the requirements down. There will always be changes, but the more you dig into the project in the planning stages the less often big changes or surprises will come up. When planning the project you want to ask a lot of questions and listen. Keep asking questions until you get to the heart of what the client is looking for. For example, if a client comes to you wanting to integrate a specific e-commerce platform with their point of sale system you want to find out why they choose that e-commerce platform. You might find that their brother-in-law who has no e-commerce experience said the platform was the best. It may be a great platform but might not be the best fit for your client’s unique needs. You don’t want to figure that out after you go live.

Contracts

Be sure to have a contract signed before you do any work with a client. A good contract is not just for legal reasons. The contract should clearly spell out what is part of the project and what is not part of the project. It should make clear when payments are due, and the timeline of the project. Depending on the type of work you do there are lots of other things you should have in your contract. Your attorney can help you create a contract that is best suited for you and your clients. Working with an attorney is an investment, but it can save you a lot of cost and headache in the long run.

Educating Your Clients

A big part of freelancing, especially in technical fields, is educating your clients. Your clients are looking to you to be the expert. If they want to do things that go against best practices or will have a negative impact on the client or the project it is your responsibility to point that out and educate them on why somethings should be done differently. When it comes to custom software that we develop for clients half the job is educating clients on the process and best practices of developing software

Process

Having clear and consistent processes that you follow for bringing on new clients, executing projects, and following up after a project is completed makes you more efficient and makes it clear to the client what they can expect. Documenting your processes will help you to be consistent across all projects and clients. It also makes you faster. When I bring on a new client I have a checklist that I follow. Something like:

  1. Send out contract.
  2. Send out first invoice for downpayment.
  3. Setup client in project management software.

This helps me to quickly setup a client and not forget a step.

Down Payment

It is important to get a down payment before you start a project. This shows that the client is committed and that they really do have the resources to pay you for your work. It can be a red flag if someone wants to delay a payment. If a client is unable to pay when you reach a certain agreed upon milestone then it is important to stop the work until the client makes the payment. Otherwise, you may deliver work that you never get paid for. You can always resume the project after payment is made.

Value Your Skills And Experience

Many freelancers don’t know how much they are worth when starting out and price their services too low. If everyone is agreeing to the price of your project your prices are too low. There should be clients who cannot afford your services. That is ok. As they grow that might change.

Don’t Be Afraid Of Firing A Client

With proper planning and good communication this happens extremely rarely, but you might find that you and the client are not a good fit. That is ok. Despite your best efforts if a client is not responsive or is trying to take advantage of you let them go. I love the clients I work with. I have only had to fire a client once. It wasn’t fun, but was the best for both parties. Of course, when I say fire it isn’t a “Your Fired!” kind of moment. Just have a conversation with the client and explain why things are not working out. Always keep it professional.

Most Clients Are Awesome

Most of the clients I have worked with are awesome! They give me energy, keep me inspired, and give me fun new challenges. It really comes down to clear expectations through good verbal and written communication. Don’t be afraid to pick of the phone and talk through something when needed. A five minute phone call can eliminate a dozen emails, and turn a frustrated client into a happy one. With good communication, proper planning, and clear processes freelancing can be a lot of fun!

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About the author

Damon Schopen designs and develops web-based software. He specializes in e-commerce, interactive websites, integrating software to allow sharing of data across systems, and customizing existing software applications to meet your specific needs. For the past 10 years Damon has helped a variety of companies develop the web-based software they need to do business with their customers.

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