Mar 27, 2023

Being your own boss is freeing. You set your hours. You establish your office dress code (I see you, comfy pants and respectable slippers). You decide when you can take a vacation

It also means ALL the responsibility is on – that’s right – YOU. 

You don’t have a chain of command to tap into when things get tough, nor can you pass off a difficult client to a teammate. If you want to grow your business, you have to learn how to handle (and feel comfortable with) conflict when it comes up with clients. 

This is where tapping into your Emotional Intelligence (EQ) will serve you well. EQ can be described as the ability to identify and manage your own emotions while also understanding and empathizing with the emotions of those around you. Those with well-developed EQ can approach these situations with grace, empathy, and professionalism.

Proactive Steps to Avoid Conflict with Clients

The best way to resolve conflict is to avoid it. We know what you’re thinking: easier said than done. But hear us out. 

A few proactive steps can go a long way in preventing conflict. Most conflict – like 90% of it – comes from expectation misalignment. That’s why it’s so important to set expectations from the beginning, especially if you are working with a client who is new to working with freelancers. 

Get to know your client

It’s a good idea to ask your new client about any previous experience working with freelancers. If they say they had a negative experience in the past, then find out what happened. Maybe the freelancer ghosted them on a job. You can explain how and when you’ll communicate. Maybe they had a job that went way over the intended budget. You can reassure them that you’ll stay within the agreed upon scope and discuss anything outside of that before billing. Knowing they may be coming into this partnership with reservations can help you understand where potential conflict could arise.  

Onboard your client

If your client does not have their own onboarding in place, it is perfectly acceptable for you to initiate this process. Not only does it protect you and set clear boundaries, but it also shows you’re a professional. This is a new partnership, and both sides are entitled to have a say in the working relationship. Make sure things like communication preferences (email vs phone, available hours, response time) and payment terms (plus the contact info of their financial person) are outlined and agreed upon. Download our freelancer to client toolkit here for templates you can use.

Request a clear scope and project brief

Don’t start a project without a brief. If the client doesn’t supply you with one, email a blank template and ask them to complete it. You want to be sure your deliverables and timeline are crystal clear. You’ll also want all your resources in one place. This document can serve as a paper trail if there are any future discrepancies or scope creep. 

Once you’ve set these expectations, maintain communication with your client throughout the process. Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions, and make it a point to keep your client updated on your progress. These proactive steps can help you avoid future conflict.

Potential Sources of Conflict with Clients

Even our best clients sometimes create conflict. While we’d like to think that every project will go smoothly, the truth is that everyone is busy, things get misplaced, and messages can be miscommunicated. Here are some ways conflict might show up with your client:

Scope creep

A client suddenly asks for another logo option or a third round of revisions or adds social media copy to the deliverables. This is scope creep. That’s why it’s so important to have a clear brief so you can go back and say, “I can give you another option, but it will cost an additional $$.” If you get pushback, you can reference the agreed upon terms. 

Feedback overload

The old saying “too many cooks in the kitchen” definitely applies to feedback. Some larger clients may have multiple levels of review or higher-ups that need to approve it. There’s nothing you can do about that. But be sure you have a clear revision process as part of your brief or onboarding so you can avoid getting feedback in stages or conflicting opinions from various people. If your client doesn’t offer a time to review feedback with you, request one so you can ask questions and offer your own thoughts. Feedback should be a conversation.

RELATED: We recommend these feedback tips to our clients (which is what we recommend you ask for): compile all revisions into one document, set a time and place to deliver the feedback, focus it on the work itself, and include reasons for changes.

Missed or late payments

This might top the list of grievances from freelancers. There is nothing more frustrating than sending over final files and then having to chase down payment. Hopefully you have the contact info for the finance person and can reach out to them directly. You might also consider asking for a deposit before beginning work or to submit invoices for milestones of a large project rather than waiting for all payment at the end. 

Conflict Resolution Dos and Don’ts

You may find yourself in these or other frustrating situations when it comes to working with a client. So what can you do to resolve the conflict?

While everyone will have their own resolution style, here are some guidelines that have proven to help navigate and resolve conflict. 

Don’t: Pretend everything is ok  

We don’t think many (any?) people like confrontation, but you can’t just wish conflict away. Ignoring the issue and hoping it will go away often causes things to get worse instead of better. Best to approach it head on, direct and unemotionally. 

Don’t: Automatically give in to the client 

One of the worst things you can do is give in to a client’s demand or disregard your own feelings just to sidestep an awkward conversation or “save the relationship.” This approach can build resentment and even affect the quality of the service you’re providing. 

Don’t: Get defensive 

This might be a tough one! It’s natural to jump on the defensive when you feel like someone is trying to take advantage of you. But it’s in your best interest to stick to the facts and avoid pointing fingers. 

Do: Address the conflict in a professional manner 

  • Request a meeting (Zoom or in-person) and let your client know what it will be about. You definitely don’t want to catch them off guard, so a heads up allows them to be in the right mindset for the conversation. 
  • During the meeting, calmly and clearly explain the problem or source of tension. Remain professional when expressing your concerns, stating the facts or referencing your contract or brief if necessary. 
  • Allow your client to explain things from their perspective and actively listen to their response. That doesn’t mean you have to give in, but it shows you’re coming into this with a collaborative mindset. 
  • Be prepared with suggestions for moving forward that you feel comfortable with. Be open to their suggestions as well – though you don’t have to agree to them if they don’t work for you. 
  • Send a follow-up email capturing what was discussed and outlining next steps.

In short:

  • Acknowledge the problem
  • Listen yet remain firm
  • Work towards a solution

And if you were the one who made a mistake (hey, it happens, we’re all human!), own it and work to right the wrong. 

Communicating and working collaboratively will resolve most problems. It’s often a simple misunderstanding. But if a client continues to push back on the scope or is late with payments, you may have to walk away and use the experience to be more proactive with your next client. 

Pro Tip: Build a Freelance Partner Relationship

Navigating these tricky situations is even trickier when you’re working alone. While you may be a one-person enterprise, there is a huge community of freelancers out there happy to offer advice and support. 

At Uncompany, we’ve created an online community of awesome and kind independents. Join us as a free agent for resources related to your business as well as group support. Oh, and fun gifys. Who doesn’t love those? 


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