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How to deal with difficult clients

Written by Tom Ewer on 17 February 2014

In a perfect world, our clients would be 100% happy with all the work we produce for them, would respond to our requests for information in a timely and efficient manner, and pay invoices on time every month with no need for reminders.

Unfortunately, reality is not usually so kind, and if you have even one client that meets the above description, you're doing well!

Learning how to deal effectively with clients is one of the most important aspects of being a freelancer. If you work in an agency, you're probably shielded somewhat from communicating with your customers. Somebody else probably deals with sending out invoices and sorting out disagreements. As a freelancer, you're on your own and so learning those all important people skills is a vital part of achieving business success.

There are many reasons why your relationship with a client might start to break down. With a bit of forward thinking, it's possible to anticipate some potential problems before they occur and nip them in the bud. Sometimes people can just be difficult, no matter how carefully you deal with them, and in this case it's just a case of being patient and firm but fair and sticking up for yourself so you don't end up losing out.

With the above said, let's take a look at some of the most common problems you're likely to experience with a client and how to resolve them.

1. Late or Non-Payment

This is probably one of the most common problems that freelancers face and you're bound to come across at least one client (and probably more) who doesn't pay up during your freelance career.

The best way to prevent this is to set out clear terms and conditions at the start of the contract and request a deposit before work begins. Depending on the size of the project, you may ask for 50% or a third of the estimated total before you begin and split up the remainder into smaller installments if the project is dragging on.

Always include your payment terms on the contract, which should set out clearly how and when clients should pay you. Stating a fee for late payment can help to discourage clients who like to drag their feet when it comes to paying you.

Working with a third party escrow service can also be very helpful. You'll need to pay a fee for this, but you can choose to pass the cost onto the client and it can help to ensure a smooth payment process.

2. Scope Creep

Another very common problem for freelancers -- particularly web designers -- is scope creep. You start a job thinking you're building a basic 5-page website and by the end of the project you've been duped into adding copy, installing a shopping cart and managing a social media campaign.

Again, the best way to prevent this problem from forming is by setting down in black and white what exactly you will deliver for the agreed payment. It can be also be helpful to include a list of what you won't do, in case you come across a client who thinks that "web designer" means "copywriter, internet marketer, social media manager and IT technician."

If your client asks for additional work beyond the scope of your agreement, either turn them down or explain that it will be charged at an additional set or hourly rate. This is one situation where you definitely need to be firm to avoid clients taking advantage of you.

3. Asking for Constant Revisions

Sometimes you'll come across a client who doesn't seem to be happy with anything you do. They'll ask for multiple mockups of a site before they decide on a design they like and they'll repeatedly ask you to make changes or make the site look more like another website they've just seen.

Different web designers have different ways of dealing with this. Some will offer only one design solution -- take it or leave it. Others will offer up to say, three designs before the mockup must be finalised. However you choose to handle it, make sure that you communicate this clearly to the client.

After a mockup is approved, the best way to proceed is usually to tell the client that additional design revisions will be charged for. Even so, you may find some clients just keep going and going with more changes. In the worst case scenario, if you're spending all your time on one project and it's affecting your other work, you may have to consider cutting your loses and firing your client.

4. Lack of Communication

Lack of communication is the root cause behind many of these issues but one of the most frustrating aspects of being a freelancer is waiting for information or files that you need from a client and not being able to progress with a project without them.

You don't want to be constantly chasing up clients, so make it clear that you won't even start the project until you have everything you need from them. It can also help to set a clause in your agreement that if a project has stalled for a certain length of time due to waiting for the client to complete some kind of action, no further work will be done and part (or full) payment will be due. This usually works as an effective deterrent against time-wasters.

5. Clients Who Think They know Better Than You

We're sure you've come across one of these clients before. She wants her website to look exactly like her competitors' site. Or perhaps he writes to you asking to change the site colour scheme because his wife says that teal and brown are "in" this year. It's important to respond to client needs, but it's equally important that they allow you to get on with the job you are being paid to do without interruption.

The best way to avoid this kind of client is not to work for them in the first place. Alarm bells will usually start ringing from the very first communication (look out for phrases like "I've mocked it up in Photoshop") and this is the time to use your gut instinct and get out while you can!

Don't be a Freelance Pushover

Always remember that your business is your business and it's up to you how you run it. Be very clear with prospective clients from the start what you expect of your working relationship and don't be afraid to turn down work if you get a bad feeling from a prospective client.

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