Why Your Worst Clients Should Still Get Your Best Service

Why Your Worst Clients Should Still Get Your Best Service
Recently I have been involved in a few different discussions with other freelance designers in which I have noticed an unsettling trend: at some point in the conversation the topic turns to client horror stories. It usually starts out with some type of question about how the others would handle a particular situation that one is facing, but then it digresses to complaints about clients and the awful things they put us freelancers through.

Yes, we’ve probably all had at least one “nightmare client” experience. In fact, we may have been that experience for someone else (when was the last time you yelled at someone on the phone or chewed out a salesperson?) But witnessing the common direction of these discussions caused me to pause and think about the change of attitude and resulting practice that must occur if a freelancer with previous client malfunctions is going to move forward successfully.

Rather than doing your best to get that nightmare client’s project completed as quickly as possible and off your desk in hopes of never having to deal with them again, allow me to suggest that those clients you consider your “worst” or most difficult should be the recipients of your very best service. Here’s why:

Clients Provide Your Paycheck

Clients Provide Your Paycheck

This is elementary. Without clients, you don’t have a business. We all know it, but perhaps it is taken for granted or forgotten in the heat of a client’s tirade. Clients pay my bills. Clients feed my children. Clients enable my wife to make trips to Ikea on a whim.

I’m not suggesting that you should suck it up and allow yourself to be verbally abused or ridiculed by a paying client, or compromise yourself or your work for the sake of the almighty dollar. But I am encouraging you to keep this thought at the forefront of all of your communications with clients. No matter how much they may yell at you, or disagree with your recommendations, or override your experience, your clients are the foundation for the success of your business, and they should be treated and served accordingly.

Clients Are Human Beings

Clients Are Human Beings

Really. Don’t act so surprised. Clients are people too, just like freelancers. They have good days and bad days just like us, and they also have both short tempers and times of extreme patience. They have unique personalities, deadlines, responsibilities and on and on.

It’s important to remember that you might just be the recipient of their worst simply because they are human. Rather than retaliating, try remembering that you’ve most likely had those moments yourself, and offer sympathy, patience, understanding and your very best service. You may even unwittingly encourage a transformation that removes said client from your “nightmare” category.

Clients Can Help Grow or Destroy Your Business

Clients Can Help Grow or Destroy Your Business
Your freelance business can live or die by the recommendations or complaints of your clients. With the widespread use of social media for word of mouth marketing purposes, this fact is emphasized even more.

Within a matter of minutes a happy client can sing your praises to thousands of people. Contrast that with the realization that fatal damage can be done to your reputation in the same amount of time with a simple Facebook update or a timely tweet by an upset client. But let me challenge you to refrain from being motivated by possible ramifications either way. Instead, try choosing to give your best because of your own integrity and desire to deliver a high quality product and experience for your clients.

Your Success Depends On Your Best Service

Your Success Depends On Your Best Service

Consistency. Integrity. Quality Control. First impressions. Customer service.

These are some of the relatively immeasurable elements of your business that appear to go unseen, but are key to its success. Have you ever noticed at successful chain restaurants how the recipe tastes the same no matter what location you are eating at? Consistency in quality and service is obviously a factor in their core values. It is important to determine the core values of your freelance business and then hold to them, regardless of how a client treats you. In the end, your motivation for providing the best service you possibly can is that your business will succeed because of it. But even more important, in my opinion, is the fact that at the end of the day you can rest your head on the pillow knowing with complete certainty that you have given every single client your best.

Your clients will appreciate the integrity of your intent, whether it’s physically made known to them or not. If you impress them, they will most likely share the pleasure of their experience with their friends and associates. They will remember the human element and personal touches that you provide. And they will enjoy, rather than resent, their ability to reward you financially for a job well done.

You Can Change How You Deal With Difficult Clients

What Can You Change About How You Deal With Difficult Clients?

Looking at the reasons we’ve discussed, think about any that may have struck a nerve with your present or past experiences.

Have you been giving all of your clients your best service, regardless of their response or attitude?

What are some steps you can take to providing better consistency throughout your client base that will not only improve your business but will strengthen you as a person of integrity and character?

Please share your thoughts, experiences and suggestions in the comments below to help us all learn from each other.

Comments

  1. says

    There is a point where clients deserve to get the boot. When they get to be more trouble than they are worth you have to start to consider telling them you don’t want their business anymore. If your baddest client is your biggest, then you have to find a way to work things out, but if they are just one of many, then consider cutting them loose. It just isn’t worth the aggravation and the time lost dealing with nightmare customers, for you or people who work with you.

    Certainly try to make a go of it, but if it doesn’t work then they should go, in the nicest possible way of course.

  2. says

    This is terrific advice, Brian. We should always remain courteous and provide our best work, even to “horror” clients. I believe in never burning your bridges.

    I once broke ties with a client but assured her I would complete the tasks she had given me – if she still wanted me to. She appreciated that, despite our differences, I didn’t leave her on the lurch (as another copywriter had done to her).

    One advantage of working online and communicating through email or chat is our clients never have to see our facial expressions, or know that before we sent that cordial email, we were huffing and puffing (and probably cursing). Being web workers gives us the luxury of getting our composure back before we send a piece of communication to our clients.

  3. says

    Great point!

    Personally, I’m a big advocate of negotiating your terms up front to avoid any misunderstandings or disappointments from either party.

    However, once you do agree to the client’s terms and commit to do the work they deserve your best effort always.

    Good reminder of a basic freelancing principal that doesn’t get discussed nearly often enough.

  4. says

    This is good advice, especially for someone like me just beginning their freelance career.

    I just wonder as mentioned before if a client become so difficult to deal with that they are costing you time and money, How do you approach letting them go? or Letting them know how you feel?

    Thanks for the post,

  5. says

    I think you should always stay polite and professional. But to give the worst client your best service, I don’t totally agree with that. Why should I give this kind of client the best if he’s giving me a hard time finishing the project. That said, I would still finish the job and deliver a decent product but I wouldn’t go that extra mile for bad clients that would be unfair to the loyal good clients.

    It’s true that clients provide your paycheck but if that client is more trouble than he’s worth than it’s time to kick em on the curbs. They hire us to do a certain job that doesn’t mean they can be unreasonable, be rude etc. just because they pay us to do some job.
    “…and they should be treated and served accordingly.” Yes that means if they are a pain in the ass and I don’t just mean they don’t take your advice or disagree with you but demanding things like 24 hours availability etc. then they should be treated like they treat you.

    “Clients Can Help Grow or Destroy Your Business”
    I agree with that but the same thing goes for freelancers. They can help or destroy the client’s reputation. It’s not only the client that can spread their discontentment, we as freelancers can also warn others not to do business with these clients.

  6. says

    Thats a Brilliant Article… and the points put down by Brian holds true for even an Online Advertising agency like ours.

    But then as rightly put… its clients that help us run our businesses.

    And yes if there is no mutual respect, then like any other relationship this one too would head the wrong way

  7. says

    Thanks for all your comments and input. I appreciate the discussion!

    Kamal: regarding what to do if a difficult client starts costing you time and money, here’s how I approach it. First, I keep in mind that I want to do my best to treat others with the respect I want to be treated with, not necessarily what I may think they “deserve”. With that, I usually try to communicate as honestly as possible at every step along the way, so if and when it gets to that point, the client is not caught off guard by distressing circumstances.

    This post is more about the consistency that clients – loyal & “good” or difficult & “bad” – all deserve as part of the service they are paying for. If a client is underpaying or over expecting, then that is another situation that, as Laura eluded to, should have been addressed clearly in the beginning stages.

    Fortunately I have not yet had to give a client “the boot”, even though I’ve had some rough times, so this leads me to believe the approach I’ve shared is working pretty well. Even my most difficult clients have walked away from their projects with glowing reviews of my work. I couldn’t ask for much more.

  8. says

    A chain is as strong as its weakest link.

    For a freelancer, the weakest link would probably be how he or she handles clients. Make that stronger, and you make the whole chain stronger.

    Great post.

  9. says

    Jenneke:

    You’ve pretty much illustrated my opening point regarding freelancers who tend to bash clients that have been difficult. Are you saying a freelancer should give different levels of quality and service dependent upon how well the client treats them? I would strongly disagree with that statement, as would most clients, I believe.

    Take the restaurant analogy: how would you feel if you found out that the cook spit in your food because you were rude to the waitress? You most definitely would not go back to the restaurant, and you would probably warn others to avoid it as well. But what if you were rude to the waitress and yet she still served you with as much kindness, courtesy and efficiency as every other one of the patrons? I don’t know about you, but I would be amazed, impressed and a new fan of the restaurant!

    I think there is a problem when a freelancer who provides a service for a fee treats the client as though it is a privilege for the client to pay for their services. Personally, I am grateful for every client, and I do my best to provide the same level of quality, communication, and service regardless of how they choose to treat me. I also do my best to make sure clients don’t have opportunities or reasons to mistreat me. Sometimes that can be difficult because some people are less appreciative or harder to deal with than others. But in the end I know they are all getting my best. I am at peace with myself knowing this, and in the end that is what matters for me.

  10. says

    great post B Mac!

    freelancing is much the same as any other situation where you pay for service – if you have a good experience, you might tell one or two people. if you have a horrible experience, you’ll tell at least 10 people. your restaurant analogy response fits perfectly (and, having worked at a whole bunch of restaurants, it’s true).

    work to improve client relations; that’s potentially your greatest referral source.

  11. Lee Shields says

    I’ve got a client to cut loose right now, I’ve dealt with him for years and he is completely unable to deal with people in the real world. He ignores anything said to him and is impossible to work with.

    I have completed a site recently which was a total nightmare, his brief was terrible as he has no idea about web development. He still works in OS9 for gods sake. The site is live and is almost exaclty as his brief

    He has now come back with 50 A3 pages of scrawled ‘amends’!! Including deleting 2 complete product sections and adding a new one. Of course because they are amends theres no money to pay for them.

  12. till says

    I’m torn on this one. First off, you should always try to do the best possible, however you shouldn’t be afraid to boot a client if they don’t appreciate your work.

    People tend to forget that they wanted to freelance/start their own business in order to not have to deal with “stupidity” (or let’s say, unprofessionals) all day. It’s probably one of those very tough decisions to make, but sometimes you just have to stop working for someone if doing business is not like what you wanted.

    I’m don’t suggest to make it all go up in flames, or delete their website, or to do something stupid — regardless, you should not take crap just because they may talk crap about you on Facebook. That’s not great advice.

    The bottom line here is that you need to be professional. If they don’t act professional, you can always part ways.

    In the end, if they end up doing something stupid (e.g. flame you on facebook, etc.), first off, that shows poor judgement on their part and not your’s.

  13. says

    Thanks again for this great discussion! I appreciate your comments!

    I definitely agree that there could be situations where the best route is to part ways with a difficult client. I am not presenting that argument here. The point of this post is that freelancers – just like any other business – should maintain a high standard of service, quality, communication, etc. that remains consistent regardless of how the client behaves.

    Obviously no one should take abuse, and as freelancers we have the right to choose who we are going to work for and to what point we will bend. It’s one of the main reasons I enjoy being a freelancer! But I prefer to give the best quality service to every single client I have because that reflects on me as a person and a business. This is far more important to me than any damage I could do to the client in some sort of retaliation for their failures.

    The way I see it, difficult clients who are abusive, fail to pay or are just plain stupid have to live with themselves that way. I don’t. I can hold my head high and say I gave them my best, regardless of what they have done. I refuse to stoop to a lower level than what I set for myself.

  14. says

    B Mac – excellent article – thanks man!

    agreed – no one should suffer through an abusive relationship, even the lowly freelancer! but like any other relationship, clients need attention and working to communicate consistently with clients is one of the best ways to keep things from going sideways.

    your restaurant analogy in your response up there works well. having been employed at numerous restaurants, and as in nearly any service industry:

    - if you have a mediocre or satisfactory experience, you probably wouldn’t think to recommend the place, other than to say you’ve been there before.
    - if you have a great experience you might tell one or two people.
    - however, if you have a poor experience, you’ll tell at least 10 people. and any time anyone else broaches the topic of places to eat, that one poor experience will stand out.

    excellent discussion going on here. lots of people have a story to tell!

  15. says

    Great article. Something we all need to keep in mind. It’s so easy to get caught up in defending yourself that you forget who you’re really speaking with is a client.

    Like most of you, my main source of communication with my clients is via email. So normally I receive a complaint in email first. I never answer immediately. I let the first emotions and thoughts pass before drafting a reply. Usually our first thoughts are not the ones we should share with the client. If you allow 30 minutes or so to pass, then you can respond in a more professional way.

  16. says

    “Clients are human beings too.”

    Not to sound hoaky, but this is a good time to remember the golden rule — “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Treat your clients how you’d want to be treated.

  17. says

    I agree that there are times when a client must be given the boot. Yes, give the best service humanly possible to all clients- even the bad ones- because the work you do reflects upon your company. But at the same time, keeping the abusive client around hurts the quality of your overall work. I’m not talking about ‘tough clients’. I’m talking about clients who are just flat-out abusive.

    It’s a tough lesson to learn, and I’m even constantly relearning it after 16 years in this business. I’ve found that for every horrifying client you fire, you usually get several new, positive relationships. I think it has something to do with maintaining and encouraging a positive environment.

  18. says

    Excellent article and discussion. Clients, even the difficult ones, are still clients at the end of the day. They have hired you to provide a service because they determined that you were the right ‘fit’ for the job.

    What is particularly important for me is the impression I leave with all my clients. Ouite frankly, I’m of the opinion that what makes a client ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is truly a matter of individual perspective.

    Sure, clients who don’t pay their bills on time, or at all, should be defined as ‘bad’ clients and the freelancer would certainly be justified to cut ties.

    But is it really fair to classify a difficult client as one of your ‘worst’ clients? Or is the freelancer simply a poor communicator or yet too inexperienced in dealing effectively with all manner of personalities and situations?

    In my experience there is a little something called “customer service” that can work miracles when it comes to turning a ‘difficult’ customer into a ‘good’ customer.

    And personally speaking, ‘word-of-mouth’ is still one of the most underrated and powerful marketing tools any business, freelance or not, has at it’s disposal – use it wisely. Even your ‘worst’ client will talk about his or her horrible experiences with you to the world at large if you’re careless.

  19. says

    Thank you, Anne, for bringing this back around to the original point! I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said. In fact, I originally had the word “worst” in quotes in the title for the simple fact – which you so eloquently pointed out – that I think it’s a bad practice to even begin to categorize your clients in such a negative way. But often freelancers have defenses up and are prone to complain rather than attempt to pursue constructive communication and change the relationship for the better. I agree – communication is so key! I appreciate your input and applaud your encouragement toward quality customer service as the goal.

  20. says

    I work as an advisor with many small businesses and I find the same situation in many of them. 9% of their customers cause 90% of the problems (it’s an extreme form of the Pareto Principle). There is some evidence to suggest that can be linked back to personality types (as outlined by Robert B Miller and Gary A. Williams). My advice to all my clients is to drop those customers as quickly as possible.

    The reason is simple – when we do the analysis and find out how much these customers are costing we find that the small business is actually loosing money servicing them.

    It may not be possible – for contractual reasons – to drop them immediately. And certainly it’s important to behave professionally at all times. But you must also make every effort to minimize the disruption these people are causing.

    The best solution is to screen potential customers for the traits that the 9% exhibit and avoid customers who have them – no matter how good the deal looks.

  21. says

    Brian,

    I’m not saying that I would deliver a mediocre piece of work if the client is being hard on me. But I must say that if a client is that unreasonable and demanding things that wasn’t agreed upon, 24hours availability etc. and I also have other good clients than I wouldn’t spend that much energy and time on that client which leads to having less time for my other “good” clients. That would be unfair. When a clients cost you more than they bring in than I think you should drop them because in the long run it will only hurt your business. Yes, what I say is that I would give different levels of quality and service dependent upon the client, but I would never deliver work that I’m not satisfied with. I must say I haven’t had any clients from hell yet.

  22. says

    All very well, but there is doing business and there is doing bad business. Some clients are so out of kilter that you spend hours “debating” with them in telephone calls etc, and your project management budget is eradicated. There’s only 8 hours in a working day, you can’t give 3 of those to one difficult human every day. That’s how you go bankrupt.

  23. says

    I am completely amazed at the responses of so many that have really missed the point of this post! The whole point is consistency in the quality of service you should provide your clients, no matter how good or bad you consider them, and why. The fact that so many jumped onto a debate about when to get rid of difficult clients really drives home my opening statement about how many discussions I have seen go this route. For some reason there is a prevailing attitude among a segment of freelancers that appears to feel the need to “make their clients behave” and kick clients to the curb if they get out of line. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I still believe in customer service and the foundational tenet of providing high quality customer service. Obviously, clients that are abusive or fail to pay or cross other very clear lines should NO LONGER BE CLIENTS, which then would remove them from the list of clients that we should be giving our best service to.

    Some of the comments here lead me to question if these attitudes of ruling over the client and aiming to keep them in check are components of a successful freelance business, or if instead they are struggling to stay afloat. I know that what I have suggested in the post has helped me to build a successful business, but maybe it’s not for everyone. Personally, I would never give my own business to an organization or an individual who made me feel like I was lucky to be able to hire them.

  24. says

    Your last statement is well put Brian.

    Some food for thought …

    “In their book Rules to Break and Laws to Follow, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D. write that “customers have memories. They will remember you, whether you remember them or not.” Further, “customer trust can be destroyed at once by a major service problem, or it can be undermined one day at a time, with a thousand small demonstrations of incompetence.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Customer_service

    One would wonder that if a freelancer is constantly complaining about his or her clients if the problem is not actually lying with the freelancer, and not with the client after all? Just a thought.

  25. says

    Excellent advice!

    Ironically, I just recently had to let go of a “troublesome” client. This client consisted of 3 partners. 2 of the partners were awesome to work with, and they initiated my services a while back.

    However, the 3rd partner was not at all like his counterparts. He was insecure, demanding, deflecting, and accusatory. I never had any dealings with him until the other 2 partners handed over their portion of the business to this man.

    When he called, there was always a tone of suspicion from him. He made me feel like I didn’t have a brain in my head, and that I had no clue what I was doing. He was aggressive and never seemed to want to listen to anything I had to say.

    At one point he even accused me of treating him in the manner that I was being treated by him!

    It’s very easy to become defensive when you perceive someone is attacking your integrity. Regardless of his actions, I always knew that the only person I can control is me. I would remain professional, prompt, and kind—whether or not he noticed.

    Since I didn’t have much interaction with him (once every 3 months at best) I didn’t really concern myself with him. However, when an unpaid invoice (over 30 days late) required that I send a reminder…things fell apart on his end.

    The reminder was pretty standard. Very professional and courteous. The customer considered it aggressive and belittling. He began sending a series of unprofessional and unkind emails. I call it mudslinging.

    Regardless of how much I wanted to “let him have it” and tell him how I felt about him; I remembered that I have committed to being above reproach and professional in all my business dealings. Regardless of the client’s attitude or demeanor, I would provide excellent service and give my very best.

    I did finally have to let this particular client go. I wasn’t rude or unkind, and remained very professional in my words. I do draw a line when a client becomes so “abusive” and unruly as this particular client had become.

    You cannot control anyone else but you. In the end, being kind and patient while holding your tongue is a great policy. Treating others the way you want to be treated is still the golden rule, and it’s never failed me. It most definitely won’t fail you.

    Truthfully, always doing your best work helps set you apart from everyone else. True professionals do their best–regardless of the client’s attitude. That doesn’t mean you must endure abuse, though.

    I say complete the project and conclude your business with the unruly client amicably and professionally. But always do your best.

    Besides, it’s nice to be nice.

  26. says

    I agree with providing your clients a quality of service. And reading your comments I think I may have missed the point like others if it comes to giving your best to all of your clients. Maybe because of the word “worst” client everybody is thinking about the clients from hell that cross the line and don’t pay in time etc.

    “I think there is a problem when a freelancer who provides a service for a fee treats the client as though it is a privilege for the client to pay for their services.”
    This is of course not the right attitude for a freelancer to take a job. But the opposite happens quite often, when a client expects the freelancer has to feel lucky and grateful because the client is providing them work and giving them the opportunity to make new work for their portfolio. And therefore we have to do everything they ask because they paid us and they could treat us like servants.

    “For some reason there is a prevailing attitude among a segment of freelancers that appears to feel the need to “make their clients behave” and kick clients to the curb if they get out of line.”
    I think some clients don’t understand how the design process works and start demand things that are impossible and this is the moment that you have to “educate”/explain to them what is possible. If they don’t want to take your advice and keep pushing their way of working upon you, then you have to seriously consider if you want to work for them a second time.
    I respect your opinion on providing the best customer service and I agree with that, but when something doesn’t work out like in a real relationship you have to part with the client.

  27. says

    I think its great advice to treat all your clients with the same level of service. And yes we are all human, it doesn’t always excuse our behavior but every customer will have their good days and bad days.

  28. says

    This seems to be a hot topic.

    First I have to ask how did you manage to get that client?

    In my former business I could tell if a client wasn’t right for me through our conversation–and recently through interactions via email.

    But I’ve been listening to a lot of web professionals who are complaining about these clients.

    It deserves some thought–and some client education.

    In addition to writing some posts to help with the issues (and doing some videos now as well) I am working on a give away for web professionals.

    Problem clients might not ever be happy but you have to find out the real problem before you can address it.

    Objections or problems might be a symptom of something else.

    So, although I agree with a lot of what you have said, I think there are times your have to part ways and in the end both you and the client will be happier.

  29. says

    I agree with Ed Martin, theres a cut off point where ultimately if a customer is being un reasonable and isnt clearly worth the effort (in terms of profit or possible media damage) then its best to say I dont want your business anymore. Sorry to say with so many diagnosed and un diagnosed mental conditions, often contact with some of the more extreme customers isnt about anything more than attention/rudeness in my opinion.

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