At With Jack we see a lot of scenarios where client relationships break down and the situation reaches a point where it could escalate to something more serious. How you handle this can be the difference between a project ending smoothly and one that causes endless headaches.
With these situations there seems to be a similar pattern that crops up. A lot of freelancers don’t have the confidence to handle client conflicts in the best way.
Why do some client relationships break down?
A lot of circumstances we help freelancers navigate aren't to do with them making a mistake in their work. Whilst there is a negligence clause in the professional indemnity policy that will help should you mess up and the client tries to recover compensation from you, that makes up a tiny percentage of the problems we see.
Most of the time the freelancer has done good work. They’ve completed (or were making progress with) their work to the best of their ability. Where things start to go wrong is on the client relationship side.
A difficult client relationship is often down to poor project management causing friction. This could be the client feeling like they aren’t getting what they wanted (expectations not being met) and / or when they wanted it (work delivered late).
Again, this isn’t necessarily the freelancer’s fault. Yes, we have seen examples where the freelancer hasn’t done themselves any favours in terms of underestimating the workload or working without a contract to give the project structure.
However, we see poor project management on the client side, too.
- We’ve seen clients hire freelancers for projects with no deadline, yet become upset because they deem the project to be overdue. But to whose standards? The non-existent deadline the freelancer didn’t know about?
- And we’ve seen clients dramatically change the scope of work midway through a project and react badly when the freelancer needs more time and money to complete the work
- Or sometimes a difficult client relationship is down to a client who, irrespective of the work you do and how good it is, is always going to be difficult to please
This is where problems stem for freelancers and where the importance of being a confident freelancer comes in. It's important to handle these situations properly so they don't escalate to something more serious, so let's have a pep talk.
You deserve to be treated with respect
You are allowed to have boundaries. You bring value to the project. You shouldn’t have to discount your services, work overtime, or put yourself under significant stress to keep a client happy.
One of most important aspects of healthy client relationships is to learn how to set and stick to boundaries.
There are practical things you can do to set boundaries within your business.
- Always work with a contract. This removes any ambiguity around what is expected of both parties
- Always have a statement of work or a project scope. The client needs to know exactly what they're getting, what it costs and what to expect if they ask for features outside of the scope
- Have set hours you’re available. Clients know that if they call you at 10PM on a Friday you won't be answering. You do not want to set a precedence of being available 24/7. You have a life outside of work, family and other commitments. You must manage your time effectively
The above should be the easy part. The testing part is how you react when clients try to take advantage of you, which will happen at some point in your freelance career.
How to spot when a client isn't respecting you
A client trying to take advantage of you might feel subtle and not hugely sinister to begin with.
The common scenarios to watch out for are clients:
- refusing to agree to your terms
- asking you to work extra hours but without more pay
- imposing difficult deadlines on you
- expecting you to be available all of the time
There are many more warning signs, and the longer you freelance the easier it becomes to spot and deal with red flags.
Here’s where being a confident freelancer comes in
The way you respond to these situations is important because it can be the difference between a project that ends harmoniously, and one you regret accepting.
If you don’t set boundaries and instead agree to build extra features for free or overwork to meet impossible deadlines, you’re teaching the client that it’s OK to undervalue you. Certain clients will continue undervaluing you, pushing you closer to burnout and affecting your mental health.
This can strain your relationship with the client and this is where we see a lot of projects start to break down. The friction this causes can lead to messy situations that insurance can step in and help with.
The importance of setting boundaries
Why do some freelancers struggle to set and stick to boundaries? Some of it is down to inexperience, but there may also be discomfort telling a client “No”. It's important to remember that this is a professional arrangement that must make sense for both of you, and saying "no" is part of managing clients.
Another reason some freelancers struggle with boundaries is due to a fear of losing a client. This is more often the case recently with this climate of unknowns and periods of dry spells. Freelancers are willing to overstretch themselves to accommodate their client, but this is a recipe for disaster.
It's disheartening to see some freelancers willing to undervalue their work or time, and it isn't a coincedence that this is a common pattern with the claims we see at With Jack.
Being insured should give you the confidence to stand your ground with clients who try to mistreat you or extract more from you than has been agreed.
What does standing your ground look like? Having the confidence to say, “I’ve done the work, I've been cooperative, I've adhered to the terms of the contract”. Don't be afraid to refer to your contract and statement of work to show that you’ve done what’s asked of you.
If you stand firm but the client warns you they'll take things that little bit further with a threat of legal action if you don't comply, that’s when your professional indemnity policy is triggered.
In this worst case scenario you have help—both legally and financially (assuming the event is covered under your policy)—to navigate that situation. In our experience, more often than not, the client backs down when you stand firm.
If you don’t have the confidence to deal with the conflict and instead give the client what they’re asking for, you not only have the mental stress from dealing with the conflict, but possibly a financial stress or strain on your time and mental health.
The practical element of insurance is getting affordable legal help should you need it, but it’s really the aspirational element of being insured that most freelancers benefit from. Insurance should give you the confidence to stand firm with unreasonable clients, knowing that if they do push things that little bit further you have the help to get you through it.