I think that one of the core activities of freelancing is to interact with other human beings. In many cases it means to build productive working relationships with people who you have not met before and doing it quickly.
In building relationship between professionals we have to agree on some rules and to stick to them to protect us and the customer. In most cases the freelancer and the client are two honest persons who just do not know each other, so they have to build and maintain trust to make the relationship work.
Building trust: you have to get off on the right foot
Rules help to build mutual trust especially at the very beginning: if a customer you worked with for a long time is late with a payment you just write a kind remainder and keep working on the project without worrying. If you are working with someone for the first time, he did not agree to give you an advance and the payment does not arrive by the time it was expected you will become nervous, you will start to suspect something is wrong. As a professional you will strive to keep your committment untarnished but as a human being a lack of trust could start to grow. For this reason I think that we have to realize that the initial contacts are very important: the other party will be able to judge us only by our actions towards them, not by our life of honest behavior. Of course unexpected things could happen: they have to be limited and prevented from happening when possible, but when it is not possible they have to be communicated.
A little story about a customer of mine
Let me share a story: one of my client was based outside the European Union and we agreed I would be paid by wire transfer. Unfortunately while I was expecting the second payment there was a strike of bank workers in his country and international transfers were blocked because of that. This was not an ideal situation but in that case the customer reached to me, explained the situation (also providing me links to articles from trustable sources) and he looked together with me for alternative ways to make the payment. The method for the transfer costed me a little more than the fee I would have paid to receive a wire transfer and I had to go through a slightly longer process to get the money but this is part of life: things happen and you try to find the best outcome given the situation. In the end I was very happy I was dealing with someone willing to work with me to find a solution: when difficulties arises being working with a good or a bad client make the difference.
How to recognize good and bad clients?
The tricky part is that it is often difficult to recognize bad and good clients: you could be an optimist and justify some behavior from your customer, or viceversa you could be too suspicious and think bad of someone doing an honest mistake. However sometimes hints just sum up and you realize you are working with a bad customer. Some examples?
Good clients pay you on time
Bad clients pay you late or do not pay you at all.
Good clients communicate to you if they are not happy about something.
Bad clients surprise you and sneak changes in the contracts.
With good clients you can afford to be as flexible as needed to get things done and to do whatever you need to help them.
With bad clients you have just to stick to the contract.
Good clients appreciate when you stay flexible and accomodate their requests.
If you bend your rules with bad clients they will just try to squeeze more and more from you.
What to do about bad clients?
As first thing we should realize that sometimes we are making a client become a bad client: we can act to improve the relationship, build more trust and make a pleasure to work together. My strategy for that is to be as clear as possible in my requests (e.g., I need the contract signed by this date, these travel expenses should be reimbursed, etc.) and being open and clear when a behavior of the customer makes me uncomfortable.
Once you have several hints and you start to be sure you are dealing with a bad client you have to decide why you are in business: if you are in business to get as much money as possible then you have to work with whoever you meet. I personally think that being rich is having the freedom to choose what to work on and with whom, so if I find a client abusive, if I think he is not trying to build a balanced situation I stop accepting more work from him.
There are no magic solutions to bad clients and if your economic situation requires to do so you will have to accept working with them. In that case try to protect you with well written contracts and try to stay as civil and professional as possible: you have to protect your professional image also when working with awful customers.
However, if you can afford it, just smile and say “no, thank you”.
I have been lucky in my life, not all the time but most of it: I had fantastic colleagues, talented advisors, incredible managers. Since I started freelancing I also had very good clients. I have been lucky most of the time, but not all the time and therefore I have to apply best practices also to managing customers.
As professionals we have to work to obtain the best possible outcome under any circumstance. It is also a reality that there are people with whom it is just easier to build relationships and build something positive: there are good and bad clients out there. While a great professional could produce positive results with either of them still it will have a much more pleasant journey when working with good clients.
Working with a good client is such more satisfying and I think it leads to build better products.