Communication Strategies for Freelancers Dealing with Difficult Clients: Micromanagers, Late Payers and More

As bills pile up on your doorstep, rent/mortgage is due and your clients are making your life impossible, you start wondering why you have to endure all this. Freelancing should be about having more freedom and more flexibility, including being able to choose whom to work with.

There are some strategies that you can put in place to problem-solve or fire unprofitable clients.

Here are a few suggestions for different scenarios.

The Late Paying Client

Off all the types of clients out there, clients who don’t pay or who pay late make the top of the list of difficult clients. Why are they late? Do they have budget issues?

Find out with a polite request and try as much as possible to get to the root of the problem. Recurring late payments will disrupt not only your cashflow but also your productivity as your time is wasted on credit control instead of working on a project.

Early warning signs that the client may be late paying the invoices or not pay at all is the constant mention of costs, having a limited budget, demanding value for money and comparing your services to those of other freelancers that are cheaper.

What you can do: you can break down your invoice into tasks, each charged individually and with a set deadline to pay. Then add interest if you haven’t received the payment and send another invoice reminder. You can also charge an administration fee. As a last resort, there is always the option of taking court action to try and retrieve the money you are owed. The risk is that the client may still not pay the bill and you will need to absorb the court fees too.

Ideally you would have set your terms and conditions at the start, when you signed a contract or agreement.

The Client Who Is Always Panicking

Some people are messy by nature and find it challenging to plan their workload. To them, life is a series of catastrophes and constant firefighting. You may feel sorry for them or maybe you see that there is good potential to help them (or maybe they commission really interesting projects). If you can salvage the relationship, then there is hope.

What you can do: you have an opportunity to coach your client to become more confident and organised. It takes time and effort but it may also lead to bigger projects in the future.

The Over-Sharing Client

There are some clients who have blurred work/life boundaries and think that their suppliers are also their personal friends. From opening their heart at the first meeting to gossiping about other people, these clients are quick to turn from friends to enemies. Sometimes they will make negative remarks about previous freelancers they hired, highlighting all their flaws and placing a lot of expectations on you.

The over-sharing client may think it’s appropriate to tell you, a complete stranger, about relationship problems. You did not sign up to be a counsellor so you need to get the conversation back to professional topics.

The warning sign you are dealing with a potential over-sharing client is when they say that they see their work and coworkers like a family: that’s code for they expect you to work overtime for no extra pay.

What you can do: don’t engage in conversations about previous freelancers or personal issues. Politely change the subject to the project you are bidding for or that you have started working on.

The Client with Unrealistic Expectations

If you specialise in social media and marketing you may have come across clients who want to become overnight successes. For example, they expect their website to be the first result on Google and/or have 10,000 followers on Instagram within a week of you starting on a project. These clients are also likely to tell you how to do your job, even though they may not have any previous experience or qualifications to back up their claims. Are you armed with extreme patience? Pick your battles wisely.

What you can do: calculate on a spreadsheet at the ready how long it takes for a brand to appear on search engines and to develop a following, backing all the data with case studies.

The Micromanaging Client

Micromanagers will contact you via email, social media and any other communication channel to check on progress several times a day. They may even insist on the specific formatting of the emails you send to them. Some may interrupt you while you’re in full flow working on their project to check that you’re actually working on their project. Some micromanagers want to be safe in the knowledge that you are glued to your computer 24×7 and will do their best to see that you respond to any of their queries within 5 minutes. They will go absolutely ballistic if you reply after, say, 7 minutes. Remember that there is legislation that prevents companies from contacting employees and contractors out of business hours.

What you can do: there could be many reasons why a client is displaying micromanaging behaviours. Those reasons have nothing to do with you. Buy more time by communicating clearly when you are available to talk and when you cannot pick up the phone or answer emails.

To Recap

You have two main choices when you work with difficult clients: if these clients are good for cashflow and you know you can work on improving the relationship, then have clear communications with them, offer solutions and listen to their concerns; if these clients are not earning you enough and they are just being difficult without offering any economic benefit, it’s time to move on.

A large majority of happy clients will spend more with you over time. Unhappy customers are very quick to tell many people about a negative experience with their supplier.

As a freelancer, it’s up to you to decide when you no longer want to work with a difficult client. Have a draft contract template and a few standard answers to common questions ready to send to a new client.

For existing clients, have regular conversations about what is expected of you, but also what you expect from your clients.