Freelancing IV: Dealing with clients from hell

Freelancing IV: Dealing with clients from hell



Working with clients is a part of every freelancer’s professional life. Some will say that it is great to be able to deal directly with them while others do it only when absolutely necessary, unable or unwilling to handle the burden of having to be your own salesperson and mediator. Whether they like it or they hate it though, it is usually inevitable and every freelancer should be equipped to deal with the best… and the worst of clients.

For me, dealing with clients when I moved to full-time freelancing came naturally. I worked in sales part-time for years and my last student job before quitting the company was at Apple Retail where I worked for about a year, as a seller and then as a One to One teacher and iPhone/iPad/iPod tech. Prior to that job, thorough the years, I had the opportunity to sell all kinds of things to all kinds of people; clothes, shoes, luggage, cellphones, souvenirs, Mastercard (I hated it so much I only lasted one day before giving my resignation), notebooks, electronics, computers… You get the picture. Whatever retail job I could get to pay the bills I took from age 15 to 22. So when I say I know how to deal with clients, I mean it. However, there’s nothing quite like freelancing when it comes to customers. Here’s why:

You are on your own

When you work as a freelancer, unlike in sales, you have no manager. If a client disrespects you, you have no superior to run to for them to deal with the issue; you’re completely on your own. If a client decides that they don’t like the quality of the work (whether it’s your fault or theirs) and starts treating you unfairly, you have no one to turn to. You are usually left with only three choices. You can:

  1. Smile, apologize and agree with them, avoid confrontation and submit.
  2. Confront the client, tell them their truths and risk losing them for future work.
  3. Finish the work in silence, send an invoice and never accept to work with them ever again (or perhaps you might, depending how masochist or desperate you are).

There is no right or wrong choice. But each will impact your business in good and negative ways. If you pick 1, you might bring back harmony for the time being but you risk being mistreated again in the future as the client understands he can get away with it. If you choose 2, then you might end up fighting with the client and, even if you are right, they can make some pretty bad publicity about you. If you choose 3, you avoid a fight but will end up with a client that might seek you again and, hitting a closed door, will be confused as he will not understand what they’ve done wrong for you to give them the silence treatment. It’s a mess and there is no “perfect behavior”. You will hear often from sales managers that the right thing to do is to smile and accept whatever is thrown at you, however when it is your own work and integrity that is at stake, you do not see the situation in the same way.

When I used to work in retail, I did get the occasional angry client. He would be pissed at the company and the products for a reason or another, telling me, the bottom-of-the-food-chain-saleswoman, how the store should be run, how the products should be made, and so forth. I could deal with that and I would never take it personal; he was insulting a brand, not me. Why would I care? Sure, I love Apple for instance, but why should I personally feel insulted if some unknown person chooses to hate Steve Jobs’ creations?

When you are a freelancer, it’s a completely different story; if a client wakes up on the wrong foot and decides that nothing is good enough, it’s YOUR work they are insulting. It’s the hours you dedicated, the sweat you wiped off your forehead, the energy and craftsmanship you put into the work that they are spiting on. And it hurts. It hurts your ego and your feelings. Because if you’re anything like me, you try to apply yourself to give the client something they will like. Sometimes the client’s right though; this or that part could be redone better. But other times they are dead wrong and demand changes that are time-consuming, impossible or which they refuse to pay for. If you’ve done freelance work, you probably already heard the classic “C’mon, it’s so easy! It will only take you a few minutes to change this… Therefore I will only pay you this much for the work.” or “My aunt’s cousin’s friend’s half-blind dog agrees with me and thinks this is not good enough and should be redone this way instead (usually when the project is supposed to be finished already)”. For some of them, it’s like you are an employee they can treat as they wish (regardless of your freelancer status, which means you are the one who can fire them). I never got those comments as a seller. I wasn’t prepared. And I don’t know about you but when I get my work insulted, especially after I’ve already given extra time on a project and/or the working conditions are borderline unacceptable to begin with, I (almost) get spasms of anger.

Keep a cool head

Rule number one: do not answer right away. Whatever you decide later, whether it’s choice 1, 2 or 3, clear your head first. Hang up, adjourn the meeting or close your mailbox, but DO NOT answer. Take a walk, play a game, read a book, meditate, call a friend to talk about it and vent… But I can assure you do not want to deal with an abusive client while you are angry. You will regret it later. I personally wait anywhere between 1 and 48 hours to answer if such a situation arises. When you are calm, weigh the pros and cons of each option and take a decision.

Thankfully, I don’t deal with angry clients too often. Most of my customers are great to work with, ready to provide feedback in a civilized and professional manner. Many also know what good design is and it is even more pleasant to work with those as they truly understand and appreciate your hard work. I’m not exaggerating when I say that working as a freelancer is 90% of the time bliss for me. The other 10% can be quite taxing though, both on my time, emotions and self-esteem… But it will only go as far as you allow it to go.

Have self-respect

If I had an advice to give any new freelancer, it’s to respect yourself. If you honestly believe that you have done a fair job, but the client keeps bullying you, then you should stand up for yourself. Because unlike in sales, no one else will. Earlier I said not to be rash and hot-headed, and I mean it. But that doesn’t mean that it’s right to be belittled either. Be polite, be professional, be humble, but also have self-respect.

I would like to share with you something that happened to me. I provided once a free sample for a client (something I very rarely do). I wanted to show them what the project could look like, as an example, and how motivated I was to work on it. However, the response I got was quite unexpected; I had my work compared to the one of an undergrad, and a few sentences later to the one of an 8th grader. According to them, I should send them something else instead as what I had just provided was “shocking”, to use their own words. Granted, what I had done was generic but it was far from being mediocre or shocking. After reading the email a second time, I sent the sample to a fellow designer to make sure I did not create the monster I was being accused of making, and she confirmed it was perfectly fine, nothing to react strongly about. I waited an hour to answer (I was seeing red initially) and ended up explaining briefly that it was a sample I did that was meant to be seen merely as a mock-up, made in good faith, having no real idea of the details of the project. I also laid down that I am not a hobbyist but a professional and that I do not work for free. Finally, I urged them to hire an 8th grader if truly they believed that those of that age were better than me.

I honestly did not expect an answer back. The way the email had been written, I had been verbally bullied, insulted in a way to feel bad about my work and to produce a second and third free mock-up as an apology. My answered had been short, direct and polite, in spite of its sharp honesty. The following day, I received an apology email that said they wanted to work with me and that I was “the right person for the job”.

Good things can happen when you stand up for yourself. They could have decided to never work with me too. But they did not. You can never be completely sure how things will go.


Some clients are tough. Some are worth it, some are not. Being a freelancer is all about choosing. No one else will take the decisions for you as you are walking your own path. Choose wisely.

Have you experienced difficult clients sometimes? If so, how did you deal with them?

About the author

Tina Mailhot-Roberge is a graphic designer, illustrator and co-founder of Veodesign. She holds a BFA in Design from Concordia University, Montréal. She loves to help people and wirte about arts, design, web and technology. Find her on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.