Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. How to avoid client drama and bad breakups.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. How to avoid client drama and bad breakups.

Business relations have a tendency to be compared to any other kind of relationship but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The parallel pretty much stops at the fact that you’ll be interacting a lot with the same person.

That’s it. Everything else is different, beginning from the way you interact up to the way you start and end the relationship.

Let’s go over some key points to keep in mind when dealing with clients on a day-to-day basis.

 1) Make sure you’re on the same page regarding the result.

We’ve all heard the phrase “I know what I like when I see it”. See, that’s probably the worst way to start a business relation.

Both parties want to jump-start the project and get things underway. A client may give you a vague description and some typical buzzwords like modern, hip, techy, minimal or retro.

What you should always keep in mind is that these words may hold completely different meanings to you than to the client. Even more so if you’re working online and you and your client are from different continents.

There’s a very high chance that your first draft will result in a client reaction saying it isn’t really what they had in mind and whether you could try again. This in turn will result in possible frustration on your side since you thought you had a good understanding of their wants and needs.

A workaround for this problem is asking for examples. Whether they’re asking for a design, written content or photography, ask them to show you things they like and what the end result should look like.

  2) Set clear agreements and milestones and get them in writing.

“I’ll have it done asap” is not a deadline. Yes, you’re a creative god and no one was rushing Picasso on the job so why should they rush you? Too bad that clients like to be able to plan ahead.

Decide on a delivery date together and clearly specify which deliverables will be included.

Will it be the complete functional website, hosted and with the domain name set up? Or just a first round of mock-ups?

Clearly state at the start of the project that extras will be charged if the project requirements change along the way. This happens a lot and tends to be in your favor. Things grow and shift and change, and it’s a way for you to show off your professionalism and flexibility. Also, more money, jay!

Communicate that timing is impacted by certain factors, such as your client being able to attend scheduled meetings and delivering agreed items such as text and visuals. You can definitely set certain consequences that take effect when you miss deadlines.

This shows your client in advance that you don’t mess around and are extremely confident in your ability to deliver.

Always remember it’s a mutually beneficial relationship and you should hold yourself at least as accountable as the client.

It is never their problem that you have a busy schedule and a lot of other projects on your plate.

Get all of the above and more in writing. Having that conversation while having coffee is a good basis for your relationship but people tend to be forgetful when it’s in their benefit.

Depending on the scope of the project, it can be just a written confirmation by email or signed on a napkin if you’re really in that big of a hurry. For bigger projects however, I’d definitely advise you to set up a legally binding contract.

  3) What may feel natural isn’t always the best approach.

I like to crack jokes and throw in swear words from time to time in a regular conversation. Guess what, not everyone is as cool with that as they first seemed.

You may have thought that you had a great connection with your new client until you suddenly say something that doesn’t get you the expected response.


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It sucks, but it’s best to stay on your toes a bit at the beginning of a new business connection. Remember that everything can be used against you when things take a turn for the worst.

It’s shameful as hell when you get called out as unprofessional and you know there’s truth in there, but you thought the relationship allowed for a looser atmosphere.

It makes for a more boring work environment and it’s definitely possible to be closer with long-term clients but it’s something that should always be in the back of your mind.

 4) You know best but give the client some credit as well

You had your professional education and may consider yourself a veteran in your field. This means it’s your task and responsibility to educate your client in that field as well. How do you expect a client to know about best practices in coding, the intricacies of marketing copy or the need for a mobile website?

On the other hand, it’s great that you and your designer buddies crack jokes about comic sans and wear “I <3 Helvetica” t-shirts, but you don’t know your clients audience.

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As freelancers, we’re an arrogant breed by nature. We love our less is more, our flat design and not too long ago we loved our web 2.0. Still, you can’t tell me you’ve never heard someone say “It’s too artsy”, “It tries too hard”, “It’s too serious” or something alike.

Your clients probably communicate with their target audience on a daily basis and can have a good idea of what they want best. That’s why you shouldn’t just disregard everything they’re saying and go for whatever’s currently popular in your industry. Some brands got really big without looking sexy or hip, maybe even exactly because they didn’t.

  5) The hardest thing is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn.

Sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes things don’t work out BAD.

I could give you my thoughts on the subject but honestly, no one does it as well as Mike Monteiro. If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s a great way to spend 40 minutes.


I’d just like to add that in a lot of cases it isn’t worth the trouble of starting a legal procedure.

Mike Monteiro owns a creative agency. He works with big budgets and has clients with deep pockets. That means that in a lot of cases, a client not paying could mean he’d have to fire employees or make certain cutbacks. Also, he has his lawyer on speed dial to throw at any emergency he has.

We don’t have that luxury. Every letter your lawyer has to draft costs you handfuls of money and it’s not guaranteed you’ll ever see a dime of the money you’re owed.

Plenty of people will disagree with me on this point but I honestly feel that unless it’s for a substantial amount of money it’s too much of a time and energy drain.

Unless there’s a 100% clear breach of contract that could be easily resolved, go ahead with it. Else, just count your losses and move on to the next job.


Leave your own best practices to keep client relationships healthy in the comments below!

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Founder of Coffee Shop Freelancers. Completely and utterly obsessed with everything web. Has nightmares about Tron becoming reality.

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