How to handle difficult clients

A key part of running a successful freelance business is managing the expectations and attitudes of your clients.

Even the most exceptional of self-employed professionals will at some stage face a difficult client. This could include a customer who:

  • is a late payer or doesn’t pay altogether
  • demands for things to be done that are not within your initial agreement
  • has expectations that are unrealistic
  • is reluctant to consider your ideas
  • has to be chased on everything you need from them
  • is impossible to get in touch with
  • is unreasonable or impolite.

In these instances, knowing how best to manage the situation can be challenging. On one hand, you don’t want to lose the business but on the other hand, you deserve to be respected.

To help with this, Markel Direct have rounded up their seven top tips for effectively dealing with difficult clients.

freelancer looking stressed working at laptop

1. Have a detailed proposal

On occasion, a client might request for you to do additional tasks on top of what was initially agreed, without paying you any extra. To try and prevent this from happening, make sure you create a thorough proposal before starting the project. This way if a client tries to request extra work from you, you can refer to the proposal and explain that the task will be an extra job for which terms will need to be agreed in a new contract.

The proposal can also be used as a reference point if a client dispute is raised. For your own security, make sure the actions proposed are clearly outlined in your contract.

2. Always create a contract

Even if you have carried out the agreed work to a high standard, there may be times where you experience clients who are impossible to please. To protect yourself in these instances, it’s always worth having a robust and signed contract for every client you work with. This way, if ever they make a claim against you, or refuse to pay an invoice, you have a legally binding document to fall back on. For help with creating a contract, you can access template contracts, put together by law experts, on the Markel Law Hub.

For more tips on how to create a thorough contract that will protect you, read Markel Direct’s article - Five common contractual mistakes and how to avoid them.

3. Devise a clear plan

Keep an updated work in progress spreadsheet documenting your completed actions and upcoming tasks so that your client is kept in the loop on what you are working on. Make this a shared spreadsheet so that your client always has access to the most up to date version.

Breaking the project down into smaller tasks will give them a clear understanding of how the project is developing and will help them to appreciate the amount of work you’re putting in. Be as specific as you can with the actions you add to the spreadsheet to reduce ambiguity and set expectations, for example put in estimate completion dates for tasks to prevent the client from constantly asking where you are at with things.

If you’re unable to complete a task because you’re waiting on something from the client, make a record of this in the spreadsheet documenting the date you sent the request and the dates of any follow up emails.

4. Communicate regularly

With any client, consistent communication is always important. If you’re regularly in contact, this can help to reduce crossed wires and prevent issues from escalating.

Talking to your customer over the phone, not just via email, on a regular basis will build a better client relationship. If it’s a client you’re working with on a long-term basis, where possible catch up with them in person by visiting their offices or meeting for a coffee. Putting in that extra effort will help them to feel valued and build mutual respect. All in all, if you have a stronger rapport, your customers are much more likely to talk to you rationally if they have a problem, instead of assuming the worst and potentially being rude.

If your client does make a complaint or raise a concern, make sure you get back to them quickly to avoid rumination and reassure them that their opinion is valued. Try to avoid dealing with complaints over email. For example, send an email proposing a time to chat but talk over the issue on the phone. Often calling a client, or chatting in person, helps to diffuse the situation more efficiently.

5. Have confidence in your expertise

If a client has different ideas to you on how to achieve objectives, acknowledge their ideas but have the confidence to say if they will not be the right way of achieving the client’s desired outcomes. After all, they are hiring you for your expertise and experience within your industry.

If you think a client’s idea will not be the best approach, respectfully tell them this, explaining exactly why it wouldn't work. You can draw on your past experiences here or any relevant research.

6. Consider parting ways

As a self-employed freelancer, your reputation is important and of course you don’t want it jeopardising which is why you need to remain professional and polite, even when a client is being outright rude, however you can only do this for so long before it begins to impact your work satisfaction and general mood. If a client is causing you a lot of stress and working with them becomes a real burden, draw your relationship with them to a close.

Being a freelancer allows you that flexibility and autonomy so make the most of it by replacing the difficult client with someone who shares your values.

If you need to part ways with a client, you can do this in a professional and respectful manner that ends things on a good note.

7. Be prepared for the worst

No matter how professional you are, there’s no winning with some clients. In the worst-case scenario, a client might make a claim against you. Defending the claim and paying out compensation, if it comes to that, could cost you tens of thousands and put a strain on your business.

With the right business insurance, you won’t have to worry about this expense.

Professional indemnity insurance provides cover for claims alleging negligence or breach of contract. This policy will cover your legal costs of investigating and responding to allegations, as well as paying any damages owed to the client.

Claims relating to poor workmanship are often raised to avoid or delay payment. No matter how suspicious these claims appear to be, they still need to be investigated and responded to.

As an IPSE member, you can enjoy a 10% discount* on your business insurance from Markel Direct plus free access to Markel Law Hub when you become a customer. Get a quote here.

* IPSE member discount terms and conditions

The 10% discount will be applied to the net policy premium before insurance premium tax is applied. All quotations provided will be subject to meeting underwriting and claims criteria acceptance. All cover will be subject to full policy terms and conditions which are available upon request.

Markel Direct

IPSE have partnered with Markel Direct, a specialist insurer of contractors, freelancers, self-employed professionals and micro-businesses to offer a 10% discount* on contractor insurance to IPSE members.

Markel Direct


Need more help? Self-employment often means having to navigate lots of different websites with no clear source of truth. As the only not-for profit focused on self-employment, IPSE provides impartial and relevant advice on the topics that matter to you.

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