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Overcoming problematic clients as a solopreneur (part 1)

I wasn’t sure about writing this post because I was worried about what people would think about my attitude towards exploitative, secretive, and unnecessarily temperamental clients. And then I remembered that I run this agency. And here, we don't gatekeep stories about great opportunities or our failures.

In this short series, I’ll write about my experience with such clients from my perspective as a solopreneur. Now, I don't consider the bad apple clients as failures. They are more like uncomfortable shoes to wear for a while. You wouldn't necessarily wear sandals to hike up a mountain, but sometimes that's all you have available, so you work with it.

How your agency does in the world and how well it is respected as a reliable, professional, and friendly service provider is up to you. So, if you’re a freelancer or solopreneur or want to become one, here’s what I’ve learned about communicating with problematic clients.

What does a solopreneur do?

Short answer: everything.

Long answer:

  • Conceptualising

  • Planning

  • Accounting

  • Marketing

  • Branding

  • Client search

  • Onboarding

  • HR and legal

  • Project work for all clients

  • Project management

And everything comes with a smile.

My process is built on a learn-as-I-go method. Whenever I need to learn something for a project or to improve my business, I learn it as a part of my preparation for the project work. This means that my learning is always aligned with niche requirements, but these lessons can be generalised and reapplied elsewhere if needed.

My relationships with clients are built on:

Adaptability | Accountability | Practicality | Kindness | Integrity,

but this doesn’t mean all clients meet me halfway in this regard. These are TFQ’s company values, and the basis of all communication is received and responded to.

My pain points as a solopreneur

Hate is a strong word, and it’s reserved for times when clients expect the best of me without giving me the right — or enough — information to get the job done.

Communication is the priority at TFQ. It’s what I do and what I practice. It’s unprofessional when clients withhold information necessary for the project’s success. And it’s disorganised and harmful to the agency’s progress when clients change their requirements mid-project.

Over the last two years, I’ve dealt with clients who propose ideas without room for inspiration; provide little to no clarity on their vision; can’t settle on an idea to run with; write unnecessarily terse emails; and are secretive about company policies and final destinations of project work. Let’s not even talk about overdue payments!

Frankly, it’s disrespectful.

So, coming directly from my worst days as a solopreneur, here are three ways to overcome problematic clients. These are generalised so that you can apply them to your situations.

Communication methods to handle disagreeable clients:

When such clients happen to work with TFQ, I rely on these communication methods to keep track of their projects:

One: Ask, and ye shall receive

Don’t sit quietly and wait for an update. Ask for it. Unabashed follow-up emails convey the point (and emotion) without undoing the client-freelancer relationship.

Keeping an open communication channel, especially in stressful moments, leaves room for personal and professional growth. For you, at least. On the one hand, you get to remain professional; on the other hand, you create a space for empathetic communication. If your clients don’t respond in kind, well, then they are showing you what they’re made of in those stressful times. Time to wrap it up and look for better opportunities!

Two: Keep it professional and humane

When clients resort to unkind, unprofessional responses, remember to stay civil. It pains me to acknowledge how well this works in the long run because, in the heat of the moment, all I want to do is respond in kind. But TFQ is a big believer in professional empathy, so when I am hit with a howler that is completely untrue, I write two emails.

The first email is me just brain-dumping my emotions on the page (remember not to send this!!). It’s brash, ugly, and petulant — basically, I mirror the client’s emotions in writing. Then, once my brain chemistry has regulated itself, I write the official TFQ response.

Three: Avoid opinions

When I write the official response, it’s measured and factual. All the times I've had to write these emails, it's usually after the work is completed to the client's original definition of "done", and they refuse to accept it.

I maintain my position by including:

  • The titles of the projects I took on for the client;

  • Which ones have been in review since I delivered them, and which ones are complete;

  • The point of contact responsible for each project I worked on (if it’s someone else in their organisation);

  • Their written responses and requests (which I attended to and delivered).

When you begin and end with the things that actually happened, you can save yourself the trouble of having to stoop to nasty and unprofessional (and, later, regrettable) emails.

If you’ve been at this for a while, I hope these methods remind you to prioritise your professional growth and sanity above hurtful clients. And if you’re new to the game, welcome.

Life as a solopreneur is delightful and full of autonomy, but when disagreeable clients come your way, I hope these communication methods help you through difficult times.

In next week’s blog, I’ll be sharing why I chose to stay with such clients and a checklist of official documentation to start with before working with them. That should be an interesting post ;)

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Pam Eapen
Pam Eapen
Mar 27, 2023

I love that your ethos determines your response, no matter what energy the client brings you. That said, it's not easy to fend off the bitterness that comes with a disrespectful client. What's even worse is when they're "nice" about shortchanging you, and then shift blame when you call them on it. I'm glad you wrote this piece - it's an important read for the solopreneurs out there who have to be their own bulletproof vests!

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Emma Hanly
Emma Hanly
Mar 27, 2023

Came across this term a while back: “Scope creep” in project management refers to changes and continuous or uncontrolled growth in a project’s scope at any point after the project begins. I.e. The goalposts keep moving. At the start of my career, I had a client that did this so regularly that it led to horrendous burnout on my part. It's crazy how much anxiety unclear objectives can provoke, but also how simply this issue can be addressed with a bit of research and communication. Thanks for writing this! Definitely a precious nugget of wisdom for anyone starting out on their solopreneur journey.

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Ahhh, the dreaded burnout 🥲 Glad you're out of that phase now! 🎉

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