Freelance Client Communication Red Flags (and How to Handle Them)

By Bethany Johnson, Contributor, on May 23, 2018

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That’s the number of times you followed up after a new client asked you to hurry and deliver an urgent assignment — without providing all the details needed to do the job.

What do you do? Do you start on the work? Do you try to complete the gig even though it might be scrapped, since you’re working with fragmented information? Or do you wait until you hear back, postponing the project further and risking the client’s ire for the delay?

Unfortunately, this is a situation many freelancers have experienced. In fact, there are a variety of different client communication red flags like this that you should be aware of. When you have the right tools and communication templates at your disposal, you can navigate each situation in a respectful, productive way.

Inconsistent Client Communication

There’s nothing more confusing than a prospect who seems very eager to start working with you, then either drops off the face of the planet or puts off your calls and emails until their replies are no longer relevant.

No, you’re not going crazy. And this is not how established businesses usually operate. But many managers are new to hiring independent contractors, and they don’t realize they must coordinate with their own HR and legal department before onboarding you. So when you send them a contract to sign or offer up your W-9, many hiring managers freeze.

Solution: Commit to an hour-long discovery call with each prospect before agreeing to work with them. Often, prospects aren’t even sure what they need, so defining their problem areas together can help you determine if you’re a right fit after all.

If you’re working with a client who’s difficult to get in touch with, simply ensure your own client communication is timely, friendly, informative and professional. Then, move on. Your schedule is full of money-making tasks, and it’s time to get a jump on them. Here’s a quick example of a message you can send to get things moving:

Good morning [Client Name],

I had previously blocked off time today to devote to your rush project, and I was excited to get started. I’m full of ideas to make this a successful production. However, I can’t begin until I hear back from you or your assistant with decisive answers on the three questions I asked via email yesterday. Until then, I’ll need to focus on the other projects I have in progress.

Thank you!

A Missed or Canceled Meeting (Again)

If your client repeatedly misses or cancels meetings you’ve scheduled, you may be dealing with someone who doesn’t value your time.

However, it’s best to first rule out other possible reasons:

  • A new administrative assistant or scheduling software may have caused a conflict.

  • Social anxiety: Some mental health conditions make it easier for people to collaborate online rather than in-person or via phone.

  • Bad luck: If every reason for canceling has been a legitimate one, this particular meeting may have simply been ill-fated from the start.

Once you’ve ruled out the more legitimate excuses and identified a pattern, it’s time to acknowledge this as a red flag. Thankfully, addressing it respectfully is simple.

Solution: Reply right away. Express disappointment by saying how much you were looking forward to catching up. Then, acknowledge that you are both very busy and outline what the client should ideally do in the future should a cancellation arise again. Here’s a quick template that’ll do the job:

Hello [Client Name],

Oh, no! Sorry to hear your plans have changed. I know we were both looking forward to hashing out some project details. Since both our schedules are so full, I would have appreciated knowing earlier, but I completely understand. What do you say we reschedule for tomorrow morning? I’ve shared my schedule with you via the app so you can choose a time.

Thank you!

These types of communications are particularly insightful for outing troublesome clients early in the relationship. Pay attention to how your client handles the exchange. Missed and rescheduled meetings are part of life, but a repeat scenario is an omen you shouldn’t ignore.

Confusing Project Feedback

Another highly puzzling experience is when you nail a challenging project, over-deliver on every requirement and even submit it a few days early. But instead of seeing it rise through the ranks of your client’s review process (followed by admiration and applause), you get reprimanded and asked to start over.

To be clear, you can expect to receive some confusing feedback at least once when you start working with a new client. But if you’ve been working with them for a while and it’s yet another episode in a series of frustrating client communication issues, it’s time to consider it a red flag.

Before even thinking about how to respond, take a walk. Or, play fetch with the dog. Call a fellow freelancing friend to vent. Punch a pillow. Or all the above. Allowing yourself to grieve the loss of time and energy you just invested in that project can help you clear your head for the positive client communication that you will initiate next.

Solution: Write out your response. A good client already knows you’re disappointed. Acknowledge that, but don’t dwell on it.

Your response to this unpleasant surprise should include a “spy bug” — one sentence that suggests a potential reason for the confusing feedback. Your reader will feel compelled to acknowledge or refute your suspicion. Either way, you’ll have another piece of information that’ll help you determine whether this is just a bump in the road or a nightmare client. You can tag that on as a seemingly naive afterthought. Here’s a template you can use in this scenario:

Hello [Client Name],

This request took me by surprise. As you know, our creative brief listed these six specifications [copy and paste them here], and what I delivered went above and beyond those requirements. However, I’m always willing to make reasonable revisions to edit the final product to your liking. I’ll get started on the changes right away. In the future, revisions should be minor, not entire transformations — so I’ll need more information up front to get it right the first time. I’ve attached a list of major versus minor changes for you to review, and an updated contract to ensure we’re on the right track before our next project together.

Thank you!

P.S. I get the sense you’ve been asked to produce something we hadn’t originally talked about. If it’s time to change our marching orders, let’s hop on a call to see what you’re working with and explore how I can help.

This final template mentions an updated contract. It’s important to remember that a detailed contract is the best way to prevent these frustrating, confusing and sometimes relationship-ending client communications. Many freelancers have learned the hard way to include all possible scenarios in their agreement.

When you do find yourself in one of these uncomfortable situations, exercise both grace and caution in every call, email and text. When it turns a client relationship from bad to good, you’ll be glad you did.

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