It’s often said that a major advantage of working for yourself is that you no longer have to worry about dealing with a boss. Your time is your own; you make the decisions; no one is breathing down your neck to ensure you do everything exactly as to their instructions. If you need a day off as you don’t feel well, then that’s fine – you’re in charge.
There’s no doubt that this is indeed one of the blessings of working for yourself. However, the idea that going into business for yourself means your free from the traditional “boss-like” constraints is not always realistic. You might not have a boss anymore, but you are still likely reporting to someone: clients.
Clients are likely the lifeblood of your business. That means most of the time, you’re going to be able to swallow any difficulties that impact your working relationship. You can handle the occasional blunt tone of voice or a ridiculous request because you know you need them more than they need you – especially in the early stages of business. As you become more established, you may begin to grow in confidence, but nothing will ever fully change the power imbalance in client/business owner relations.
With a little more maturity behind your business, you will soon begin to see that there are different types of difficult clients. There’s no neat system where a client is either easy or difficult; there are shades of gray and you’ll need to know how to handle each type of difficult client differently, as they all respond to varying approaches. Get this right and your business will reap the benefits.
Difficult Client Type One: The Under-Surface Difficult Client
When you first meet this client, they seem like they’re going to be wonderful. They are friendly, personable, and their requirements are reasonable for the price they are expecting. They seem to be confident in your ability to perform the work and all seems to be going along perfectly.
As you begin to move through the project, however, the underside begins to emerge. They begin to add new demands; change their ideas; even suggest you go back and change previously-agreed work. There seems to be no limit to how many times they can change their mind and expect you to do-over.
How Do You Handle It?
This is where having a contract really comes in handy. All of these expectations should be outlined up front. Occasionally you will need to repeat the work you produce for a client. However, there is a limit – you can’t just keep going, and going, and going until they decide they’re satisfied. This type of client needs to be issued with an ultimatum. This will depend on how your contract is written but usually, your options are to null the contract or revise the contract for your client to pay for extra work to be done.
Difficult Client Type Two: The One Who Lacks Empathy
If you have ever encountered this type of client, the title probably made you groan with recognition. Again, it’s tough to spot this client coming – all of the problems begin to emerge as the project progresses.
For example: if you are working on a digital project, your computer system might fail. While you’re waiting for your IT support to fix the problem, you contact the client to explain the delay. You apologize. You might even offer a discount if the problem is going to take awhile to fix.
This type of client doesn’t care at all. They have no empathy; no sense that sometimes, someone can be very dedicated to their project, but issues can and do happen. You would think they inhabited a world of perfect computers, humans that never need a sick day, and internet connections that never drop out. They have no understanding and will punish you for the smallest of problems that are ultimately outside of your control.
How Do You Handle It?
Smile and keep your cool. That’s it, sadly – there’s no magic key to unlock this type of client and make them see sense. If they are like this in a business capacity, it’s almost certainly because they are like this in their personal life. It’s how they are, and there’s not much that you can do to fundamentally change them.
Make sure that you explain the measures you have taken to rectify the problem. Tell them you know it’s important, but that you have done all you can, and all you can do is ask for their patience.
Difficult Client Type Three: The Vague Client (Who Isn’t Actually Vague)
Let’s say you need to decide on a color for something you are designing for them.
You: “So what color would you like for this?”
Them: “I don’t know – whatever you think would look best!”
You: “Are you sure?”
Them: “Maybe a blue or a purple, but really, I don’t mind at all. You pick!”
Fast forward a few weeks, and you show the client the object in question in the color that you chose. The color that they specifically said you should pick for them. Then they pipe up:
“Oh, didn’t we say this was going to be sky blue?”
It’s never a complete lie with this type of client; there’s always a grain of truth in their claims of specific requirements, enough to make you doubt your recollection of what actually happened. Frequently, they are using this technique to get more work from you than has originally been budgeted for.
How Do You Handle It?
In addition to having a clear contract up front, write everything – absolutely everything, every time you interact with them – down. If you have a hard copy of evidence of the freedoms they have given you, then you can call back to it in the event there is a disagreement.
It’s also worth making sure that they know you’re recording all of this; it might dissuade them from attempting this tactic to begin with. You can do this by very obviously keeping notes during meetings and then emailing over a summary of all the notes to them. This ensures you’re not going to waste time jumping through hoops they have not even specified exist, and hopefully, your working relationship will be all the more harmonious for it.
Clients might be important to your business – but that doesn’t mean you just have to sit back and let them do as they please. You cannot make someone respect you, but you can use some of the coping tactics as outlined above to make it very difficult not to respect you.
Remember: you’re always in charge in this relationship. If you begin to feel that a client is becoming more trouble than they are worth – potentially even costing you money – then you need to ensure that you’re willing to pull the plug and end the interaction. Ultimately, wasting time with a client that is proving difficult is distracting you from sourcing new clients who might actually be fruitful to work with. So tolerate a certain amount, but have a limit, a point when you say enough is enough and walk away. You and your business will be much stronger for it.