How to manage clients and stay sane

Getting a Job, Guest Post

I am convinced. There are clients who exist for no other reason than to drive freelancers clinically insane.

They are the clients who specialise in making our blood boil. Their demands, we drown our sorrows in. Their emails, we print off to throw darts at. But their money? We are drawn to it like lambs to the slaughter.

A bad client is the result of a bad decision and/or poor communication on the freelancer’s behalf. We don’t like to take responsibility for bad clients.

But we should.

There have been occasions where I have rewritten history to avoid taking responsibility for my bad clients.

I will happily convince myself… no, I never pitched The Corporate Devil my services. He turned up at my office. He was wearing a Scream mask. He brandished a knife and forced me to write for him. He threatened to slay my family if I didn’t build him that website. What was I supposed to do?

It’s easy to feel defeatist when your inbox looks more like the swear box of a dozen demanding clients. And it’s easy to dismiss them all as vicious ungrateful urchins of the modern economy. Fortunately, there is a way out. It involves taking back control.

To manage clients successfully, we have to relay our expectations. We may want their money. But we don’t want to become their doormats.

Bad Clients vs The Rule of 80-20

I am a believer in the Pareto Principle. It is the law of 80-20.

Vilfredo Pareto once observed that 80% of Italian land was owned by 20% of the population. He later discovered that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas. No, I’m not sure why he was counting either. It must have been a lazy Sunday. Alas, the Pareto principle suggests that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

According to a 1990s United Nations report, 82.70% of the world’s income is produced by just 20% of the population. Not surprising.

The 80-20 rule has become something of a business legend. And it applies to us too.

As a freelancer, I would bet that 80% of your stress comes from 20% of the work – most notably, the work that involves your rotten apple clients.

If you are extremely lucky, the stress-inducing clients will be those who are not contributing 80% to your income. If this is the case, consider wishing them well with their future endeavours and getting the hell out of there with your marbles intact.

It only takes 1 or 2 bad clients to dramatically increase the levels of stress in your business. If they are not responsible for the majority of your income, they are not worth having. Good riddance to rotten apples.

Communicate clearly. The devil is in the detail!

You know how it goes. You agree to create a website for a client. You sign off the initial specs. Seven months later the client has left you hanging, unable to decide between #cccccc and #dddddd for the background colour. Just one more small change, he said. Six months ago.

Projects that drag on forever are a hallmark of poor communication skills – or the charitable old fool who just cannot say “No!”.

Before you begin any project, make sure both parties have a crystal clear vision of the work that is expected of you, and the flexibility for changes along the way. Clients want to be billed for the realisation of their vision, and they rarely cost up the bells and whistles attached. Many mid-project disputes can be resolved by a pre-contract agreement that is smart enough to see them coming.

Leave no room for ambiguity in the work that you plan to deliver. A vital component of this is to learn how to communicate effectively. Through email, phone, in person and so on.

Make it clear who is wearing the professional trousers

I have had to bid farewell to clients on more than one occasion. In every instance it was because the client lost sight of who was wearing the trousers in our professional relationship. They forgot why they had hired me.

I was not going to increase their conversions by following their own beaten formulas, so I wished them well. Au revoir, and thanks for the lunch.

Clients who think they know more than their ‘hired guns’ are infuriating to deal with. It is difficult for many reasons. But especially so when the work is subjective. You can’t rate design, or the written word. And you can’t even rate a change to a conversion funnel when an overriding hand from above has nullified your results.

Before undertaking any radical project, it helps to prepare some case studies and examples that justify your work approach. If a client tries to mess with the methods in your madness, point to the examples. Beg and plead for them to listen. If they don’t, part ways on the principle that you are not in the business of doing bad work.

You will lose clients this way. But you will also gain clients who do have their heads screwed on, and who appreciate your integrity.

“Leave a Message… or ruin my day”

Many freelancers leave their 9-5 office jobs to pursue the dream of working in comfort and reporting to nobody. What a shock to the system a bad client can be.

There are some clients who feel that by hiring you to complete a small project, they are thereby entitled to one-on-one access all day long. They will ‘pick your brain’ from dawn until dusk, and sometimes beyond.

The easiest way to manage this form of bombardment is to cling fiercely to the medium of communication. It is all you have left.

Insist that all questions be sent to your email, or a waiting answer machine, or even better – a virtual assistant. It’s okay to give a phone number, but insist that it is an emergency line only. And if they call it, make damn well sure that any non-emergencies are bounced back to sender in record time.

This method will only work if you commit your full and undivided attention to the client when it is expected of you. If you have a weekly meeting, you need to bounce in to it like you’re high on crack. When you reply to emails, you need to answer each question thoroughly.

By anticipating the client’s concerns, you can extinguish them before they’re vibrating in your pocket.

Stay Sane, Stay Happy

We have a duty to our blood pressure, hairlines and bottom lines to manage clients without sacrificing our sanity.

The freelancer who surrounds themselves with clients that respect and appreciate their work (and time!) is sure to be as happy as they are rich. What we need to accept, however, is that we are just as responsible for our client’s behaviour as they are.

Some of the best business you will ever do is the business you run away from. A bad client is a choice.

Stay sane; make better choices!

Photo by Daniel Stockman

  • Rosie Slosek

    The beauty of what I do is that there is An Important Deadline set by HMRC, and they get fined if they don’t get records to me in time for me to do it. I also don’t take on clients for that tax year after – usually December – sometimes mid January. I’ll do January if they’re very nice to me :)

    • Jon Norris

      That’s a smart system – amazing how some clients sit on their hands until it starts costing them money!