The Human Freelancer

Happy and honest self-employment for conscientious newcomers

Select Page

Nice clients trust your ability to interpret their requirements. Then they give you freedom to work autonomously and create the best work possible. The nasty ones just use you like a tool, interfere with the minutiae, contradict themselves and behave inconsistently.

The worst clients don’t even know what they want until they see it. They’re the kind of people you spend painful days working hard to satisfy, second-guessing their vague and esoteric requirements. Then when you do show them something, they can only tell you what they don’t like by picking holes in the fruits of your labours. Add to this the frustrations of email tennis between multiple people and you end up with ‘design by committee’ – the quickest way to craft nothing short of a dog turd with Nazi flags stuck in it.

I’m reminded of a website project that began as a quick and dirty prototype we’d improve later using real-world customer feedback. But when a self-involved PR person shoved her beak in, the brief went out the window along with reality. It became an arduous task of fishing for sense knee-deep in the effluent of her deluded mind.

“I think the website should say this…” she began. Then two days later: “I don’t like what the website says, change it.” So I did: “It should say what it said in the first place, why do you keep changing it?” Because you told me to YOU WARPED AMNESIC HARRIDAN.”

It’s OK for people to have different standards and different ways of working but diffcult clients can emotionally disturb us sensitive freelancers. Like every other human being you want to be right and you’d prefer to get your own way. Plus when your pride’s at stake, a client’s critical comments feel personal and ungrateful. And because you care about what you do, you fear letting people down. Yet that implies you’re able to please everyone which is frankly impossible.

This begs the question: what can you do to protect yourself?

Traditional models say you should document every client conversation so there’s a noose to hang them with when they inevitably contradict themselves later, but outside of legal circles how often do you hear of that happening? Never. Because it’s too confrontational, and as bill-payer the client has all the power.

So what can you do when things go awry? There’s your strongly worded professional opinion if you feel emphatic enough to challenge your client’s judgement. Remind them that they chose you for your expertise, and if they think they know better then perhaps they should go fuck themselves. Alternatively there’s the more diplomatic route of compromise. Put aside the details of what it is you disagree about and look at the bigger picture. What is it that your client wants to achieve? What’s best for the end user? Have they had a bad experience in the past that’s skewing their reason? There are many ways to skin a cat but a pig is better – if only more people would relax about sausages.

Finally there’s surrender. Just keep your head down and do as you’re told until the job’s complete and filed under wank. Just be thankful you don’t have to do this every working day of your life like most of the population. If your tricky client wants to make everything more laborious and drawn out then let them, but they must reimburse you for the extra inconvenience. This isn’t about punishment. You’re being paid for your time and expertise and they’re knowingly expending more of it, because you did the right thing and warned them when they exceeded your original estimate.

You might wonder what happened with the warped amnesic harridan. I surrendered and got the job done to her satisfaction. Thereafter she balked at the invoice, despite my early warnings about creeping costs. We spoke about what went wrong and worked out a mutual compromise. We agreed to split the invoice and learn from what could be done better in the projects she promised to send my way in future. Our most recent project was a straightforward pleasure for both of us.

Handling problematic clients isn’t easy or enjoyable and I bet that’s one of the reasons why you considered freelancing in the first place; to leave all that behind. Alas, until the rules of business engagement evolve into an arrangement where awkward clients pay us to indulge our creative whims and ignore them we have little choice but to roll with the punches. That means gracefully accepting that not every job is one for the portfolio, but one to learn and move on from instead.

<h3Remember

  • It’s OK to feel emotionally involved in your projects, that proves you’re conscientious
  • Exercise patience, compassion and belief in your judgement
  • Be ready to compromise
The Human Freelancer book

LOOK! There's a book full of this shit and more!

Self-help business books perpetuate the myth that success is relentless growth and more of everything means progress. They preach about bookkeeping and market research: things you might need to do of course. But let’s face it they’re fucking boring.

The Human Freelancer book is your antidote: stuffed full of emotional support and insightful advice for vulnerable newbies to self-employment like you.

Buy it now