How To Handle Difficult Clients


Freelancers work with many different types of clients. Unfortunately, not every client or potential client is easy and friendly. If you were picky and avoided clients merely because they were "difficult", you would soon find yourself without many clients.

The true art of working with clients is not in how you handle someone who's easy to get along with, but in how you handle a difficult client. The kind of client that ties your stomach in knots and that leads to holding your phone 10 inches away away to protect your eardrum, or (please Lord, no) an email written in ALL CAPS with crazy punctuation!!??

Here are a few tips for dealing with the these most difficult of clients (whether you find them in projects on crowdSPRING or in your offline work):

1. Know a difficult client when you see one. Then decide whether to avoid them or pounce.

Watch for the signs: profanity, sarcasm, and overt anger are pretty easy to spot but sometimes a difficult client might not be so immediately evident.

When you see such signs, decide whether you'll engage with the client or refuse to participate in the project. This is not an easy choice because freelancers are always looking for more projects. Learn to differentiate between people who are not polished communicators and those who are simply obnoxious and difficult.

Importantly, you should never be desperate enough to accept work from difficult clients - because such clients will make your life miserable and that will undoubtedly impact on your work in other projects.

2. Stay on the lookout. At all times.

You can spot difficult clients only if you look for them. The trick is to keep your finger on the pulse. For example, in your communications with the client, have they been responsive? If you are able to tell, is the client communicating with other people in your project (the projects stats tool in each project is a good barometer to use for this purpose)? Are the communications from the client to you polite or terse?

One telling sign is the quality of the brief. Typically, clients are more invested in their projects if they take a bit more time to develop better quality project briefs. If the brief is short, contains spelling errors, and is vague - those are all signs of possible problems later.

If the client has previously posted projects on crowdSPRING, has the client been reviewed by the winning creative(s)? Has the client followed-through and completed all of their projects on crowdSPRING or did some projects result in a refund?

3. In service, it is often the hare who wins the race.

In the ancient fable, it is the slow, steady tortoise who wins the race, but in service it is the fast response that wins the hearts. Many clients are difficult because they are impatient and in a hurry. People like to know that someone is paying attention.

This doesn't mean that you should immediately respond to every comment from the client or that you should spend all your time focused on the client. But it does mean that setting expectations with such clients is extremely important. If you are unable to meet the client's schedule, let them know this in advance and make the client understand the schedule that you CAN meet.

It's best to set these expectations in advance. But what happens if you don't do that and find yourself in a bad situation when it's already too late. Apologize, explain what happened, and see what you can do to make up for the problem. Sometimes, offering extra services without cost will salvage your relationship with that client.

4. Get personal.

When we view another person as an object it is easy to treat them rudely and to express anger in ways we would never express it in person. This is even easier to do in a faceless transaction online.

For this reason, it is critical that you find ways to let that demanding client know that it is a human being they're talking to and not an auto-responding robot or an AI powered internet machine.

One good way to start is to use an avatar on crowdSPRING containing your photo. You also should customize your responses, be careful with the overuse of boilerplate language, and (maybe most important) tell them your real name and ask for theirs. It's harder to yell at a designer when you know her name is Tiffany than it is when she's just a username.

5. Give 'em what they want or stop.

At the end of the day, the best way to turn an angry client around is, simply to give them what they are asking for. If it is a refund they want, give them the money back; if it is an apology they're after, well than say sorry (and mean it); and if they want you to just admit that you were wrong and they were right, well go on and do just that. At the end of the day an unhappy client can do damage to your reputation that is far more expensive than that refund.

Stay professional at all times. Ultimately, the client will decide what they like and don't like. Your job is to explain your decisions. For example, if you've created a design, you might explain the visual hierarchy, typography, color choices, etc. The best you can and should do is offer your professional recommendation. If the client disagrees, do your very best to meet the client's requirements.

Importantly, if you are not prepared to give the client what they want/need, stop. Immediately. You can invest a lot of time trying to please a very difficult client, lose many opportunity costs in doing so, and still end up with an unsatisfied, ungrateful client.

6. Always tell the truth and be accurate.

Please be honest - if it was your mistake that led to the customer's distress, 'fess up; and if you don't know the answer, simply say that you don't and tell them that you will find out quickly and get back to them ASAP. People appreciate transparency, but even more so they appreciate humility and a healthy dose of both will often help to calm a tense client and build the trust you need to find a great resolution.

Your interactions with clients should build on one another - after all, you're ultimately interested in a long term relationship with your clients. Honesty and transparency build a very strong foundation for that future relationship.

7. Say please. Also say thank you.

When you deal with clients, you're engaged in providing customer service. You can call it freelancing. You can call it designing. You can call it writing. But when you interact with a customer - it's all about service. So, no matter the voice volume, no matter the oaths, no matter the expletives and curses directed your way, please, please, please stay polite, be civil, and maintain equanimity. Probably nothing is more difficult to do, but certainly nothing you do is more important when dealing with that pissed-off client.

image credit: Manic Toys

Last updated: 30-Sep-15 5:31 p.m. GMT