Strangers to Collaborators: How to Stand Up for Yourself

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“I have always had perfect client relationships,” said no one ever.

Unfortunately, we can’t all jive with everyone. I’ve had one bad client relationship that stands out. There were a series of things wrong with this specific client relationship, but the tipping point was when this client would call me and scream about things. At the time, it felt very awful. 

I’m knocking on wood as I type this, but it has been a long time since I have had a negative client experience. It took me way too long to stand up for myself and part ways, but I learned a lot in the process.

Sometimes it may feel like you have to do whatever your client wants and take whatever they give, just because they’re paying you. That’s not true. You are allowed to and should stand up for yourself. 

Here’s the secret: standing up for yourself should be preemptive. If you can do certain things on your own terms before there’s an issue, you can keep the client relationship good and minimize the negative impact it has on your business and life. 

Here are a few preemptive strategies you can use to stand up for yourself in client relationships.

1. Overcommunicate

Client relationships are easier when everyone is on the same page. When you communicate everything, timeline, hangups, successes, needs, etc., it makes it easier for the client to understand where you are coming from and what to expect of you.

Things go south when there’s confusion about what should be done, by when, and by whom. The best way to make sure this doesn’t happen is by making it clear from the get-go.

Do your best to double, triple check and confirm expectations on everything you should be working on. One little trick is to end every client call by going over what you are responsible for.

2. Set Boundaries

As a freelancer, you don’t have a manager or HR department to set boundaries for you. This is your responsibility. It can sometimes feel like you need to always be available and do whatever you are asked to do as well.

Between these two forces, you can be spread thin, burn out, and spark a negative experience with your client.

Just think of it this way – you’re much more likely to have answers and a good attitude if you’re talking to a client during a scheduled time, during your work hours, with no distractions. If they call you at 10 pm on a Friday night when you’re having a fun night on the town, that conversation isn’t going to go as well.

Everything from when you work, what you do, and how much you deserve to be paid is up to you. As long as you consistently work and live by your own rules, you should be able to manage even the most difficult of clients.

3. Have Tough Conversations on the Phone or in Person

Sometimes, you’re going to have to have a tough conversation with your client and there’s no way around it.

When there is a more nuanced issue to discuss, you could hide behind your keyboard and spend hours agonizing over semantics, hoping your email is received and perceived in the exact tone you intended, or you could just pick up the phone and have a human conversation.

More complex matters especially can go better in person or over the phone because with sensitive issues, it can help to hear the tone in someone’s voice and have a natural dialogue. It is far too easy to read too far into written words, especially with sensitive issues.

Most of the time, conversations over the phone or in person go over better. People tend to be more calm (and compassionate) speaking to a real person than responding to a digital message. It’s just the way it is. I’ll be the first to tell you, I am still not great at this, it’s a struggle. But when I notice something is becoming too complicated over email, I know it’s time to schedule that phone call.

4. Be Proactive When Mistakes Happen

We all make mistakes. In most cases, clients are understanding, but the only way to give your client that chance is if you are proactive about making it right.

Right away, find a way to fix the problem.

As soon as you have an answer, tell your client.

The worst thing you can do in this situation is to hide it. That stuff will all surface in time.

Even if your “fix” isn’t fully fleshed out, it’s better to communicate that you’re on top of the problem than hide it or let it get worse.

5. Part Ways

Yes, sometimes it is okay to part ways with a client. But know the difference between parting ways and burning bridges.

You never know when your bad client might be a mutual connection to the best client ever, so leave with grace.

Make sure you finish everything that was promised to the client, hand over any important information they may need, and end on a good note.

If you’re worried about not getting that income, I get it. But by leaving the client behind, you will have more time to find and take care of the clients who treat you with respect. And without that unnecessary stress in your life, you might be even more productive in other areas of your business.

Rebekah Epstein