Dealing with difficult clients.

Dealing with difficult clients

It doesn’t have to be painful.

There will have been some point during your career when you have had to deal with difficult clients. You may have started off well with a good relationship, but as the work commitments piled on the relationship broke down.

Usually there is a basic cause to the problem and 9 times out of 10 it usually relates to communication.

Communication can break down due to a number of reasons. They might have given you more work than was agreed, or else they keep moving the goal posts, or they keep making changes to the work which leaves you with many more hours than you imagined you’d be working on it.

All of this can be prevented. In order for that to happen you need to start at the beginning. I explain how in the podcast below.

When we begin freelancing we often think that we have to say yes to every project. We fear that we will never work again if we say no. I spent my early creative career saying yes to things that I later resented doing- and no one likes an unhappy employee or client.

We need to learn to say no more often. Now I’m not talking about the shouty kind of no which makes the person who offered you the work feel bad. I’m talking about taking the time to say no. Rather than saying yes immediately, ask them if you can get back to them, or check you diary. Anything that buys you a bit of time so that you can weigh up whether this is the right thing for you to be doing. I always as myself these three questions:

  1. Will I enjoy working on this? (You are at work for many hours in a day, so you have to want to work on it).
  2. Will this help to further my creative career? (If we keep on working for free we are going to end up bankrupt and still on the bottom rung of the ladder).
  3. Are these people who I want to work with? (Just as you need to enjoy the work, you want to enjoy working with the people. Trying to work with someone who is difficult from the start isn’t going to end well).

I’m lucky that I have now got enough of my career behind me to be more picky these days, and I spend most of my time saying no to things. Often it is because what they are asking me is actually going to take several days rather than a “can I pick your brain”.

Saying yes to the right things, will help you progress your career, will help you to shine as you are enjoying the experience, and you are more likely to deliver your best work when you have felt valued and excited about the projects.

There will always be days when you need to pay the rent and have to say yes to something for the money, but there are ways to manage that job so that it doesn’t turn into a horrible experience with difficult clients demanding more, and you hating every moment of that. I talk more about how to deal with that in the podcast.

Communication is key. From the beginning, until the end. I would always rather someone was informing me of their progress every day than not at all.

Think about the times that you have been waiting for a bus or a plane and it is suddenly delayed. You sit and wait and no one tells you what is happening.

How do you feel?

I imagine that you begin to feel frustrated and annoyed that no one is telling you what is going on, or when the transport is actually going to arrive. This is how clients feel if you don’t tell them what is going on.

There will be days when we realise that we aren’t going to meet the deadline, or that a problem arises and we need more time. As long as you are communicating this to your clients, reasonable people will understand. Reasonable people can turn into unreasonable people if they are left hanging, with no idea of what is going on.

The second thing that can create difficult clients is money. Money makes the world go around, whether we like it or not. Creatives are particularly bad at pricing themselves correctly. (There will be a future podcast and worksheets to help you with pricing).

Sorting out the money before you even start the job is hugely beneficial. You get those uncomfortable money conversations out of the way first. Often the person who hires you isn’t the person who pays you, so before you do one single hour of work, make sure you discuss how you want to get paid and who is going to pay you.

  • Do you want to be paid before the job starts? (This is possible if you have a good relationship with them. All of my mentor sessions are paid up front).
  • Do you want to be paid in instalments as you deliver the work in chunks? (This can be a great way of working as the client gets to see the work progress and understands that they need to pay for the next piece of work etc. It also allows them to give feedback as the job develops.Plus it protects you. I have had the horrible experience of a magazine going bust on me and months worth of work went unpaid, and I had to contact the bailiffs to retrieve my photographic negatives! Not a nice experience. If I had requested payment in chunks this wouldn’t have happened).
  • Look at what terms you add to your invoices. And if you don’t put payment terms on your invoices do it now! Payment terms basically mean the number of days you are willing to wait until the invoice needs to be paid.I put 15 days for most work, and 30 days for magazines and newspapers as I know their departments take that long to process things. I’ve seen designers as to be paid on receipt of the invoice. Work out what you need in order to survive or what you are willing to wait for, or put up with, and then set your terms.

There will always be people who try to wriggle out of payment, so make sure you are clear from the start, and let them know that you will down tools and stop working if payment isn’t delivered for the work- if that is appropriate to your circumstances. In all cases try to be the better person and work it out calmly.

Always find out the name, email and telephone number of the payment department. Give them a call or email before the job starts and find out whether you need to hand in certain types of paper work or if you need a PO (payment order) number etc. When you start working for bigger clients or institutions you’ll discover that they have a certain way of doing things.

Make sure you have it on paper. No matter if the job is small and only for an hour, have some sort of agreement in place that you send over via email and both sign. It will protect you and them. In the agreement, layout what the job is, the number of hours it will take to deliver, the things that you have said yes to, and what you will do after the job- do you need to hand in a report etc?

An agreement doesn’t have to be drawn up by a legal team, it can be as simple as laying out the terms that you have both agreed to. It can also be useful to include what to do if the agreement breaks down, or if the job needs to be cancelled. Putting it on paper helps you if things go wrong as you can prove that you both agreed to work in a certain way. You can also include what you payment terms are.

If you are going to be working on a longer project then contracts are really important and you may need to get a legal person to have a look at it to makes sure you know what you are agreeing to. When I work on films I am often the person who has to get all of the contracts processes, and it isn’t unusual for them to cover over 35 pages!

Don’t be scared by all of this. In the podcast I talk about ways you can make it work for you, and what to do when you are confronted with a difficult client. The best policy when starting out is to make yourself as professional as possible. If you take yourself seriously then others are more likely to do the same.

What has been your most difficult experience with a client or customer?

Let me know in the comments below how you dealt with it.