How To Manage A Difficult Client

Full disclosure: when I went out on my own as a Freelancer, my very first client was a terrible human being and as a result the project was a difficult  experience.  I did the best that I could to satisfy the completely unreasonable expectations,  time frame and amount that this individual was willing to pay.  Most of all, I came to recognize the rookie client management mistakes I had made,  chiefly,  failing to confirm the full project scope,  budget and length.  I also learned how to recognize who had the potential to become a bad client (not a fool-proof science,  but helpful nonetheless).

Furthermore,  I now have the inner strength to fire a bad client,  because they just aren’t worth the money.  If you find yourself in an assignment and client neuroses suddenly emerge,  you’ll need tactics that will help you exercise some control over the situation and preserve your dignity and sanity and perhaps the client relationship as well.

The nitpicker

There are two types of nitpickers: one who is willing to pay for the time it takes to second-guess every aspect of your work and those that want to abuse your time.  The only good thing about a nitpicker is that s/he can make you more precise about your work.

Setting boundaries is the preferred defense,  but be advised that a client has every right and in fact a responsibility to scrutinize your work,  especially if this is your first project with the organization.  If your nitpicker client is OK about paying extra,  then pretend to welcome his/her suggestions and involvement.  Consider it a lesson in meeting or exceeding client expectations and building trust.  Maybe the exacting attitude stems from a previous bad experience.  Reassure the client that getting the job done right is your goal, too.

If your nitpicker does not want to pay extra for the second-guessing,  here is where the boundaries must be applied.  Allow for two revisions of your work and make it clear that beyond that,  there will be a surcharge for your services.  Consider declining future projects offered by this individual.  Going forward,  write into the contract a surcharge for revisions that you would find excessive.

The meeting maven

Meetings are useful in that stakeholders can convene to discuss the progress of the project and make any desired refinements along the way, while verifying that milestones will be met.  Progress meetings can be held periodically,  but too many are a waste of time.

In the project specs meeting,  it is useful to address the subject of progress meetings and suggest tying them to project milestones.  Include meeting time in your project fee.  It’s difficult to address the number of meetings after the fact if you encounter a meeting maven who thinks that you should not be paid extra,  or who likes to stretch meetings out to much longer than  necessary.

That client has you by the short hairs if numerous meetings are demanded,  or prescheduled meetings drag on and on.  You may need to decline future projects and chalk it up to a lesson learned.  Going forward,  anticipate the need to meet and discuss it beforehand.  Some long meetings may be beneficial to you as well as the client,  but make it known that you will be paid.

The penny-pincher

You may have been led to believe that you will work x hours/week on a project and unexpectedly,  your hours are decreased.  Or maybe the scope of your work is scaled back.  The penny-pincher’s motivation may be that s/he has second thoughts about paying an outside consultant,  or maybe there really has been a cash-flow problem.

Regardless of the agreed-upon contract that you have with this client,  s/he has the power to change certain elements and there is nothing a Freelancer can do,  except to opt out of the assignment and you may do exactly that if you have a better opportunity available.

If you do need the assignment,  make sure that the scope of the project decreases in proportion to the hours taken away.  Under no circumstances do you perform as usual,  no matter how much you may like and respect this individual.

If you can offer lower-cost alternatives that will help the client achieve certain important objectives, consider doing so.  You will be perceived as a real professional and positioned to win future assignments when cash-flow improves.  This would be a good time to ask for a referral.

Next week,  we can look at more difficult clients.

Thanks for reading,




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