What's the Best Way to Deal with Bossy Clients?

This question comes from Latoya of Writers Brew:

Question

What's the most professional way to deal with bossy clients? Those who like to dictate every aspect of your work as if they were your employer.

Answer

I'm sure plenty of writers are going to disagree with me on this one, and perhaps my mindset on this issue stems from my primary role as a consultant and secondary role as a writer. Here's the way I look at it:

Are You a Door Mat?

As a freelancer, it's your responsibility to make sure that your services are in demand through your marketing and networking efforts. When writers (or any kind of independent professionals) don't effectively create a demand for their time and work, they have a tendency to become push-overs, because they essentially become more "desperate" for the clients.

Being nice to clients is one thing. Being a doormat and ignoring your rights is another thing altogether, and it's extremely unprofessional on your part as a freelancer if you allow it to happen.

Work on Your Terms

When you begin working with a new client, make your terms very clear, and get it in writing (a contract is obviously ideal, but at a bare minimum get it in an email - never simply agree to a project's terms over the phone or something similar).

Remember, you're the one operating the business here; they're the customer. You set your payment terms. You set your invoicing standards. You set your working hours. You set your communication methods. If these things are varying greatly with every client you have, you have deeper problems than a bossy client.

Reality Check

Think of it this way: when you go to the printer to pick up brochures, do you get to tell them exactly when to work, what business hours they should be open for you, etc.? No. Do you get to say "I want this done by this date, and here's how much I'll pay and when I'll pay it,"? No. You need a service provider. You go to one. You operate under their terms. If you don't like their terms, generally you go somewhere else, and they'll simply have other clients / customers coming to them.

Customer Service Doesn't Mean Kissing Ass

Now does that mean you have to be completely rigid? No. Making occasional exceptions and allowances is just good customer service, especially when working with a long-standing client. But if you're letting them call all the shots, you approached that relationship wrong in the beginning, and you may have a very difficult, if not impossible, time changing it.

When you make an exception for a client, it should be just that... an exception; not the rule. Remember, you're doing a favor for them. You're not altering your business model or strategy or life for them.

Put Your Foot Down

You have to be assertive... there's no way around it. If a client gets overly bossy demanding something done in a certain amount of time that's unrealistic, a certain way, etc. that isn't acceptable in a contractor / client relationship (they're not allowed to dictate things like how, where, and when you do the work as long as you meet deadlines, like an employer can - at least in the US), remind them gently once what your terms and working conditions are.

If they don't get the hint, there's a really easy solution: drop them! I used to be terrified that if I dropped a client, I'd get a bad reputation and no one would work with me. You wouldn't believe how much better your work life will be though when you learn to weed out the bad apples and focus on building good client relationships.

Reality Check #2

Seriously it has to be about 95-99% of the time when I tell a client "no" about something being done contrary to my terms, they don't get huffy. They don't pull the project. They don't threaten to go somewhere else. They came to me for a reason, and almost every time they simply agree to my terms.

I'll give you an example. I had a client a few weeks back who wanted a press release done. My schedule was booked solid for over a week, and I let them know it up front (the release wasn't urgent). They made a comment that they saw other people advertising much cheaper releases with a 24 hour turnaround.

I told the client (not rudely but very bluntly) that maybe they would be a better option for him. I even referred him to a guy on the forum where he found me who writes them for $10. I also explained the differences between my releases (as a PR professional and professional business writer) and his (as a kid who made up fluff stories in his sales threads, and whose releases I'd been hired about twenty times to rewrite by his clients at about four times the rate they paid to have it written to begin with). The client very happily agreed to wait. I find that when you hit them where it really hurts (how the quality will actually affect their business goals) with simple facts, clients suddenly become extremely reasonably.

I've now done five releases for that client.

Moral of the Story

I hope that serves as at least a very simple example of how being blunt, honest, assertive, and tough can actually help you in business as opposed to hurting you. If you constantly live in fear of losing clients, you set yourself up to be stuck with the bossy and demanding variety.

Remember two things:

  1. They came to you because they needed you (if you've actually done a good job of marketing yourself and building your reputation). It's OK to remind them of that. Just do it delicately.
  2. If you want your services to be in demand enough that you rarely have to worry about losing a client if it comes to that, you need to have faith in your abilities and expertise first. If you work under a quality model, and can show clients why they need you as opposed to someone who's simply cheaper or faster, you won't find yourself as subjected to that kind of behavior, because your clients will enter the relationship respecting you and your work from the get-go.

Disclaimer: The same rules would not necessarily apply to situations where you queried a publication already knowing their set of rules. Based on my knowledge of the individual asking the question, my response is tailored to writers who operate outside of that particular group. If you do that, you're stuck with their terms or you can try to negotiate with them.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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