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How to deal with difficult freelance clients

Ceylin Güven

As a freelancer, same with any other type of work, you might come across some clients that challenge you. These types of clients can be uncooperative, hard to reach, or simply rude. The repercussions of making business with them, when handled incorrectly, can seriously hurt your career, reputation, and even mental health. If you’re not sure exactly how to deal with difficult clients, we’re here to help.What exactly makes these clients “difficult”, and how can you manage them as a solo worker? In this article, we’ve prepared a guide for spotting, protecting yourself from, and handling difficult clients. We hope our tips can help you handle all types of clients with as few complications as possible. Let’s dive right in!

How to spot a difficult client

No matter how much you try to promote a healthy relationship between yourself and your freelance clients, some behaviors can especially make customers hard to work with. Here are a few possible red flags of difficult clients that you should look out for:

  • Delivering your payments late
  • Being hard to get in contact with, to the point of disrupting project and/or payment deadlines
  • Being inconsiderate towards your personal boundaries
  • Being too demanding, extremely assertive, sometimes even borderline aggressive
  • Asking for free work (customized samples, templates, cost-free edits, or otherwise)
  • Micromanaging
  • Exhibiting rude behavior under the guise of ‘constructive criticism’
  • Not being appreciative of your involvement with the project, doubting the value of your work and expertise  
  • Having unclear or unreasonably high expectations
  • Emotionally manipulating and guilt-tripping you into working overtime, giving discounts, etc.

If you can spot one (or more) of these qualities in your client, you should be wary of any other future problems that can arise. It’s best to approach these situations carefully to secure yourself as much as possible.

Types of difficult clients

A few key factors can warn you that you may be dealing with a demanding client. They tend to fall into one of these groups:

The negotiators

These are the people who don’t know why you charge what you do and think that the work should be cheaper. They’ll often ask for a discount or want you to give them a breakdown of exactly what they are getting for the price. They may even ask you to work for “exposure” or the “experience.”Essentially, these clients know they need you, but they don’t want you to know that. They want you to think that you need them to build your portfolio or have the privilege of associating with their brand.

The non-specific brief givers

This is a bad situation to be in, to have a client who doesn’t know what they want. It’s even worse when they say things like, “I’ll know it when I see it.” This vague brief is a recipe for disaster because the client can change their minds and the direction of the project without paying you any more for your time and effort.Some clients will come with a non-specific brief and then tell you it’s your job as the expert to expand on the idea and make it work. While it’s true that your expertise is what they are paying you for, it’s not your job to run with an idea. You could easily run in the wrong direction without the client’s input, wasting time and money — yours, not theirs! These clients don’t always realize that a contract-based job is often a collaboration between you as the expert in your field of work and them as the expert in their brand and business plan.

The late payers

In all fairness, the reason why everyone works is to make a living, i.e. earn money to pay rent and bills, and maintain a certain living standard. One very common type of challenging client is the late payer, who does not respect the very basis of work relationships and burdens solo workers with late payment issues.There is no need to further explain why this archetype is problematic, but we have some tips on dealing with a difficult client who is a late payer. Ensuring timely payments starts with how you build your contracts and your invoicing practices. If you still encounter late payments or no payment at all, it comes down to clear and transparent communication to demand hard-earned compensation for all your efforts.

The boundary crossers

An ideal work relationship should be based on mutual understanding and respect, and framed by certain ground rules to make sure all parties are respected. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. This type of difficult clients feels entitled to contact you 24/7 and express anger when they can’t. They may also attempt to micromanage you by asking for specific run-downs of each task and how much time you spend on it every day.Setting boundaries with clients is not an easy task. But you should remind yourself that you are entitled to autonomy over your work, and communicate the boundaries of your work relationship with your clients as needed.

What is the best way to deal with difficult clients?

See our list of helpful and actionable strategies for working with difficult clients:

Set your rates

It’s important to know what you are worth as a solo worker. It’s also essential to have that worth set in rates that you know you can charge. If your rates are based on your level of experience, your skillset, and the industry standards, then you should never have to question if you are charging too much — even if a client does.If a client comes to you with a specific budget in mind that is lower than your rates, there is no reason you can’t negotiate. However, you need to feel that you are getting enough out of the deal, especially if the client turns out to be difficult.

Draw up legally binding contracts

First and foremost, you should have a legally binding contract that protects you and establishes a clear agreement between you and your customers. This is an essential step and the most professional approach you can take to guarantee your rights. Before you can create a contract, you should outline all details about the project with your client. A good freelancer contract should include all the important details of your work, such as your agreed-upon fee and payment dates, working hours, information about late payment fees, etc. Signing your freelancer contracts before you start on a project is also especially crucial since it can be the only thing that saves you from being exploited by difficult clients. It’s ideal if you set your ground rules before starting to do any kind of business, so both sides are sure of what to expect.  To create the most professional contracts possible, you can consult Ruul’s legal feature as a one-stop solution.

Use client and finance management services to deal with payment issues

Unfortunately, one of the most common behaviors of difficult clients is that they delay payments. These unpaid invoices can stack up and cause a lot of financial trouble, which will ultimately harm both your business and your personal well-being as a freelancer.   To deal with these unpaid invoices, and any other payment-related issues that may arise, you should utilize a third-party invoicing solution like Ruul to make your payment collection a breeze.  

Record all communications

In the off-chance that you ever need to present proof of your client’s undesired behavior, you should always secure yourself and record all communications with your clients. This can come in handy when dealing with invoice disputes, arguments related to your responsibilities, or any other issues that might arise. Besides their help when handling difficult clients, it’s a good idea to record your client communications in general. Having them stored in a secure place is almost necessary for your managerial tasks, such as bookkeeping, building your portfolio, and more.

Be firm about your boundaries

One of the most challenging situations is when a client demands more from you than you’re comfortable with. These types of clients can pressure solo talents into overworking, immediate availability whenever they desire contact, etc. Especially as a novice freelancer, it’s easy for you to be manipulated into thinking you’re somehow ‘letting your clients down’ if you’re not available for them 24/7. To avoid this emotionally tasking mentality, you should be firm about your boundaries from the get-go. Maybe you can include your working hours and preferred communication methods in your contract (or during your initial discussions), so your clients can know when and how they can reach you. Since you record all communications, this will also guarantee that you’re at an advantage if any of your boundaries are crossed.  

Remain professional and use empathy

As a freelancer, most of your work relies on effective one-on-one communication, and empathy is an essential part of this. Trying to look at matters from your client’s perspective can prevent lengthy arguments, where both of you are just trying to get your own point across. During disagreements with difficult clients, it’s important that you stay focused on understanding and finding a solution to the issue, rather than just attempting to defend yourself. You should also know that, if you get the feeling that your client is not solution-focused and is simply arguing for argument’s sake, there’s not much you can do to change their mind. In situations like these, preserve your professionalism and try to engage as little as possible.

Prioritize your mental health

This step applies to the entirety of your working journey, even when you’re not dealing with difficult clients. Taking care of your mental health as a freelancer is vital, so these types of negative interactions don’t harm you too much. You can browse Ruul Blog to learn more about the importance of mental health for all remote workers.

If all else fails, terminate the contract

If you feel like you’ve done everything you can to no avail; remember that you can always terminate your contract with difficult clients. You don’t need to spend a lot of time and energy dealing with a client that’s being problematic, and you certainly don’t need to tolerate any disrespect. When you’re 100% sure that you can’t meet them in the middle, there’s not much else you can do besides ending your deal. Even if you feel like terminating the contract is too extreme of a move, you should always keep yourself as your number one priority. After all, one of the biggest perks of being self-employed is that you get to choose who you want to work with, not the other way around. Try to keep this in mind in the future when engaging difficult clients.

Easing the process

Trying to deal with difficult clients, while also working on all your other tasks as a solo worker, can be really stressful. To prioritize yourself and your well-being, you should engage with them as professionally as possible. Comprehensive work solutions offered by Ruul can help simplify your finance and client management, help you come up with better legal solutions, and more. Register now to become a Ruuler today!


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