How to deal with high-maintenance clients (and not ruin the relationship!)

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Have you ever had one of those clingy clients that calls daily?

Twice daily?

Sunday afternoon?

Do you save their number in your phone just so you can press “ignore” when you see them calling (for the third time in two days)?

If you haven’t, you’re lucky! (If you have, leave a comment on this post telling us about your clingy client experience!)

Clingy clients, as I call them, are a huge distraction. Not only are you taken away from your work by often needless interruptions, you also see your profits go down the tube as you waste precious design time on yet another phone call.

Furthermore, you start to dread your phone ringing because you know it’s them (and we already have enough freelancing fear when it comes to answering phones, don’t we?).

I’ve developed two strategies that work fantastically for reducing the number of surprise phone calls I get while keeping my clients up-to-date on their projects.

Pre-arrange phone calls

When I’m in creative-mode working on a project, I don’t answer the phone. (I don’t like talking on the phone anyway.)

I’m engrossed in the project, so an interruption like a phone call totally ruins my momentum.

I disclose this approach to all of my new clients so they don’t feel neglected, and most of my clients prefer email just like me.

However, sometimes I have to talk on the phone, especially if they’re ongoing clients with several projects in the works.

So I pre-arrange phone calls. My clients and I find a date and time that works well for both of us. This way, my clients know I’ll be available when they call, and they’ll know I have time to talk to them. In addition, I’m prepared for the call and can have their projects open and ready for discussion.

Example: In the month of December, I got 26 phone calls from one of my new clients. 26!!! That’s almost two per working day, excluding my known holiday vacation schedule. (How I managed not to fire her, I’m not sure…must’ve been holiday spirit.)

I suggested and implemented a weekly phone call with her.

Number of phone calls in January? Three.

(Awesome.)

Email Progress Updates

To keep clingy clients in the loop, I also email regular progress updates.

This helps reduce your clingy clients’ panic as they watch the deadline date approach.

They’re just a quick note to keep them updated on my progress and when to expect new proofs.

Hi Jane, I’m nearly finished with the brochure; you’ll receive a proof on Wednesday for your approval. I’d like to finalize the brochure design prior to creating the matching poster and magnet. My availability is as follows for a phone call to review:

Simple, quick, easy.

Now Jane knows when she’ll be getting a proof, so you won’t get a call asking about it, and you can pre-arrange your phone call at the same time.

Or, for those clingy clients who expect lightning-fast turnaround:

Mark, I received your email with the changes you requested. However, I’ve got an appointment this afternoon, so expect a new proof waiting for you in your inbox when you check it tomorrow morning. Thanks for your patience!

This prevents Mark from calling you to make sure you got his email…and from asking why you haven’t dropped everything to work on his revisions. (No joke, I’ve actually had a client ask if I do work for other clients.)

What’s your solution?

Have you ever had a clingy client?

Were you able to resolve the situation?

How did you improve your relationship and cut down on wasted “reassurance” time?

Leave a comment on this post and let’s talk!

About April Greer

April is a go-to freelance designer with a rare combination of creative expertise and technical savvy. She is available for subcontracting and speaking engagements – visit Greer Genius for more information.

Comments

  1. Not so much clingy clients as family, since my business is home based (photo studio), everyone seems to think I have time to burn, they call or drop by for a “visit” and stay for over an hour! My productivity comes to a screeching halt until they’re gone. The only way I’ve found to deal with this, is to completely ignore my phone, which I can get away with on my home office phone, because they don’t know I’m there, the cell is a different issue, as they know it’s always with me. That one I’m still working on…

    • Todd,

      Family and friends can be so difficult to deal with during the work day. However, because you allow their behavior, they probably don’t realize how difficult they’re making it for you.

      For my household, we have a rule: if the office door is closed, please do not bother me. I’m working and I cannot be interrupted. This helps with family who may be home during the day, pets, kids, or friends visiting other family members.

      Another wonderful rule my aunt shared with me: you do not have to answer the doorbell. She adopted this for solicitors, but there’s no reason why you can’t do the same. Lock the doors – when your family/friends ask why you didn’t answer the door, you can tell them you were working with headphones so you didn’t hear the doorbell.

      Similarly, you don’t have to answer your phone, especially if it’s interrupting your productivity. Turn it to silent and stuff it in a drawer, or just ignore the phone call. You’re welcome to call them back later and offer to visit or host them at that time.

      It might feel awkward at first, but soon your family will understand that you’re not always available for a visit midday. They’ll call before they drop by so they don’t waste the trip.

      If ignoring them feels too rude, you’ll need to take a stand at the front door or on the phone. Pleasantly say, “I’m sorry, I’m working right now and I can’t stop to chat. I have a big deadline looming. I’m free at…and would be happy to spend time with you then.”

      Good luck!

  2. I love this post! I find that some clients think the process of design is so much FUN that they want to be in on all the action. It is also a good idea to ask people upfront, “are you a real visual person, do you need to see everything before you make a decision”. If the answer is yes, then really outline your boundaries (and rates) clearly. I think your strategy of planned calls is fantastic, thank you April!

  3. Boundaries Boundaries Boundaries!!!!
    I’m proud to say I learned from the best before I became a freelance consultant. My sister the queen of boundaries, always pre-schedules phone calls and started from day one with this habit. I did have a “clingy” client who took up all my time with his non-stop neediness. I eventually went to a per project basis with him and told him I only wanted complete larger projects and not small stuff. I’m not working for him, but I’m making more money and am so much happier! I like the idea of not even having the phone around during creative time. I’m definitely going to start doing that. Thanks for the tip!

    • Gibranna,

      Sometimes firing the client become the only solution…and a huge weight off your shoulders once you’re free.

      Not having phone/tablet/tweet/email interruptions during design time has been a huge boost to my productivity!

      Thanks for sharing!

  4. Great post! I was pretty much laughing through the whole post because I can relate. I had a client a few months ago that called, texted and emailed several times a day on a project that was suppose to be one page brochure, that turned into a 10 page document with before AND after pictures. I should have charged more! I think we have all been there and have had THAT client. Great tips on how to deal with them.

    • Nicole,

      Next time you need to clearly specify the scope of your project in your contract and make sure your client understands that work outside of that scope costs extra!

      Good luck and thanks for sharing!

  5. April, LOVED this article! I don’t have any clingy clients at the moment, but have had a couple similar to what you’ve written (maybe not as extreme as 26 calls in December). I had a client who expected me to drop everything to travel to him to work on unrelated projects. That one didn’t turn out so well! You provide very practical solutions that make a lot of sense. Thank you!

    • Jim,

      I bet it didn’t! In the future, you’re welcome to mention to him that you’d be happy to drop by immediately but that the cost will be the rush fee of $$$$ (a LOT). He’ll think twice about it the next time. :)

      Thanks for sharing!

  6. I was in this situation once, early in my career. I was inexperienced and didn’t know how to deal with it. The client would email me several times a day with long lists of tiny revisions, typed in all caps! Progress emails and scheduled phone calls are great ideas, and strategies I’ve learned to use.

  7. Clingy clients – I have them all the time! Quick turnarounds and same day turnarounds – that’s a daily request! Clients know you do work for others however some get so excited and fixated on the new job they’ve just given you. It’s all they think about and in many cases they usually want it yesterday. Thanks for the post, it’s time to set more boundaries, keep them updated and look for ways in preventing those pesky calls. :-)

    • Kirsty,

      Remember, rush work should cost more than normal-turnaround work. If they want it yesterday (who doesn’t, I know?!), it should cost more, and sometimes a LOT more.

      This encourages them to plan more carefully and gives you the extra incentive to put in hours on Sunday night when you’d rather have personal time.

  8. Well I definitely can’t compete with your 26 calls in a month scenario :) The hardest situation I had to deal with was a client who would send me reams of information over many many emails, he had compulsive email disorder or something! Most of the information wasn’t really pertinent to the projects so I wasted a great deal of time trying to filter out the important stuff from the ramblings….It can be just as difficult to deal with excessive emails as excessive phone calls.

    • Lisa,

      True that! A barrage of emails is just as excessive. I might suggest to the client that one or two emails with more content would be a lot simpler for you to keep track of, and if that doesn’t work, charge more! If they’re asking about non-pertinent stuff, charge a consulting fee for looking into this or that. They’ll get the message that your time isn’t free!

      Thanks for sharing!

  9. I learned about this the hard way, trying to be a great service provider. But this one client was calling me about any computer problem they didn’t understand. I have found that the most questions come from clients that are not computer/internet savvy. First, I gave them a unique tag for their post to my website, this made them feel special and also allowed me the choice of when to talk to them. Second, I started billing them. I made sure they understood that my services are not free and when i had enough posts for a minimum of 15 minutes, I would call them. Billing the client made the most impact, it gt them into the habit of “Google search” before they called me. It is the wise comment, give a man to fish, he’ll eat for a day, teach him to fish and he’ll eat forever. So I taught them how to find the answer.

    • Charles,

      Fantastic advice! Clingy clients get less clingy when they realize they have to pay for it! I use this tactic all the time – sure, I can do the research for you or look into this or that, but it’s also going to cost you. It’s a win-win.

      Thanks for sharing!

  10. Yes April, I have clients like these. I have gone from a client who wanted to meet 16 hours watching me work to having clients who call everyday at noon in my time zone. I have been a designer for 17 years and have owned my own business for 10. Sometimes as a business owner I feel like I have to appease these clients and I tend to give in too much. I think women may be guilty of giving in to clingy clients than men (but I could be wrong) because society expects us to be nurturing (and we are) but it is critical for us to have clear boundaries. For the 16+ client, I am now down to a three hour/week meeting. Where we discuss designs and pick out imagery but rarely does the client watch me design.

    I think what changed was that I clarified my role and explained where I am most productive. The client wants the productivity but also wants to “part of the creative process.” Now the client helps me choose photos and the order but I get to design on my own. I am meeting his needs to be part of the process while meeting my needs of better usage of time during our meetings.

    Thanks again as always April. I am looking forward to reading the other posts!
    A couple books that have helped. “Boundaries” by Townsend and Cloud, “Boundaries when to say yes, when to say no” by Townsend and Cloud and “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. Hope they help some other people.

    • Diane,

      Thanks for the resources! Education doesn’t always come in the form of “design” education – sometimes a business class, managing people book, or accounting video is more helpful.

      I think many women feel more inclined to nurture the client rather than hard-line them (I know I hate confrontation.) I’ve learned that a small confrontation up front often saves a big confrontation later, so I try to keep that in mind when I have to reel in client behavior.

      I love how you give your client a job. They need to feel involved and connected to the project, so you give them the participation they crave and yet still make sure you’re in charge. Well done! I’ll keep that one in my back pocket.

      Thanks for sharing, Diane!

    • Diane, I’m a man and a sucker for needy clients as well. But then part of my service as a creative consultant is just that. I’ll definitely set boundaries though. For example I will never, ever let a client come in and watch over my shoulder. But, I will make time to travel to see them at their home/office to discuss projects and also to teach them how to use whatever I may have just installed for them, e.g new email address, website admin logins etc) I attribute most of my success to customer service, even moreso than my ability to use Creative Suite. It’s just so competitive now that sometimes we have to be prepared to go a little extra distance to keep our clients happy – just keep a good log book of your travel time!

  11. April, I LOVED this post! It’s spot on and I have already implemented the tactics that you mentioned. I too am not a big fan of phone calls – especially when I am working. It really does mess with the creative flow. I now let new clients know up front that while I am working, my phone is turned off – but that we can schedule calls if necessary based on what works for our schedules. Email is my mode of communication and I let them know that 99% of it will be in that manner. I keep clients in the loop with email progress updates – BUT these are either in the morning, noon, or end of the day. This method has also allowed for a much better work flow. And if clients want a quick turn-around, I have NO problem requiring a rush charge. My experience has been that once you hit a client with a rush charge, they quickly learn how to avoid it!

    As for friends, they used to call during the day and want to chat and I put a stop to that. Working from home, I let them know that I still have biz hours and they need to respect that.

  12. This article is what I’ve been looking for! The tips are great! Thanks for sharing all your brilliant ideas. I’m sure these will work for me.

  13. Great article. I do my best to schedule meetings and phone calls in the afternoon since I am most productive and creative during mornings. There will always be exceptions but this has really helped my work flow. I usually press ignore during morning incoming calls and keep working. The hard part is ignoring all emails when many of them are project related.

    • Marni,

      I have that problem, too, so I generally will copy the needed information out of my email into a temporary word document so that I can close my email and thereby not be tempted to read every new email that arrives.

      Thanks for sharing!

  14. I am at the point where I should be making big money on multiple projects, but he unreasonably jews me down, and I have to get paid through paypal instead of direct to my bank. I sent screen shots and massive files so “he could see” the many stupid changes he made at “my expesnse” so “he could see”….and wow, now he is telling me that my more than super modest resasonable prices are too much. It’s making me not only mad but crazy. I have gone beyond and above….and I feel like, as much as I love what I do…it’s not worth it anymore.

  15. I misused the term “jews me down”…one of my best friend is a jew. I guess that just came out from frustration. But, I do think you get the pictrue. I must watch too much Family Guy to try to rid my brain sometimes. My bad! :)

  16. A recent high-maintanence client reminded of the importance of doing “preemptive” work… A big part of my professional background is sales. One of the best ways to be successful in sales is to prepare for objections. I have found that by applying this little bit of extra work before presenting marketing concepts and designs to be a big success. Sure, you can’t predict every objection, but the work you do will enable you to preempt many situations, earn the trust (by demonstrating confidence and knowledge) and ultimately will position you to manage that relationship better. Also plan in advanced… If you have a difficult client now, make a plan as to how you can reposition yourself in that relationship… sometimes clients are high-maintenance because we have trained them to be that way, or they do not fully trust us. Make a plan as to how you might be able to change that. It really works!

  17. Hi April

    Thanks for this post , I found it very useful – I work in web design and marketing, and am on the cusp of firing a very needy client. He is currently my highest paying, buy I counted 43 calls in the past month and many in evenings, Saturdays and even today, a Sunday which is a Fathers day here in the UK. The volume of calls is fine if they were in office hours, but the clients occupies 25% or more of my headspace in waking hours..! Not healthy even if the fee is around 13% of my companies revenue. Looking forward to ending it all tomorrow!

    Thanks again
    Simon

Trackbacks

  1. […] Clingy clients can bog down your entire day with endless phone calls, emails, and texts. Keep their interruptions to a minimum by sending them short progress emails regularly with specific dates they’ll receive proofs. […]

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