It feels like every business owner I know has a love-hate relationship with their clients. On one hand, we love our clients. We intentionally try to work with good people who share our values, so 90% of the time, it’s wonderful.
But the other 10% of the time? Oh maaaaaan.
Clients who don’t pay. Clients who drop off the face of the earth in the middle of a project. Clients who have no idea what they want and change their mind every time you talk to them. Clients who expect you to drop everything for their project, but then take weeks to get back to you when you need feedback.
I’ve been lucky-- I’ve absolutely loved the vast majority of my clients. Even those I haven’t wanted to creepily befriend have still been great to work with. If my biggest client problem is that I want to be best friends with all of them, I really can’t complain.
While I haven’t yet had any nightmare clients, I’ve learned a ton about client management since starting my business. So although I've managed to avoid complete disaster, my life would have been a lot easier this past year if I had known certain rules for client work when I started.
1. Have a contract
No matter how new you are to this business game, you need a contract.
First, because a contract protects you. Second, because it protects your clients. And third, because it makes you look more legitimate. The quickest, easiest way to show your client that you take your business-- and the work you’re doing for them-- seriously is to have a professional contract.
But let's back up: you need a contract to protect yourself. I hear all the time about freelancers, coaches and consultants having loads of problems getting paid for their work, when a simple contract could have solved the problem.
What's even worse? Most of those same people purposely didn’t use a contract because the work was for a friend or acquaintance.
And I get it. It might feel awkward to ask a friend to sign a contract. But let's face it: it will be a whole lot more awkward when you’re arguing over money later because you didn’t agree on the terms beforehand.
The best way to get a contract in place is to engage a lawyer or a law company. A quick Google search should get you started. If that sounds too pricey or scary for where you’re at in your business, I’ve used free online contract generators like Shake Law.
Keep in mind that free contracts you find online probably won’t hold up if you have to go to court. Their purpose is to get your agreement in writing, which will help both you and your client take it more seriously and feel more bound to the agreed terms.
And a necessary disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, so please, PLEASE don't take my advice on what kind of contract you need. Go ask someone who isn't just making it up as they go.
2. Have a process
Here’s the truth: clients want you to lead them. They want to trust you. They want you to tell them what they need. They want you to be the expert. And the best way to show them you know what you’re doing is to have a clear, proven process so that they know you’re not just winging it.
When I first started doing client work, I knew a lot about communications, but next to nothing about my client process. I had this “let the client guide the process” ethos that made me look like an amateur, and I quickly realized that it wasn’t helping anyone.
A process not only reassures your clients, it also helps you streamline work-- saving you time, energy and head space.
Instead of guessing the next step and reinventing the wheel with each client, you have a tried-and-true, step-by-step system that is proven to work. The tighter the process, the less time you’ll waste because you missed something or went off in the wrong direction. Trust me, a process will make your life easier, while making you look like a pro.
3. Charge more
Let me be clear: I'm not saying jack up your prices beyond the level of value you offer. Hell no. You should be over delivering no matter what you charge, every single time.
What I mean when I say “charge more” is that often, when people first start working with clients, they grossly underestimate how much time they’ll spend on a project.
I know I did.
When I was putting together the estimate for my first client project, I only looked at the time I’d spend writing and editing copy, completely forgetting that there would be input meetings, revisions, and random calls and emails to add and clarify things. I ended up spending 60% more time on the project than I anticipated, which means that my client got one hell of a deal.
Some of the best business advice I’ve ever heard was: "charge for the bullshit." And I can tell you from experience what a difference that makes.
Don’t charge for a perfect world, charge for the real world-- where clients change their minds, your process gets hijacked, vendors don't deliver on time and projects get delayed. Chances are, all of those things will happen, but as long as your prices cover them, you'll hate life a whole lot less and will remain motivated to give your client the service they deserve.
[Not sure what to charge because you don’t know how much time you really spend on projects? See this post.]
4. Put time limits on projects
Oh man, I learned this the hard way. If you work on a project basis-- and get paid at the end of the project-- please learn from my mistakes and make your projects time-bound.
Here’s why: without time limits, clients can drag projects out interminably, which means you’re not getting paid. It means you have projects on hold that are weighing on you without paying you. It means that you have months of client management and admin that you didn’t anticipate.
So take it from me: when you agree to start a new project, agree with the client on a timeline for finishing the work and protect yourself with a fee if it goes too far over the deadline (obviously only if it's the client who's slowing things down.)
If you think your client will balk at being held to a timeline, explain that the agreed finish date helps both of you: it ensures they get their deliverables on time, it avoids the loss of momentum that kills creativity and production, and it makes sure you both stay motivated to get the job done. In the end of the day, they’ve hired you to finish the job, and a timeline ensures that actually happens.
5. Don’t work with assholes
This is a little bonus for you, since I’ve been lucky enough so far that my clients have all been wonderful human beings. I’m including it here because while I’ve made this my motto since the beginning (I worked with enough assholes in corporate to last me a lifetime), so many newbies learn it the hard way.
And sometimes it’s hard to stick to. We need an income, so we’ll work with anyone who will have us-- asshole or no. It’s not easy turning away a paycheck. But accepting clients that aren’t a good fit is a short term solution that can create long term problems.
An asshole client-- or even a nice client who’s a bad fit-- will never be happy with your work. If it’s not a good fit for you, it probably won’t feel like a good fit for them either.
And an unhappy client is bad for business.
Think about it: an unhappy client will not only make your life hell, but they’ll also share their unhappiness with others. All of a sudden, what started as a paycheck can turn into a reputation problem-- not because you did anything wrong, but simply because it wasn’t a good fit.
Even a happy asshole client is bad for business. I’ve seen it happen. You work with someone who is a terrible fit for you, but because you’re a pro and do good work, they love you.
They love you so much, in fact, that they send you text messages in the middle of the night and call you all the time to "brainstorm" about the project, expecting you to be available whenever they are. They make your life miserable, but are blissfully unaware that there's a problem.
At least you’ll get a good referral from this hell, right? Not so fast.
When this happy asshole tells all his friends about you, what does he say? “She’s great to work with! She’s available 24/7 and turns things around really quickly whenever I need anything. Tell her I sent you and see if she’ll give you a discount!”
Now your one nightmare client has turned into a whole roster of leads who expect you to be available whenever they think they need you.
Which, I assume, is not what you're going for.
Because at the end of the day, if you don’t like the work you’re doing-- or the clients you’re doing it for-- why bother working for yourself? The whole point of starting your own business is to make a living doing something you enjoy. To not dread going to work. To choose who you work with and how you add value to the world.
It’s up to you to set your limits. To draw your line in the sand. To decide what you will and won’t put up with. And as scary as it is to turn away clients who aren’t a good fit (and the paycheck that comes with them), I promise your business-- and your life-- will be better for it.
Because no paycheck is worth your happiness.