Dealing With Difficult Clients

If you’re a freelancer or are in any other type of work in which you rely on your clients, then chances are, you’ve encountered at least one nightmarish client. And if you haven’t yet, then rest assured that you probably will. But while these clients have a knack for making your life miserable and making you question whether dealing with them is worth having enough money to keep the lights on, rest assured that there are effective strategies for dealing with these difficult individuals.

Difficult clients come in all types, but some common offenders are as follows:

  • They don’t trust you and question your judgment at every turn.
  • They continually add small tasks to your to-do list, detracting time from other clients.
  • They have boundary issues (call you at home, call outside office hours for non-emergencies, etc.).
  • They make project adjustments without expecting to compensate you for the extra time.
  • They act as a constant naysayer, turning down multiple drafts and plans despite those versions meeting specifications.
  • They nitpick your plans, looking for anything to criticize.
  • They ask for updates constantly.
  • They’re too busy to get back to you or answer your questions.
  • They block you from getting the information you need by insisting on acting as a middleman between you and higher ups, not realizing/ caring that it would be easier for you to bypass them altogether.
  • They’re too controlling.

Thankfully, there are some strategies for dealing with these difficult individuals, and although each of these tips won’t apply to every type of nightmare client, they should guide you in the right direction in terms of fixing the problem.

Know when to call and when to email.

This won’t cure all of your bad clients, of course, but it is surprisingly effective with certain types. For those individuals who drone on and on during phone calls, call your cell phone or home phone with non-emergencies, or simply call too often, restrict your interactions to email as much as possible. If they call you, let it go to voicemail. Then simply respond via email at your convenience. Hopefully, after a few missed calls and email-only replies, they’ll get the hint and stop ringing your phone off the hook. Email won’t always be appropriate, of course, and in time crunches, brainstorming sessions, etc., it’s much better for you to speak to the client in real-time. For annoying or badgersome clients, however, email should do just fine.

Have a good contract.

Having a contract is one of the easiest ways to deal with bad clients because it gives you something to refer back to when you have to refuse to grant one of their ridiculous requests. Spell out everything in your contract, including how many hours you’re going to devote to the client and how often they’re allowed to make additions or changes to the plan. Having these details set in stone (and knowing that the client’s signature is at the bottom of the page) makes it much easier for you to decline anything that’s outside the scope of your project. As an example of how simple a contract can make interacting with a difficult client, if the client adds extras to your to-do list, tell them you’d be happy to do the work, and politely remind them that as per your contract, they will be charged extra for the time it takes.

Follow protocol.

For many clients, the situation can be resolved (or at least minimized) if you implement protocol. This will vary greatly depending on your line of work, but there are some general examples. For clients who make constant changes to the details of the project, make it your policy for them to submit a change request form with any revisions. This adds a small amount of work for them and should make them think twice before coming to you with meaningless changes, or at the very least, it will make them more likely to give you all of their revisions at one time, rather than bothering you incessantly with minor tweaks. This is just one example, but by establishing rules for the client to follow, you should hopefully reduce the amount of stress they cause.

Talk to the client about your concerns.

It might sound obvious, but sometimes, simply talking to your client about your concerns could alleviate the problem. Obviously, you’ll want to be as sensitive as possible (You rely on this individual for income, after all.), but be honest with them. Here are some examples and their solutions:

  • If they’re a client with boundary issues who calls you at home at 9 p.m. just to discuss revisions, simply let them know you’d rather not bring your work life home with you and ask them to restrict non-emergencies and non-scheduled calls to office hours only.
  • If they ask for updates constantly despite your contract stipulating a bi-weekly report, let them know how time consuming it is for you to provide daily progress reports and that the time you waste on these updates could be better spent actually working on the project. If they don’t get the hint, refer them back to the terms of your contract.
  • If they don’t trust you, ask them to. Often, clients might not realize that they’re questioning your judgment, so ask them about their concerns. Politely remind them that they hired you for a reason (You’re the expert.), and ask them why they are so reluctant to let you do what you do best. Ask them what you can do to earn their trust. Maybe the client had a particularly terrible experience with a contractor in the past, and all you need to do to get them off your back is to prove that you’re not going to make the same mistakes. Then again, maybe the client is just a control freak, in which case, you’ll probably have to find a different solution.

Often, a talk is all it takes to resolve these issues. If something bothers you to the point where you want to sever all ties with this individual, then it can’t hurt to try to patch things up. You’ll do a better job on their project as a result, and in the end, if the client is insulted by your gentle and sincere attempts to improve your professional relationship, then they probably weren’t worth having as a client in the first place.

Be creative.

For some clients, nothing you’ll do will seem to work. Sometimes it’s different viewpoints, sometimes it’s a personality conflict, and sometimes clients really are just bad people. Either way, if you want to deal with these individuals, you’ll have to be creative. For example, when one female freelancer realized that her client was incredibly nitpicky and would find something wrong with every project she completed, no matter how perfectly the project was completed to specifications, this clever woman came up with a unique solution: After she completed the project, she’d revise it by deliberately adding something she knew the client wouldn’t like. This way, the client satisfied his need to nitpick while the freelancer completed the project exactly to specifications the first time rather than having to revise just because the client had to find something negative about her work. Sometimes difficult clients will have to be dealt with in a very creative way, but finding a solution that works could save your sanity.

Regardless of what type of horrible client you’re dealing with, always remember that you usually have other options. If you’ve tried everything imaginable and are still being driven crazy, consider simply cutting the client loose. If it’s feasible, this could be the only solution. Yes, it’s difficult to give up work, and yes, you’ll lose their money, but you’ll be happier for it in the long run. What’s more, it will make room in your schedule to find clients who are more considerate and easier to work with.

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