Occasionally, I’m asked how I handle the situation when things go south with company, clients, people with whom I’m working, and so on. This is one of those things that if you were to ask a handful of different people ranging from freelancers to C-level executives, you’d probably get different answers from each of them.

And rightly so.

After all, we’re all working for and/or with people at different places in the industry, so how we handle this situation is going to be unique to our particular position. So this isn’t one of those types of questions that has a universal answer.

I can only answer it with respect to the type of business I’ve done over the past few years. If you’re a single person or a small team, then maybe this will be helpful.

When Things Go South

No matter how hard you try to keep all things running smoothly, you’re bound to run into that client at some point during your self-employment career (or, from their perspective, they are bound to run into that company).

When Things Go South

Before talking about handling this situation, something worth noting (especially if you’re just starting out):

This is not the first time in the history of business a business relationship has not worked out (nor will it be the last). So, on some level, expect this to happen at some point along the way.

When it does, don’t freak out and don’t let it have you re-think your career. It’s okay to be disappointed, but it’s not okay to forget all of the good work you’ve done in the past, nor is it okay to rethink if what you’re doing is the right thing to do.

Instead, see it for what it is: A business relationship that didn’t work out. Period.

Furthermore, it doesn’t have to be a nasty exchange and it doesn’t have to devolve into something that becomes a horror story you read about on something like Clients From Hell, but it does need to be handled in a respectful manner and with integrity.

This means you shouldn’t be blogging about a negative experience nor should you be subtweeting about a particular situation. That’s a mark of business immaturity, in my opinion. On top of that, it’s completely possible to maintain a respectful demeanor with the people with which the business didn’t work out all the while acknowledging the working relationship isn’t working out.

Anyway, with that said, there are some things I’ve found many people – especially those those who are freelancers or small businesses can do – to protect themselves from having these situations arise at some point during a project.

1. Form a Relationship

Recently, I had someone ask me how they could do a better job of retaining clients for repeat work. There’s a lot wrapped up in this that could be covered in a post all its own, but the short of it is I think it’s important to form a relationship with the person or people with whom you’re working.

That is to say getting on a call with the person or people with whom you’re working, introducing yourself, getting to know a little bit about them and the problem you’re solving can help to instill mutual trust and understanding of where you’re both coming from.

When an unexpected issue arises that has to be handled via whatever system you’ve setup – email, Basecamp, phone calls, etc. – then you have some sense of personality behind who’s communicating the issue and it helps to have heard their voice and demeanor so you have some type of context for what you’re reading.

2. Understand The Problem

If you’re going to be working with someone, you’re going to need…

  • A clear definition of the work being requested
  • A set of requirements defining the problem before you begin providing a solution
  • An understanding of the problem domain to fully understand how to best solve it

And in doing that, you’re doing to need to spend time investigating what they currently have or what they will need. This is going to require access to some of the things they already have on hand – sometimes this is existing software, sometimes this is a person with which you communicate.

3. Clearly State Your Terms

For many, this is simply a contract. But what should be in the contract? I can’t provide you with a template for that because each job is unique (and there are plenty of templates available online).

I can, however, say you need something that protects you, that defines the work you will be doing and what you won’t be doing (the latter of which is usually implied by clearly stating the former), and signatures.

Note, however, this is not legal advice. I’m not a lawyer and depending on your project you may want to have one review the terms you’re setting forth.

Advice Welcome

With all of that said, I know the things I’ve listed above aren’t the only way to handle this particular situation.

If you have something to add to change with the content above, do so in the comments – it’d be helpful not only for me but for those who may be find this content in the future.

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Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. Great advice. Although I support the approach of intregrity 100%, (the motto of divtruth is “Where business and integrity meet” ), but I can say this past year that was tested to an unexpected level.

    As you said, nothing I need to blog about, but I’ll admit maintaining integrity when a client takes advantage of your relationship is very difficult. At times like that you need to surround yourself around people removed from the situation who possess integrity and other strong character traits to encourage and guide you on the high road.

    Thanks for highlighting the subject for us all and spurring us towards integrity in our business.

    • Great advice. Although I support the approach of intregrity 100%, (the motto of divtruth is “Where business and integrity meet” ), but I can say this past year that was tested to an unexpected level.

      It’s bound to happen to us all at least once (but likely more). It’s just one of those things that we have to weather, resolve in what way seems best, and then go from there.

      As you said, nothing I need to blog about, but I’ll admit maintaining integrity when a client takes advantage of your relationship is very difficult. At times like that you need to surround yourself around people removed from the situation who possess integrity and other strong character traits to encourage and guide you on the high road.

      Agreed. I’m actually facing a similar situation right now. It’s not the first time so it’s not nearly as jarring as it was my first time around this.

      — Tom

      • Now you’ve got me thinking more, Tom. You’re quite right that any relationship is a 2-way street. I think what I mean about the relationship being my responsibility is this: when there are storm clouds, I don’t want the client to “fire” me. I’d much prefer to be the proactive adult and solve the problem. I’m the one with the business.

        In any other relationship, none of this applies! But I feel that as the one being paid to supply services, it’s up to me to keep that a positive experience, or to stop supplying services to that person.

        Having explained all that, it might still be a matter of personality! :-)

  2. When the storm is brewing is the hard part, I think. I have always felt that it’s MY responsibility, not theirs, to keep the business relationship on track, and to end it if that time came. So I take charge of the process. And there’s just nothing comfortable or easy about it. But I take some comfort in doing everything I can to be absolutely professional and courteous and reasonable about the process. Because with a website, the transition can take weeks, and having it be unpleasant is just not an option, at least for me. So I click into a very businesslike mode, and do what I’m supposed to do. And rejoice that soon, that person will no longer be able to cause me stress and unhappiness.

    • When the storm is brewing is the hard part, I think. I have always felt that it’s MY responsibility, not theirs, to keep the business relationship on track, and to end it if that time came

      Some of that’s personality, I think, but I can definitely relate. Regarding what you’re saying. The thing to remember is that relationships are two way streets :).

      But I take some comfort in doing everything I can to be absolutely professional and courteous and reasonable about the process. Because with a website, the transition can take weeks, and having it be unpleasant is just not an option, at least for me.

      This is how it should be, IMHO.

      And rejoice that soon, that person will no longer be able to cause me stress and unhappiness.

      There you go :).

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