Every freelancer has dealt with the problem of difficult clients. Sometimes it is personality, and other times issues require closer inspection on both sides. Taking responsibility and action to identify the problem first is key to preventing difficult clients from becoming impossible clients.
So, what do you do when you dread communication with a client, or stay awake trying to weigh if the problems are worth the effort? Give some of the tips below a chance, you may find that your difficult client isn’t as difficult as you thought.
Use your gut, and don’t accept difficult clients.
For many freelancers it is difficult to use that two-letter word, “No.” Your life depends on having clients, and every one of them brings a potential paycheck.
The easiest way to avoid a difficult client is to ignore the dollar signs, and pay attention to your instincts. If, before you take a client on, you feel uncomfortable with the person, or see subtle behaviors you know to be red flags, then simply don’t take the job. Knowing when to either move forward or move on will save everybody time and productivity, and can open up the time to take on clients who will work well with you.
Find out where your client coming from
Every concern from your client typically has a basis. Listen to your client’s viewpoint and use what they’re telling you to determine if and where changes are needed.
Diligently keep in mind though: sometimes “problems” aren’t actually problems at all. For example, if a color is slightly off, a design feature will need a small update. No big deal since nothing other than your client’s preference is affected; there’s no “real” problem here. However, by comparison, if you click a button in a paid advertisement and it goes to the wrong URL, this is an actual problem because ad functionality is affected, money is being wasted, and the client is losing leads.
In design and marketing, the best way to gauge whether something is a problem or not is to know if the issue at hand affects either:
a) Design Functionality
b) User Experience
c) Lead Generation
d) Brand Visibility / Audience Trust
e) Timeline / Budget.
Any issues that present themselves as “problems” outside of this framework, by default, deserve a skeptical eye. Week to week, fires present themselves and putting them out can be a full time job in itself – there’s no reason to add on to the mess if you don’t need to.
Know when to pick your battles
As a freelancer/consultant, you need to be able to stand your ground and defend your points where applicable. Remember, you are the professional, and likely have knowledge your client may not. Following the problems framework above will help everyone stay on track with what’s important. However, you’ll have to pick your battles wisely – if you start fights just because, those you work with will not want to talk to you or come to you with issues, and that’s a communication problem that will fester. On the other hand, if you don’t stand your ground when a project needs clarity, you are allowing the project to become needlessly complicated AND you are enabling a one-sided relationship in which you give your client the opportunity to take advantage of you in the future.
For example, as an SEO consultant, I spend a month researching market competitiveness, keyword saturation, authority metrics, and so on. I then estimate a 2-month timeline for top-ten rankings in SEO search results. Given the estimate, I am confident in not budging on the timeline or the project cost since I did my homework and this is what the data tells me. I don’t care if the client calls me every day and asks, “Why am I not top ten yet?” This might sound a little ruthless but the real issue presenting itself here is the tempering of expectations and practicing patience on the side of the client. The client wants what they want and they want it now. Relationships that are encouraged around that type of attitude breed toxicity around unrealistic timelines and trust, and that’s exactly what I want to avoid so I focus on what I do best.
Choose your words carefully
Choosing your words carefully will help prevent future communication issues. Like text messages and emails, people tend to look into everything that is said and typed, often for the worse. When a client expresses concern, or is acting difficult make sure you are not sending out false messages, or messages that will escalate the issue. Typically, if I am dealing with a difficult client who I feel is reading into my messages, I will attempt to communicate primarily through the phone or face-to-face, taking my time to think through what I say. This also gives you the opportunity to explain details, or immediately reword what you said before the client can read too much into it. Often, this type of communication is a great way to hash things out and find a resolution to problems.
While difficult clients may simply be difficult, know that 90% of all management problems are caused by miscommunication. Often you will find that a difficult client who appears to be difficult simply has concerns they (or you) don’t yet understand. The concerns can be addressed with effective communication. I find it best to deliver regular weekly or sometimes daily communications (depending on the severity of the problem) to review what you have done since your last communication. Be an expert in asking questions if you feel you don’t fully understand the client’s needs; let your client talk freely about their concerns and really try to hear what they are saying.
I’ll provide one more comment on communication. Do not communicate so much that your client feels you need your hand held, or you become an annoyance. That luxury generally gets attributed to them - not you, the professional. While it’s excellent practice to ask questions and do your research, you’ll want to define a communication plan at the beginning of your project.
Offer prompt solutions
So, you have a conflict. It happens, but what are you going to do about it? Don’t expect your client to jump in and tell you. Talk to your client to identify the issue, and develop a game plan to prevent that issue from being a problem. The faster you respond to your client the better.
One trick I’ve learned over the years is to avoid saying a flat “No” to a client. If you’re the expert, it’s your job to guide the client through the creative process, so instead of “No,” try saying “Yes, we can do that, and here’s how.” The conversation stays on point, and you’re in control and on path to mutual goals of success.
Back up your claims with data
Data will be one of your closest allies when it comes to working with your client. Whether you use industry data that is readily available, or your own data from previous client’s successes you will find your clients will love it. Facts, figures, and statistics are a working knowledge of the industry and can show your client what they can expect, or more so quantitatively embolden your own process, and the decisions you make.
Providing your client historical data to back up your decisions and claims, will not only provide your client with additional knowledge, but also help them feel more comfortable with you making decisions.
Here are some great data marketing tools I’ve found or regularly use for my projects:
Complete analytics for your website and social media profiles. Tracks audiences, traffic, conversion rates, and much more. Really a must have!
Google Keyword Planner
Understand how popular or competitive keywords are on Google. Great for pulling data, and estimating ad campaign costs + organic SEO timelines
Pull data on your Facebook Page audience, including likes, engagement, ideal times of day to post and much more.
Run the test to see how well your brand shows across local data aggregators.
Run the test on your website’s URL to determine how strong your website is on Google, using domain / page authority, and social metric scores. A great tool for reverse engineering your competition!
Another great SEO backlink tool and authority metric tool for websites.
Yext Power Listings Scan
Run a comprehensive scan of your brand’s reach across 200+ popular data aggregators across the internet.
LinkedIn Ads: Self Serve Platform
See how well your LinkedIn Ads perform against competitors and LinkedIn’s average .025% CTR. Also understand audience reach by inputting different information such as job title, function, state, etc.
Research Twitter hashtag popularity
Another tool to research Twitter hashtag popularity
In general, this is an invaluable skill that should be practiced daily. From my experience, patience and wisdom always trumps impulse and pathos-oriented arguments. However, you might just have to accept that your client is difficult. If you are not willing to lose the client, you must be patient with them. Listen, deliver, and be patient. Patience is a sign of knowledge. If you are too impulsive with your decision-making, or are constantly calling your client looking for an answer , or are changing your mind too often, you may appear immature, needy, or unprofessional.
Learning how to use patience to your advantage will also enable you to see the whole picture, rather than only your perspective. Not only will this enable to you decipher and develop actions to a problem, but patience is also what often leads to “thinking outside the box.”
Patience and consistency always pays off in the long run!
The ten minute “Hash Out”
This is something that can be difficult to bring up, but can also have excellent return. Schedule the first ten minutes of each meeting to simply discuss how the project is going, concerns with progress, and how to improve on client concerns. The Hash Out can serve as a place to start your strategic planning sessions.
Admitting to someone that, yes, problems can occur, but are not the end of the world, is a great way to show your client that you are an adult and are use to identifying and resolving problems. Use this time to hash out concerns, and develop a positive direction forward.
If all else fails and you don’t feel like you can find a resolution to the clients concerns, or you are stressed working with them, then suck it up and fire them. This can be the best resolution to a problem that may just get worse if you continue.
Sometimes people just have to go their separate ways - this is both natural and perfectly okay. However, don’t make the rookie mistake of completely dropping someone off. As Sun Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching, you must put in just as much effort in the end as you do the beginning. If you know you’re going to part ways soon, put effort to position yourself and your client to comfortably separate (as much as possible). This may include teaching them how to manage activities you were responsible for, or helping them find another freelancer or design agency that they can work with to pick up where you left off. Leave people you have worked with with a positive, lasting impression. They may end up coming back to you in the future, or at the very least, they may recommend your services to others if you maintain a professional and positive outlook.