How to handle needy clients

May 12, 2015

The signs are clear. A thin, reedy voice on the other end of the phone – or a bark, harsh with tension. Painfully long or overly curt emails, vibrating with stress. Phone calls (or worse, text messages!) coming in at decidedly odd hours. A mounting pain in your upper back.

You have landed yourself an especially needy client.

Have no fear, freelance friends! We all encounter this breed sometimes. Fortunately, there are a few simple tips you can use to assuage nervous clients’ anxiety – and reduce your own stress levels.

Practice empathy (and patience)….

Listen, I understand why clients get anxious – don’t you? First of all, they’re being brave enough to hire a freelancer instead of going with some-admittedly-lame-but-predictable agency or big corporate entity.

Second of all, they’re entrusting you with their precious project, often without knowing much about how/when/where you work. It’s got to be difficult to resist micro-managing… or at least, anxiously asking for progress updates.

Breathe deeply. Have a sense of humor. Try to understand their perspective, even if they’re annoying the bejesus out of you. Empathy is key.

… but set boundaries.

You can UNDERSTAND and SYMPATHIZE with someone without giving in to their every demand. My sweet toddler niece freaks out every time she’s denied access to a sharp object; I get why she wants to play with the shiny steak knives, but allowing her to do so would be, uh, problematic.

Clients can be anxious, if that’s their wont! They don’t have the right to call you up at all hours of the night. They don’t have the right to demand endless revisions without adequate compensation. They don’t get to suck up hours and hours of your time on “status update” calls – again, unless they start paying for those consultations. Particularly needy clients tend to blow right past reasonable expectations – just like toddlers, they don’t always know or care what’s good for them (and you).

Set polite boundaries IN WRITING: you have allotted X hours for this project at Y rate, you are available between 9-5 Monday and Wednesday, etc. If they ignore these boundaries and say, call you at 10 PM on a Saturday, answer them on your own timetable; don’t indulge their transgressions. Say no outright to “overtime” work, or offer them a (substantial) pay-per-hour alternative.

It’s amazing how fast demanding clients can learn patience when they start getting charged hefty consulting fees. EVEN THEN, beware of sacrificing your free time for money. You deserve a break – and not even the best check is worth constantly babysitting a tantruming client.

Oh, and don’t answer texts, unless you’re disposed to do so. That’s just an invitation to unfettered access.

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Lay it out

Have you ever tried to coax an anxious kid into a pool? You can’t just shove them in and go “TIME TO SWIM, BUDDY, I’LL BE WITH THE MARGARITAS” unless you are quite the sadistic bastard. Instead, you take them through step-by-step: we’ll just go to the edge and look, we’ll just put our feet in, you can just sit on the side while I go in, you can just jump to me in the pool, you can just swim one foot away from me and back.

Swimming in the pool is a big, scary, unknowable phenomenon; talking the kid through a step-by-step narrative calms them and makes each part of the process manageable.

Similarly, I’ve rarely found a needy client who can’t be pacified by a clear explanation of exactly what will happen on a given timeline. I shoot over an email detailing what I’ll be doing when, and when they’ll see results. And here’s a diabolical little mindgame: it is possible to actually exhaust an anxious client with lengthy over-explanation – thus, stifling their anxiety.

Some of the emails I have written to very very nervous clients have been practically Baroque.

Some nervous clients just need the reassurance of being able to look at a detailed schedule… and some need the mental equivalent of a pool floatie; a timeline that they know is there to support them, even if they never use it. Kill ‘em with information and kindness.


The absolute best way to get an anxious client to chill?


Next time you speak to Nervous Nellie client, notice your physical reaction. Are you tensing up, holding your breath? I sure bet you are. Take a minute to relax your body and breathe deeply into your belly/pelvic bowl. People respond and mimic, however subconsciously, the breathing patterns of those around them.

Odds are that the more YOU can relax, the more your client will calm down – if nothing else, they’ll feel like they’re in the hands of a calm, capable expert. Try not to let their hysteria infect you: R-e-l-a-a-a-a-x.

Both you and your stressed-out client will be breathing easier in no time.

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.