Blog Post

Are Your Clients Abusing You?

OverworkedBeing a web worker can mean learning to handle many facets of running a small business, including dealing with difficult clients, which can often be one of the biggest frustrations that come with the territory.

But how do you know if your clients are abusing you? Here are a few telltale signs and tips for how to fix and avoid these situations.

The work keeps creeping in. Scope creep is the bane of many freelancers’ lives. You start with one description of what is to be done and end up doing something entirely different, or something that’s way more involved than the original task.

How to Fix/Avoid It: Have a contract and a clear and agreed-upon scope and schedule for each and every phase or project. Outline exactly what is to be done and when it’s due.

The client expects immediate responses or complete availability. Occasionally, you’ll come across clients who want 100 percent undivided attention. They expect emails to be responded to within an hour and work to be completed at an unrealistic pace.

How to Fix/Avoid It: Set expectations from the start. Explain when you’re available to clients, how quickly you tend to reply to communications, and how you prefer to communicate. You may also wish to explain how you work. For example, do you generally devote a set amount of time to each project or client per day? If so, explain this to clients up front so that they know what to expect.

The client expects to be able to chat with you frequently. Some clients prefer to communicate by phone, others expect to chitchat at the start of each call, and occasionally, you’ll even find those who expect to have multiple calls per day. In any case, these clients can be a serious drain on your time, making it next to impossible to stay on schedule with your work.

How to Fix/Avoid It: Make it part of your policy to limit phone communications altogether. It may seem harsh, but phone calls and excessive meetings are actually counterproductive. Keep all phone calls to 15 minutes or less and require all calls to be scheduled in advance. Finally, let clients know your preferred communication methods so that they know what to expect.

The client frequently goes back and forth over decisions or nitpicks with minor changes. When a client is indecisive, it can make working with him a nightmare. He wants things one way one minute, the complete opposite the next. Round and round you go, until you are completely confused and way outside of the original scope.

How to Fix/Avoid It: Clearly specify the number of revisions that are included in the project, as well as the deadlines for each set of revisions. Then communicate frequently about pending deadlines so that clients understand that they must turn in all changes by that point and that any subsequent changes will fall within the next set of revisions or will require additional revisions (at a predetermined and contracted rate).

The client expects free consulting and advice. Many times, this type of client has “friends” working on things for him or her for free, so if you hear this hint early on, you might want to consider this a red flag and run the other way. Unfortunately, it’s quite common to come across bargain hunters, so you’ll have to be firm and stick to your guns if you don’t want your bottom line to suffer.

How to Fix/Avoid It: Again, the contract and scope can be a real lifesaver here. If you clearly outline what’s included in a project or job (including the number of phone calls), it will be much harder for clients to negotiate freebies.

By preparing for these common situations in advance, you can often avoid them altogether, saving yourself time, profit and sanity. Put your policies in place and then stick to them without fail so that your clients know exactly what to expect.

How do you handle difficult clients? What techniques do you use to stay on track?

Image from Flickr by ritwikdey

9 Responses to “Are Your Clients Abusing You?”

  1. For software development: I work after the principles of Agile Manifesto (

    „Customer collaboration over contract negotiation“

    I agree that sometimes it’s necessary to stay away from ugly people to practice this philosophy. But if you manage this you’ll love your job.

    You philosophy of clear contracts assume your own perfection. That impossible. Perfection is a moving target. There’s nothing more stressful than knowing that you’ll be the one who violates deadlines etc. – so communication is better. Your customer will realize that something takes more time as he is involved into the work process directly.

    But… for each kind of support/consultancy… here it is essential for survival to keep distance to customers. Especially when dealing with software/server support. The main problem is that in this case customers requests are urgent always. In the scope of the customer. But in your scope every concern has a special priority in whole context of all customer concerns. Setup realistic SLAs and try to keep them at any price. If you realize that you SLAs don’t work – change them or hire more people because wrong exspectations lead to disappointmens.

  2. Amber Riviere

    @ Liz – I’m guilty at times of making myself too available and putting seemingly pressing tasks ahead of other important work. It’s a hard thing to keep in check. I’m glad the article helped!

    @ Arthur – The client rating system sounds interesting. I’ll have to check into it and see if I might be able to implement something similar. Well said, “it’s always a good time to end a bad business relationship.”

    @ Kamen – I think we might be talking about two different types of work or parts of the process. I mean that you should clearly establish what it is that you will and won’t be doing for a client so that there’s no misunderstanding.

  3. Your texts sound good but I see serious flaws: Please note that “clear outline what’s included in a project or job” is work that can be up to 50% of the work

    In other words good planning/outline/description can add significant value and is fair to be paid.

    IMHO the best approach is to select right people and to avoid dummies

  4. Arthur

    I handle such clients by enforcing my boundaries as you’ve explained above, and allowing only just so long for the relationship to evolve to a point of mutual satisfaction. How long I’ll work on the relationship depends upon how willing to compromise the client appears to be and whether or not the compromises I’m expected to make fall within my realm of tolerability.

    I use a client rating system similar to that I’ve seen used by CPA’s and corporate law firms to improve the quality of my own business, and it’s working wonderfully. In a nutshell, my goal is to either improve or eliminate the relationships with marginal clients in order to increase my productivity and profit.

    I’m wrapping up my business with a difficult client right now, in fact. They’ve been a steady client for ten years, but the CEO has become increasingly unreasonable in the past few years, driving away his highest quality employees and a few contractors, too. It’s always a good time to end a bad business relationship.

  5. Not just for freelancers! I have agency clients who do all of these things–but instead of setting limits, my boss encourages the behavior by being available at all hours, insisting that we complete tasks immediately despite sacrificing other client work, and allows scope creep.

    Thanks for the great article–these things happen so frequently, and it’s important to keep them in check.