We all like to have a good moan about clients. We don't mean to be ungrateful. We respect them and know they help pay the bills but my goodness, sometimes we just want to run for the hills don't we? The things they say and do can drive us mad.
This annoyance can start even before we've begun working for them. Like with their first email. Or their lack of a brief. And the pain continues as we serve them. Late payment of invoices springs to mind. Or perhaps interrupting us during weekends when we're supposed to be relaxing.
How do you tackle these common issues without losing the client? And when do you know when it's time to walk away? (Disclaimer: all clients come with their challenges, so think long and hard before you make any drastic changes.)
Here are some common scenarios along with some helpful suggestions and tips on how to deal with each one.
They want you to pitch for free and go up against six other studios or agencies
I'm on the fence with this one. Yes, I know this is how it works in the creative industries. That you respond to a brief, put together a proposal and then be considered for the next stage, i.e. to pitch against other companies.
But when you're a sole freelancer or small studio, these proposals can take days, if not weeks, to put together. It's precious time that could otherwise be spent earning money and keeping existing clients happy.
As there is no guarantee of winning work on a lukewarm lead, particularly when you go up against so much competition, what should you do?
Consider each opportunity individually. Decide whether it's worth the sacrifice. In the meantime, work on those much warmer leads, i.e. word-of-mouth referrals and potential clients from your own network.
If you haven't got many of those, make it your mission to fully immerse yourself in the local business community to acquire lots of new contacts.
Ultimately, you have to remember the golden rule about clients – winning new business is far more challenging than keeping existing clients happy, so concentrate on satisfying the people you're already working with.
They contact you on holiday when you said you wouldn't be available
Clients can sometimes panic if we disappear. Don't get me wrong. It's flattering. It means we add value. We're needed.
But if you're not a full-time member of staff or retained on a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week contract, then why the sudden neediness? Ok, it's understandable if you're a web developer who looks after their hosting, but still – we all need a break.
Switch the phone off, turn your out-of-office on, make it fundamentally clear that you will not be available during your holiday. You don't need to defend yourself. There's no need to feel guilty. We all deserve to get away.
If you're still concerned that your clients will panic, ask a freelancer friend to be available to deal with any emergencies. Otherwise, reserve holidays for the quieter periods, like July and August, and Christmas.
They don't pay you on time, and you don't have time to chase
Late paying clients often don't realise that they're shooting themselves in the foot. That we'll prioritise those who pay on time over those who don't. I mean... who wants to carry on working for someone who hasn't even the decency to be punctual with payment? You don't have time to chase for money.
Invoices that are a week overdue are fine and can often be resolved with a friendly email reminder. But anything more and it can start to get worrying. Make life easier by setting up automated payment reminders through an accounting software solution like FreeAgent. This means you don't have to keep chasing clients for payment when gentle nudges are all it takes to settle things.
Another helpful tip, which I picked up from Hacker News, is to have someone else do the chasing. It makes things more official and might give them the good kick they need. Don't have anyone? Make them up and create an "accounts" email address for them.
They're difficult to get hold of and then blame project delays on you
You set out the project timescales very clearly and everything is coming along nicely. But now you're waiting on feedback and approvals from the client and they're taking ages to come back to you. When they finally do, they complain that the project is taking far too long.
Ok, so take a deep breath. This is why you include those "timescales" in your initial proposal. (If you didn't, make sure you do this from now on!) Simply share the milestone dates again and suggest a revised timetable.
If you haven't already, add a disclaimer on all future proposals that reads something like, "Please note that timely feedback is required to ensure the project timeline is kept on track." Job done.
They send you work late on a Friday with a deadline for Monday morning
You've chased and waited all week for the client to send the requirements for their next project. Now they've emailed last thing on a Friday and they're expecting delivery Monday morning. Why do they think we'll sacrifice our weekends to serve their needs?
Be confident in reminding your client that you only work normal office hours and are unavailable during evenings and weekends. A subtle, "thanks for sending this across, I'll take a look when I'm back at my desk on Monday morning", should do it.
They get too many chiefs involved
You know how it plays out. You've seen it a dozen times. When you start off dealing with one person who is on the same page as you and all is going well. Until, suddenly, someone else gets involved and voices their opinion. Then another, and another. Before you know it, you're dealing with internal politics and the project suffers as a consequence. Not to mention the amount of time wasted. And it's time that you're not able to charge for.
Before you embark on any client relationship, explain why it's important to have just one decisionmaker or person to deal with, as the project unfolds. Talk through past experiences when too many stakeholders have wanted to have their say. And how it can jeopardise the entire work.
Another solution is to go through the initial effort of writing a very detailed spec document, one that outlines absolutely everything. Expectations, requirements, what you'll do. It might take some time but at least it'll save you any headache further down the line.
Plus, if you spell everything out before work begins and the goal posts change somewhat, you have more of an argument to win more budget and resource for the project.
They try to micromanage everything and it's stifling your work
Control freak clients can be the worst offenders. They want to be involved in absolutely everything, to the point where you can't concentrate and get the job done.
Communication is your weapon of choice against these characters. Keep them regularly informed and provide updated status reports to never leave them wondering whether you're working on their account or not. Give them access to your task management software, if it helps. A friend of mine does this with Trello.
Every Monday, send a quick email update, outlining what you'll be concentrating on that week. It's a small gesture but one that will keep high-maintenance clients very happy.
They treat you with disrespect and you've had enough
The annoying things that clients do can be resolved quite easily. But if you're doing everything by the book and your client is treating you with disrespect, it's not surprising if you're thinking of walking away.
Slamming hands down on meeting tables when you've brought nothing but success to their business? That's not good. Forgetting boundaries and calling you outside of office hours, demanding your immediate attention. Setting impossible deadlines and expecting you to drop everything. These are all signs of a sociopath and, quite rightly, you should consider getting rid.
How you move away from clients, no matter how horrendous they've behaved, is important. Even if they're the world's biggest client from hell, you don't want to burn any bridges. You have to walk away with dignity and respect. Care deeply about their well-being and future success. Handover any outstanding work (unless you're still waiting to be paid). Don't leave them in the lurch.
People talk and the business community is often a small pond. Be nice, be kind and treat everyone as though they're super important. Because you never know when they might pop up again.