We’ve all been there before...

You just turned in what you think is awesome work. Through a long process of revisions, your work becomes progressively more boring/banal/stripped of all unique attributes/white bread. The client believes their idea is best, but you just know their decision is wrong for the project.

Here are tips for discussing your opinion with a client, including some from Freelancers Union Founder Sara Horowitz’s The Freelancers Bible.

Cut it off at the pass

Prevent (most) problems before they start.

Ask Questions. If you’re either new to freelancing, have a new “important” client, or feel out of your comfort zone, you can be shy about asking questions. If you think you have a stupid question, just say, “This may be obvious, but…”

Keep notes. Smart freelancers take notes on every conversation they have with a client. Set aside a notepad for each client you have. Write down any verbal decisions you make. Try to quote the client as much as possible. Then...

Repeat back what they say in writing. Think of this like recording meeting minutes. After a phone conversation, send the client a quick email with bullets of the main points you discussed. Be sure to include directions, requirements, and revisions you heard from the client. Remember, it’s always possible that you didn’t hear correctly or misinterpreted something.

Contract. You’ll be hearing this word a lot in this article, so let’s get this out of the way. Having a contract that includes at least

  • Number of mock-ups/drafts
  • Number of revisions
  • Client response time

will save you so much trouble later on. If any issue comes up where you know the client has stepped out of line, this is the quickest and easiest way to nip it in the bud.

Don’t overpromise. Sometimes when a client makes a bad decision or argues with you later, it’s because in trying to land/impress a client, you oversold. Setting proper expectations for timeframe and quality of work (in writing) sets up a trusting client/freelancer relationship.

Free e-book/pamphlet-/FAQs. This is for the very well-prepared amongst you. Do you get the same questions again and again from clients? Let’s say you’re a web designer who often deals with un-tech-savvy clients. Include common terminology, the benefits of certain services over others, etc. Consider putting them in a FAQ on your website. When a client asks you a question over email, copy and paste the answer, and say “This comes from the FAQ on my webiste, go to www.mywebsite.com/faq if you want to see more.”

What to do if they don’t like any of your work

Even if you do everything right, there will be disagreements.

Evaluate yourself. We’re not our best all the time. Give an honest look at the work that you handed into a client, and ask yourself if you could do any better.

Acknowledge. Even if a client is wrong, acknowledge their opinion. Repeat what they say back to them -- first verbally, then in writing.

Educate. If you still think that what you handed in is good for the project, defend your ideas. Give them a cogent, detailed explanation of why you went in the direction you did.

  • Refer to project aims. In your explanation, address how different aspects of your work meet the project’s goals.
  • Refer to competitor projects. Tell them how your work sets them off from the competition, provides better value, is as/more innovative, etc.
  • Refer to market/expert research. “New research suggests that consumers buy more products when…” or “According to Big Expert Person, this type of server is best…”
  • Share personal experience. They hired you for a reason, right? You have personal experience -- hopefully in their niche -- that can help them make the right decision.

Toss out what hasn’t worked. Yeah, this can be pretty painful. But research shows (see how I did that there?) we spend a lot more time/effort fixing what doesn’t work, and it’s often more efficient to cut our loses and move on.

How important is this client to your Freelance Portfolio? What are your goals for working with this client? Do you want a nice single portfolio item, or are you working with an ideal client who you hope to work with in the future? Sometimes, it’s worth it to do what the client wants if you want to maintain a long-term relationship. This doesn’t mean you’re sucking up or caving in. It means you make a decision to include more revisions or mock-ups while maintaining your personal values -- but adapting your vision and scope.

Doing exactly what a rude client wants just because you need the money is almost never a good idea. See here for more on that.

What to do if a client rejects the final, saying they never liked it

This usually only happens if either you or the client is a poor communicator.

Show documentation. This is where having notes, repeating a client’s words back to them, and having a record of approvals, decisions, and a pattern of unresponsiveness are super helpful. Show them exactly how many times they had an opportunity to tell you they didn’t like it.

Discuss working further. At this point, suggest a few options:

  • Depending on the situation, stipulate exactly what you will do and won’t do to revise the final.
  • Have an extensive conversation with the client. Discuss again exactly what the client is looking for, and repeat back. If the client is still vague, try to let them know how this is extending the process and may result in missed project deadlines. Make them show you samples of things they like (again).
  • Make it clear that you cannot continue working on the project without a new set of guidelines and further fees, due to what was stipulated in your contract.

Dealing with angry clients

Don’t shut them out. If you usually respond to anger by withdrawing, know that this is sometimes the worst thing you could do in a client/freelance relationship. If they’re angry over email, respond promptly. Now’s not the time to say “Humph!” and block them out.

It’s not always about you. In fact, it most likely isn’t about you. Your client probably has his/her boss yelling at them, or other pressures, and are “kicking the dog.” This doesn’t make it acceptable, but sometimes knowing this helps you stay objective.

Let them vent. If they’re upset about something, don’t cut them off. Let them go. In fact, if they’re acting passive aggressive, it might be a good time to say, “Please tell me what’s on your mind.” When they calm down, say, “I have some thoughts and questions, and a few ideas of where to go from here.” Remember: If they start venting in a personal way or getting rude, this is the time when you step in and defend yourself.

The project is more important than you or the client. It’s hard not to take their criticisms personally -- especially if it’s your creative work. But try to always bring the conversation around to “Let’s do what’s best for the project” -- not for you or the client (or the client’s boss). Project > Personalities.

Point out the good/salvageable bits. Sometimes when a client gets rolling, they start killing every aspect of the project. Make sure you point out even the good parts of a bad situation: “I’m really glad we had such a detailed discussion about this. I feel like I understand your point of view more clearly and can go forward.” “Even though you didn’t like the word choice here, it seems that you still like the overall theme of the piece. That’s the hard part: now we just have to work on the details.”

Move beyond finger-pointing. Ask questions to get actionable data. Get info on next steps. “How can we bring the project back on track?” “What would you feel comfortable with me doing at this point?” “What do you think is the best way we can fix response time issues?”

Stay closer after tense discussion. If you’ve been lax about communicating your progress regularly with a client, now’s the time to stay closer. Reinforce how much you want to make this work.

Freelancers, how do you educate your clients? What do you do if they hate your work?