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Thursday, November 15, 2007

The customer is difficult? Here is how to handle him

If you work as a freelancer difficult clients are as common as stars in a cloudless night. Okay, you shouldn’t take my poetic analogy too literally, but still once in a while you end up working for a client who you wish didn’t exist in the scheme of the universe.

But the sad reality is that there are all sorts of clients for whom you have to work because they are an integral part of your work and if you started avoiding clients just because they are “bad clients” or “difficult clients” then soon you would end up having no clients at all.

The definition of difficult clients may vary from client to client, on a case by case basis. But just for the sake of this blog post let us try to define a difficult client using the following characteristics:

He or she keeps changing the specs of the project
He or she trusts you grudgingly
He or she nags you with tens of e-mails even when there is no need to send them
He or she asks for updates every day even when you have specifically told him or her that you would update every four to five days
He or she constantly complains that you are overcharging and he or she should have hired someone else
He or she constantly points out that you could have done better
He or she keeps reminding you that he or she is looking for another service provider in case you’re not doing the job to his or her satisfaction
He or she is too busy to provide you with the right information even though his or her intentions are not malicious
He or she wants to control every aspect of the project even if you are the expert
You can add here a few of your own definitions of a difficult client.

So how do you handle such clients?

Diligently Document Every Interaction Between You And Your Client


Make it a point that you have everything in writing although when you work on the Internet such kind of paperwork is not feasible especially when the projects are very small and involve just a few days’ work. Still, save all the e-mails from the client and if you have chat sessions with him or her save them too. Most of the chat software and VoIP software let you save your sessions.

Make sure that as you progress, your client knows everything and agrees to everything and also make sure that you too agree to everything. This way whenever your client says something contradictory you can immediately present to him or her what he or she had agreed to in the past.

Develop A Protocol And Then Follow It Strictly With Every Client


Develop a service protocol and display it prominently on your website. If you have a standard protocol and if you apply it to all of your clients it will become a part and parcel of the way you provide your service and your particular clients won’t think that you are being strict specifically with them. Let your clients know that you follow a certain procedure and you don’t waver from that procedure. This way there will be a less chance of miscommunication or misunderstanding. This will also keep the troublesome clients from contacting you.

Develop Yourself As An Authority Figure


Some clients bully you just because you are not a known name in your field. If they know that you are an authority in your field they will run the risk of getting laughed at by finding fault in your work needlessly. Of course this is a general suggestion as I think even if you don’t want to use this as deterrence your image as an authority can tremendously improve your freelancing prospects.

Make it clear in the beginning how much you are going to charge for individual components of the project and how the cost may vary with the changes in the project.

This too can save you lots of future trouble. If you can define the cost of individual tasks your client will think twice before randomly coming up with new changes or unreasonable changes. This will also force him or her to define the specs of the project as clearly as possible and lucidly communicate to you what is wanted and what is not wanted; you can assist him or her by preparing a comprehensive quotations methodology. It is a one-time hard work but it will save you lots of heartburn and time when you come across difficult or capricious clients.

Learn When To Refuse A Project

I know this can be very difficult for a freelancer because we all eagerly wait for new projects because they bring in more money. Rejecting a project is a very difficult thing to do but it is a wise thing to do if you don’t want to end up spending money and time instead of earning.

Never be desperate enough to accept all sorts of projects and then get yourself trapped in an inescapable web of unsavory circumstances; always try to remain in a commanding position because this gives you the much needed bargaining power.
Have a margin to fire client and know how to do the damage control.

Sometimes it makes sense to fire a client if he or she is too acrimonious to handle. This may mean returning the advance the client has already paid you and this further means always having enough spare money with you. This also brings us to the overwhelming importance of having a blog as many companies and people use blogs as great PR tools. Lest the fired client tries to damage your goodwill write on your blog what drove you to firing your client and explain the reason as clearly as possible and hide nothing (just make sure you have the right to do that).

You may think that this will scare away your future clients but why should a right-thinking person feel threatened by your frankness and sense of fairness? Since most probably your readers will respond to your blog post in your comment section this will generate lots of buzz and gain sympathy for you. Here by “sympathy” I don’t mean using manipulation but clearing the air and putting forward your point of view. Of course if the client publishes his or her own blog then he or she may use it to put forward his or her point of view, but then this is the power of the Internet :-).

In the end I would like to add that listen to your client carefully; not all intrusive clients are troublemakers. Some can really help you perform better by giving constructive input. You may not like the tone of their communication; that’s because not everybody is a polished communicator. Learn to discern the difference.

Amrit Hallan
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