True story: Once upon a time I had a client so frustrating that I set my Skype status to ‘hidden’ so she would never know when I was online. After we stopped working together I totally forgot about my secret Skype status, leaving all of the rest of my clients to assume that I was on some sort of unscheduled vacation. The work I ended up missing out on taught me an important lesson, if a freelance client is that hellish you need to stand up for yourself. Otherwise, you end up driving yourself crazy and alienating the clients that you actually enjoy working with in the process.
With the New Year fast approaching, it’s a great time to get excited about your work! One of the best ways to do that is weed out some of the projects that give you anxiety, and try and focus more time and effort on the ones you enjoy. A big stressor for freelancers is bad clients. Sometimes no matter what you do, the freelancer-client relationship just doesn’t seem to work well. So how do you know when to cut ties and what tactics to use? Here’s a bit of a guide to types of clients and how to deal with them.
1. The Cling-on
Are you constantly getting notifications from a specific client? Do you feel like you are spending more time dealing with their check-ins than handling their actual work? It can be really stressful to constantly have popup interruptions and requests for status updates. They don’t seem to understand (or care) that you have a life. Bonus points if they constantly “forget” that you live in a totally different time zone. If this sounds like one of your clients, don’t lose your cool just yet. Clingy clients can be some of the simplest to deal with if you stay positive and help put their minds at ease.
Try this before you cut them loose: Start billing for the time spend chatting. Maybe most freelancers do this, but I sure did not in the beginning (and still sometimes don’t for clients that I do a lot of project work for because clarification only takes a minute or two). If they will not stop bugging you, then let them know nicely that you are starting a new pricing model for clients and will be charging for conversations from now on. Once they see the cost add up, they’ll probably either consolidate their questions to bring up at meetings or only send messages with important questions.
Cut them loose if: Well, first if they fight you on charging them for chat/email/messaging times you are going to need to give some serious thought to whether you should keep the contract. If they do not want to pay for your time and effort, then they likely do not value your skills. It might be an indicator of some bigger underlying issues that could begin to bubble to the surface like unreasonable turnaround times or vague project explanations.
While it might not always be true that there is a deeper issue lurking, your freelance time is valuable and you need to be properly compensated. Another reason to get rid of a clingy client is if they drive you nuts. That’s not to say ditch every freelance client that bugs you, because as we all know some projects run smoothly while others just don’t. But if you find yourself cringing every time you get a notification, you might want to think about whether you should maintain that contract.
How to Quit: It’s fair to tell your client that the work currently exceeds your bandwidth. Yes, it’s jargon heavy, but what you’re saying is that the client is asking for more than you can do right now.
2. The Ghost
Eually as unpleasant as the clingy client is the one who just up and disappears on you, especially if you have a deadline. Sometimes no matter what you try, you can’t get your client to respond UNLESS they want something from you. This can be extremely stressful, and can lead to a lot of tension between you and your client.
Try this before you cut them loose: Schedule a weekly check-in with your magically disappearing clients. Write down the questions you have throughout the week and ask them at your weekly meeting. Much like the problem client in the first example on this list, your client might view you as a bit clingy. If you save the bulk of your questions for a pre-determined time, you are less likely to bother them.Another great tactic is if the client is paying per deliverable, ask them if you can start working on an hourly contract. This way, if you end up having to redo work because you couldn’t get clarification it’s on them and not you. I’ve spent some pretty frustrating hours redoing client’s resume writing because they asked for a general resume, only to find out they had a target field in mind all along. This would have been fine if I’d been charging an hourly rate, but I ended up fixing their mistake on my time because I was charging per deliverable.
Cut them loose if: You just can’t get the answers you need. Ghost clients can leave you constantly on edge and wondering if the work really is done. If you fear hearing back from them because the requirements were too vague or the success metrics were nonexistent, then it’s time to move along. You don’t need to spend your precious time and energy wondering if you are going to need to redo jobs you could have easily completed with just a bit more guidance.
How to Quit: Be honest with your client that you need more communication to do your best work. Explaining that you typically thrive in an environment with a bit more guidance, and they might benefit from working with a freelancer that works better in an autonomous environment. It’s a bit “it’s not you it’s me” but at the end of the day, it’s the truth.
3. The Hothead
Make one tiny mistake and a hothead client can explode. It absolutely can’t be that bad – but some clients get all chicken little and act like the sky is falling every time something isn’t perfect. If you are doing your absolute best, but you still find yourself grappling with a cranky client you might feel like you are at your wit’s end.
Try this before you cut them loose: Ok, as hard as it might be to think about when you are getting berated, is the mistake really your fault? If it is, then their frustration is justified but their response is not. What a lot of clients forget is that freelancers are people too, and we having feelings. Since freelancers are often just names on a computer screen, clients tend to take frustration out on us a bit more than they would someone standing in front of them. Is it fair? No, but reminding them that you are a human and not a robot can help.If you honestly made a mistake, apologize and firmly explain that you did not intend to and will be more careful in the future. If they are ranting at you via messenger app, ask if a call would be a more suitable way to discuss this issue. Just like whoever those trolls are who lurk in the YouTube comments section, sometimes freelance clients can get overly bold in their criticisms while hiding behind a keyboard. A voice conversation can often clear things up much more quickly.
Cut them loose if: They honestly are just mean. That much negativity isn’t something you need to deal with every day (or even occasionally). Some clients think that freelancers need to be at their disposal to fulfill every whim. Any missteps won’t be tolerated and as the freelancer you may find yourself on the receiving end of a lot of pent up anger that the client reserves for people they don’t actually know. Not only is this not your fault, but it can undermine the reason that a lot of freelancers leave traditional office culture (to avoid tyrannical bosses and thankless work). If your client is draining your confidence and optimism get rid of them.
How to Quit: This is probably the toughest one on the list, because it’s more of an emotional problem between you and your client. You can just say you feel like you are not meeting their expectations, and think it’s best to not further the contract. Yes, it’s putting the problem on you, but if you don’t want to incur more wrath sometimes you’ve just got to take the hit so you can move on (I really hate saying that).
4. The Magician
You are given project specifications and expected to poof a polished deliverable into existence in no time at all. I don’t know if these clients are magicians themselves, but it feels like it when they ask you to do 20 hours of work in just 2 hours – and do it perfectly.
Try this before you cut them loose: Set clear expectations about what the work they are asking for will entail. Sometimes clients do not know the reality of what goes into the projects they are hiring you to do. After all, if they are asking someone else to do it, they probably can’t do the work themselves. Give them a breakdown of the components of the project and a realistic estimate of how long each piece will take. Sometimes seeing it in black and white will help clients understand what they are really asking for, and why you will be needing more time/money to get it done.
Cut them loose if: They pout. Sometimes these clients just refuse to see the reality of the situation. This can be for many reasons, often they are getting unrealistic quotes from freelancers that can’t actually deliver (sorry guys – not trying to turn on other freelancers but let’s be honest it happens). While they might get the message when they get a sub-par deliverable back, they might also just keep searching for some non-existent unicorn freelancer who can work miracles for them. That’s not you, and it doesn’t need to be you either. Let them go on their quest.
How to Quit: Explain to the client that you won’t be able to meet their requirements. Hopefully, this phase has happened before you accept the freelance job. If they are a long-term client, then you are going to have to explain that their timetables and requirements are not within your capabilities. This is on you, but not in a bad way. Just say you wanted to let them know now, so they can find a freelancer who will be able to meet their needs. Being realistic about your skills is key, otherwise you will end up with lots of unhappy clients and bad feedback.
5. The Shapeshifter
Do you have a client who seems so indecisive you wonder how they ever even choose the food they need to stay alive? Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but some clients can waffle so much that you never know what they want or how to get it to them. I think this is best summed up through a conversation I had at work one day several years ago:
My Boss: “We will operate on the bring me a rock mentality.”
Me: “I’m sorry, what does that mean?”
My Boss: “Basically, bring me what you think is right and I’ll tell you why it’s wrong. We’ll keep doing that until you bring me what I want.”
I can see how sometimes that gets you to think outside of the box and create deliverables that your client might like better than what they would have originally asked you to create. However, if you are a freelancer and you don’t know your client well, this can seem like an impossible test. Try this before you cut them loose: Create a project plan and stick to it. If requirements are constantly changing, then you can try pinning the client down to a detailed timeline that works for both of you. Schedule frequent checkpoints and reviews so they can evaluate your work and see if you are doing what they want. This is honestly the best way to avoid getting to the end of a project and hearing, “That’s not what I wanted at all.”
Cut them loose if: They refuse to help you out in any way. For some freelancers having free reign over a project is awesome (especially if you are charging by the hour). For others, nebulous projects with vague deliverables can be a nightmare. If you fall in the second camp, and can’t get your client to give you more concrete direction, then you probably are not a good fit for the projects they have.
How to Quit: Much like with client #2 (the ghost) you just need more guidance! Explain to the client that you are more comfortable working with clearer expectations, and that you think it’s best not to continue the contract. Simple as that.
Now, these are general guidelines. It’s really important to take the relationship you have with each client into account when tackling these problems. Your clients are people too, and the unreasonable expectations could be coming from other places. Before you cut ties, you need to try and untangle the web of problems and get to the root of what is bothering you about this particular contract. Talk to your client and see if it is something simple to fix, or if you can get on the right path now. The longer you wait, the worse it will get and the more you will build up the issue in your head.
Personally, I have a theory that you should always have one or two medium-stress projects running as a freelancer. When I was working in an office, I used the projects I hated to motivate me to do the tasks I enjoyed. Yes, it’s procrastinating. Yes, you have to do the work you dislike eventually. But at the end of the day it is all work, so if something is driving you to get things done, then at least you are motivated. I’m not recommending you keep awful projects you hate, but think about it carefully before dropping work. You may need some not thrilling work to give you perspective and keep you interested in the contracts you enjoy right now.
What clients do you dread? Have you gotten better at spotting freelance clients that are going to be problematic, or are you still blindsided by new issues? Share your tips and tricks for turning stressful clients into ones you love in the comments below. Also, feel free to throw in some war stories if you feel like it. Trust me – we all have them.