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We’ve all been here: after receiving an assignment from a client, you complete the work to the best of your abilities, as advertised, only to find that the client had something drastically different in mind. He refuses to pay until you make some revisions, at which point he’s still unhappy. Give up? Threaten litigation? Ignore the client’s emails, hoping to never hear from him again?

In reality, freelancer-client relations aren’t usually this bad, so long as you’re actually competent and capable of working in your chosen field. Still, difficult clients abound for freelancers, whether due to unrealistic expectations, miscommunication or simple differences of opinion. Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself from difficult customers without resorting to a lawsuit or a shouting match.

Tip 1 – Agree Upon ALL of the Work Terms First

Why it’s a good idea: Starting a freelancer-client arrangement with a vague “we’ll work all this stuff out eventually” mentality can be a recipe for disaster. Maintaining positive relationships with your clients is all about keeping things transparent from the inception of the assignment, and that includes payment details (how much, when, and through what payment method), deadlines and the nature of the work to be completed.

Let’s say that your client has tasked you with developing a logo for CLEAR 4G New York, a wireless Internet service. If the client says something along the lines of “I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I see it,” it’s a good sign that he could be safely placed under the “difficult” category. In this case, you can work towards remedying the situation by asking some specific questions in hopes of drawing more input out of the client:

  • Have other logos already been developed for the same service in other areas?
  • Should more emphasis be placed on the location or on the service itself?
  • Where will the logo appear? This may dictate decisions such as font and color scheme.
  • Is the client expecting the logo in a certain file format?
  • Is the client expecting multiple versions of the logo, in various sizes or even with different aesthetics? You should be willing to come up with multiple iterations, so long as the client is willing to pay accordingly.

Tip 2 – Ask for Partial Payment Up Front

Yes, this is how freelancers get paid...

Why it’s a good idea: As a freelancer, an especially difficult client can do more than just ruin your day – he can jeopardize your paycheck. As such, it’s becoming increasingly common and acceptable for freelancers to ask for a portion of the payment after the terms of work are agreed upon but before any work is actually completed. Asking for around 30% is usually fine, though some freelancers even ask for 50%.

When you ask for some of the payment ahead of time, it doesn’t paint you as a greedy and distrustful freelancer, but rather a dedicated worker who cares about professionalism and doesn’t have time for nonsense. At the same time, you’d better have something to show to the client proving that you won’t simply take the money and run, such as high quality work samples and a set of references comprising former satisfied clients.

Another option is to request a smaller payment up front, followed by additional small payments as milestones are completed during the project.

Tip 3 – Ask for Feedback Before the Deadline

Why it’s a good idea: Some freelancers define “difficult” clients as those who complain about the nature or quality of a finished project. The fact is that much of this difficulty could’ve been avoided had the lines of the communication been kept open throughout the entire process, not just at the beginning and end.

Work with your client to break the overall project down into smaller chunks, and ask if he’d be willing to enter into a discussion each time one of these chunks is completed. This will allow him to assess the work you’ve completed so far. If your work clearly conflicts with his expectations and an agreement seems impossible, now is the time to walk away without any major losses, so long as you followed Tip #2.

If the client isn’t open to something like this in the first place, then he probably really is “difficult” and should be avoided in the future. Eventually, his reputation for infuriating will spread among other freelancers and he’ll find it difficult to hire barring an attitude change.

Tip 4 – Weed Out Difficult Clients Before Making a Deal

Why it’s a good idea: Despite our desperate economic climate, there are instances when it’s better to simply turn down work rather than sign up for a losing task with an impossible client. As such, it’s often wise to screen your potential clients by sitting down for a brief Skype or phone interview. This will allow both you and the potential client to determine whether you make a good fit, even if the job will be relatively small. Opt for VOIP instead of text-based communications, as tone and meaning can be lost or garbled without the benefit of hearing an actual voice.

This doesn’t have to be formal. Rather, it should simply serve as an initial discussion of the task in which the client will describe her expectations while you describe your background and how you plan to handle the job. It may be a red flag is the client says they’re too busy for something like this, especially if the job will be somewhat larger. It’s in the client’s best interest to sit down for a brief interview, so you may read unwillingness as a lack of care, professionalism or seriousness about the work.

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Posted by Mitch OConner

Mitch O’Conner is an online marketer and writer. When he’s not busy testing sites, generating traffic or writing content, he enjoys spending time with his wife and kids, watching TV, playing games or going camping.

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