How to manage difficult clients

The majority of freelancers who work on different projects are aware that in the long term it is beneficial to work toward mutually satisfying solutions. Client/customer satisfaction is the acid test for a project's success, however, just occasionally, project success can be difficult to achieve when managing a difficult client.

It is always worth drawing up an action plan to prevent any future misunderstandings from the outset of the project and this should begin from the start of discussions with your client. Time spent interviewing your client about the job will be invaluable as this will enable you to identify what the client's needs are and also understand their objectives and perspectives.

Be prepared to carefully document what you agree and when, so if you ever need to, you can refer back to that section of your proposal. Having regular review meetings, or at least telephone conversations to keep the communication lines open should help keep your project on track. Ask the client to sign off work to date during review meetings if they are happy.

If during progress conversations, the client requests any changes or work outside of the original brief agreed - drop a line to the client immediately afterwards to confirm that this additional work was requested. In the advertising world a short 'contact report' serves this purpose well but we believe it has a useful role for any business. A contact report is a short memo-style document headed up with date/place/participants of conversation, followed by body copy of what action was agreed needs to be taken, by whom and when. If the action is for your undertaking, e.g. additional work, add a line underneath that states how much the additional charge is and any agreed impact on project overall - such as leeway on delivery date as a result of this extra work)/ Send it to the client immediately after any meeting or telephone call so that they have the chance to query it there and then rather than at bill stage.

Your proposal to the client needs to clearly explain all terms and conditions and this should include all relevant dates, timescales, deposits and payment terms and any other options that were discussed at your interview. Leave nothing in your final proposal or contract which could be construed as vague, or open to misinterpretation.

Time and money are symbiotic in business so be very clear on timescales and costs, also don't neglect to consider your own market value in terms of the work that will be required. Speak the language of the client, as technical jargon will not only confuse but can also breakdown good communication. Some of your tasks will need more time than others and the client needs to be made fully aware of these and the impact that this will have on their overall costs (this is where a schedule would be a good idea). Contracts need to be signed before any work commences (deposits should also be agreed and cleared if part of the contract). Careful documentation is essential and it will help to keep the client focused and also address any unforeseen problems or queries.

It is a good idea to put a good payment tracking procedure in place at the outset of the project. Your final invoice should include the details of all work carried out. Any agreed deviations from the original brief should be clearly explained and supported with relevant paperwork such as contact reports, emails (or faxes and other forms of confirmation) from the client. Your invoice should also contain a detailed "late payment policy" - which should be included in your standard terms and conditions. Always check a client's payment terms at the outset- some clients demand longer payment timescales than others. In the event of late or even non payment you need to be prepared to cover yourself financially and pursue monies that are owed to you.

If you make a mistake

We all make mistakes and if an oversight means the client receives substandard service, then it is better to think of your reputation and repeat business by compensating the customer. This can either be as a payment, reduction in the bill or paying in services. See our insurance section to see how you can safeguard yourself against unforeseen expenses.

Firing clients

A lot of freelancers relish the thought of sacking a client! Even when you are not inundated with work there will be some times when it just isn't worth starting a new project with a client. Such clients might be consistently dreadful payers - when it's wise to wonder if they are in financial difficulty. This is not just the one off late payment, but those where you get no response several reminders later and your time chasing costs you more than you made on the project. If they are not profitable to you (very high maintenance) either, then you would be better placing your efforts in securing work from a different client. Where possible though, it is wise to complete any ongoing projects to bring them to as satisfactory conclusion as possible.

Dealing with difficult clients is stressful, but a less than perfect project can be positive for your business since it enables you to address any shortcomings in your current practices to ensure you are not caught out again. Looking for opportunities in such negative situations, by say, improving your procedures or by redefining the type of client you want to work for, becomes a positive step for your business.

Tips

  • Be flexible - you may have to concede small points in order to sign the job off, put your invoice in and move on.
  • Do not take criticism/rejection personally, try not to be defensive and focus on the client's need instead.
  • Look for solutions to see what you can do to put matters right.
  • Follow up once the problem is solved - ask if the client is happy with solution.
  • There is a chance that this client might tell 10 other people that he experienced difficulties dealing with your company - it can either be a tale of a problem professionally solved or not - even if you don't want repeat business from this client you probably wouldn't want to risk losing potential business from any of the other 10 people.
  • Brush up on your negotiation skills.


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