Hard Times – Part 02: Working With Difficult Clients

I wanted to write a piece about enduring and overcoming “Hard Times”, but I didn’t want it all to be from my perspective, so I asked around for some input from friends and colleagues. The following shows my questions in bold, their responses in italics, and my thoughts in plain text. If it sounds like I’m giving advice, please feel free to ignore it. Take what is useful and leave the rest.


  • Working with difficult clients.

Here are a couple of responses to this question:

“Make an extra effort. Either clients are difficult because they know exactly what they want and you follow their lead, or they are difficult because they are insecure and/or hiding their incompetence with a lot of bravado. Either way they just need TLC.”

“Try and see it from their perspective and work the problem from that angle.”  

I agree with this absolutely. Insecure clients can be very difficult to communicate with. Lots of clear questions and clarifications help.

Another response:

“I’ve usually found a way to get through this for the benefit of the project. My ego kicks in, also, which helps. Despite my protestations I am very good at what I do, and these clients need me.”

Exactly. I try to remember that I am there because of my skills and experience. Sometimes the client may not actually be aware of just how good you are, which can be frustrating.

Here’s a response that I don’t agree with completely:

“I have had clients I would never, ever work with again but I’d rather have a difficult client than no clients.”

As stated above, clients can be difficult in many different ways, but there are always ways that I can choose to engage with – or detach from –  the difficulty. Here are a few examples from my own experience:

  1. Outrageous Demands

The phone rings at 2am. It’s my client. They are calling from another country and they are in the middle of an emotional crisis with another colleague or band member. I take the call and talk them down. Then the phone rings again. It’s the other band member, calling about the same drama. I take the call, talk them down, then go to work in the morning, completely exhausted. My mistake? Taking the call. Having my phone on. I engaged in the drama. The only phone call I should be taking at 2am is from an immediate family member or very close friend. Yet I still took the call, and ended up resenting BOTH clients by the morning. I have heard this kind of thing referred to as “Triangulation”.

  1. Undervaluing/Underpaying

“I’ll pay you £20 to do the work.” The job was going to take two hours. So that’s £10 an hour. After tax, £8 an hour. After my overheads etc, probably just about minimum wage, and I can find a minimum wage job anywhere. Yet, time after time I have engaged in these kind of work agreements simply because I would rather be doing work in my chosen field than anything else. Fear drives this decision. I worry that there will be no other work ever again, so I take anything that is offered. Agreeing to the clients’ low fees puts them in control of my business and, ultimately, my career. I have to decide what my day rate is and go no lower. I have to decide what my hourly rate is and go no lower. When the phone rings or the email pings, if the offer doesn’t match (or better) my going rate, I must politely decline, or offer an alternative arrangement that meets my minimum requirements. So much easier said than done, I know. Negotiating my worth at the start of every job gets exhausting. It really helps to print out my minimum day rates as a reminder, so that they are in front of me when I’m on the phone or writing the email. Remember – if you get flustered in the middle of negotiating fees, you can always say: “Let me have a think about this and I’ll get back to you.”

  1. Overly Emotional or Argumentative / Abusive or Disrespectful Behaviour

Sometimes I convince myself that this kind of situation just comes with the territory of working in the creative arts. When I am feeling confident in my own value, I generally walk away from people that create unnecessary drama at work. It’s not always that easy, though, especially if you are all living on the same tour bus for weeks at a time. I’m sure that sometimes I have been the overly emotional person in the equation. Being away from home, putting yourself on stage every other night, losing sleep, not looking after your health, it can all contribute to a pretty shaky emotional state.

It’s important to learn how to differentiate between normal emotional reactions and toxic emotional behaviour. Frustration and anger aren’t inherently evil emotions, they have their place. Aggression and intimidation, however, should be unacceptable in a working environment. I have encountered this on the odd occasion, and I have to admit that in the heat of the moment it’s hard to know what is the right thing to do. I would like to think that if I ever felt unsafe or threatened, or if I was unable to control my own anger, I would be able to take a step back, sit down with someone I trusted and talk through the issue.

  1. Substance Abuse

Uncontrollable sadness or anger isn’t helped by drink or drugs. Being on tour is an especially fertile ground for substance abuse, because of the likelihood that you will be surrounded by free alcohol on the backstage rider, and possible (probable) offers of drugs from other musicians, crew or fans. Being away from your usual routine, from your home, family and friends can trigger feelings of loneliness, lack of control or even feelings of invincibility, which in turn can encourage excessive drinking or drug-taking. If you are working with a client who is struggling with addiction, you need to look after yourself first. Ask yourself if it is wise to continue the working relationship.

If you feel that you are having issues with alcohol or drugs at work, please talk to a friend, family member or your doctor. There are other organisations that can help you.

  1. Inappropriate Boundaries

Where does a work relationship end and a friendship begin? I have observed over the years that many of my work colleagues have become good friends. This isn’t normally an issue, but if someone who has become a good friend then also becomes a client, there are a few pitfalls to avoid:

  • Don’t do mates’ rates. Mates’ rates are ok if 90% of your clients are not your friends. The longer you work as a freelance creative artist, the more likely it will be that you will count more and more of your clients as friends and vice versa. So when 90% of your client base are also your friends, it becomes very bad business (for you) to work at mates’ rates for the majority of your income. As someone said to me recently – “Your mate would rather pay you than pay a stranger to do the same job.”
  • If you want to socialise, set aside time to socialise. Don’t bring your social life to work. Monday – Friday: in the studio; Saturday: barbecue. You could be hanging out with the same people all week, but make sure that they know when you are working and when you are socialising.
  • “Can I just pop over and play you a few ideas?” – In this situation I have to decide if this is a paying gig, or something that is in my “creativity for the sake of creativity” category. Most of the time I know if someone is willing to pay me for my time or not. If I think this is a non-paying opportunity, then I add it to my “creativity” time budget. You might decide to budget two days a month to non-paying creative work. It could be one week every month. It’s up to you to decide what is appropriate to your current situation. If you have space in your “creativity” time budget, then allocate it to your friend, and let them know when you can hang out. I have to remind myself that I’m not obliged to give away all my time for free, but I do believe that it’s important to allocate some time to creative exploration. This kind of “free-play” will always feed back interesting ideas into your regular work.
  1. Lack of Commitment

You are doing a great job, but your client isn’t pulling their weight. You’re at the studio at 10am, they don’t show up until 2pm. You know the song inside out, they forget the second verse. You’re ready to mix the song on Monday but they don’t send you the stems until Wednesday. This lack of commitment on the part of the client impacts on your productivity and ultimately your income. This is where your written agreement comes into play. I usually clarify things by email before starting a job; it doesn’t have to be a printed contract to be binding. Put down the dates you are agreeing on, the day rate you are agreeing on, and any additional costs, i.e. travel, accommodation etc. If you envisage that the time budget will overflow, add a contingency fee or additional hourly rate. For example, my mix fee is based on a day rate, which includes two free revisions. After that I charge by the hour for any additional revisions. This avoids endless revisions and encourages the client to think carefully about the revisions they ask for.

You can’t change or control the commitment of the client. You can, however, decide whether or not to engage with that client again. Make sure your terms are clear; set a limit on each project.

  1. Fear of Success

This seems like an oxymoron, but I am finding out it is more common than I realised. I experience it myself on a daily basis. A classic example of fear of success is the never-ending album. The rewrites, the remixes, the alternative alternative artwork decisions; they are all symptomatic of fear of success. As the person working for a client with this issue, it can seem like the job becomes a constantly expanding epic that will never end. As exhausting as the job may seem, the obsessive overworking is still less daunting to the client than the prospect of actually being seen by the world and having their efforts judged.  There are a few options available here – one is to set a time/effort boundary, and let the client know that you have to stop working on the project at a specific point; the other option is to try to coach the client through their fear, and get them to the point where they are ready to let go of the process and finish the job. I don’t think either one is the right way, but the decision has to be made that reflects your best interests. If your health is suffering because the work is spiralling out of control, I would recommend taking a step back. If you believe in the project and the client, then pushing through to the end could be the best decision you ever made.

When I stop and think about it, I believe that if I engage in a working relationship with a difficult client, I contribute just as much to the dysfunction of the relationship as the client, simply by taking on the job in the first place.

Here’s a brief yet very important response from another colleague to the general question of working with difficult clients:


It’s important to remember that you can always negotiate something. Even if the fee is unmovable, you can still negotiate your time. If the client is making outrageous demands, break it down into a list, and agree on the things that are definitely possible, possibly possible, and just plain impossible.

More to follow in the final Part, Part Three, including Personal Challenges, Being Out Of Your Depth, Feeling Undervalued and When There’s Too Much Work…

Thanks for reading. As always, I appreciate your feedback and comments.



©2016 John Garden

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