Clients might mean work and revenues but they also bring a range of problems, from non-payment to unreasonable demands. Here are six of the biggest problems that clients cause freelancers, and what you can do to squish those problems flat.
The biggest problem a client can cause is when they don’t pay the bill — or they don’t pay the bill on time. That usually happens for one of two reasons: the client might not be happy with the work; or the client might not be happy about paying money.
You’ll have invested time, effort and skill into producing something valuable. You’ll have taken a bet that that period will give you the money you need to pay the bills, and it looks like you’re about to lose that bet. That’s a problem.
The first of those situations is easier to solve. When there’s a conflict about whether the project has met the client’s requirements, the solution is a negotiation about how much more work needs to be done and how much extra it’s going to cost. It’s not likely to be comfortable and it’s not likely to be very remunerative.
And you’re not likely to keep the client — or want to.
But investing a little more time in the project is usually enough to get the funds, even if they come in at a lower overall hourly rate. Most clients are willing to pay for the work they’ve received eventually.
Sometimes though they aren’t willing to pay — ever — and then your squishing tools are more limited. Milestones for delivery and payment can reduce your losses, small claims courts can work if both clients and contractor are in the same judicial zone and you have enough patience, determination and sheer outrage to see it through. Otherwise, when you control the client’s Web server, there are always more forceful methods.
A client who doesn’t pay is stealing your work. A client who keeps asking for more work once the project has been completed is trying to steal your time. Instead of selling those hours to a new client or investing them in a new project, you’re forced to keep adding them to the old project, reducing the amount you’re going to earn in that month’s work hours. Once again, the client is causing a real cash flow problem.
The best way to squish this problem is to head it off with a clear proposal so that both sides know exactly what the final delivery will look like. In practice though, that’s not always enough. It can happen that a client will only think of a new feature once he sees the complete project. If the addition is minor enough to make up only a small percentage of the overall bill then you might want to swallow it in the interest of keeping the client and winning future jobs — think of it as an investment in marketing. If the additions are major though then the only solution is to present a new quote. That’s often enough to help the client realize that those additions aren’t that necessary after all.
Clients can ask for more from a project; they can also ask that it be completed in less time. For a freelancer, it’s difficult to refuse. Completing the work faster by pushing themselves harder means that they’re earning a higher hourly rate. Adding more hours to the day or the week means that they’re making more in the month, increasing their overall revenues. More money for more time looks like a solution, not a problem.
The bill though is paid by the freelancer’s family which gets to see less of a contractor chained to the desk at the weekend or stuck in the study in the evenings.
Partners (although perhaps not children) tend to be understanding of occasional work sprints that require extra hours but long hours become a problem when they turn into a new permanent work schedule. At that point, the only solution is to adjust your proposals to take into account a realistic assessment of the amount of time you need to complete the work. If the timetable doesn’t fit, suggest ways to reduce the complexity of the project. Burnout is usually a freelancer’s last problem.
Friction with Other Clients
For clients, freelancers are an easy way to get work done. They don’t need to pay benefits, they don’t need to supply office space or equipment. They don’t even need to see their contractor. They only have to describe the project and pay the bill. The price they have to pay though is that they’re not the contractor’s only client. It’s a price that many tend to forget.
They make demands on a freelancer’s time that the freelancer can’t meet and they’re surprised when the contractor is reluctant to take on a project at the time they need. Worse, freelancers can find themselves agreeing to a new project and then having to explain to another client why their work is late.
Honesty is the best solution to this problem. Although some clients like to treat freelancers as employees, knowing that the contractor they’ve chosen is in demand is reassuring. It shows that they’ve made a decision with which other businesses agree. It’s usually enough then to point out that you’re not available for a set period and to explain when you can have the work ready. When the alternative is to hire an employee, the client tends to be understanding.
Work You Can’t Supply
There are some things you know you can do because you’ve done them a million times before. And there are some things that you don’t know whether you can do because you’ve never done them before. Clients have a habit of pushing freelancers out of their comfort zones, asking writers of sales letters to create video sales letters, for example, or demanding Flash scripts from HTML website designers. Unwilling to refuse, the freelancer is left committed to a job outside his or her skill set.
In fact, this is a solution, not a problem. Freelancers are always faced with the challenge of keeping their skills up to date without wasting the time they need to put them to use. Accepting a job from a client that goes beyond their experience is a way of gaining those new skills. Make it clear that this is the first time you’re doing it, be prepared to make lots of changes until you get it right, and understand that the first one or two jobs is likely to cost you time, and you should find that clients are willing to bear with you while you advance your skills.
Leaving You in the Lurch
One advantage of working with freelancers is that clients don’t have to pay severance pay. They can end the relationship at any time, cutting off one revenue source for the freelancer. Sudden and unexpected income loss is a real problem for any freelancer.
And the only solution is to be ready for it. Avoid being dependent on one large client, know where to go to find more work, and have a marketing plan ready to roll out as clients fall away.
Most clients are willing to pay, pleasant to work with and understanding of your pressures. But their interests will come first. Keeping an eye out for the most common problems they cause and knowing how to beat them should help to keep your freelance business healthy.