How to deal with difficult clients

Ask anyone who runs a business what one thing makes their life difficult and they'll roll their eyes and almost immediately say – clients! Clients can be tough for any freelancer or small firm. It's like having lots of different bosses in lots of different companies with lots of different politics to contend with – all demanding your time and attention, all at the same time.

Sounds like a nightmare doesn't it? Particularly when clients become difficult and bring up all sorts of challenges. As you'll want repeat business and a solid reputation, dealing with difficult clients will become one of the crucial skills you'll need to learn. It's not easy, tackling various egos and keeping everyone happy. But here are some common issues you might face and some top tips on how to deal with them...

1. Your client denies approving anything or agreeing to your initial proposal

You had that initial meeting with your client and you verbally agreed what you would do and for how much. Now – two months down the line – the client is denying all knowledge of your original agreement and is trying to add expensive extras to the project or worse, is trying to say you quoted less than agreed.

The Solution

Get everything in writing! That means everything. From your initial proposal and agreement of services provided to sign off on various projects – make sure you receive their written approval via email or another official document. By having their 'official' sign off, you can always refer back to things in future.

2. Your client keeps adding things to your job list and expects them for free

Some clients will keep adding extras to a project, expecting them for free. Or they may not realise how much extra time is involved, not understanding the work. The thought of extra work is not only causing you stress, it's jeopardising the entire project.

The Solution

On every project put together a thorough proposal, outlining exactly what the client will and won't be getting for their money. Make it extremely clear that any additional work – no matter how seemingly small or trivial – is of extra cost and charged at your hourly rate. Do not feel bad about this. A quote is based on the work involved. If a client adds further work, then you have to charge for the extra time. It's also worth managing client expectations at all times, explaining why any extras might add further cost and showing them alternatives instead to help them stick to budget. What's more, by demonstrating that you care about saving them money, you will earn their trust and respect.

3. Your client thinks they know better and micro-manages

There will always be egos in business and they generally think they can do a better job than you, even though you're supposed to be the expert they hired. This type of client will keep interrupting your healthy workflow to throw naive suggestions on how you can improve, micro-managing everything you do. You end up spending most of your time dealing with their suggestions, instead of getting the work done.

The Solution

Confidence is key when it comes to dealing with know-it-alls and micro-managers. You have to remember you're the expert and your client has hired you for a reason. If they keep blocking you from doing the actual work, then you have to find ways to gently reassure them that you know what you're doing. Any suggestions they throw your way, be humble and polite - explaining why they won't work. But tread carefully, because you don't want to make your client feel or look stupid in front of others. It's a difficult tightrope to walk but if you remain professional and honest at all times, you should be fine.

However, if your client still wants a flashing graphic on their website – even after you've explained why it wouldn't be a good idea – then give them what they want. Just don't add the work to your portfolio and put it down to experience.

4. Your client wants more work when you're already too busy

When you freelance, you'll naturally want to take on as much work as possible to keep a healthy cashflow. You'll be scared to turn any business away. But then all of a sudden one of your loyal clients – one that pays on time and brings lots of repeat business – will get in touch, asking you to do some work. You want to help because they're such a great client, but you simply haven't the time to do anything else.

The Solution

If your client is understanding, they'll be happy to wait and be scheduled in when you're next free. Simply explain that you're working to full capacity and you can't help them out just yet. If this doesn't work – and your client isn't understanding – then perhaps they weren't a great client after all? However, if you seriously can't afford to lose the business, get some outsourced help to cover your back or juggle a few projects to fit them in. It's one of the challenges of freelancing – keeping clients happy by serving them well.

5. Your client always expects you to drop everything for them

Every client likes to think they're the most important. They'll constantly want your attention and they'll expect you to be there, no matter what. They won't care about your other clients and they'll act like a jealous lover if they hear you're spending time with anyone else.

The Solution

Dealing with different clients is always a challenge but as a freelancer you have to make each and every client feel like they're the most important. There are various tricks you can use to achieve this. While on the phone, you can say that you'll 'drop everything else' to attend to their needs. You can get excited about projects, saying it's the best you've ever worked on. It might seem silly, 'kissing arse' in this way, but it works. Just don't be too obvious about it. And don't forget to send cards and flowers for those occasions when you want to make your client feel extra special.

6. Your client is a late payer and always difficult when you chase payment

There is nothing worse than poor cashflow in business and when you're a freelancer, you can't afford to have clients that don't pay on time. Chasing payment is something any business owner dreads, as no one seems to respect or understand that you're a business and you need to be paid on time.

The Solution

Hire outside help. Seriously. There is nothing better than another voice chasing payment for your business. Especially when they say something like: "Hi, my name is Pete Smith, I'm an Accountant/Debt Collector and I'm calling on behalf of XXX regarding an outstanding invoice that requires payment". Hire the help and don't feel bad about chasing overdue invoices. You've done the work, so you deserve payment.

The other solution is to change your payment terms and make people pay upfront. Or how about via standing order if your services are on a retainer basis? If you're working on a project, it's wise to do staging payments, i.e. 50 per cent of the final cost upfront before work begins and then another 25 per cent when another stage is complete, with the final payment made to make the project go live. You can set the terms, so make sure you do.

7. Your client doesn't respect your personal life

Some clients just don't understand boundaries. They'll call you after 6pm and even at weekends, if they think they can get away with it. They'll want you to be 'on call' at all times and won't understand that you have a life outside of work.

The Solution

Make it very clear that you only work during normal office hours and state this clearly on your website, marketing literature, even your email signatures. If clients have your mobile number – which also happens to be your personal mobile – make sure you have their numbers in your contact list, so you can ignore their calls when you need to.

Or if this doesn't work, simply get another mobile phone and keep the work mobile switched off during downtime with a suitable voicemail. Remember, if the call is urgent your client will leave a voicemail and you can then decide whether you should help or not. And if you do work out of office hours? Make it clear that your hourly rate doubles and this includes time spent dealing with phone calls or emails. This should discipline your clients to only call you during office hours.

8. Your client makes unrealistic demands

It's Friday afternoon and your client decides to call you, demanding some 'emergency' support. They need it for Monday morning. You have just spent the entire week, working 12 hour days and are looking forward to some well-deserved R&R. Your client doesn't care and still wants their deadline to be met, not understanding (or caring) that the work in question will take all weekend to complete.

The Solution

Unrealistic demands are quite simply, unrealistic. Your client has to understand that you can not work to deadlines that force you to work during the weekend or out of normal office hours. Just because you're a freelancer, it doesn't mean they can abuse your time in this way. Do it once in a bid to show loyalty and you can be sure they will expect your 'weekend' support again and again.

Educate your client by explaining that you're unavailable at weekends and need more notice to meet their deadlines. If it helps, explain that the work will take longer than two days, so even if you did work the entire weekend, you'd still not make their Monday morning deadline. Manage expectations and be nice about it. If the client is still unreasonable, perhaps it's time to walk away?