Client Relationships

9 minutes


Updated September 19, 2022

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The line separating good and evil runs … right through every human heart.Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

Let’s address the fallacy of the Bad Client. Many creative people believe that there are good clients and bad clients, and all you have to do is avoid the bad ones, and the good ones will just be totally cool to you without you having to require it.

This, of course, is false.

You’re probably super good at being creative. Great. That’s a start, but it won’t ensure that you’re treated fairly or compensated according to your talent.

The world is not full of good guys and bad guys, but just people who mostly don’t know what they’re doing. It’s your job to help your clients figure it out, by being organized, laying out what you’re going to do and what it will cost, how you expect to be paid, and by being trustworthy yourself. 50% of every client relationship is 100% you.

Are there bad clients? Yes. Like the one we fired back at the start of this book, they are out there. But as I learned the hard way, in most cases your client will be as good as your ability to properly set up the relationship. Everyone has the potential for evil. It’s up to you to bring out the best in people.

You don’t get what you deserve; you get what you tolerate.

The Happy Client

Top four reasons you should do what it takes to absolutely delight every client you work with:

  1. It’s the right thing to do and it makes life more enjoyable.

  2. They’ll hire you again. It’s more efficient to gain repeat clients than to go find new clients. Both are good of course, but in some professions, six really great clients could be all you need from now until you retire. Do the math on how wonderful your business could look if every client you have now would happily hire you three times per year, in perpetuity.

  3. They’ll refer you to other clients. Those clients could also become repeat clients. Now we’re talking about compound growth.

  4. The more happy clients you have, the more agency you have. You can decide to work with great people rather than be forced to take whatever you can get.

Remember, your client is professional (and if they aren’t, still, treat them like they are) and they are either A) accustomed to dealing with professionals or B) not accustomed to dealing with professionals and will be pleasantly surprised when dealing with you.

If you’re a people person, client relationships are fun. If you’re not a people person, client relationships are a fun challenge.

Find something in common with your contact at the company, and show interest in them. Be their friend, send them links to articles they will enjoy, introduce them to great people, add value to their lives, and have fun with it.

Look them in the eye and speak without filler words and most importantly, when you get the job, crush it. Over-deliver, and over-deliver early.

Make certain that you are the best, easiest to deal with, funniest, most complimentary and pleasant professional they’ve ever hired.

Now you’ve got a long-term client, which means you’re busier than you were yesterday. The thing about busy people is their value goes up.

Once you have elevated a client to “long term” status, here a few suggestions for maintaining that relationship:

  • If it’s sensitive, pick up the phone. Texts and emails are great for saying “Hi” and answering basic questions, but terrible for important or nuanced conversations. These include negotiations, taking feedback or criticism that could be misconstrued, or anything that needs to remain confidential. A good rule of thumb for anything you’re considering putting in writing: assume it will be A) misunderstood and B) forwarded.

  • Touch base between jobs. I don’t mean, “Hey, it’s been a while, got any work for me?” but rather, “Check out this article, it reminds me of our last conversation. Hope you’re well!”

  • Send Thanksgiving gifts. It’s unexpected (nobody sends gifts on Thanksgiving), it’s sincere (attach a note expressing how grateful you are for their partnership), and it’s classy (make it all about them, not you).

When to Fire a Client

A person is constituted in language. As such, when a person’s word is less than whole and complete, they are diminished as a person.Michael Jensen

important Not being able to fire a deadbeat client, and thus being locked into a toxic relationship for money reasons, defeats the whole purpose of freelancing.

Many, if not most, of your client frustrations might stem from the fact that you can’t leave the clients you have, because you don’t have any new ones coming in.

The best time to fire a client is when you have another one. This was a realization I had with the client at the beginning of the book. Why was there so much stress involved with this one client who wouldn’t pay us? Why were we even working for such a client anyway? We were forced to. Because at that time, we had nothing else going on.

In an ideal world, with a full client roster, or maybe even a waiting list, we could have politely asked that client to buzz off the moment they showed the first sign of dishonesty.

“We understand you’re having cash flow problems. We can of course be flexible but we can’t work for free without a plan. Let us know how much time you need, and until then we’ll pause the work and ramp back up when we have a solution in place.”

But we couldn’t say that, because we didn’t have any other clients. If you’re in a position like we were, ignore what we discussed in Price Your Work, and just go get some clients.

Do discounted work, do free work, give gifts, get your work into places where people will see it, be generous, and get people talking about you. Once you have built a community of people and companies who are happy to trade you money for your work, you have earned the ability to activate the strategies outlined in Price Your Work and Writing a Good Proposal.

In the rare case that you do encounter a bad client, and you’ve taken all personal and professional steps to foster a good relationship to no avail, cut them loose. One of the best privileges of a freelancer is the privilege to fire a client.

When you’re certain it has to be done, do it. Do it kindly and professionally:

  • Never in writing (amateur move), always verbally (ideally over the phone). This is hard, but do it anyway. You want to leave zero room for interpretation, and let them hear your sincere tone of voice.

  • Leave anger and frustration out of it: “I’ve had a lot of fun working with you guys but it has become apparent that we are not the right fit for each other. I’m going to wrap up what I’m working on and then let you move on to someone else who can suit your needs. I wish you all the best.”

caution If you’ve made every possible effort outlined in this book to develop a good relationship with the client, and there’s still a significant amount of money outstanding, then call a lawyer before you have the above conversation. Depending on what type of written agreement you had (or didn’t have) with the client, your lawyer can walk you through your options for collecting.

Taking this step will of course ensure that you never work with this client again, so be certain before you enter this territory. But once you decide, get it done quickly.

And then let it go, learn from it, and move on.

Holding a grudge is a symptom of not knowing how you want to spend the gift of the day.Mike Maples, Jr.

Growing18 minutes, 1 link

Be as you wish to seem.Socrates

Be as You Wish to Seem

I once coached a very talented Italian furniture designer. We’ll call her Chianti. Her portfolio is full of work for Zaha Hadid and other beautiful designs for prestigious clients.

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