At With Jack we see a lot of scenarios where client relationships have broken down and the situation reaches a point where it may escalate.
With these situations there seems to be similar patterns cropping up. One of them, understandably, is that a lot of freelancers don’t have the confidence to handle client conflicts in the correct way.
It's been mentioned plenty of times before, but most of our claims are rarely to do with the freelancer making a mistake in their work. Whilst there is cover with the professional indemnity policy if you do make a mistake 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 go wrong tends to be on the client relationship side.
A difficult client relationship is often down to poor project management causing friction. In this instance the client feels they aren’t getting what they wanted and / or when they wanted it.
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?
Or 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.
Sometimes a difficult client relationship can just be 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, but you must believe 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. You also have other clients which is why you have to 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. Clients trying to take advantage can be done in a variety of ways. It might feel subtle and not hugely sinister to begin with.
The common scenarios are clients asking you to work extra hours but without more pay, imposing difficult deadlines on you and expecting you to be available all of the time. There are many more, 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 smooth 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 putting you under pressure.
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 the messy situations that insurance can step in and help with.
Why do some freelancers struggle with setting and sticking to boundaries? Some of it is down to inexperience, but there may also be a feeling of 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 has been 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.
When this happens, you should be able to confidently 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 been doing 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. More often than not by standing firm the client backs down.
If, on the other hand, you don’t have the confidence to deal with the conflict and 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.