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Waiting on a Miracle: How to Handle Unhappy Clients

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Working with a revolving door of clients presents a number of interesting challenges for self-employed workers. Many of us find the unpredictable nature of the job appealing in its own unique way, as we’ll never have to suffer through the monotonous nive-to-give grind again. If you’ve started freelancing as a means of escaping your nasty boss, however, you might be in for a shocking surprise. You see, I don’t have a boss; instead, I have dozens of “bosses,” and keeping all of them simultaneously satisfied is a key to my success as a freelance writer.

I’ve been really fortunate over the course of my freelance career, as I can count the number of unhappy clients I’ve had on just a few fingers. In most cases, conflict arises because of a simple miscommunication. Other times, however, clients can become irate without any sort of explanation. Regardless of how the problem arises, it’s essential to have a game plan in place for handling an unhappy client. Failure to resolve the problem could cause the issue to escalate, in turn gobbling up valuable time you should be using to focus on your career. Use the following simple keys to pull yourself out of a hellish situation.

1. Draw Up Better Contracts

Perhaps I’m putting the cart before the horse, but don’t wait until a problem occurs to change how you negotiate with new clients. It only takes one really rotten customer to make you rethink your entire business approach. Spending long hours writing contracts is hardly appealing, but dealing with an unpaid invoice and grumpy customer is even worse.

Take the time to craft a standard contract that protects your interests, and please don’t take any chances with the wording. Contracts are LEGAL documents, so make sure you’re adequately protected should things sour. In an ideal world, you’d meet with an attorney to create a foolproof contract you can rework for each new client you add to your roster. If you’re operating on a shoestring, consider creating a legal contract using a service like Rocket Lawyer. At the very least, make sure you understand how contracts work. This article from Nolo provides an overview of your obligations once you’ve signed a business contract.

Disclaimer: Just for good measure, remember, I’m not a lawyer, nor do I intend to give legal advice. Consult with a local attorney for all legal matters.

2. Pinpoint the Problem and Resolve It

Remember that little adage about the client always being right? It’s convenient when you’re a customer, but oh how the tables turn when we find ourselves on the other side of the equation. Ultimately, your client has paid for a service—it’s your turn to deliver. Do your utmost to make things right, even if it means putting in extra effort. The right response will help deflect any fallout and could even turn your upset customer into one of your most loyal proselytizers.

It seems counter-intuitive, but think of the last time you had a problem with a business. Didn’t the response cement your opinion of the company and its products?

MacbookThe logic board in my computer failed last year, rendering my Macbook completely nonfunctional. I grumpily made an appointment with an Apple Genius and sent my computer off for a stay at the repair center, with the service costing me about $350. Replacing a key component of my system understandably made me frustrated, but oh, how I started singing Apple’s praises when my machine was returned to me.

See, not only did the Apple techs replace my logic board, they also replaced the entire top portion of my machine (including the keyboard and trackpad), and installed a brand new display. They cleaned every crevice of my computer, changed out the fans, and put in a brand new battery. And I wasn’t charged for a single one of these improvements, beyond the initial fee for the new logic board.

Ask around and you’ll probably find someone who has had a similar experience with Apple. The technology behemoth understands that it can turn grumpy clients into powerful sellers! Apple ultimately made very little money on its repair for me, seeing as they subbed in a massive pile of new parts for my system. And yet, that investment paid off, because here I am a year later talking about Apple’s customer service that goes above and beyond. Does Dell or HP have that reputation?

Determine to always deliver on your promises, even when it means going the extra mile. You might be surprised how it can pay off.

3. Stand Up for Yourself

We walk a fine line as freelance workers—on the one hand, I’m encouraging you to make things right, even when you haven’t done anything wrong. On the other hand, however, you need to know when to draw a line in the sand. When I was growing up, my parents would sometimes tell me to avoid getting sucked into black holes, in reference to people who zap all of your emotional energy. It’s one thing to support someone going through a bad time, but have you ever known people plagued by endless drama? Once their current problem has been resolved, a new issue will crop up…and some clients are like that, too!

Don’t let someone walk all over you, simply because you’re on the receiving end of the invoice. And by all means, don’t compromise your morals or integrity! I had a client referred to me a few years ago who wanted some product reviews written for him at an attractive rate. I agreed to complete the work, only to find that the reviews to be written were false, inflamattory Yelp reviews for his competitor. I kindly told him I would be unable to complete the work, and he became completely belligerent, hurling vulgar insults at me. Yikes.

Accept that a mutual resolution is not always possible—and again, write better contracts! Protect yourself against shenanigans like this.

In a perfect world, you’d never have to deal with an unhappy client, but some of your contracts will inevitably hit bumps in the road. Prepare yourself for such scenarios and work diligently to fix problems to the best of your ability. Use your best judgement and remember, you are in control of your workload. If a lead gives off bad vibes, don’t hesitate to refuse a lucrative contract. It’s immensely better to shut the door on a potential troublemaker, rather than open Pandora’s box and hope for the best.

Have you encountered unhappy clients as a freelancer? Do you have any tips for resolving issues amicably?

By the way, if you missed it, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to guest blog for Kevin Kleitches at People Passionate a few days ago. Check out my post on learning to juggle a heavy freelance workload with downtime.