Freelance Fridays: What to Do When Your Client Wants to Cancel, Part 2

Happy Friday and welcome back for Part 2 of this series on handling unhappy customers!
In Part 1, we discussed what to do about a prospective client who is torn between two vendors. Today, I want you to visualize a situation in which you subcontracted part of the job and the client is not happy.

Perhaps you thought you had approval to hire an artist or designer or marketing expert, but the client balks at the expense. Or possibly you were upfront from the beginning that some projects would be handled by your assistant, yet the client feels he got subpar service.

“But I don’t subcontract,” you might say. “I handle everything myself.”

Do you? If you’re using web host templates to design the client’s new business site, or you’ve sent a T-shirt design out for screen printing, or that new brochure just came back from the printers, or your artist partner did the e-book cover, or your intern did the article research, you have in fact handed over control of part of the task to someone else.

So you have an angry client, but it’s not really your fault, right? I mean, yeah the print job looks a bit sloppy and there are a bunch of typos and the color’s all funny-looking, but come on, this guy’s too picky. It’s not like you did anything wrong; he should smile, sign you a check and then he can go yell at those other incompetents.

Wrong. It’s your job, your client and you let him down. Here is my five-step plan for helping you both come out of this with your dignity intact:

Shut up and listen. Just stop talking. Do you really even understand why the client is upset? Give that person the time they need to get it out of their system. I’m a compulsive note-taker so I’ll often whip out a pad and jot down the details. When your client is done, respond by saying, “Let me make sure I understand you correctly. The issue is….” Be prepared for the client to start all over again and continue talking at some length if necessary.

Accept full responsibility. Once you have a full grasp of the situation, own it. You do not get to blame the printer or your assistant or your partner or anybody else. You chose those people and those service providers for the job. Yes you might be very mad at those individuals right now, but they are your professional associates. Don’t you dare throw them under the bus.

Offer a sincere apology. Emphasis on sincere.

Suggest an appropriate resolution. Should you make adjustments to the client’s bill? Hire a new artist? Find another printer or negotiate with the one you have? Figure out what the client wants, and then do your best to work it out.

In my newsroom days, it wasn’t at all unusual for a client to come in with complaints about advertising, from embarrassing typos to poor color to off-register printing. Since we didn’t have our own press, many of these complaints had to do with the printer, over which we had little control. Our usual policy was to credit the client’s account for the bad ad and run a billable new one in the next edition, although this approach occasionally required adjustments for mistakes in brochures, tour guides and other seasonal promotions.

Evaluate the client. Now that you’ve listened, taken responsibility, apologized and worked out how you’re going to handle this together, think about this: Do you want to deal with this client again? Part of the answe

r will depend on whether you find the client’s position to be truly reasonable. Was the client actually overcharged? Did he actually receive poor results? Should you move your assistant to other projects, find a different artist or stop using that print service? Do you need a better training and management system? Take some private time to think about the entire situation and determine how you will respond to future interactions with this client. If you have staff, hold a meeting and discuss what went well and what didn’t.

Have you ever had a bad situation with a subcontractor? What did you do?


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