Handling Impossible Clients
So, you’ve taken on a new client, and everything started as you’d hoped.
They loved your work, gave you what you needed, and everything looked like this was the start of a promising partnership.
But, somehow, things changed.
You followed all the recommendations in How to avoid landing impossible clients , but something happened.
The requirements for the project keep shifting, and you can’t keep up.
You keep delivering elements of the project, and the client keeps rejecting them. But, no matter what you change, you can’t seem to get it right.
Maybe, they don’t communicate like they once did, or someone new has become your primary contact, and things don’t work like they used to.
It could even be that the client might be demanding work you never agreed to do.
They might be withholding payment or demanding a refund because they don’t feel the work is up to the standards you promised.
This is a very tough situation. It’s stressful and uncomfortable, and emotions are probably running high.
How Do You Handle It When Things Start to Go South between You and Your Client?
It happens to all freelancers at some point.
Even the best and most skilled ones run into someone incompatible with them.
It doesn’t mean you are a failure or have somehow lost your touch.
Just the opposite!
It’s almost a rite of passage for freelancers.
The question is, how do you handle it when the inevitable ugly situation comes your way?
Most freelancers aren’t prepared for this bit of the job.
Most freelancers start thinking that if they work hard, put in the time, and show they are willing to do what it takes to satisfy the client, they can work through the situation.
Sometimes you can. But, other times, it’s not that simple.
But, you need to be prepared to work through these complicated situations because they’ll happen to every freelancer at some point.
In this article, I’d like to go through the different responses you can take when things get tense, uncomfortable, or ugly between you and a client.
You always Have Options.
If things go south, many freelancers think they only have two options, get out of the situation as quickly as possible, or worse, endure something that is not sustainable.
There is actually a suite of different approaches you can take in these situations because of your unique role as a freelancer.
Remember, you aren’t an employee.
When a company employs you, you have far less creativity and control over how you can handle bad situations. Often, you endure, quit, or ask for some sort of transfer to get you out of a bad situation.
However, as a freelancer, you have a lot more options. There are many tools to diffuse, adjust, or improve situations that go far beyond the two extremes of enduring a bad situation or throwing up your hands and walking away.
I’ll be outlining six of them.
Ultimately, it will be up to you to determine which option is the best in your situation because each situation is a little different.
You just need to know what they are.
Option 1: Go above and Beyond.
Honestly, this should be your default option unless it becomes clear that either you or the other party simply doesn’t want to continue working together.
Do you hope to work with this client again in the future? Do you have a longstanding relationship with them outside the contract? Is this project vital to the future of their business?
If possible, go above and beyond to meet the client’s needs.
Walking away from a project uncompleted is bad for everyone. You, as the freelancer, probably lose some income, but more importantly, your future work with that client is highly in question.
But, the client has invested their hard-earned income into a project or initiative that is deeply compromised.
No one wants a situation like this.
So, because no one wins when you walk away, going above and beyond should be your first choice for handling difficult situations with clients.
Even more than this, you need to be honest about why things have deteriorated.
Did you misjudge how hard something would be? Did you create a timeline that you couldn’t deliver?
That is to say, are the problems causing tension somehow your fault as the freelancer?
If they are, you should go above and beyond for the client.
Sometimes, you need to do work you didn’t expect, overcome hurdles you didn’t anticipate, and spend money on projects you didn’t want to.
It’s the cost of doing business.
You can learn from your mistakes and do better next time.
Maybe you can’t do it independently, and you need to subcontract a piece of the work to deliver on time. You didn’t factor it into your fee, but to fulfill your end of the agreement, you need to suck it up and spend the money.
The key to positive and longstanding relationships with your clients is putting their needs above yours. Sometimes, you must take a temporary loss to gain a much larger win later.
Option 2: Redirect the Client
Sometimes, you agree on the scope and breadth of a project only to have the client change things after the fact.
It’s frustrating to watch your work and time suddenly wasted.
But, sometimes, there’s a third option between wasting your work and starting over or plowing ahead with the original agreement.
I like to call it “re-directing the client.”
When the client comes to you with a new set of requirements or things you didn’t know about at first, it’s always a good idea to take a breath, step back, and think about a “third way” to accomplish their goals.
Sometimes, once you start a project with a client, and they realize the full scope of what you are doing and how it impacts their business, they begin to change or add things you didn’t anticipate.
Redirecting a client’s new requests requires you to get to the root of what they want to accomplish. Sometimes, a client will get obsessed with some seemingly minor detail, like the color or size of a particular button, wanting you to re-work everything around this one thing.
In cases like this, the question for the client becomes, “what are you trying to accomplish with this?” Is it really about the button, or is it something else?
Is there a more efficient or effective way to achieve their goal? Is there a way to subtly shift your work to meet them where they are at without abandoning everything you’ve already done?
You are the expert. You should know how to find creative and effective solutions for their problems that simplify your life too. If you’ve established your role as an expert rather than an employee, they’ll be open to your solutions in surprising ways.
Option 3: Re-Negotiate
Sometimes, the client asks for something totally outside the original agreement, and you can’t re-direct them or go above and beyond.
Maybe the programming language suddenly changes, and you have to start over.
Or, maybe the client abandons the platform or technology you agreed to use when you started the project.
In cases like this, if you want to keep working with them, you need to renegotiate the terms of the project.
“I’d be happy to do that, but because it’s not within the scope of our original agreement and would cost me extra time, we’d have to re-visit how much this costs.”
Sticking to the original scope of the agreement (assuming you’ve outlined it) is essential to maintain that distinctive freelancer relationship.
Employees are the ones who must adjust to the expectations of the company, not freelancers. Employees can be re-assigned to new projects or tasks as the company demands.
That’s usually not the case with freelancers.
When you bend too much, the lines between freelancer and employee often blur, and when you finally say, “no, I can’t do that,” it’s a much more complicated conversation.
Hold firm to your unique role to avoid the feeling and appearance that you are simply an alternative employee.
Re-negotiating your contract or relationship when the necessary boundaries of your project change reinforces your essential role as a freelancer instead of an employee.
It also ensures you are adequately compensated for any new work you need to do to cover the changes.
You should always stay cool and calm. Just present them with something new which may draw their attention to your new idea. This will make it impossible for them to reject your new idea.
Owais Shah from Insiderapps
Option 4: Stick to the Scope of the Project
Sometimes, you need to have hard conversations.
You need to be respectful but firm.
Sometimes, the client will begin to demand things that you can’t incorporate into your work and are clearly outside the project’s scope.
Maybe you don’t have the time or knowledge about how to do something.
Other times, the technology you use for the project simply doesn’t allow what they want.
So, if you’ve done the work upfront to define how the project will unfold clearly, they’ve agreed, and it is in writing, there are times when you have no choice but to stand firm.
“I’m sorry, that isn’t in the scope of the agreement, and I can’t do that work now.”
Every freelancer who has done this has felt how uncomfortable that can be.
Often, we come from a position as an employee where it’s much harder to say things like this.
It will sometimes happen if the client doesn’t understand how your work integrates into the whole.
At a large company, your contact might not understand how updates to one system create problems in another.
Other times, the client could hear about a competitor or read an article and want to add something to the project.
At a small business, they might suddenly try to add an online ordering system to their website because of a competitor, not realizing how much that impacts all the other systems of the site.
The downside of freelance work is that you depend on the client to give you the information, access, and knowledge to tackle the project. If they don’t because they don’t understand the technology or don’t have all the information, it can derail a project.
While the client may not see it like this, this could also be in their best interest.
Sometimes, clients, who don’t have the technical expertise you do demand things that are objectively a mistake. Maybe the client wants to save money by ignoring specific standard security requirements.
Sure, it will save time and money today, but if you and the programmer don’t insist on this, it could lead to security issues and legal and financial liability to the company later. Things like this do happen to freelancers more often than you think.
Sometimes, you need to find ways to politely but firmly protect the client from themselves.
Option 5: Take a Break.
This is imperative when tensions are high or when things are in a constant state of change.
If the requirements for a project keep changing, stop and have a conversation instead of wasting time on work without clear direction.
“Why don’t we pause for a few days? Let’s meet again next week once you’ve had time to think about where you want to go with this project.”
One of the worst things from a freelancer’s perspective is wasted work. It’s more effective not to work than it is to do wasted work.
Don’t go silent on the client. Tell them you can’t do X, Y, or Z until they have a firm direction.
Also, if the client is getting visibly frustrated with you, or you feel yourself about to say or send something that might be less than professional and courteous, stop.
Reply, “I’ll get back to you tomorrow,” instead of what you want to say.
If possible, it’s a good rule to bake this into all your communication from the start by outlining a communication process where you respond to all communication the next business day.
That way, if you get something that triggers you, or if the client sends a nasty message, you have time to stop and think before replying in a way that damages the relationship or further deteriorates the situation.
Option 6: Fire Them
Businesses fire employees, and employees quit.
But, freelancers can fire clients.
Don’t do it in anger or moments of charged emotion. See above about taking a brake.
However, if they are habitually late in payment, keep demanding things that are not in the contract, or doing other things that make them a client who isn’t worth the trouble, fire them.
You can fire them in several ways.
Politely refuse to re-open contract negotiations at the end of a contract. “I’m sorry. Once our contract expires, I’ll be moving forward with other clients.”
If you can’t wait that long, you may need to refund paid invoices or communicate in writing that you won’t be seeking further compensation.
I'm emailing to let you know that I'll be finishing ______, per our original written agreement. I will refund you X amount to compensate you for the work we will not be completing together.
Completing all communication in a way that protects yourself is even more critical when things get ugly.
Save your emails, log chats, and even record your meetings in extreme circumstances. Make sure it doesn’t violate any privacy laws or non-disclosure agreements you’ve signed.
Every Freelancer Has a Contract or Project That Goes Sour.
It doesn’t mean you are bad at your job.
Nor does it mean you aren’t cut out to be a freelancer.
It’s just a part of the experience.
Every employee has had a bad supervisor. Every freelancer has had a bad client.
The thing that either makes your career and longevity as a freelancer or breaks it is often how you handle these situations.
You always have options, and you have surprising amounts of control.
If you want to keep working with them, you can find different ways to satisfy their needs without wasting your work.
Go above and beyond, putting the client’s needs first.
Re-direct the client, finding creative solutions to integrate their changing needs into the final version of the project.
Re-negotiate the work and your role when things change unexpectedly.
But, sometimes, client demands get a little out of control.
Even then, you have power.
Sometimes, you need to stick to the scope of the project, even if it requires a difficult conversation.
Other times you need to put the project on pause while the client sorts through their needs.
And, in a few cases, you may need to fire the client.
Don’t ever let someone convince you that you don’t have options.
This freedom and control is the whole reason you wanted to become a freelancer in the first place.
Thanks for reading!
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Juan Cruz Martinez
Juan has made it his mission to help aspiring developers unlock their full potential. With over two decades of hands-on programming experience, he understands the challenges and rewards of learning to code. By providing accessible and engaging educational content, Juan has cultivated a community of learners who share their passion for coding. Leveraging his expertise and empathetic teaching approach, Juan has successfully guided countless students on their journey to becoming skilled developers, transforming lives through the power of technology.