You might be wondering:
“Why are my clients always driving me crazy?”
If you pop into pretty much any freelance forum, you’ll see lots of posts bitching about clients and all the stupid stunts they pull.
Like every freelancer, I sometimes get frustrated with my clients. It’s tempting to think that I know better than they do, that everything would be so much better if they’d just listen to me, dammit!
However, if I step back and look at the situation, I can usually trace it back to a failing on my part.
When clients fail to take my advice, it’s because I’ve done a poor job of making the case for my position.
When they elect not to hire me, it’s because I’ve done a poor job of positioning myself as the expert.
When they have unreasonable demands, it’s because I’ve done a poor job of setting boundaries and expectations.
Yes, there are bad freelance clients out there, but even relationships with bad clients can be improved.
Of course, you should replace really toxic clients as soon as you can, but you’ll feel better in the meantime if you do the below steps.
1. Set clear expectations and boundaries
If you haven’t told your clients what you expect from them, and what they should expect from you, then how can you blame them for crossing boundaries?
The best way I’ve found for doing this is a combination of a clear written project guide and some signaling to reinforce.
When I start a project, I give the client a written guide that covers everything about how I work, what I need from them, and what they should expect from me. I cover communications, deadlines, the best way to report feedback, and more.
Then, because I want to really drive the point home, I use signaling to reinforce those messages.
For example, I don’t want to take unscheduled calls in the middle of the day, so I don’t pick up my phone when it rings.
I don’t want clients to expect an email response on the weekend, so I don’t respond to emails on the weekend.
Not rocket science, but you’d be surprised how few freelancers do this.
Tip: don’t make exceptions, or they’ll become the rule.
2. Put your ego aside
I read a lot of books, articles, etc. aimed at freelancers and consultants, and I see so much advice to puff yourself up when you deal with clients. There’s a lot of focus on acting like a bigshot, positioning yourself as the prize, etc.
I mean, I get it. Many freelancers have trouble with self-confidence, so advice to “fake it ’til you make it” probably feels correct. And there’s nothing wrong with acting confident even if you don’t feel like it.
However, there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Try and put your ego aside and really ask yourself with every interaction “how can I be helpful to this person?”
I know it might feel good in the moment to act high and mighty, but it doesn’t work in the long run. The really successful and really happy people I know all are almost all extremely nice and helpful people.
Don’t be a jackass.
3. Have confidence in yourself
Ironically, sometimes when we look down on our clients, it’s actually because of a lack of confidence in our own abilities.
After all, if you think that you’re no good at what you do, why would you have much respect for someone who hires you anyway?
This isn’t an easy problem to fix, but you can take some steps today to improve.
Email your last five clients and ask them why they hired you, what you did well at, what could be improved, and what impact you had on their business.
In my experience, you’ll get some great feedback on what made you stand out and where you added the most value. You’ll also get some areas that can be improved.
I’ve always found this experience to be very confidence-inspiring. There’s nothing like hearing a client tell you how you’re awesome to boost your self-esteem.
Pro tip: this works even better on a call.
4. Say thank you
This is so obvious, but almost no freelancer does this, ever. Seriously, wtf.
Just say the words: “I appreciate your business.”
I think many people (including some “gurus”) have this messed-up view that if there was a mutual exchange of value, being grateful or, gasp, saying thank you to your clients is somehow admitting that hiring you was a mistake.
In their view, the client should be grateful just for having had the opportunity to talk to you, let alone hire you.
That’s stupid. Here’s why:
I’ve been freelancing since 2007 and I’ve made well into seven figures from my clients. I try every day to lower the risk that they face when deciding to hire me, but make no mistake, hiring someone is always a risk. If nothing else, I’m incredibly grateful to my clients for taking that risk.
No client in the world is going to hear a professional “Thanks for your business!” and think:
“Oh wow, he’s thanking me?? He must not actually be that good at this! Never again!”
5. Focus on creating more value than you capture
This one is huge!
Don’t spend all your time reading articles on how you can raise your rates, squeeze every dime out of each transaction, and leave nothing on the table.
Instead, spend most of your time trying to understand how you can create a LOT more value than you capture.
“Wait, are you saying I can’t charge a lot?”
Of course not!
It just means you have to deliver a lot more value than you take.
No matter how much you charge, you want clients to feel like it was a great value for them.
6. Remember that your clients are people too
Like me, my clients are business owners, parents, spouses, friends, and neighbors. They have hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, and flaws just like I do.
We forget this all the time, and treat our freelance clients as entries in a CRM, not as real people.
I’m guilty too:
As I was writing this, I realized that I’ve never sent a thank-you note or gift to a client.
I have tried to deliver a lot of value to my clients, but like too many freelancers, I tend to either be too transactional or focus too much on the “business relationship”, while neglecting the person behind that relationship.
I’m going to start sending nice thank-you gifts and notes to my clients immediately. It’s a drop in the bucket of the impact they’ve had on my life.
In closing, let me reiterate that you should never be afraid to stand up for yourself, set boundaries, and cut toxic clients out of your life. But that goes for any type of relationship, not just freelance clients.
And with a little thoughtfulness, compassion, and gratitude, you can turn good clients into great ones.
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