Bad clients have been an issue in everyone’s career at some point. Managing difficult client relationships when they occur or avoiding bad projects in the first place are two of the most important skills in managing any freelance business.
Many articles offer great advice on how to handle such situations and how to stay as far away as possible from these troublemakers. But the problem still exists: bad clients are always lurking out there, keeping you on guard and plaguing others in the industry who weren’t lucky (or cautious) enough to avoid them.
So what do you do when you’re the unfortunate one who is stuck with a tough client?
Doc, I’m Under the Weather
Let’s use the analogy of a medical patient. We can call a bad project an "illness" and the bad client the cause of this illness.
If you’re managing a bad client, then you’ve already contracted the illness. Either you weren’t prepared (vaccinated) due to inexperience in spotting symptoms of a bad project, were too generous, or too optimistic about the project.
While it all started as a wonderful collaboration, you’re now ready to give up (if you’re cool-headed) or throw darts at a picture of your client’s head (if you’re passive-aggressive).
Management is the only "treatment" in this case. (We hope you get well soon!)
Avoidance is a preventive measure but not a vaccination because these customers linger around, and you just do what you can to avoid crossing paths.
In case you do cross paths, you should be able to recognize the symptoms and apply the treatment immediately. The illness will go away quickly, even though you may be left with a bad taste in your mouth.
Symptoms vary from arguing with the client to exchanging a few tense emails or phone calls to waiting indefinitely for payment. Tension, stress and the prospect of having to fire a client are probably not on your to-do list.
Preventive Medicine and the Web Profession
One of the main objectives of medicine is to prevent illness. Preventive medicine recommends measures to stay away from high-risk behavior, as well as steps to take to ensure that risky circumstances don’t lead to illness. This is the first line of prevention and is known as "primary prevention."
In our case, we want to use preventive medicine on existing clients to ensure that they become good clients and to keep them from becoming bad clients. Clients who have already gone bad are tough to treat and can’t easily be brought back; they’re like a super-bacteria that is resistant to everything.
Preventive medicine is most useful, though, with brand new clients — first-time entrepreneurs and those who’ve never contracted out work before. These customers are impressionable, and we can take steps to cultivate in them the traits of a perfect client.
The web community plays a big role in shaping the ethics and behavior of its clients. We tend to blindly adhere to the "client is king" concept and forget that what it really means is, "the client should be made to feel that they are king."
The relationship isn’t one of a king and servant, but rather, a mutual agreement and cooperation of two parties, where both customer and service provider have certain expectations.
Spoiling the client, ceding to every request (even if it undermines the purpose of the project), being afraid to disappoint or disagree with them — all of these are reasons why a client can go bad.
There is a delicate way to deal with each of these issues, but the point here is to connect with the client in philosophy right from the start. Even better, the clients should know how the industry works and what the etiquette is before putting the first call into you.
This is what preventive medicine is all about: shaping the client’s behavior from the very beginning, before it becomes a liability to our work and sanity.
We mentioned earlier that bad clients are the cause of our illness. In medicine, we address an illness by eliminating the root cause of the symptoms. The symptoms of bad clients include:
- Being late with payments
- Demand of features not included in the price
- Request for free features after the project has completed
- Dictating how you should do your job and questioning your expert choices all the time
- Lack of respect for your working hours
- Attempting to copy a competitor’s creative idea
Symptoms that usually don’t arise out of malice but should be straightened out from the start include using copyrighted material (usually photos and graphics) and expecting the designer to be able to fix software or hardware problems, as well as other tasks not pertaining to their roles and responsibilities (i.e. marketing, SEO, and copyrighting).
So, what can web professionals do to create a spirit of cooperation with new customers? We need to focus on tactics that help us root out bad habits so that they don’t become ingrained in our clients.
The key is education, education, education. It is our responsibility to inform clients about our expertise, the scope of our profession, how we manage projects and what our limits are. If you explain these important points to the client only after starting the project, then you might be too late, and it will be your fault for not having been bold enough from the start.
Don’t make the common misconception that the client is "just supposed to know these things." Always ask questions and keep the communication lines open to see if they’re still on the same page.
There are quite a few ways to educate clients and train future customers to avoid unpleasant encounters. We’ll break them down as follows:
- Your website
- Useful documents
Let’s talk about each one.
Your website is the first line of defense. This is where potential customers first meet you and get pertinent details. If they found you another way (say, through a referral), kindly request that they check your website before discussing business matters, so that they can learn what you do and see if your style and work matches their needs.
Your website’s content and look should clearly convey your expertise and professionalism. Through your design, aesthetics, presentation and site content, you can manage how potential clients see who you are and how you handle things.
A playful design full of colors and shapes, with cheerful and amusing text, for example, can suggest a sense of ease and creativity, but it could also lead clients to believe that you’re not too serious about your work.
On the other hand, a clean and simple design, with serious and professional content, can make a client feel more confident in your abilities, but perhaps also make them very firm or tense with you.
There is a whole spectrum between those two extremes, so adjust your website’s theme to fit your ideal client. Your portfolio website is a statement of who you are and how you expect to interact with clients.
The web page where you describe your abilities and the contact form/quote-request form are two crucial checkpoints.
In describing your expertise, make sure to cover the following with words that are as simple and clear as possible:
- Purpose: A short introduction to your professional goals.
- Style of working: Full-time or part-time. Include details of your work hours.
- Aesthetic style: Artistic or clean and light? Static or dynamic?
- Accomplishments: Include any speaking roles, writing engagements, seminars you have attended, educational background, client recommendations, etc.
Leave no holes for the customer to fill in with their own guesses. They should be able to tell whether your services would satisfy their needs before even contacting you.
Avoid using industry jargon unless you can’t say it differently, so that people with little tech knowledge can understand.
Your contact form is the final step before clients contact you. In most circumstances, it will be your first communication with each other. You have a wonderful opportunity here to remind them what you have to offer.
A descriptive contact form can help you collect a number of important details about customers, and it can act as a last check for the customer to see whether they really want to contact you.
Form fields could include a list of projects that clients can inquire about, a budget range, deadlines (if any), and so forth. With such details, you could, for example, decline to work with someone who wants an e-shop done on a tiny budget, within a week and with absolutely no material whatsoever.
The list of projects could also help customers who still don’t know whether you’re able to work on a particular kind of project. So, if they’re looking for a WordPress theme but you don’t include that in the list, then they’ll be less likely to contact you.
The importance of your website can’t be overstated. Use the landing page to lure visitors into taking a good look at the full content of your website and to impress upon them how informative the website is. Remind them on your contact page that reading carefully about what you do will facilitate good communication and scheduling between the two of you.
If someone contacts you before viewing the website, don’t hesitate to ask that they check it first, because they may find answers to some of their questions.
For whatever you can’t cover on your website, you should provide in documents (PDFs, Word docs, and so on). A frequently asked questions (FAQ) file, for instance, could address a list of common inquiries from customers.
Think less along the lines of "let us tell you why you need us," and more like "let us help you decide if you need us." Let customers know about your process of working, timeframes for projects, pricing rate, flexibility in schedule, payment methods, external services that you collaborate with (such as hosting and domain name providers) and what cooperation a client can expect after the project has ended.
For pricing, you could opt to provide a separate file detailing your rate and methods of payment. You could point out penalties for late, incomplete or missing payments. Set clear guidelines on what each project package includes, matching each with a pricing rate, if possible.
Out of Scope Services
List your additional services (mailing list, newsletter, extra call-to-action buttons, website maintenance, etc.), and clarify which packages include which of these services, noting also their estimated cost if ordered separately. This way, your clients will know what they’re paying for and will be prepared for the extra costs of additional services. Being clear about your services and costs can save you from the absurd demands for free extras, which arise from wrong assumptions or misconceptions of the client.
Copyright Educational Material
Another useful file would be legal information and advice to your clients against the use of copyrighted material or copying a competitor’s website. A client could easily get overexcited by the beautiful design of a competitor and inadvertently ask you to create something similar for them.
Write a friendly and honest paragraph explaining why a creative work is the property of its author and why a fresh idea will help build a strong market image. The same can happen with images that the client finds while surfing the Internet and forwards to you for inclusion. People usually do this because they don’t understand copyright law. You have the responsibility to let them know why you can’t use any image or file they find on the web.
Funny as it may sound, if you suffer a constant bombardment of questions about computer hardware, feel free to add a last entry in the FAQ stating that while using computers is part of your job, fixing them is not. The client needs a computer technician, not a web professional.
When a new customer contacts you, try to build a good communication bridge right from the start. Invite the customer to make all sorts of inquiries about your job and share the project they have in mind.
Furthermore, guide them to form questions that will help both your understanding of the project and their understanding of your services.
In medicine, they say that having a medical record is half the solution. Your communication skills are a major factor in obtaining this record from the client. Get to know who they are, what they do, what services they want.
In exchange, help them articulate their project, and inform them about your job. If you’re thorough here, you’ll probably save yourself from most bad client symptoms down the road. You’ll feel more hopeful about the client’s behavior, and you’ll have gathered vital details about the project.
Protect yourself, though, from communication burnout, which often happens when you work from home and don’t set standard working hours. The customer might feel free to call you at any time of day, even on your days off. If you aren’t willing or able to set working hours right now (even though you should, because they will benefit your daily schedule), do set contact days and hours for clients.
Make them obvious on your website, perhaps on the contact page, or even print them on your business card or include them in your email signature.
Rewards tap into one of the most primitive aspects of our brain. They are a well-known tactic for signifying that someone has performed an expected behavior or achieved an outstanding result.
That person then becomes an example for the crowd. You, too, can reward ideal customers in the hope of inspiring future clients to follow their behavior and collaboration habits.
Choose rewards that fit your business and financial goals. These could be freebies, future discounts, extra project features or something else. The most important part is to carefully select the recipients and publicly acknowledge their winning traits.
Rewards are useless as preventive medicine if nobody finds out about them. Announce on your website (or Twitter) that a client has been rewarded with something, and summarize the reasons for this show of appreciation, which will create an exemplary image for others to follow.
Careful, though: a little appreciation goes a long way, but too much appreciation can spoil clients and have the opposite effect. Use this tactic in good measure — to promote good client behavior — not to dissuade clients from choosing your service.
Always use preventive medicine in one way or another, to avoid relapsing to old illnesses and bad client issues. The web community could collectively implement these measures to exert a broad influence on clients across the industry.
As in medicine, though, there must be limits, or else we risk becoming too demanding or apprehensive with new clients, or even hypochondriacs. We could end up overstressed or frustrated by trivial details; we could lose good customers or select the wrong ones out of extreme cautiousness or even treat them unfairly.
Setting a good example, being clear about your job and skills and presenting customers with as much useful data about your services as you can will help both sides work together towards a great result and significantly reduce the risk of illness.
Have you ever approached a client in the way described here? Was it helpful to your collaboration? Did your efforts have any effect?
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