9 Best Ways to Handle Difficult Clients in Your Freelance Business

November 26, 2020
by Ma. Aisa Aceremo 
Ma. Aisa M. Aceremo is an engineer who has published refereed scientific articles and has done freelance proofreading. She is currently working on projects that she is passionate about. Feeding stray cats is her personal mission.

As freelancers, we get to work with so many clients of all types - the good, the bad, and all others in between.

We sometimes take on projects with clients who were likable at the start but after a while end up being someone who's not easy to work with. The early relationship bliss is over. Of all my clients, I have had a memorable one, who I now fondly call my favorite: Precious.  

You may already have encountered your very own version of Precious. And you would agree, I am sure, that a difficult client is not one that you can easily categorize. I’d like to briefly list the three most common types of difficult clients that I find really extreme.

After that, I’d like to share with you ways to strategize working with them. Inevitably we will have to find means of turning around the situation to make it productive and hope to establish good teamwork. 

The Micromanager. This type I’m sure we’ve all come across. Remember the client who keeps on picking on every nitty-gritty detail? Yeah, that’s him alright.

His instructions are so tedious to read, like the “Manual for Writers Doing Research Papers, Thesis, and Dissertations.” Heavy on the sauce and difficult to digest. He is so hungry for power and control that you have to run every single task by him for his approval. You have to send updates so often. It feels like you need to justify your work all the time.

NVR, No Visible Results. The one who we sometimes call Mr. Deadma. He is the vague client. After you have done your job, forgets you completely without giving you any feedback whatsoever.

Clueless, you keep on waiting for some kind of reaction from him that never comes. The project starts and ends with you always trying to second guess how he thinks. With a client like Mr. Deadma there is no room for professional growth because you have no idea what and how to improve in your work.

Demanding. Working for this type of client makes you think you are working 24/7 solely for him. He is the classic Mr. Supreme. There is only one way to do the job and that is his way. All decisions are made by him and him alone.

Working with Mr. Supreme feels like getting pushed to your limits, never meeting his never-ending expectations. After sending you his comments on the second draft of the manuscript you have submitted yesterday, he then sends you additional tasks that he now deems also important and urgent with matching new deadlines.

If you realize your client is a Mr. Supreme, you might want to tell yourself this: “I really should put a cap on the number of revisions I can tolerate.”  

Working with a difficult client can have toxic effects on you.  It can push you to your wit’s end, make you lose sleep, cause your hair to fall and worse, hair loss. A toxic effect I have personally experienced: I grew a lot of white hair after working for six months with my favorite client, Precious. I dreaded starting my work week. The tasks have gotten so difficult that I started getting stomach cramps just thinking of the week ahead of me.

Over my coffee break, I kept trying to figure out why the work was difficult and then I realized it was because there seemed to be no progress. It had come to the point that I was having negative feelings even outside of work. I had started having nightmares the night before scheduled calls with Precious. I felt like I was carrying a heavy burden, a cross.

So what can be done in such situations? Don’t fret. 

I know that seems like I’m taking this too lightly but hear me out. There are a number of ways to deal with a difficult client. Here are some things I have found to work when dealing with someone like Precious over the years. If only for personal sanity, these strategies have helped me and thus can help you survive a “precious client.”

1. Do not take anything personally. 

Overcome all tendencies to be overly sensitive. Easier said than done. I know. But you have to remind yourself that Precious isn’t being difficult on purpose.

What he does is not a personal attack on you. That is just his personality. He is who he is. And you are not in any position to teach him to be a better person. In fact, nobody will, and nobody can.

That is something he will have to do on his own. So keep your feelings in check and distance yourself when he gets deliberately difficult. So when Precious gives you back your recommendations for the next Instagram post with a whole new list of things to do, tell yourself, he is not doing this to you personally. He is doing this for the good of the project. 

2. Trick yourself into liking, or better yet loving, working with Precious. 

It’s all in the mind, after all. Prepare yourself each time for your daily interaction with him by clearing away negative thoughts. This will help you see everything objectively and be open-minded.

Think of this as some kind of auto-brainwashing to keep your wits intact. Visualize your target vacation: a day under the sun on the beach while you sip your iced tea. No emails, no zoom calls. What a lovely R&R day, all expenses paid by Precious!

3. Figure out the why. 

Ask yourself this: Is it possible that you might need to make some adjustments in the way you interact with Precious? It might help to do a self-assessment. You might come to an important realization about yourself that you need to work on. Maybe it's your organization skills or time management.

Admitting that there is a shortcoming on your part is a step in the right direction. Nip it in the bud. Correct it at the point of error so you don’t repeat it with your other clients. 

4. Find creative ways to communicate your dilemma to Precious. 

There are ways to communicate effectively. Although I do not recommend letting Precious know that you find him difficult because that might be the end of your contract. Convey to him the need to reassess the project and to find ways to make it move forward.

In other words, brainstorm with Precious to find solutions to the bottleneck and improve the process. In communicating your dilemma, you would have transformed the situation and offered to help.  

5. Be professional. 

Learn to be even more competent and reliable to get the work done.  Keep in mind that your client needs you. Whenever you feel like Precious is giving you a hard time, just think he will actually be the one having a hard time if you don’t do your work right.

So pick yourself up and take on a superman/wonder woman pose and deliver exemplary customer service. Commit to excellence. Try to exceed expectations. Show Precious that you are invested in the success of his business as much as he is. 

6. Wake up and smell the coffee. Remember that in this career nobody is indispensable. 

There is no security of tenure in freelancing. That’s just the way it is. Even long term contracts can be ended. So unless you have another stable source of income, be tolerant.  Be the better person.

Hope that all your good work and deeds rub off on your difficult client. Stay positive, who knows, maybe a miracle will happen and Precious will change for the better. 

7. Don’t let your client burn you out. 

  • Listen to music, classical music, binaural beats, while you work.  I listen to all kinds of music to help me focus on my task. 
  • Talk to somebody when things get too frustrating. If no one’s around, talk to yourself, that can work too. I often get really creative and use colorful language when I vent my feelings. It makes for a good release.  
  • Exercise, not just the mind, but also the body. I actually find air boxing very effective in releasing my pent up emotions. Not to mention the healthy benefits of exercise!
  • Journal. Writing can help clear the mind and calm you down. Who knows this might bring out your creative side, too. 

8. Leverage your experience with him for your next difficult client.

In freelancing, you'll never know how long you have to work with a difficult client or when the next one will come along. Don’t doubt yourself. Maintain your passion for what you're doing. Learn all the lessons that you can get from your working relationship with a client like Precious. Be positive that there will be a next client.

9. Don’t forget you can always end your contract with a client. 

Adios, Precious! Sometimes knowing that this option exists, helps you plow through the project. But if the situations really get too much, then cut your losses. Sometimes the stress is just not worth the pay. Just make sure to end your working relationship on a good note. Soften the blow. Never burn your bridges.  

There are ways to circumvent a bad situation, that is dealing with a difficult client. You can make it work to your advantage. Instead of resenting your client and thinking at the back of your mind, “This isn’t working, there are other clients out there,” just hang in there.

It may be difficult. See it as a learning experience. Just think how working with a difficult client can potentially make you a better person. In the end, you will have survived the worst. Take comfort in the fact that not all clients are difficult. Just some of them.

Do you want to learn the skills that will help you work with any type of client? Sign up for the FREE Virtual Assistant Course today.

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by Ma. Aisa Aceremo 
Ma. Aisa M. Aceremo is an engineer who has published refereed scientific articles and has done freelance proofreading. She is currently working on projects that she is passionate about. Feeding stray cats is her personal mission.

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