If you consult or offer freelance services then expect to be in utter and complete disagreement with your client at one point or another; it’s perfectly normal, at some point, to have a conflict or disagreement with a client in relation to work you’re doing or work you did on their behalf.
1. Treat It As A “Mutual Problem”
Your goal when you have a client disagreement is to create a solution that simultaneously satisfies the client and yourself. Notice I do not take a “customer is always right” policy, because customers are frequently wrong and, as a freelancer, their incorrect assumptions can significantly impact your bottomline.
The customer is not always right.
However, even if the client is wrong — you still have a vested interest in looking out for their wellbeing and satisfaction in the work you’ve completed for them.
A great starting point for resolving a disagreement is to treat it as a mutual problem. In other words, it’s something that you and the client are solving together versus blaming a particular side.
I’ve found this to soften the stance of problem clients. Validating a concern by taking it seriously, even if you disagree, makes clients feel like they matter and that you’ll take care of their concerns.
This is a great way to reach a resolution on which both you and the client can compromise. Perhaps the client misinterpreted a feature you promised to add to a website (or perhaps you didn’t explain it very well). Instead of completing cost/time-prohibitive work, you might complete a larger portion than you intended, and have your client pay for the rest of your time.
2. Check Assumptions
Most of the time, clients not are trying to be jerks, but simply have a different set of assumptions than you. You have an intricate understanding of the nuanced portions of your work that your client probably doesn’t have (after all, that’s why they hired you).
It’s perfectly okay to go through a fact finding mission to see where your client’s head at. Let’s say you offered a fixed number of revisions, while they assumed they had unlimited access to changes — it’s okay to simply ask your client about their expectations for revisions and address your concerns in an appropriate and professional fashion.
After some assumption-checking, treat the disagreement like I described above – as a mutual problem. This frames the problem in a way that both sides have something to gain by “giving” a little on their position:
“I understand you wanted several more rounds of revisions to get the ‘right’ look for your logo. I really want you to be happy with my work, I suggest we split the difference by allowing for two more rounds of revisions within our current agreement and adopting an hourly revision policy for anything further.”
You want to try to look for opportunities to make the client happy, but not burn hours upon hours you never intended to spend in, what could be, a limitless pursuit of their happiness.
3. Reiterating Costs and Limits
There’s an underlying perception of services being treated different than tangible products. Clients will often think that your time has no hard limits (versus, say, the price of an iPad or a ream of paper whose value exist in the things required to make those goods).
When clients ask you for services you didn’t sign up for, they can fail to realize that consulting or freelance comes with those same hard limits just like any physical product. Costs you’ll need to bear include:
- Opportunity Costs (Working for one person means you can’t work for someone else).
- Materials (Paper, Ink, Stock Photography, Vector Assets)
- Time (Transition From One Project To Another)
- Operational Costs (Storage Space, Electricity)
4. Refer Back To Your Agreement
If you don’t have an Agreement, you don’t know what you’re doing. I used to take jobs for years and get paid fine without an Agreement — I was just lucky. It also helped that however time consuming the request, I’d capitulate to my client’s demands and do additional work, which burned through hours and made my effective hourly rate plummet — working for below minimum wage when I first started just to keep certain clients happy.
Referring back your Agreement is the ultimate logic-based argument against doing additional work that you never intended to do. It’s the document that represents the mutual understanding between you and your client — if the issue is spelled out in the Agreement then it’s really a moot point.
I’m not saying be a jerk, but it’s perfectly okay to point out to your client that they are asking for something beyond Out Of Scope of your original Agreement. You don’t have to be rude, but you should be firm.
The clients who actually read through your agreement and take the time to ask you questions are the one’s who take your work, as a professional, seriously. If they didn’t happen to read it and act surprised when you reference it, they might need a baptism of fire when it comes to understanding creative services.
5. Offer Additional Services (In Exchange For More Money Of Course)
If your client wants things you didn’t agree to, but you don’t mind doing them, at least create an Additional Services Agreement, which outlines any “scope creep” (street lingo for additional services that weren’t covered in the first agreement).
This effectively makes everyone happy since the client is getting the services they need and you aren’t getting screwed on your fee.
The most common client complaint about offering additional services is that you’re trying to “nickle-and-dime” them for more money. I prefer to explain that this feature would have been quoted in the original agreement had it been known or expressed that it was wanted.
Your objective here to explain that your time is what you sell. You have a finite amount of it and that what they are asking for exceeds your ability to deliver it without incurring significant additional costs.
6. Sent (And Refer To) Previous E-mails
E-mails are like little micro agreements that represent various levels of understanding of the project. If there’s a potential problem or disagreement — be sure to get some of the discussion in writing vs. only on the phone. In other words, always keep a paper trail.
Summarizing and reiterating past conversations had in person or on the phone via e-mail is a great way to establish things on the record and make sure you and your client are in agreement:
“Just to confirm the summary of our 8/19 discussion, you want the rest your pages set up for local search engine optimization, which differs than my understanding of our original terms. I apologize for any misunderstanding, so here’s what I’m proposing for a solution…”
7. Let The Client Win Small Battles (So You Can Win The Big Ones)
There’s the adage “give someone and inch and they’ll take a mile.” This can absolutely be true, but the opposite can also be true: let your client win a few small concessions in exchange for bigger wins when discussing additional services.
If your client is proposing several revisions or alterations and you know that a few of them are very minor — do them “begrudgingly.” Your client will feel like they’ve won on issues that might be no skin off your nose, and more open to not getting other bigger changes that would decimate your hourly rate.
Again it makes sense to manage expectations:
“while we didn’t agree to these services, I’m able to do A and B with our agreed fee, which gets us closer to a solution. However, it’s going to be cost prohibitive for me to do C without an additional fee. I know this isn’t exactly the outcome you were hoping for, but I hope completing A and B is a sign of my hope for a mutually beneficial outcome”
Okay, my example is a little robotic, but you get the point. Attract more flies with honey, do something nice for someone and help them justify the additional costs.
8. Give In
It hurts my heart to write this because I hate to be wrong. In some cases, you’ll simply have to give in. On one level, you could be wrong and actually offered (verbally or written) services that you were supposed to provide to your client. On another level, there’s a concern that angering a client may result in unpaid fees and thus you should try to appease the client as much as possible.
If your client is an unknown quantity and you have a lot of money on the line — I can absolutely see that it would be hard to critique anyone who didn’t capitulate to an unappreciative client’s demands. However, unless you’re starving, I would never work with such clients again.
I had a client that knew their project was going to be completed for months only to tell me when my work was done that she “didn’t have the money.” Things happen. Unexpected things, even to your clients.
In this particular case, I repeatedly said “Okay, I understand the situation — What’s reasonable for you to do this week in terms of payment? $100? $50? $20?” As each week passed, the client’s e-mails became less and less frequent.
So, I deleted their website off the Internet. They were furious with me, but it was clear I was being taken advantage of and that there was no rush to pay my fee for nearly two months of work; I received the rest of the fee that week.
Some people only respond to hardball tactics. There might become a point where you simply tell people “No.” This can be a burning-your-bridges tactic, but would you really want to work with clients that make your life hell? Probably not.
The Wrap Up
Clients are like anything else – you win some, you lose some. That said, being thoughtful about how you handle your business and respectful with the people your working with will certainly help.