Article | 08 Apr 2019

How to handle disputes with clients

Posted in Freelancer, Top tips, Tools & Advice, Learning,

One of the first lessons of freelancing is that things will go wrong. Sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes it isn’t. What’s important is how you handle problems that do arise, and then what lessons you take from them afterwards.

From minor niggles over your scope of work, to full-blown conflicts over pay, there are a lot of potential issues in the freelancer-client relationship. Disputes can and do arise, so learning how to handle them is crucial to building a sustainable freelance business and maintaining your professional reputation.

Here’s our quick guide to handling disputes with clients:

1. Lay the foundations:

The best case scenario all round is to avoid conflict in the first place, while still maintaining integrity on both sides. This is why contracts and ongoing communication are so important.

Think about:

  • Clarity. If a job has gone awry, chances are it’s because something wasn’t communicated properly at some point along the line. Clarity of brief and what you’re offering the client are vital. For most freelancers, this involves agreeing a statement of work at the outset, in which you manage expectations and outline what is required from both you and the client, for the project or campaign to succeed.
  • Contracts. Alongside your statement of work, you should also have a contract in place to firm up what has been agreed in terms of timescales, payment terms, notice periods etc., reducing the chances of disagreements later on. If conflicts do arise, each party can then refer back to the contract and statement of work to establish who (if anyone) is in the right.
  • Communication. Ongoing communication is absolutely vital and you should agree with the client how and with what medium you will communicate. Some clients prefer Whatsapp, others like Trello, while many opt for good old-fashioned email and telephone. Whatever works for you, both of you need to be clear to minimise the chance of missed messages or miscommunication.
  • Clear deadlines and turnaround times: Similarly, ensure that you both understand turnaround times, whether for emails, feedback and reporting, or more formal deadlines for articles or media comments. In PR, fast turnaround is frequently critical for securing coverage, plus clear timescales are important so that you can manage your time effectively. Make sure you manage the client, rather than letting them take the lead on timings. Be clear from the get-go about what you need to deliver on your objectives. In most cases, clients hire a freelance professional expecting this level of management and direction.
  • Proactive intervention. If you get a niggling feeling that something’s going awry, don’t just ignore it. Reach out to your client and try to nip the issue in the bud. If you’re worried about payment terms, bring it up before invoicing. If you fear that they’re not thrilled with your work, ask them about it and take a 'solutions' approach when things aren’t working. Find out what the issue is and try to provide a solution to the client which works for both you and them. And with these kinds of conversations, phone calls are always better than email. Then, you should always summarise via email following the call, to ensure there is a paper trail to confirm what was discussed.


2. Stop things from escalating

Once a conflict has established itself, it can quickly get out of hand. However, if you can stop things from escalating, it’s often possible to resolve these things amicably. The following should help:

  • Consider carefully. The problem with conflict is that it makes us react emotionally rather than act rationally. Our impulse is to leap straight onto the defensive without thinking things through first. Try, if you can, to take a step back. Carefully consider the issue and all of its ramifications before sending any emails, making any phone calls, or taking any further action.
  • Communicate calmly. People respond to anger and defensiveness in like manner. Be calm, polite, and respectful in your communications. If it helps, after receiving a communication about the issue, leave an hour to cool off before responding. This will enable you to control your composure and to keep things calm.
  • Stick to the matter in hand. It’s really easy for the dialogue to take all kinds of strange twists and turns during a conflict. If you find yourselves heading off at a tangent, bring things back to the salient points of your professional dispute. Divergence from the central issue can lead to things getting personal – and that’s a road it’s hard to come back from.
  • Don’t pass blame. Just don’t. The blame game will make everyone angry or defensive, and that’s no way to resolve a dispute.


3. Understand the situation

Knowledge may bring power but understanding brings respect. The more you understand about the situation you’re in, the more integrity your negotiations will have. With a little thought, it may transpire that the situation is not as serious as you thought. Or, perhaps, you may discover that you should be pushing harder for your rights. Try as hard as you can to really understand what’s going on before jumping to conclusions.

  • Look at things from all perspectives. Do your best to see what your client is seeing. From their point of view, what’s the problem, and why has it occurred? What do they stand to lose? Why are they frustrated? You’ll be surprised at just how much a glance at the other perspective adds to your understanding of the situation.
  • Take responsibility. If some or all of this conflict is down to you, take responsibility. Own your part in this. You don’t necessarily have to back down if the issue remains, but acknowledging (to yourself as much as to your client) that you’re perhaps not squeaky-clean here will add a lot to your credibility.
  • Maintain integrity. While you should always ‘fess up if a dispute is your fault, you should not hold your hands up and fold if it isn’t. If you are in the right, maintain your integrity and stand up (calmly and politely!) for your work.


4. Conclude the dispute fully

There will (hopefully) come a point in your back and forth where things are starting to get somewhere and you’re nearing some kind of resolution. At this point, it’s important that you don’t leave anything hanging. Clear up the current dispute - and then go on to conclusively hash out (and fix) the things which led up to and occurred during the dispute. You need full resolution in order to prevent something similar happening again.

If you can’t reach a full resolution with your client yourself, here are some options for taking things further:

  • The Work Crowd dispute resolution help. We know a lot about freelancer-client relations, and we can therefore mediate on behalf of our members if a dispute does occur. However, we can only do this is key communication such as agreed statements of work, time frames, deliverables, reporting and feedback are logged on the system, via the message stream between parties. So try to ensure you use this functionality as much as possible.    
  • Mediation. This one is for those who are struggling to see the other’s perspective. Mediation can bring a valuable outside perspective onto your case, as well as helping to clarify what was agreed and what’s gone wrong.
  • Calling off your professional relationship. We hate to bring this one up, but sometimes it is the only way. If you are going to call a halt to your professional relationship with a client, try to part on terms as amicable as you can manage. While this particular project may not have worked out, that doesn’t mean that either of you are bad at what you do. Keep things cordial when cutting professional ties.
  • Small Claims Court. If you’re owed money or services, and you’ve run out of all other options, small claims court is a good last resort. It’s not as scary as it sounds. Most small business people will have to meet the small claims system at some point, and the small claims courts do a pretty good job. However, this is a big hammer to threaten someone with, so please only go down this route if you’re absolutely serious and if you’ve exhausted all other options.


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