Has something like this ever happened to you?
You have a solid contract with your client that includes payment terms and penalties for late payment. You create the agreed-upon work and implement it. Your client is happy with what you’ve done. You submit your final invoice, they acknowledge it, but it goes unpaid and remains unpaid well beyond the due date. So, per the terms of your contract, you bill for a late fee. The client replies with an angry email complaining about the additional charge and includes an ad hominem that you are not using good judgement in charging the fee.
So now you have a situation where, through no fault of your own, your client is angry and calling your business policies and professionalism into question. What do you do?
First, let’s set the stage with these five irrefutable facts about working with clients:
These five observations have been proven over and over again by numerous freelancers and solopreneurs. You can’t change these realities. But you can decide what you will do about them.
- Conflicts will happen whenever you work with people. Differences of opinion, different working styles and poor communication are just a few of the things that will eventually crop up. Count on it.
- Clients make assumptions based on their experiences and perceptions that you know nothing about.
- Clients don’t always read the entire contract.
- Clients have a lot of things they’re responsible for, and paying your invoice may not be top priority for them.
- Clients may have their own business policies that conflict with yours, such as 60-day or 90-day payment terms.
You could simply shoot off a response email to the client defending your professionalism, but doing so will likely heat up the situation and delay payment further.
Instead, take a step back and get any emotions you might be feeling out of the way. Then decide what to do.
3 Tips for Dealing with Client Conflicts
How you respond in a conflict will determine the outcome. If you want to have a favorable outcome, I recommend three things you should do before responding to an unhappy client:
Do not respond at all for at least 24 hours. Go silent.
Don’t respond to any request or contact from the client, even if it’s not related to the disagreement. Let the other person sit with it while you go tend to more enjoyable things.
Why wait? Waiting gives you distance, time and mental space to reflect and evaluate. It gives you the ability to calm down and decide on the best response. In that calmness you can determine an appropriate, professional response that isn’t based on hurt feelings.
The disagreement I described happened on a Thursday via email. The fact that the client sent an email and didn’t pick up the phone gave me the advantage of not needing to react in the moment. I decided to wait over the weekend and respond on Monday.
Taking offense…is actually a power play.
It’s an attempt to create an obligation.
2. Decide to not be offended.
Taking offense is a very popular tactic many use to get what they want. People take offense even where offense is not offered.
Taking offense — as this client did, evidenced by the ad hominem — is actually a power play.
It’s an attempt to create an obligation. The offended person requires the perceived offender to fix or remove the offending thing. When there’s an obligation, one person owes another and they are no longer on equal footing. It becomes a one-up and one-down situation.
Taking offense is a choice. Even though this client took offense where no offense was intended, I chose not to take offense over the ad hominem.
Like my dad always used to tell me: “Let it roll off your back”.
3. Get objective advice.
While you’re in that self-imposed waiting period and not taking offense, ask a trusted person what they think is best. Get good counsel from someone who has experience with clients or customers. In talking it through, you’ll come to an appropriate decision that you can act on and still respect your client.
In this situation, I called a trusted colleague. She is not in the design field, but she’s been successful in sales and customer relations for years. I explained the situation and we talked through some possibilities. As a result, I was able to regain my objectivity quickly.
If you don’t already have a trusted colleague, find someone. Anyone you’ve done business with successfully is a possible advisor. It can be one of your suppliers, or even another client (be careful here that you keep your objectivity). It can be someone in a mastermind, meet-up or networking group.
It should be someone who can wisely advise you without becoming involved, and who will be comfortable enough with you to point out flaws in your own approach.
How did my situation turn out?
I decided to rescind the late fee. I weighed the consequences of rescinding versus not, and decided the higher course of action in this case was to excuse the late fee this time. My reasoning was that it was better for the relationship. He had paid previous invoices on time and was not a habitual late-payer.
As I communicated my decision, I took the opportunity to gently remind my client that this was a one-time courtesy. He had signed the contract and in doing so agreed to my terms, and I had acted in accordance with my business policies. I also asked if he had any questions about my business policies. The invoice was paid that day.
Revise your business policies.
Policies are good to have because they act as a compass for how you run your business. Experience will be your best guide in what those policies should be.
Because they are your policies, you can be flexible in enforcing them when it’s appropriate.
Because of this experience, I revised my policies. I now send reminders before payments are due so that clients can avoid accruing late fees. And if, despite contracts and friendly reminders, payments are overdue, I pick up the phone and ask if the client’s doing okay. Being genuinely concern for their well-being opens the door for conversation in which you can learn why they haven’t yet paid, and comfortably discuss options.
Maintaining good client relationships is necessary for growing your business and attracting new work. Always keep the big picture in mind and strive to do what’s best for your business.
Remember that your clients do not live and work in isolation, but have influence with others in their spheres. If you handle a conflict well and sustain the relationship, you will gain good reputation beyond your own sphere of influence. If you handle it poorly, you may lose the client and also miss out on future opportunities.
Always take the high road.
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What are some of your business policies? Have you ever had to change them because of a particular experience with a client? Share your experiences in the comments below.