Day 1 – How Freelance Client Conflicts Happen


Welcome to Day 1 of the Conquering Client Conflict course!

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Let’s just jump right in with a bit of straight-shooting, shall we?

You and I both know that freelancing offers some unique challenges. Sometimes, your understanding of project scope or parameters doesn’t match that of your client. Sometimes, you fail to effectively communicate some of the elements pertaining to the project. We’re human, it happens. The problem, however, is that this leads to costly and wasteful efforts that fail to meet requirements and end up disappointing not only our clients, but ourselves. As a result, client conflicts emerge. Not good. It happens every day—in fact, take a minute right now and think about your own projects for a moment, or about a colleague you know. Odds are that if this hasn’t happened to you, it’s happened to someone you know (hell, it just happened to me on my last project, even though I know better!).

Client conflicts are very common in freelance work and they always stem from: 1. failing to communicate like professionals, and 2. failing to set boundaries. As the domain area expert (after all, that’s why they hire us, right?), the responsibility is on us to make sure that project-related expectations are set out clearly. This is why it’s important to have a solid on-boarding process ready for clients. The on-boarding interview should cover typical concerns that clients may have (what will this cost? How long will it take? What will I get?), while clearly defining the terms under which you are willing to work. Expect clear answers from your clients, as clear as the answers you give them; otherwise you won’t have an effective exchange of information and the on-boarding process will be worthless.


Setting Boundaries Is the Solution To Client Conflicts

When it comes to preventing client conflicts, setting boundaries during the on-boarding process effectively short-circuits unrealistically high client expectations, and makes them less likely to try to take advantage of us—intentionally or not—as freelancers. Not familiar with the concept of boundaries? That’s cool, it’s not the sort of thing they teach us on Day 1 of “how to be a freelancer” school Wikipedia defines “setting boundaries” like this:

Setting boundaries…is the practice of openly communicating and asserting personal values as way [sic] to preserve and protect against having them compromised or violated. The term “boundary” is a metaphor—with in-bounds meaning acceptable and out-of-bounds meaning unacceptable. Without values and boundaries our identities become diffused and often controlled by the definitions offered by others.

With clear boundaries, you can remain firm in the parameters you apply to projects, and establish a productive system of accomplishing good-quality work. You can focus better because you’ll have a solid grasp of all that you have to do to meet a client’s requirements. Likewise, clearly-set boundaries help to make clear what the client has to do to meet the requirements of their own project (more on this later). No party to a project should ever have to wonder what their role is.

Common boundaries for a freelance project include:

You probably have no trouble establishing these common boundaries; where you may have run into trouble in the past is with unspoken boundaries.

For example, would you object if a client did any of the following?

Of course you would. But have you told your client that these things are out-of-bounds? It’s often helpful to enumerate not just the basic price/delivery/scope boundaries, but behavioral and procedural boundaries as well.

Now, you might be hesitant to say anything to your client that amounts to “no.” If so, I totally understand – that’s a very common fear, and we’ll talk about how to hold your boundaries while still leaving options open for your clients. But…later. Right now we need to get you accustomed to setting boundaries in the first place.

The Key to Setting Boundaries

With established boundaries in place, you’re free to focus on producing the highest-quality work you can. That’s why we freelance, right? Because we’re highly-accomplished at a certain type of work? Well, consistent, good quality output is made possible by having simple, clear engagement parameters applied to any project we take on. In setting boundaries for all freelance engagements, the key is to establish them at the start of a project, whether it’s a small client with a small project or a big-name client with a project we might be able to use as a marketing piece later.

Some potential clients may already have set expectations based on what they’ve been told by others who have hired freelancers, and if we don’t counteract that at the very start, we can end up in a situation in which we’re fighting both preconceived expectations AND our own process! These type of scenarios are the very definition of serious client conflicts. I’m sure you’ve been there before; I certainly have been. It’s miserable. The earlier clear boundaries are set, the less confusion there’ll be as the project proceeds—and make no mistake, confusion kills projects dead.

Lastly (but also worth mentioning), you should feel free to identify the kind of work you’re willing to do (and the kind you’re not!). Claiming a specialty can help you feel more free to turn down work if you want to. Also, presenting yourself as a specialist can create a sense of authority, making clients less likely to push against your boundaries once set. Once all these boundaries are set, we can forget about the whole thing and just do the work, right? Almost…but not quite.

It’s important to remember that clients are human beings, and human beings are inherently self-serving; thus, they sometimes push on boundaries – sometimes hard. So, after we take responsibility for setting boundaries, we have to take responsibility for holding them. This isn’t always easy. In part 2 of this course, we’ll talk about how to hold the line (even when we’re scared to do so), why so many of us cave when clients push, and some of the biggest benefits of holding our boundaries.

Homework Assignment – Post Your Work To The Comments Below!

What, you thought I was going to let you read this and not DO anything? No chance. Get busy on the action items below, and post your work:

1) How often do you find yourself coming into conflict with your freelance/consulting clients?
I sometimes see freelancers on places like /r/freelance saying that EVERY project turns into a fight, and hopefully that’s not the case with you! Post your answer below.

2) What type of client conflicts have arisen most often w/your clients?
For example, some of the most common conflicts reported by the freelancers I mentor include being paid late, having deadlines suddenly moved up, or having extra work demanded for free. I’m sure your business has its own sources of conflict; post them below.

3) How have these client conflicts impacted your business? For example, at one point I had to a) change my payment terms to prevent being slow-paid, b) re-write my freelancing contracts (you are using a contract, right?), and c) start avoiding clients in a certain industry. Post how client conflicts have impacted your business below.