How to manage client relationships

The good, the tricky and the bad

One of the most challenging parts about work - whether freelance, perm, or part time - is working relationships. In my previous job as a managing editor, I felt like I spent 80% of my time smoothing out the relationships of those in my team and fire fighting conflict at every turn.

But as a freelancer you have the added hurdle of trying to create professional relationships while, in many cases, working remotely - which is always tricky. Reading the tone of voice of someone you’ve never met in person is practically impossible and humour is often completely lost. So it’s no surprise that sometimes you can run into trouble, especially if a client treats you unfairly or as someone less important than a full-time employee.

I find this to be one of the biggest negatives about freelancing and it has, on a couple of occasions, left me in a puddle of tears. But over time I have learned to not only toughen up, but also spot the warning signs and handle challenging situations better.

So to help you troubleshoot a range of stumbling blocks, I’ve created a cheat sheet that breaks working relationships into good, tricky and very bad and how to approach each one differently.

The golden eggs

Good clients are worth their weight in gold and can even become friends if you work with them for many years. They are defined by their friendliness, mutual respect, interest in you as a person and the way they commission out work: with achievable deadlines, clear briefs and good payment terms that they stick to. This kind of professional relationship makes you feel good and gives you a little endorphin boost every time you see their name pop up in your inbox.

If you’re lucky enough to work with a team of great people, you should try and meet one or two of them in person if possible. Ask if they have time to meet for a coffee or grab lunch one day. You’ll find that this really helps create a great working relationship that will last, and it’s always good to put a face to a name.

It also goes without saying that these relationships should be nurtured and valued, so stick to deadlines, be honest if you need an extension and be flexible if they ask for amendments to your work. Receiving constructive feedback can feel tough at times but it also shows that a client wants to work with you again and again. So try to suck it up and make the effort to get things right.

The tricky

There are some jobs and projects that feel trickier than others and you can't always immediately put your finger on why. Perhaps you find it hard to communicate or feel that the briefs are a bit woolly, or perhaps you're working for an organisation where no one specifically has been put in charge of managing freelancers - leaving you feeling a little lost at sea. In my experience, these are the situations where you as a professional freelancer need to help steer the ship and give straightforward feedback on what you need to make it work for both parties.

I’ll give you some real-life examples of clients I’ve encountered…

The first are those that aren’t used to working with freelancers. They might be a small business and are a little unsure about what they want and are a little nervous about how to manage things. They might also be part of a larger corporation where they are time poor or very senior - and in lots of meetings throughout the day. This can make getting answers to your questions difficult, delaying you in the process.

Both of these types of clients can, in my experience, create lengthy back and forths and rounds of feedback which can become frustrating. In this circumstance, you as the freelance professional need to set boundaries and also advise on how best you think you can work together. You will also need to set their expectations and be very clear from the offset of how you work, what you need, how long things will take, and what the end result will look like.

At the end of the project, don’t be afraid to iron out teething problems by giving constructive, upwards feedback on how you feel it went and how you can improve things next time. Tackling these issues, rather than ignoring them, will alleviate so much stress and hopefully mean you can turn a tricky working situation into a golden egg.

I recently did this with someone who I work with at a big brand and it went as follows:

Client: “So I’ve had some great feedback from the team about the project and they’ve said it’s all going really well. But you just need to be extra careful with xx and xx as those legal rules have changed in how we can write the copy”.

Me: “Ok, thanks so much for letting me know, I’ll make sure I do that next time. I also have a bit of feedback on the project. Is now a good time to share?”

Client: “Yes sure. What is it?”

Me: “You often use acronyms that are specific to the company and I have no idea what any of them mean. Would you mind explaining them to me so I have a better understanding of what’s going on?

Client: “Yes sure. Sorry about that. We forget that not everyone speaks in our marketing lingo”. (she goes on to explain).

Me: “And one other thing, sometimes, when you brief, you leave out some key bits of information and it takes time for me to fill in the gaps. It would really help me in future if all the briefs were as detailed as possible”.

Client: “Oh really? I didn’t realise I did that but that’s good to know. I'll pass that on to the rest of the team and we'll work on tightening that process”.

The result of this conversation was a good one and a job that had once caused me stress in lots of very small (but very real) ways, slowly improved. And those briefs are now airtight, if you were wondering.

Giving clients feedback in the right way also shows initiative and honesty and they’ll want to get things working well just as much as you do. Most busy professionals just want freelancers to make their life easier and communication is key to this.

The bad

During my time as a freelancer I’ve thankfully only had a few examples of really bad clients. I’ve encountered those that have refused to pay for good quality work without even giving me the chance to finish it; those that have pressured me into finishing a big project in just a few hours while ringing me incessantly every 15 minutes; those that have changed the brief COMPLETELY after finishing it and asking for a whole new piece of work; and those that made a single blog post into a mammoth feedback session that went on for weeks. They then published it on another bloggers website under their name.

After receiving payment, I don’t work with people like this again, as the hours of time and headspace they take up isn’t worth it. It’s also not why I went freelance. But for every really bad company or individual, there are five more brilliant ones who are eager for someone with your talent. Don't feel as though you need to hang on to something that just isn't working or making you happy.

But what should you do if you're right in the middle of a bad situation and you can't get out just yet, and how can you avoid starting these relationship all together? Here are a few suggestions that I find help keep me sane:

  • Remember you are a business so try and remove the emotion from the situation. If you’re feeling really worked up, take a break, go for a walk and don’t reply to their email or call until you’ve calmed down. You can then reply in a more measured approach that isn’t passive aggressive or angry.

  • If you’re contacted by someone out of the blue asking for your services and you aren’t familiar with their company or brand, or they are based outside of the UK, ask for 50% of payment up front before you start the work. This will show how serious they are and give you some security. (It also helps to sift out the clients that you suspect are a bit iffy). You should also draw up a simple contract that states your payment terms, late payment fees and a description of the work you're going to be doing.

  • Get a second opinion. I always speak to my husband about difficult work problems as he deals with things in a completely different way to me. As it isn’t his business or work, he can give advice that’s objective rather than reactive. Alternatively, call a friend, a colleague or a mentor and get their steer on how to approach a problem if you really aren’t sure. I also seek the advice of my friend and ex-colleague Natalie Hughes, founder of The Fashion Digital as we work in the same industry. She hires freelancers and works with big brands so is always great at helping me gain some perspective. (We’ll be hearing more from Natalie later on).

  • There’s nothing wrong with ending a relationship with a client if it's not working for you, and you can still leave your arrangement with integrity. Make sure you tie up any loose ends and do the work promised, but explain over an email (if it’s more comfortable) that the project isn’t quite as you expected and so this will be your last day or week/ and or commission. If you’ve entered into a contract or retainer agreement with them, you will have to honour the terms set, but they may well release you from it if you’re both mutually unhappy. Don’t see this as a failure - not every job can work out.

    You deserve to work with people that treat you well so set this as your standard. So often freelancers put up with being treated poorly by companies and it can end up making their lives really difficult and miserable. Freelancers are not second rate employees so they deserve to be treated as the talented contractors that they are.

    So know your rights and worth and be firm when you need to be. If I'm really struggling and work has made me feel crappy, I think of people that I really admire professionally and think 'would they put up with this s@#t?’

    The answer is always no.


Natalie Hughes is the founder of The Fashion Digital – a fashion social media and content agency, specialising in social media, design and copywriting for luxury brands - and she has tons of experience in working with all kinds of amazing brands. So, I asked Natalie if she could share some of her wisdom on maintaining good client relationships and what to do if you run into problems.

Cat: What advice do you give on how to deal with a bad client that is refusing to pay, even though you have completed the work they asked? 

Natalie: “Keep calm and try to sort things out amicably. Ideally, jump on a phone call - I always think an in-person chat is better than email, less room for misunderstanding! If the situation can't be solved this way, I'd recommend offering an extension on payment (if you can), and then only as a last resort, consider making a small claim through The small claims system is useful for recovering debt as a last option - although I really would try to find another solution”.

Cat: How can freelancers protect themselves at the beginning of working with someone new?

Natalie: “It's a good idea to draw up a simple contract before commencing work. It doesn't need to be pages and pages long, as long as it has the important info, such as start date and end date, fee and termination details. There are some brilliant templates available for freelancers to download for free, so I'd recommend doing a quick Google. It's always best to have a solicitor look over contracts, but I know this isn't always possible. For signing, I recommend a tool called HelloSign - it enables digital signing, so no printing and scanning needed!”

Cat: How should freelancers set boundaries with their clients?

Natalie: “Try to fully define the scope of work before starting the project, just to ensure both you and the client are on the same page. If you do have an agreement in place, it's worth adding this information in - the more detailed, the better. If there's scope creep, don't be afraid to chat to the client and expand the scope of work/discuss a revised fee. Sometimes projects do sprawl beyond the scope, and that's fine, as long as you feel comfortable and suitably compensated for the extra work”.

I’m working on a mental health series of newsletters for august and would love to hear your thoughts. What do you struggle with as a freelancer? Does money cause you the most worry, or is it the anxiety of maintaining consistent work that bothers you? And how do you try to set boundaries and separate family life from work? Let me know by replying to this email and i’ll try and tailor the series to what’s most relevant and helpful to you.

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