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7 Clues You’ve Come Across a Difficult Client as a Freelancer

When you own your own company, you have the authority to refuse clients who behave badly. Admittedly, when you work for yourself, it can be difficult to say no to a project. Turning down a client can feel like flushing money down the toilet; however, in some cases, it may well be your best option. 

During the development of your freelance career, you’ll learn to recognize the signals that a customer is likely to cause you serious headaches—and the sooner you can spot these red flags, the sooner you can resolve the issue or move on.

We’ve put together a list of some of the red flags that may motivate you to recognize that an assignment may be worth more trouble than it’s worth. 

Keep these red flags in mind the next time you’re onboarding a client or qualifying a lead.

  • They won’t give you a proper briefing.

Whenever you begin a new customer relationship, the first step is usually to acquire important information about the company and the project. It will be impossible for you to accomplish your work successfully without this information.

Unfortunately, getting clients to disclose this information isn’t always easy. Perhaps you don’t get a brief at all, or the brief is incomplete and lacking in details.

If you do not have a brief, you can’t agree on the goals. If your client is reluctant to share information or seems to be uncertain, it implies that they don’t truly know what they want.

It will be nearly impossible to match the client’s expectations if you proceed without a thorough brief—especially since the client’s expectations can alter as the project progresses.

The end consequence is that you end up working twice as hard to fulfil the brief that they have in their heads, and the client is less than pleased with what you do give.

Agree goals and milestones up front and stick to them.

How to prevent this problem: 

If you frequently require full briefs for your work, build a template that ensures you receive the information you require. If your customer is tight on time, go over this brief with them in a meeting or over the phone. However, if they refuse to provide you with any information, it could be better to cut ties rather than waste time attempting to build something out of nothing.

  • They’re already stressed about deadlines.

Have you ever met someone who always seems to be running behind schedule? Their deadlines are tight, and even a minor delay puts them in a panic.

If you work with a customer like this, their worry may show in your work; they may ask for unattainable deadlines or make timetables appear much more aggressive than they are.

Many organizations, of course, rely on strict deadlines for their services, and being able to deliver on time will boost your worth. However, you may be in a toxic scenario if you’re frequently dealing with frenetic, worried clients who can’t manage their time.

Unfortunately, if a customer has trouble meeting deadlines early on, the problem is unlikely to go away on its own. If you decide to proceed with the assignment, any future work from this customer will very certainly be just as stressful.

How to prevent this problem: 

Always be honest and clear about your deadlines. When possible, give yourself more time or make your deadlines flexible.

Instead of committing to Monday at 9 a.m., you might inform clients you’ll deliver your job “early next week.”

Consider charging a rush fee when clients urge you to complete a project quickly. If it’s truly urgent, they’ll be willing to pay so you can put their work ahead of your other responsibilities. Or you can find that by putting a price on something, the seemingly immovable deadline becomes moveable.

  • They haggle your pricing from the beginning.

Clients who are fixated on getting the most out of you at the lowest possible cost frequently end up being the ones who are the most difficult to work with.

Some freelancers may be willing to negotiate their rates—for example, a freelance web designer may offer multiple pricing packages based on how advanced the final product must be.

Offering a variety of prices and services, on the other hand, does not entitle your customers to bargain for the best price as if they were at an auction. The freelancer nearly usually has to take a salary reduction, while the customer walks away believing they got a wonderful bargain (and can do the same to the next freelancer they encounter).

How to prevent this problem: 

If you see that this problem occurs regularly, there may be an issue with the way you price and package your services.

In some cases, the best approach may be to increase your prices. While this may seem contradictory, it often attracts the type of clients who have a higher amount of respect for your skills and time.

If you’re comfortable with your current charges, create a rate card or put your prices on your freelancing website so that clients know what they’re getting. Be clear as to whether or not reductions are negotiable.

  • They’ve had a slew of unpleasant freelancer experiences.

Pay attention to how your clients talk about previous work with freelancers. If they frequently discuss all of the horrible experiences they’ve had with contractors in the past, the client is most likely the common denominator.

If a client is freely bashing other freelancers, who’s to say you won’t be next?

Your reputation is built on the satisfaction and positive comments of your clients. If you agree to deal with someone who consistently seems dissatisfied, you are jeopardizing your brand’s reputation.

How to prevent this problem: 

When deciding whether or not to hire a new lead, inquire about their previous experience working with freelancers. They don’t have to be glowing about every experience, but their tone should offer you some indications of how they’ll treat you if you take the job.

You can also look through Glass Door to see what past employees have to say about the organization you’re thinking about working for. It’s a significant red signal if they have lots of bad comments and few or no positive ones.

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  • They promise large benefits in the future (but won’t pay now) 

“This product will take off soon…”

“Right now, you can get in on the ground level…”

“This will be really beneficial to your career…”

These promises may sound fine on the surface, but they’re frequently used as a negotiation tool to get you to drop your costs. If a corporation wants to pay you less now because you’ll get a bigger return later, here’s a hint: that day will never come.

Making price concessions sets an unhealthy standard for the client. They’ll be significantly more inclined to negotiate pricing on any future work you do together if you’re willing to cut your charges based on a (possibly false) promise.

How to prevent this problem: 

Keep an eye out for this type of language since it’s almost certainly a red flag that should prompt you to reconsider your working relationship.

Remember what we mentioned earlier: you can offer flexible pricing, but there’s no reason a client should force you to reduce your charges dramatically based on a hypothetical windfall later on.

  • They consistently disregard your boundaries.

Setting clear and firm boundaries with customers is essential for freelancers to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Perhaps you agree not to check your email on weekends or after a particular hour, or you set a limit on the number of phone calls you make with clients based on their contract.

When you set these boundaries, some clients will feel compelled to challenge them. They expect you to respond to emails on Saturday nights, and they’re continuously pushing for more work (with no extra payment, of course.)

It’s extremely likely that a client who tests your boundaries once will do it again and again. If you keep working with people like this, you’ll have to break the rules you’ve set up to keep your happiness and prosperity.

How to prevent this problem: 

You should start by recognizing what your boundaries are. If you’re someone who is known for always saying yes, it won’t be long until clients know how to push your buttons. Setting clear boundaries will prevent you from being taken advantage of. 

Communicating limits from the start of the relationship is preferable. When developing the project scope, make it very clear what hours you work and what deliverables you will offer and when.

Anyone who frequently questions or tries to cross these boundaries is probably not going to be right for you in the long run. 

  • They try to control everything and shun input

Your clients employ you because you are an expert, and they want your opinion on what to do. Unfortunately, when it comes to really taking advice, some clients just aren’t able to do it.

Of course, clients are under no obligation to listen to every piece of advice you offer—but if they’re investing money in your services, they should have a clear and logical explanation why they are pushing back.

If clients ever take your critique and professional recommendations personally, they are showing you that improvement won’t be feasible. No matter how hard you work, or how excellent the work you do is, the client won’t be satisfied—so it may be time to move on.

How to prevent this problem: 

When a client is resistive to your counsel or guidance, try and find out the reasons why. The best approach is to explore this face-to-face or via a phone call. You should aim to adopt a curious, but not judgemental, approach. 

If your customers react emotionally to feedback or refuse to adopt any ideas you share without putting forward their own solutions, it’s likely you’re in a no-win situation.


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