How to Deal with Difficult Clients

Tips for the Self-Employed and Freelancers Out There

Sarah Jules holding a book from one of her favourite authors; the one and only Jeffery Deaver.

With current statistics showing us that there are more freelancers and self-employed people out there than ever before (yay!) I thought it was time we discussed the topic on every freelancers’ lips: how on earth do you deal with difficult buyers? We’ve all had them! If you haven’t, then sorry to be pessimistic, but you will have one sooner or later. As a person who has only been freelancing/self-employed for 2 years, I’ve had my fair share of difficult clients. The majority of my work still comes through my Fiverr platform (have I mentioned how much I love Fiverr?) and therefore I feel that I do experience some difficult clients because of the reputation of working through a freelancing platform, a reputation that is completely unjustified, by the way. In this blog post, I will share with you my own tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the last couple of years for turning potentially problematic projects around. Now, I’m by no means an expert on this, but I wanted to share with you what I’ve found to work, especially if you are working through freelancing platforms such as Guru, Fiverr, Freelancer and the rest. But this information is applicable to anybody who is self-employed, and has a client-facing role.

First things first, clear project outlines are an absolute must. Some of the difficulties that freelancers face with ‘difficult clients’ stem from miscommunications and unclear guidelines. So, before you take on any project, it is in your best interest to make it very, very clear what you will do, and what you won’t. What is part of your package, and what isn’t. This is something I learned early on and it was a steep learning curve for me. Part way through projects clients were asking me to do things that I am unable to do (like illustrations or book covers) and I’d wonder why the hell they were asking this! Then I realised, that it was because of me. I hadn’t told them that this wasn’t something I offered, and they assumed I did. It was my fault, and I learned from that. You know what they say about assumptions, they make an ass out of both of us. Never leave anything open to interpretation or assumptions. The easiest way to do this is to list what you offer. Simple. I will do A, B and C. And ask clients what they expect from the project, ask them to list it too. Avoiding this confusion makes life easier for the both of you and at the end of the day, makes for a much more pleasant working relationship.

Remember, that you are in charge. You are the professional in this situation and it is down to you to lead the project. One mistake that new freelancers make, myself included when I first started, is that you give too much control to the client. Of course, pleasing the client and doing a good job is important, but you should guide the whole process. Learning to manage projects is a skill in itself (something I’ll probably do another blog post on in the future) and it is key to achieving a positive outcome. Retain control and steer the projects, and conversations, in the direction you need them to go. You’ll always come across clients that feel that they know better than you (despite hiring you for the project) and simply explaining that you want to achieve the best results for them can go a long way. Unfortunately, sometimes you get the odd client that is just a pain but it is important to remember all the many, many clients that are bloody amazing! I have some awesome clients, that I feel privileged to have met and worked alongside, and it’s a matter of percentages, there’s always going to be a bad egg or two along the way. For the new freelancers out there, it is important that you sound confident in what you do, and that you believe in your project. Don’t leave the client wondering if they should have spent their hard-earned money on you. Something I had to learn to get over, was speaking on Skype to clients. I used to hate it! Emphatically. I had to pretend that I was super comfortable, and eventually, I was. Confidence is key, even if it’s feigned, to begin with.

Be a good listener and keep a record of all communication. Being an active listener is ever so important, I can’t emphasise that enough. This is where you’d identify and solve miscommunications if they arise, and also gain the best understanding of exactly what the client is expecting. All clients are different and expect different things, and listening carefully allows for you to clarify exactly what is expected of you and of the project. There tends to be a huge focus on what you say (as somebody who is self-employed or a freelancer), rather than what the client says. We panic about making the best impressions and showing how competent we truly are, rather than reading into the clients’ responses. It’s a fine balance between listening and responding. On the same note, keeping a record of all communication is imperative. Recording the times of all conversations and noting what was said (it doesn’t have to be long and detailed, just an overview) will always help you out in the future. Something I like to do, to just confirm things with the client, is to send over a quick email after any video or phone conversations with a brief summary of what was said. It allows for us (and them) to review in the future if needed and avoids any confusion. This is particularly useful for those high-maintenance clients.

Be empathetic. Following on from my use of the phrase ‘high-maintenance’, I think it’s important to clarify that being a high-maintenance client is not the same as being ‘difficult’. Clients have every right to be high-maintenance, they are paying for a service and they expect results. There’s definitely a scale of ‘maintenance’ from low to high and all clients sit somewhere on it. I have clients that are happy to sit back and let me get on with it, and others that prefer regular updates and chats. Adapting to this is part of the job. Another quick note on high-maintenance clients, something I have noticed is that, obviously, all your clients will be from different income brackets and yet our pricing remains the same. Bear in mind that for some clients, your pricing might be their entire savings, and therefore if they are a little more demanding it is very understandable as they have a lot riding on the project. Also, if a client is snippy or rude, take it on the chin. It’s never, ever personal. They might be having a bad day, they might have other things going on in their lives, and remaining professional is your job. Of course, if it is becoming a regular thing, and you suspect they are the kind of person that clicks their fingers at waitstaff, then a gentle reminder that you expect to be shown respect too is usually all it takes. There’s often that association that freelancers aren’t professionals, and in my experience, a reminder that I am a professional and that I want to deliver a high-quality product, goes a long way. One final note on this, consider that written text can sometimes come across differently than intended. Jokes, etc, might not come across well in an email, and therefore not jumping to conclusions about what the client meant is critical. If in doubt, ask for clarification.

Think carefully about contracts, payments, and policies. Deciding on when to accept payments, what percentage of payment to take up front, what to charge for your services, and what your policy is in terms of refunds, etc in advance (and sharing this with the clients in a very clear and professional manner) is crucial. Having recently moved to working independently through my website more, this is something I am still working on. Figuring out the wording of policies and contracts can take some trial and error. By evaluating your procedures often, you can get the best outcome. Considering what happens if the client isn’t happy with the delivery, or if they wish to cancel for whatever reason, is something you need to think about up front. Difficulties with clients stem from miscommunications and misunderstandings, which often arise from contracts and policies, and the onus is on you (as a freelancer and professional) to ensure that everybody is on the same page and understands their rights.

Sometimes, you have to part ways with a client. Some professional relationships just don’t work, and it is in the best interests of both of you to part ways. This is never something to be taken lightly, and there’s a diplomatic way to discuss the prospect of parting ways. At the end of the day, you want every client to have a positive experience, but sometimes that’s just not possible for whatever reason. Parting ways, whether that means refunding payments, accepting partial payments, or simply choosing not to work together again, is up for discussion. And there should be a discussion. This is why contracts are necessary. Unfortunately, there are some people out there that are just plain difficult, and deciding how to move forward is something that you need to lead, as the professional in the situation. Offering solutions and drawing projects to the most amenable close are down to you to negotiate. As you gain more clients and bookings, you are able to be selective about projects you take on and therefore can ensure that you are a good match for the clients you choose to work with, just as much as they can ensure you are the right fit for them. Having this freedom makes for a pleasant experience, but will likely only come with great reviews and a couple of year’s experience. Know your own boundaries, be professional, and always look for the best solutions. Over the past few years, I’ve worked so hard on ensuring clients are happy with the projects and as such, my positive reviews mean that I am able to be slightly pickier about which projects I choose to take on. See my Fiverr profile to take a look at my reviews over the past two years: or feel free to have a glance at my testimonial section on this website.

You’re always going to face difficult clients and it’s how you deal with them as a freelancer or self-employed person that matters. Sometimes clients are just a bit of a pain. Others are so difficult that they’re not worth working with (these are so incredibly rare). I am lucky enough to have some absolutely amazing clients and my favourite part of the job is forming working relationships with them. In my line of work, as a freelance ghostwriter and a freelance editor, I have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and learn their incredible stories. This blog post might seem like a bit of a Debbie-downer, but it’s important to talk about the difficult aspects of freelancing as well as the positives. Through the difficult clients, which I had a lot more of at the beginning of my career as I learned the ropes, you learn the intricacies of your career. You learn what to do and what not to do. It’s a learning curve for everybody. As I’ve perfected my approach to clients, I find that I have far less ‘difficult’ clients to deal with. We are part of the dynamic and therefore we are part of the problem. Perfecting how you run your freelancing business means that you are less likely to run into difficulties with clients, and therefore have less difficult clients. Of course, some people are difficult for the sake of being difficult, but it’s rare. Take everything on the chin. Be humble and adapt your own practice from what you’ve learned and experienced.

I’d love to hear about your difficult, or amazing, client stories. Please do feel free to comment or message me. Similarly, if there’s a topic you’d like me to cover, about freelancing, ghostwriting, editing, books or anything else, do reach out! I love interacting with you guys.

As always, wishing you love and books that make your heart skip a beat,

Sarah Jules x

P.S, A huge thank you to everybody that has shared my blog posts and website over the past few weeks. I’ve had days where it absolutely blows up! It is very much appreciated. Next week’s blog will be about the ethics of asking a ghostwriter to rewrite an existing book, something I very much look forward to sharing my opinion on.

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