How to tackle difficult conversations with your client

As freelancers, we all come across those difficult conversations we'd rather avoid in business. Discussing late invoice payments or disagreeing on a specific project requirement probably tops the list for many of us, but fear not, help is at hand. Here are our top tips on how to deal with those difficult conversations…

1. Meet face-to-face

First of all, decide how you’re going to have the conversation. The majority of the time ‘difficult’ conversations, such as chasing for late payment or asking for more specific information regarding a brief are best had in person. Although this can be daunting for many of us, it gives a chance to talk things through and get a response there and then. There’s nothing worse than agonising over an email, only for it to be met with radio silence – or worse, lost in translation.

2. Add some structure

Before you have a conversation that you feel is of a difficult nature, it’s best to write down notes on exactly what you want to get across. Although your notes shouldn’t be on show at the meeting, the act of writing down a set of bullet points can help organise your thoughts.

If you have several things to discuss, then writing and sending an agenda before the meeting can help to ensure that all points are covered. It will also show your client an extra element of professionalism.

3. Listen and respond

Sometimes in the heat of the moment it can be difficult to listen and then respond. Although it is important to have structure, it’s also important to consider what the other person is saying.

Imagine you are speaking to a client about late payment on the past three invoices you have sent. Start off by being empathetic – along the lines of, ‘I know the company has been particularly busy with its latest project’. This will place the issue in a wider context, whilst removing any personal blame. If the client responds by being apologetic and insistent that they will resolve the problem, then assume that your point has been made and move on.

If, however, the issue appears to have been brushed off, then perhaps re-emphasise the point – remaining polite, but firm, to convey that you want something to be done about it.

4. Getting the context right

During the conversation, it’s important to read the situation. The majority of us understand the difference between speaking to a colleague or fellow freelancer, and speaking to a client. However, there is much more to the context of a situation than simply whom it is that you’re having the conversation with. Get to know what your clients like in terms of conversation – do they like to dominate the discussion, or would they prefer for you to take the lead? By having this context in your head before you meet, you’ll ensure a natural flow of conversation.

5. Manage your body language

When meeting with a client face-to-face, be aware of your body language. Difficult conversations often go hand-in-hand with a guarded exterior – folded arms, poor posture and a furrowed brow will only make you look less approachable. Try to be aware of how you are sitting or standing and manage your body language to be more open and poised – this will help you to look and feel more relaxed. Although it isn’t always easy, controlling your breathing should help.

6. Honest and open

As a freelancer, you already know that your client has bought into you as a person, as opposed to hiring an agency and working with a range of different personalities. When faced with a difficult subject to discuss, remember that your client is likely to respect your opinions and feedback – they have already invested in you, so it helps to be honest and open in return. Use this to your advantage in tricky conversations and remember to be yourself. Having the conversation face-to-face will help in reflecting your personality.

7. Confidence is key

Once you’re over the first hurdle, topics of a trickier nature will feel easier as you become more confident – and when it comes to confidence in communication, experience really is the key.

After you’ve discussed a late payment for the first time, you’ll have experience to build upon the next time around. It’s also best to get this type of conversation started as soon as a problem emerges, so that you don’t end up losing out. So, broach the subjects you’ve been putting to the end of your to-do list, and remember these key pointers to help you tackle difficult conversations like a pro.