21 Steps to Making Grumpy Clients Happy

By: Leslie Zaikis

Category: Blog, Freelancing, Get Hired

If you just started freelancing, your 2 biggest concerns regarding clients are probably “How do I get a client”? and “How do I do everything the clients wants?”

But making clients happy isn’t JUST about building a beautiful website. Even if you do stellar work, the client won’t feel comfortable (and ready to give you a testimonial!) if you butt heads throughout the project.

The freelancer-client relationship is a unique one. There’s no “complaining to the manager.” You ARE the manager. And there’s no passing off a grumpy client to the customer service specialist. You’re that too.

And it makes sense that tensions can sometimes run high in a freelancer-client relationship, especially during the holidays, when everyone has extra pressure on their shoulders. The client is putting faith in you and investing money and time in your work. That means your client wants to feel understood, and she wants to know she can talk to you if something isn’t going as planned.

But you haven’t spent months training to be a client manager. You’ve been studying up on becoming an epic web designer or developer. And that’s okay. I learn so much about keeping clients happy from every freelance project I do, and you will too. For now, here’s a primer on keeping clients jolly throughout the entire freelance project:

Client Management

1. Over-communicate.

Your client should never have to track you down to get an update. Share updates as often as possible. If daily updates are unrealistic, a short weekly summary of what has been accomplished and what will be started next week is an easy way to keep your client informed. Your client should know why they are paying you the big bucks, and if you don’t tell them, they’ll never know!

2. Be available.

Let your client know when you are available. Although it’s bad for your work-life balance, most clients love if you are nearly always available. No matter what your availability is, whether it’s 20 hours a day or 2 hours a week, set expectations in advance and be consistent. If you tell them you are always available but take 48 hours to return a phone call, you can lose trust fast.

3. Put a Google alert on your client.

If something big happens for the company or your client personally, be the first to congratulate her! Setup a Google Alert or try Newsle, which syncs with your LinkedIn connections.

4. Compliment your client.

If your client does something well – whether he gave particularly helpful direction for the next iteration of your design or in general she is a pleasure to work with – say it! A little compliment can go a long way.

5. Send thank you notes.

A well-timed handwritten note arriving in the mail is excellent icing on the cake if you are doing great work. The 5 minutes of time to say “thank you, I’ve loved working together on phase 1 and look forward to phase 2” is all but guaranteed to turn a frown upside down. And holiday cards are a great way to show some gratitude.

6. Be friendly to the assistants.

Entrepreneur Chris Gillibeau puts it this way: “Be nice to the cleaners.” Making unexpected allies with support staff on your client’s team will only help your value proposition. Which could come in handy when you need to reschedule a meeting, and have to ask for some schedule rejiggering!

7. Give them options, but tell them which one you recommend.

When you need client input, giving choices instead of starting from a blank slate is often helpful. But not too many! And share your recommended option if you are giving more than 2 choices. You are the expert, after all, so your client will look to you for advice on tough choices, whether that’s the words to use for a slogan or the photo to use on a homepage.

8. Give your client specific, step-by-step instructions when you need their input.

If you are asking your client to take action, such as sharing feedback on a landing page design, give her easy-to-follow guidance on exactly what you are asking for. For example, don’t assume that your client knows what you mean when you say “take a look at my staging site and let me know what you think.” She may not know as much about tech as you do, and she may give you feedback that’s all over the place and not useful! Rather, send her the exact link to click to access the site and ask her specific questions to guide her feedback, like “Do you like the red sign up button, or would you prefer it to be green?”


9. Prepare (even over-prepare) for meetings.

Show up to meetings with your homework done. Research case studies, create powerpoint slides to review together, or even practice how you are going to present if you are nervous. Utilizing your client’s time efficiently will set you apart.

10. Design an agenda for every meeting.

As part of your advance preparation, think about the purpose of the meeting. What does success look like? An approval of the color palette? A green light to begin the next phase of the project? Make an agenda for every meeting, even the regular checkpoint meetings, that keeps you on and your client on track.

11. Repeat their words back to them.

Take the time to restate what your client asks you to do, to make sure you understand exactly what she is asking for. It’s easy to get caught up in your idea of the solution. This parroting strategy helps to avoid miscommunication and wasted effort in a big way.

12. Be mindful of your client’s (and your) time.

Staying within the allocated time is good for you and for your client. You never want to take too much of their time. Plus, a client could keep you for twice as long as you expected, and setting boundaries around your time is a big part of becoming a freelancer.

13. Take notes during meetings – and send them out afterwards.

Writing down what your client says in a meeting can help to track where changes come from, and helps immensely to capture action items that are ping ponged throughout the meeting. Take notes during the meeting, or assign someone to do so. That way, nothing can fall through the cracks. And, take the 10 extra minutes to either type up the notes or outline the next steps / action items in an email that goes to your client and the other meeting participants.

Project Management

14. Create a scope document.

At the beginning of a client relationship, write down the scope of the project: in other words, what work you are going to do, and what you are not going to do. A scoping statement should explain the purpose of the project, detail the project deliverables or outputs, and describe the measures of success. Having this document up front is an absolute must to prevent heartache and he said/she said if a project goes awry.

15. Make a project plan.

While you know how long each part of a project may take, your client might be completely clueless. This can cause a problem when your client doesn’t realize that, for example, it will take 2 weeks to create a mood board, and they are expecting it in 2 days. At the beginning of a project, creating a project plan with rough dates of what work will be completed when will preempt any grumpy client conflict around time to complete work.

16. Ask questions at the beginning.

Often scheduling a “kickoff meeting” can be the appropriate time to learn important details that give you all the right info to run with the project. Questions you might ask include “who is currently responsible for updating the site?” and “where are current brand assets (including the fonts and the logo) kept?”

17. Schedule regular checkpoints.

Stay fresh on your client’s radar screen, and keep progress on your project moving, by scheduling regular checkpoint calls or meetings. Even if they are short (15 minutes may be enough), having time on the calendar for you to ask questions or for your client to inquire on a status helps keep communication open and your client informed.

18. Show your client drafts along the way.

Imagine showing your client your gorgeous completed mockup that has taken you late nights and countless hours to perfect, and hearing “Hmm. This wasn’t what I was hoping for.” Show mockups, outlines, and other drafts along the way to get feedback and make sure you know that what you are creating is what your client is expecting!

19. Tell your client before you go over budget.

If you are billing hourly, this particularly applies to you. If a project is taking longer than expected, talk to your client about increasing the number of hours needed before working them. You want to make sure that you get paid for the extra work you are doing, and that your client is okay with an increased budget for the project at hand. Slapping your client with a bigger invoice than agreed upon, without talking about it in advance, can be a relationship-ending mistake.

20. Don’t miss deadlines.

If you’re going to miss a deadline, let your client know the moment you think there is a possibility that you might miss it. But in general, don’t miss deadlines.

21. Invoice on time.

Many freelancers struggle with invoicing on a regular basis. Not invoicing regularly, or on time, can create cash flow problems for your client. If they are expecting to pay you in June, but you don’t let them know that they owe you until October, their financial records are off for several months. On the flip side, don’t invoice your client the day before your rent is due and expect to get paid immediately. You are responsible for managing your own cash flow, and your client most likely has a process for issuing payment that takes time.

Are you ready to take on a client, but not sure if your chops are up to par? Check out our Web Designer Checklist and find out if you’re ready to start building beautiful sites for clients.

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