Just about every freelancer has been there. You take a job—only to find out shortly after that you’re dealing with a client from hell! When a client doesn’t respect you (or your time), jobs can quickly become emotionally, physically, and financially draining, and this puts freelancers in a tough position. How do you stand up for yourself without jeopardizing current or future work?

Luckily, there are some simple tips and tactics you can use to protect yourself against these nightmare business associates and help relieve the stress those clients are causing.

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Be clear from the beginning about your expectations

The best way to ensure your new business associate doesn’t become the client from hell is by being crystal clear about your expectations from day one. Before you ever agree to work with anyone, determine what’s important to you, and then communicate that to your potential client.

Deal breakers vary from freelancer to freelancer, but the following are some common examples:

  • Routinely being asked to take meetings or work outside standard business hours.
  • Being insulted or emotionally berated. (This really happens!)
  • Being asked to make multiple revisions or do other work that increases project scope.
  • Being kept on call for meetings rather than being given a specific date and time.

Every job is going to present different challenges. Maybe a new client lives in a different time zone than you, and that will mean having to take meetings late at night or early in the morning. If this is something you’re not willing to do, say so! Yes, it might mean losing out on the job, but you need to be clear about what’s acceptable and not for you.

Consistently making small compromises can quickly set a precedent with your clients that isn’t sustainable or healthy.

Stand up for yourself!

If you’ve been entirely clear about your expectations, and your client still violates your rules, it’s important to stand up for yourself. This seems scary because you want to get paid for the job, and you’re often relying on clients to sing your praises and land you referrals, but if you’re professional and direct, it doesn’t have to be a negatively confrontational meeting.

Keep these tips in mind:

  • Stick to the facts. Bringing emotions into the equation can get dicey.
  • Fall back on what you both agreed to before working together. (If you’ve been saying no late-night meetings from the beginning, it’s hard for the client to justify asking it of you.)
  • Talk to the client in person or over the phone. While e-mail might be tempting, the human element will help make your point more lasting and impactful.

With the exception of a few bad eggs (skip to “Problem Clients” for more about them), simply making the client aware of the issue often goes a long way to solving the problem. In most cases, confrontation seems scarier than it actually is, and one difficult or awkward conversation can lead to a vastly improved working relationship where everyone gets the respect he or she deserves.

Learn how to create an accurate and fair job estimate

One of the biggest bones of contention between freelancer and client is often money. When a client doesn’t want to pay up, the freelancer feels disrespected; when the bill is higher than the estimate, the client feels cheated. As imagined, it can lead to difficult situations.

One way to encourage clients to respect your time is to create accurate and fair estimates prior to any job. Since many freelancing jobs are flat, or fixed, rate projects, estimates are key to ensuring every gig stays profitable and worth your time.

Here are a few key things to keep in mind when creating estimates:

  • Don’t forget to include time for meetings or consultations in your estimate. If you’re hourly, rather than fixed rate, let the client know you’ll be charging for those online meetings, phone calls, and in-person meetups.
  • Be explicit about how many revisions are included in your flat rate. This helps you avoid those clients who like to increase the scope of work once you’ve all agreed on a price.
  • Write into your contract or agreement that anything above and beyond initial expectations will be billed hourly. This protects you from those endless “little” requests that really add up over the life of the project.
  • Consider adding fees or penalties for having to work off hours. Be explicit with the client about what will constitute a penalty and how much it will be.
  • Stick to your guns! This can be one of the hardest parts, but once you’ve established your rules, don’t let clients get away with breaking them.

Respect yourself and others are more likely to follow

While compiling an invoice, have you ever found yourself rounding down your billable hours and then rationalizing why? Maybe you thought you weren’t as efficient as you should be on the project, or maybe you were concerned the client would be upset with the total bill.

Whatever the reason, this chronic under-billing for worked hours is a surprisingly common practice among freelancers. While knocking off fifteen minutes from an invoice here and there seems innocuous, it’s actually an indication of a bigger problem: you not respecting your own time. If freelancers want clients to respect their time, those freelancers need to stop selling themselves short. If you legitimately worked the hours, charge for them! Remember, this is business. If you give your clients an excuse to get more from you and pay less for it, you better believe they will!

When you respect yourself and your time, others are more likely to follow suit. Be reasonable, set boundaries, and demonstrate your value to clients by showing self-respect.

Be honest with yourself

Sometimes the best way to handle a bad client is to look inward and be honest about your tendencies. There’s nothing wrong with being accommodating to your clients; there is something wrong with compromising your own happiness for theirs. It can be a fine line to walk, but if you’re sacrificing your well-being for your clients, it’s time to reassess how you approach professional relationships.

Clients are clients—not friends

The business world can be tough. As a freelancer, you want to be easy to work with and accommodating. (Referrals and future work often depend on it!) However, you need to find that balance and determine a sustainable way to be nice, without being taken advantage of. One way to go about this is to establish and keep clear boundaries. Clients are just that—clients. They aren’t your friends, and you aren’t obligated to provide them with all the accommodations and special favors you might provide close relations.

client from hell

When freelancers forget this, it can quickly lead to meetings outside stated business hours, invoices that get delayed (and delayed and delayed), and unrealistic expectations on the client’s part. You certainly don’t need to be rude to your clients, but treating them as friends is often a recipe for professional disaster.

Speak up—sooner rather than later

Confrontation is hard for a lot of people, but the sooner you deal with a problem, the better. Letting a small issue continue can quickly snowball, and that might lead to someone snapping or acting in an unprofessional manner. As a freelancer, this truly can hurt you professional reputation. Even when dealing with clients from hell, stay positive and professional. Establish boundaries from the onset, have the gumption to stick to those boundaries, and speak up as soon as you feel you aren’t earning the respect you deserve.

Is this battle worth fighting?

Having trouble deciding if it’s time to put your foot down with a client? We get it. Sometimes, in business you need to pick your battles, so it’s important to know when it’s worth taking a stand. To help you decide, think through these four questions:

  • Is what the client asking reasonable?

Reasonable can mean different things to different freelancers, but regardless of how you define it, you need to ask yourself if the task is worth the sacrifice—to your sleep, energy, health, or time with friends and family.

  • Have you acted professionally and fulfilled your end of the agreement, but the client is still asking for more?

If you’ve made good on everything you promised, you should never have to give your time away for free. If the client wants additional work outside of what was agreed upon, you can negotiate a new rate for the new project.

  • Would you fulfill this request for all your clients?

If you’re making a special exception for this one difficult client, you’re establishing a precedent that is not sustainable.

  • Is this request fair to you? Is it fair to your other clients?

Do you have to take away from your other clients to deal with one person—and you can’t come to some sort of agreement with that difficult client? Then the smartest business decision might be to simply walk away.

If you can’t fulfill the request for any reason, be clear with the client about what you can do. When there’s truly nothing you can (or are willing) to do, refer that client to people who can fulfill the work. It’s a professional courtesy that will help keep your reputation intact in the client’s eyes.

Use time-tracking software to avoid problems

Time-tracking software can be an invaluable tool for a freelancer. Some of these programs allow you to insert budget thresholds into any given project, which means you’ll get an alert when you’ve reached a certain financial limit. This allows you to pause work, send a quick update to your client, and (if necessary) get clearance for further work. The last thing you want is a client to be surprised after reading your invoice, and time-tracking software can help keep everyone on the same page and avoid potential problems.

If there’s ever any question or push-back about a particular invoice, time-tracking software with screenshots and activity levels can also help prove to clients you worked every minute you billed for. This kind of evidence can help freelancers feel more justified charging for their hours worked.

As a general rule, give your clients frequent updates on progress. (To do this, you can share your time-tracking data, or some programs even allow clients to log in and see for themselves.) This ensures clients are always in the loop about the project status, hours worked, and budgetary expectations—all of which minimizes the chance of invoice sticker shock or unwarranted criticism of the work itself due to price.

Special circumstances

What’s appropriate to invoice for can sometimes be a gray area. Say, for example, you needed to learn a new skill to complete a particular job. Should you charge for all those hours you spent scouring the minutiae of PowerPoint? Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer here because it depends.

Unless you explicitly talked about getting paid for this time with your client, you have to decide what’s fair and reasonable. This might mean offering a full or partial discount for those hours that are related to the job but still technically outside the scope of the specific project.

If you do opt for a discount, just make sure to detail that on the invoice. It lets the client know you’re being fair and conscientious about how you bill your hours.

When in doubt, don’t forget that honest, open communication is vital. Talking through your options with your client is one way to help ensure everyone feels the project was completed fairly and everyone was treated respectfully.

Problem clients: When to say good-bye

No matter what industry you work in, you’re bound to eventually come up against true clients from hell. These are the people who can’t be reasoned with or changed—no matter how reasonable and professional your requests.

client from hell

Freelancers have lots of reasons for hanging on to these toxic clients. Maybe they pay well. Maybe you’ve worked with them forever. Whatever the reason you’re sticking it out, you eventually have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. If one client takes the majority of your time and energy, that’s not fair to you or your other clients. (Not to mention the fact these problem clients also rob you of the energy necessary to go out and find new clients you do love.)

If you’ve tried direct, honest communication and you’re still feeling disrespected, it’s time to set these bad eggs free! It’s a sad fact of business: some clients are just nightmares. If you’re being undervalued and disrespected, it’s not healthy or sustainable, and it’s time to tell these problem clients that your professional relationship must come to an end.

Key takeaways

  • Be clear about your expectations from the beginning. This can help avoid future problems.
  • Respect yourself and your time, and clients are more likely to do the same.
  • When there’s a problem, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. Letting the problem linger doesn’t help anyone!
  • Know when enough is enough. If you’re dealing with real problem clients, sometimes the healthiest thing to do is to let them go.

Have you ever had to deal with clients from hell? We want to hear what worked—or didn’t work—for you. Please comment and share below!

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