Whether you’re a copywriter or any other kind of freelancer, difficult clients are something we’re all familiar with. The red flags aren’t universal, but we know them when we see them. They are the stubbornly squeaky wheel that distracts us from other critical maintenance.

Coming from an employee mindset, as many of us do, it’s easy to slip into appeasement as a default strategy for dealing with a problem customer. Freelancers are not employees, however, and appeasement is only rarely (and temporarily) an appropriate response. Difficult customers don’t just make our own lives as freelancers more stressful, they also cost us money and ultimately damage our other client relationships—those we actually want to keep.

What makes a “difficult” client

There are many different criteria for what might make a client “difficult”. Ultimately, it’s subjective and depends on what you personally need your work life to be like to be effective. As a general definition, though, it’s any client that negatively impacts your business overall. Let’s look at a few examples of red flags that I look for personally:

  • Clients who demand constant contact (i.e. always being logged into Skype, Teams, Slack etc…) – This causes interruptions to your workday that might impact the amount and quality of the work you can do for other clients
  • Clients who expect constant availability for work – This makes it impossible to reliably schedule your workday/week, and may force you to delay important work in order to accomodate a no-notice task for a pushy client.
  • Clients who expect you to accomodate very irregular workloads – Every working hour you keep open for a client who *might* have something for you to do is an hour that you didn’t schedule for a better client.
  • Clients who want to monitor your work (cameras, tracking apps, screensharing, Zoom etc…) – You are not a zoo animal.

All of these kinds of behavior mark clients who are attempting to sacrifice your time, independence, energy, and money for their own convenience and profit.

So, you’ve got a new contract, started work, and after a few weeks you start to notice some red flags. What do you do?

What’s the best way to deal with a difficult client?

There’s more than one way to solve this type of problem. The simplest solution is just to fire the client, but that often isn’t necessary. A smarter first resort is to try to communicate and resolve the issue peacably (and contractually). Usually, that means establishing when exactly you’ll accept calls and communications, a minimum turnaround time for any given task, and ensuring that work isn’t billed hourly (to remove any justification for monitoring).

If the client doesn’t agree, or no clear solution presents itself, it’s time to look for other work. Sometimes, it’s worth it to stick it out for a few weeks, until you can find a new customer. Depending on how severe the issue is, though, it may be necessary to fire the client on the spot. If you’re wary of taking this step, you need to look at how the problem is impacting both you and your other clients—those who are reliable, amiable, and who pay punctually. Are their projects being delayed? Is the quality of your work suffering? Are you left feeling stressed after the workday is done?

It’s never, ever worth it to disappoint a good client just to avert the wrath of an unreasonable one.