You’re not at war with your clients

How to avoid difficult client relationships.

Tricky clients aren’t hard to come by in the freelance world. And while it might be fun to tell stories about nightmare situations, when you’re in the middle of it, it’s no fun for you or your client.

Freelance guides online say that you can avoid nightmare clients by:

  • Restricting the number of revisions
  • Imposing feedback deadlines

…and plenty more.

These clauses should be in your contract as standard. But remember that your contract is a backup if things go wrong—it’s not your first port of call. Ideally, the relationship with your client will never reach a point where you need to use your contract.

If your client is difficult or frustrating, you need to think about how you got there. Whether they’re right or not is irrelevant. 

Even the toughest clients just want a job completed at an agreeable price. It’s our job to make the process effortless.

I’m not saying that clients don’t step out of line. They do. 

My point is this: if we, the hired experts, set client expectations at the beginning of a project, we’ll experience fewer difficult situations and be better placed to deal with any that crop up.

The importance of a process

When I started freelancing, I had no process. Now I have a method for my work and how I handle clients. These processes aren’t always written down or detailed but being able to explain my approach is handy, especially if the client has never commissioned work before.

I’m a web designer and one of the common clauses in a design contract goes something like this:

After the initial presentation, the client will have two rounds of revisions. Further revisions are charged at an hourly rate.

Clients often want a flat quote and designers need to guarantee their hourly rate, so this makes sense.

My contract doesn’t limit the number of revisions a client makes. The collaborative process I’ve developed prevents endless iterations. 

There’s no big reveal after the work is completed, I include my clients at every stage. We discuss typography choices, colours, layout options and other elements individually. The design comes together with the client’s full involvement.

By being involved, my clients can see how the design meets their brief. There’s an opportunity to feedback at every stage, so when the combination of these elements is unveiled, the client knows what to expect.

If the client is not happy after being involved, they can either pay for the work completed, or I provide a separate estimate to meet the new brief (this is covered in my contract).

This hasn’t happened to me yet, though. Because of how I work and other factors: allowing enough time to scope the project during initial discussions, getting a feeling for whether the client is a good fit, etc. I’ll discuss this later.

Setting expectations

I think it’s fair to say that most clients want to be involved in the process. They’ll often want to feel like they’ve contributed to it in some way, too.

As long as the client’s suggestions meet the project objectives, involving them can head off problems later down the line (“could I see what that looks like in blue?”).

Use your contract to outline your expectations, but don’t rely on your contract alone. Always talk to your client openly about what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. And if you can go through the contract with your client, even better.

Conflict resolution

Despite processes, you’ll still face situations you can’t predict. I had one recently.

I’d been working on a design project for a client where the payments had been split into four. I’d received a deposit payment (25%) and done a reasonable amount of work towards the second instalment. 

The client had offered to release the second 25%, but I decided to wait until the stage was complete, expecting it to pick up in a week or so. The project completely stalled.

Fast forward one year, and I received a message to say that they wanted to close the project and requested design files for the work completed.

This client is a tough negotiator, so I was prepared for the worst when I pushed back. But after explaining the work required to prep the files and my client’s previous offer to release payment, they were happy to pay me the second 25% to close the project off and collect the files.

The IP and kill fee clauses in my contract would have protected me, but because I had a good client relationship by setting expectations in the beginning, I didn’t need to use it.

Finding the right fit

You can avoid a problematic client relationship by making sure they're the right fit. I take time to scope out a project before committing to it fully.

Doing a little bit of work upfront helps reduce the risk of a nightmare project. It also means you can be confident about delivering what the client wants.

I’m not talking about spec work here, but doing enough research on the project so you understand what is required (and if you can do it). Without this, it’s impossible to give an accurate budget or timeframe, let alone build in margins.

To scope the project, you need information. If your client is shifty about the details, it’s a red flag.

The goal is to make sure you and your client have the same expectations of the work. If you discuss work on a call, follow up with an email—this can highlight misunderstandings before they become a problem.

If the project is huge and you don't have time to scope quickly, consider offering a paid discovery phase to clients where you produce a scope document for them. 

Go over the contract

When you’ve agreed on the project, go through your contract with your client and point out:

  • Expectations of both sides
  • Budget
  • What’s covered/not covered in the fee
  • When you’ll be paid
  • How often you’ll be paid
  • Late fees

You might want to mention that your contract terms are negotiable. For instance, I have a clause in my contract that says I’ll always display work in my portfolio, but clients can ask for this to be removed if needed.

A difficult client isn’t worth it

Be prepared to walk away from a project if it’s not a good fit. Even if red flags appear at the point of signing the contract, it’s never too late to cancel. 

It took me a long time to build confidence to turn down projects, but the sense of relief has been worth it every time I have.

Work out what your dealbreakers are and stick to them. Sometimes a client will be open to negotiation, but don’t ignore warning signs as these can be an indicator of future problems.

Ask yourself this: how much would you need to be paid to work with a difficult client?

Then ask yourself: even if you were paid that much, would the stress be worth it?

Answer: probably not.

Do yourself a favour and move on to the next project.

It’s not a war

I see anonymised tweets and blog posts about nightmare clients all the time. Some clients can be a pain to work with, but we should avoid creating an us vs them mentally—clients pay our bills, after all.

Nightmare situations can be avoided by explaining to a client how you work, what you’ll need from them and in what format. 

Don’t assume your clients know everything. Perhaps a client has never commissioned freelance work before and doesn’t understand why feedback in a PowerPoint presentation is a pain in the arse.

I'm not suggesting that all clients are a breeze. If you have a process and a client is still difficult, there's no shame in showing them the door. 


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