Four Rules for a Successful Freelance Life: №3 of 4

…in which we discuss how to deal with the rare client who really pushes your buttons. The third in a four-part series of self-help for the self-employed.

Rule №3: Perfect the art of polite disengagement.

Most clients are nice. They respect what you do even if they sometimes ignore your advice and they genuinely want your working relationship to be a pleasant one. They inquire as to your well-being and the state of the weather in your neck of the woods, and those small questions go a long way toward making you feel welcome in their working world.

But there are the bad seeds. These clients will push your buttons, take advantage of your willingness to meet their impossible deadlines, send you down paths you know are dead ends before you even begin. Nine times out of ten you won’t know you’re dealing with such a person until you’ve already accepted the job, and by then it is far too late to back out.

There are three things to keep in mind when this happens: First, be grateful you’re a freelancer and not this person’s full-time employee. Second, limit your communication with them; engage only so much as required to get the job done. And third, don’t give in to your impulse to tell them off.

I’ve only had one truly bad seed. For weeks, she was sweet as a bunny, and then one day she went all hyena on me, tearing at the work with bared teeth, barking out a series of inconsistent and self-contradictory orders, clawing and scratching to emphasize her power. This made me furious, and I found it difficult to make it through her project, much less make it any good.

During this time, I spoke to a P.R. executive I often collaborate with. After we finished discussing business, talk turned to more general topics, and I found myself telling him the whole story of The Bad Seed. At the end, I said, “I just want to call her up and tell her that I don’t appreciate her attitude, that I’ll never work with her again, and that I’ll tell every other freelance copywriter I know to avoid her.”

There was laughter on the other end of the line, and then, “Don’t.”

“Oh, I know,” I said. “But it’s just so tempting!”

“I understand, but I can tell you from personal experience that reprimanding a client never works,” he said. “It feels good for about ten minutes and then you realize how unprofessional you’ve been and guilt rushes in and you feel stupid about it for the next ten months.”

“So you just have to suck it up?” I asked.

“Enough to get through the project. But then you go into what we like to call ‘polite disengagement’ mode, where you are just too busy to take on other work from this client. That way you avoid working with them, and you also avoid making any enemies.”

Is it any surprise this guy’s in public relations?

So I finished The Bad Seed’s project, and the next time she called I was “too busy” to help. She said she understood — and I secretly think she understood I wasn’t really all that busy, which is fine by me.

When I told a dear friend (and fellow freelancer) about my situation, she gave me the advice that an old mentor of hers had given her when she was in a similar situation: All current clients eventually become former clients.

I love a phrase that blends truth and cynicism in equal measure, and so I adopted its line of thinking then and there, assuming I’d seen the last of this particular bad seed. But then in a completely shocking twist, she sprouted again six months later with another job, and this time I took it and everything went fine. Sure, I don’t trust her any further than I can throw her, which given my lack of upper-body strength isn’t very far, but it seems backing off sent the right message.

So next time your hackles are up, pause for a moment and consider polite disengagement. Tell off your car, your computer, your couch — just don’t tell off your client. You’ll feel stupid if you do, and you might lose more than just this one client. It’s a small world out there, and unless you’ve really perfected the financial aspects of Rule №2, that’s something you definitely can’t afford.


A longer piece that included this and my three other freelance rules was originally published on Medium last Friday 9/16/16. But with an 11-minute read time it garnered zero views by end of day Monday, so I’m republishing the four rules now, each as separate posts.

When I figure out my rules for success on Medium, I’ll have to remember to include the one about keeping things short.