When and How to Draw the Line When Everything Is an “Emergency”

Yellow lineClients usually turn to freelancers because they prefer a more ‘personal’ approach than agencies or larger organizations can offer. The relationships and sometimes even friendships that come from working closely with clients to bring their vision to life are always a satisfying element of my business. Unfortunately, the expectations that accompany the client’s desire for personal service can grow to nightmarish proportions if not managed correctly.

Every client wants to be treated as though they are your top priority. This isn’t unreasonable. Striving to help clients feel valued and even “special” will almost always benefit your business reputation and inspire authentic word-of-mouth recommendations. But, there are some clients that appear to ‘forget,’ or never realize in the first place, that theirs is not the only project being worked on. This can result in unreasonable and outrageous requests, unachievable deadlines, and intense emotions for allĀ  parties involved.

Some clients fail to grasp that for a freelancer to successfully serve all of their clients their projects must be carefully balanced. For various reasons these clients operate under a mentality that everything on their agenda is an ’emergency’ and that the freelancer they hired should treat it as such. Their constant emails, impatient phone calls, instant messages, and so forth, can result in a terrible experience for everyone.

In this post, we share some suggestions for dealing with those so-called client emergencies.

Identify the Impasse


Most freelancers with some experience know the early warning signs of a demanding client and immediately put management measures into place. When faced with a demanding client, it is important to identify the impasse as early as possible to avoid the greatest amount of damage and to determine the best resolutions that will enable a satisfactory result for the client while maintaining the freelancer’s ability to serve all clients equally.

Of course, your frustration level is an obvious barometer. But, it is also a good idea to know and communicate your boundaries at the start of a project in the hope of never getting to the point where you are on the verge of exploding. Determine what is unacceptable to you and your business. Also, estimate the impact a demanding client can have on your other current projects.

Using project management software, a written schedule or daily planner, or just a simple notepad to have a “bird’s eye view” of all that is on your plate you can stay abreast of what you are able to accomplish on a daily basis. This will help that “red flag” of overload to be more visible, and prevent you from over committing yourself to the demanding client and damaging your deadlines with others. Knowing your boundaries will keep this from happening and help you to identify impasses early on so you can begin working toward resolving the issues and keeping them from happening.

Constructively Communicate


Once you have identified the impasse, it is critical to quickly and clearly communicate to the client in a way that is constructive, yet firm. You may feel that you have already told the client all they should need to know, but if they continue to present unreasonable demands and expectations then they have obviously not understood the message.

Client communication is a vital skill that many freelancers don’t naturally have. For instance, I am a web and graphic designer. My forte is designing and coding and all the other elements that go into my projects. But, as a freelancer, I also have to become a business person, a project manager, a client liaison, an accountant, a collections agent and much more. These other skills I must work to hone if I am going to have any lasting success doing what I am most skilled at and most passionate about. It may be your nature to bite a client’s head off when they inspire frustration or other emotions, but you must learn to communicate constructively with the most difficult clients if you desire to grow your business.

Other schools of thought suggest that you should “fire” clients that give you problems, but it is my experience that even the most difficult clients can be redeemed if handled with compassion, constructive communication and a clear understanding of what you are capable of and willing to do. If I refused to work for every client that gave me any frustration, I wouldn’t have a business. That is not an option as far as I’m concerned.

In other words, if a client comes up with an unrealistic or unreasonable request, tell them it is unrealistic and unreasonable, and help them understand why. Don’t just tell them no. Most often, once they understand the process they will be satisfied with adjusting to accommodate it. No one in their right mind would expect you to do six hours’ worth of work in only two. So make sure they know what it will take, your other commitments and deadlines, and provide a realistic timeline for the project’s completion. You may be surprised to find that their project is no longer as drastic an emergency as they originally thought.

Draw the Line


If you have attempted the previous steps and yet the client is still demanding priority status for everything, it is time to draw the line. By draw the line I don’t mean that it is time to scream at the client over the phone or rip up the contract and refund their deposit or write them a nasty email in all caps. It is simply time to put your foot down.

It is important to know what you are willing to do to ensure that your client understands exactly what you are willing to do for them. What if, after receiving a clear communication from you that their emergency deadline cannot be met, the client still demands it. What if they threaten to cancel your contract or sue you or threaten some other type of retaliation should you fail to comply? Are you willing to lose their business? Are you willing to refund whatever they’ve paid? Are you willing to bear the brunt of them bad-mouthing you and your business, even if it’s untrue? Ask yourself these questions before entering that potentially explosive discussion so you are armed with a solid stance.

Once you are confident in your boundaries, talk to the client. I highly recommend doing this over the phone or in person. If you feel the need to have a record in writing of what you have communicated with the client, send them an email recapping your discussion once you are finished. Avoid having intense emotional confrontations via email — this almost never ends well due to the potential misperceptions that can occur.

Rehash the events that have brought you to this point. Explain in detail the effect their actions have had on your other projects. Part of the personal service they have enlisted is the interaction and communication that you provide, so give it to them with as much negative personal emotion removed as possible while still maintaining your personality. I have found that if I can take the level of communication to an arena that recognizes us as peers and people rather than just as client and freelancer it is always beneficial to the conversation. Let the client know that you are willing to do everything possible to accommodate their requests, but explain why the deadlines will not be met. Give the client a clear outline of how you are willing to proceed and let them know when to expect completion. Also, provide alternatives should they deem your proposal unsatisfactory.

Ultimately, you should try to enable the client to adjust their requirements so that you can accommodate without breaching your boundaries. Often I will even suggest other freelancers or organizations the client could use as an alternative solution. In the end, the goal is a satisfied client, even if you are not the one who ends up finishing the project.

Moving Forward


In most cases, difficult situations and endless “emergency” requests come down to communication. Ultimately, the responsibility for good communication is the freelancer’s. We can learn the hard way from our own mistakes, or we can help each other by sharing our experiences and applying relevant changes to our methods to improve our client management. Usually we can avoid miscommunications by over communicating and sharing everything we can with our clients from the beginning of the project to the end.

It is also wise to prepare for the worst case scenarios just in case. You never know when that “everything is an emergency” client will somehow sneak under your radar. When they do, hopefully, you will have steps in place to keep escalation and frustration at bay.

Your Turn

Have you had similar or related experiences that you can share? How have you dealt with them? Please share your suggestions and thoughts in the comments below so we can continue to learn from each other.

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