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As small business owners, we understand that client expectations can vary quite a bit. Some clients simply pay for a completed order and are on their way, while others require more attention. That’s not out of the ordinary, but what happens when a client is downright difficult? “No matter what I do, I can’t seem to make them completely happy,” says Anna, a freelance copywriter and designer, about a new client she picked up a little over a year ago. Her main contact at the company is a woman in her late 50s who is hard to please. She repeatedly edits previously approved copy and doesn’t mince words when layout details are not to her liking. A few weeks ago, she annotated a fully laid-out brochure that was ready to go to the printer with handwritten comments at the end of the workday. The entire layout had to be reworked over the weekend to make the deadline, leaving a furious Anna to wonder why she was wasting her time with this account.
When is a difficult client worth your time?
Here are a few criteria to assess a client’s long-term value:
Learning opportunity – We tend to remember challenging people, such as the unpleasant teacher who wouldn’t accept mediocrity, because they taught us important lessons–learning grudgingly and through stressful experience is still learning. Customers with high expectations present opportunities to acquire new skills and add new, potentially lucrative, specializations. Still, none of this is particularly worthwhile in a consistently unpleasant and annoying work relationship. If the biggest lesson is how much you used to appreciate your weekends, it’s time to move on.
Reward – The difficult client may not be fully aware how much extra time she is demanding, since to her, the perfection of the final product takes precedence over other concerns. She may also not have fully explained the final product she has in mind, but what matters is how the work affects you as the contractor. At least two of the following criteria should apply to justify the extra effort and time involved in pleasing a demanding client:
- Compensation: Payment and payment terms (at least) match those of other, less challenging clients
- Professional experience: Work represents a unique professional opportunity that may lead to new business in the future
- Recognition: The client fully understands the effort associated with the work and is likely to refer you to others
Emotional involvement – If your work is “coming home with you,” and you can’t stop thinking or complaining about the work and the associated communication in your off-hours, the business relationship is having a negative impact on your life quality and productivity. If you dread the client’s next order, it’s time to get out.
Difficult clients can teach valuable lessons about who we are and what we are looking for.
How to get out
Once it’s obvious that there are easier ways to earn the same income with less aggravation, decide on a practical plan for getting out of the business relationship. To avoid unnecessary drama and protect your hard-earned professional reputation, it’s a good idea to:
Step up marketing and networking – Begin to actively look for new clients. Put out the word among colleagues and respond to online requests. Update your marketing materials and make yourself visible, whether in person or online, in relevant places.
Make it about business – Instead of spending even more negative energy on the difficult work relationship, look at your departure as a “portfolio adjustment”. You are making a business decision to spend your resources (including your time and energy) wisely to maximize your income potential.
Get out like a pro – Give proper notice, but carefully avoid negative statements that may come to haunt you later. Instead of dwelling on critical observations, take the high road and be on your way.
Difficult clients can teach valuable lessons about who we are and what we are looking for. Once the experience is in your rear view mirror, it will eventually make a good story. Older and wiser, we will not allow the next client to waste our time.
How have you dealt with challenging clients? Share your best advice here!