handling difficult clientsAfter hitting ‘send’ for the seventh time that day, I thought to myself, ‘It is 2:30 in the afternoon, and I’ve basically spent half the day responding to emails from one person.’

Have you ever had a customer, client or supplier who is like a dripping faucet? If you’re an entrepreneur, you probably know what I’m talking about. Some people always seem to want ‘just one more thing’, even though you have already been extremely generous with your time. How do you deal with it?

The marathon email exchange I mentioned occurred between me and one of my first clients. I was only too happy to jump through a few hoops to keep them happy, even if it meant that I had to push back other important things…like growing my business.

To be clear, this wasn’t the only time the client had done this. I’m also not speaking about the, ‘Hey Dylan, I’ve got a quick question for you…’ kind of email that clients send on occasion; I actually don’t mind fielding those from time to time.

What I am referring to is when a client emails you way too much, sometimes at night, and then seems to expect a quick answer. ‘Did you get my email?’, they ask after two hours with no response. ‘Uh, no. I was sleeping. You sent it at 1:15 in the morning.’

Only a handful of clients are like this, but by the time you find out, it is often too late–they’ve signed the contract, they’ve paid your fee, and now they want you to get in tune with their agenda. When the contract was up with the email-a-thon client, I dropped them. Best decision ever.

Or was it?

How to handle difficult clients: dropping versus training

If you are a freelancer, the difference is that, unlike a full-time employee, you probably have a number of clients so you cannot afford to give a disproportionate amount of your time to just one at the expense of the others.What is interesting about difficult clients is that 99% of the time, they mean well. They are genuinely nice people. They laugh, they have friends and family who love them, and they are often successful in their own right. They love staying abreast of the situation and often want to learn about what you do for them. Many of them own their own businesses, so they might see you as another employee–someone whose time they’ve bought.

So what should you do?

how to drop clients

Option 1: Drop the client like a bad habit

It sounds crazy, especially if you’re just getting started, but it will save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run.Dropping current clients and saying ‘no’ to prospective clients is sometimes necessary.

There are ways to do this tactfully.

  • You can tell them that you have decided to focus upon other aspects of your business, and as a result, will need to cut down on your current workload.
  • You can explain that you feel their needs would be better served by (reference of your choice) because you are no longer able to dedicate the same amount of time to their account as you used to. This approach allows you to connect them with someone else, perhaps a company that has the human resources to answer all their questions; either that, or an individual who is just getting started and has a lot of time on their hands.

Whatever approach you choose, don’t candy coat it, but don’t be rude. If you decide it is time to drop them, then don’t allow yourself to be persuaded otherwise without a good reason–even if they offer you more money, which they might, consider all the stress and frustration you’ve endured up to that point. It probably isn’t worth it.

However, if you are determined to drop a client, give them fair notice. No matter how annoying they might be, leaving a client in the lurch is poor form and will reflect negatively upon you and your business. Perhaps the only exception to this rule is if they are consistently late on paying your fees or if they berate or try to manipulate you. I’ve heard stories from other service providers about clients who give little direction, set unrealistic deadlines, back out of projects when it is time to pay, or  become verbally abusive when their every whim isn’t catered to.

Some clients can be a nightmare, and there is no reason to feel bad about dropping them. However, if you’re not yet at the place in your lifestyle business that you can afford to turn down business, have no fear, there is a second option.

Option 2: Train your client

Clients often cross boundaries because they aren’t aware that lines exist. They send too many emails, they pay a day or two late, they expect freebies due to the fact that you have not told them that these things are unacceptable. They might just need to be trained.

I have been able to do this successfully with clients who email too frequently by simply making a comment like ‘I’m not used to getting this many emails, so please understand if I don’t respond quickly. I have other projects that I’m working on in addition to yours, and I need to be fair to all my clients.’ That works like a charm–often they apologize and say how appreciative they are that I’ve helped them so much, etc.

time wasting entrepreneur

Rather than training clients, some digital entrepreneurs include a set number of hours per month that they will dedicate to client support, then they bill at an hourly rate beyond that threshold. That is a bit too tedious for me, as with the volume of clients I work with, it would require an elaborate spreadsheet and billing system. I can’t imagine how the conversation would go: ‘Hey Bill, by the way, you’ve used 58 min of your 60min/month support, so I’m going to start billing you at $120/hr from here on out….yeah, well, it may not seem like 58min, but remember that long talk we had a couple weeks ago? You don’t? Well…hold on, let me see…ok….um….ok, here it is…on the 3rd…yep. Ok, I’ll take a snapshot of my cell phone screen for received calls that day and email it to you. Yep, and then I probably answered 4 emails since then–should I send them over as well–they probably took about 8min each to answer…so….’ Perhaps if you’re uber-organized, you can do this, but it just sounds tricky to me. (If you have successfully implemented such a system, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section!)

What about clients who don’t email too much, but who ask for way too much? Have you ever heard of ‘scope creep’? Scope creep is when a client expects you to go beyond your contractual obligations. For instance, if you make Google Chrome extensions and your client keeps making last minute requests to add new features, even though the price had already been agreed upon…that’s scope creep. If you are a content writer and a client requests several hundred more words or additional revisions that were not part of the original agreement…that’s scope creep. If you are a SEO and your client asks you to tweak their header design or to find twenty-five royalty free images for their blog…that’s scope creep.

Scope creep effectively devalues your fee and shows little consideration for your skill or time. You are a professional and you have a right to set some limits. Would your client ask their lawyer for a few free hours of his/her time? Would your client expect their physician to throw in some free medication with the checkup? Would they ask their auto mechanic to fill up the tank with free gas after a tune up? Of course not…so why would you suddenly give away your time for free?

This isn’t to say that you can’t overdeliver, but if you allow clients to take advantage of you, don’t whine about it.

A better approach, if it is a small request, is to say ‘I would be glad to help this time, but in the future I will not be able to give away extras like this for free.’ Short and sweet, but firm.

If you decide to train your difficult clients by setting boundaries, it will help to reinforce your value.  Once they understand that you are not a pushover and that by hiring you, they must play by your rules, they will either change their tune or they will leave and never return. Either outcome is a win, as far as I’m concerned. If they knew how to do what you do, they wouldn’t have hired you in the first place. Remember that.

Now, go get ’em tiger!

Food for thought and discussion:

  1. What is the most annoying client story you have to date?
  2. Have you either dumped or successfully trained a client?
  3. Do you have a system for training needy clients? Do they usually get the message or do you end up having to spell it out for them?
  4. Why do you think some clients are so difficult? Do you think it has to do with the nature of the project, with you, or is it just a personality thing?


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