How to Rebuild a Working Relationship With Difficult Clients

Many freelancers, especially at the beginning of their careers, find themselves working with very difficult clients. When this has happened to me, either I helped change the client’s working behavior or stopped working with them altogether. While I always aim for the former approach, sometimes the better option is to end the working relationship. Whenever this happens I hope that if I do work with the client again in the future, they’ll be more cooperative — but that’s not guaranteed.

When one of your more difficult clients contacts you for a new project, how do you work with them again, without repeating the problems you previously had?

Points to Consider

338064_ml_t4Before you sign up to work with a previously difficult client, there are some issues you need to address.

Refer to the paperwork.
If your client is contacting you for support on a previous project, it helps to go over your signed contracts and documents to see whether the new request is within your area of responsibility.

Understand their position.
Oftentimes, I’m the only go-to person that these difficult clients have worked with. This is usually because they’re not that tech-savvy or they have a hard time convincing other professionals to take on their projects. With their situation, they just want to get things done as fast as possible. Keep this in mind if they sound frustrated or in a rush when they’re contacting you.

If you’re going to help them out, know why. In my experience, guilt is never a good reason to stay with difficult clients. This is especially true if they are verbally abusive, need 24/7 hand-holding, and don’t value your work. If they’re immature enough, they might try to appeal to your guilt. Just remember not to give in.

Help out your difficult clients only if you believe in the project and if you’re confident that you can learn to foster a better, mutually beneficial working relationship.

Rebuild Your Relationship

Once you decide to work with a difficult client again, make sure that you’ve learned from your previous mistakes and won’t be likely to repeat them. Use the insights you’ve gained from your experience to make the relationship work this time around.

Improve your contract terms to forge a more balanced relationship. Go over the last contract you signed with this particular client. Are the terms clear and easy to understand? Are there any clauses you need to add or modify to protect yourself from being exploited?

Discuss the things that didn’t work out last time and propose solutions for them. If you had to “fire” a client before, they’re probably aware that your working relationship wasn’t smooth to begin with. It’s best to express your concerns and propose ways on how problems can be avoided this time around — without blaming each other for previous mistakes, of course.

Train your client to be more self-sufficient. I used to provide solutions to my clients’ simplest needs even if they were outside the project scope. While there’s nothing wrong with going the extra mile from time to time, constant support for even the most irrelevant tech issues can be a drain on your time and energy. Instead of providing solutions yourself, point them towards the resources that can best empower them to help themselves.

As freelancers, we see ourselves improving and becoming more professional as we gain more experience. Our difficult clients are the same way. It’s reasonable to expect that they, too, can become easier to work over time.

Have you ever had a difficult client go back to you for more projects? If so, did you avoid working with them again or were you able to establish a healthier working relationship?

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