Avoid Conflicts Before They Happen

I’m pretty good at helping people break down what’s happening in a conflict and figure out the best way to address it.

Thirty minutes with me and you’ll be all, “Conflict? What conflict? Pass me the cookie tray! Have you seen that Youtube video where the squirrel and the Bernese Mountain dog are best friends?”

But as much fun as I have tackling conflicts, I find it makes people far happier if they can just avoid conflict all together.

Well, I can teach you how to do that, too.

By Chris Walton via Flickr.com

By Chris Walton via Flickr.com

When most people think about avoiding conflict they think about pretending that a conflict isn’t there, or pretending it isn’t as difficult as it really is. They avoid conflict by living in an alternate universe where the conflict doesn’t exist, while the rest of us are here wondering what’s wrong with them.

That’s not avoiding conflict. That’s making conflict worse.

Unattended, those bad feelings fester, metastasizing into something much worse. And all of the sudden you aren’t talking to your best friend of 12 years because she brought bacon wrapped dates to the New Year’s party when she knew you were bringing your Famous Bacon Wrapped Dates™ to the New Year’s party. Silliness.

Actually avoiding conflict means taking action early to make sure conflicts don’t arise. You avoid conflict by doing things to discourage conflict.

What sort of things can you do to discourage conflict? I’m so glad you asked!

Say “No”
Is a potential client making you feel like something’s just not right? They aren’t bad people, but you just get this vibe that things may not go well if you work together? Say “No.”

Say, “I’m sorry I can’t work with you, but I’d encourage you to contact one of these three other professionals who might be able to help.”

Paying attention to the red flags potential clients put out – emphasizing how small the budget is, canceling meetings or phone calls at the last minute, repeatedly saying how easy they think the job is – is good business sense.

Not paying attention to those red flags and going forward with the job is like inviting conflict into your house, patting the couch and saying, “Put your feet up and stay a while.”

You will end up having a conflict with those clients, guaranteed. Avoid the conflicts by not taking on the clients.

By Marionzetta via Flickr.com

By Marionzetta via Flickr.com

Set Boundaries Early & Often
Clients do not do our jobs, so clients don’t know how much time it takes to do our jobs.

They also don’t know if we have two other deadlines to worry about, are sharing child-care with a partner, literally need the 3 day vacation we have coming up, or that we design software, not build websites.

Now, you might not need to share all of those details with your clients, but you do need to train them on what they can expect from you so you can enjoy the rest of your life.

When bringing on a new client, send them a brief FAQ that covers your general availability, how you like to communicate best, the average turn-around for the types of projects you do, and what kind of work you don’t do but would be happy to recommend other professionals for.

If you tell your clients you’re not available on weekends, guess what happens? They won’t expect to hear from you on the weekend.

Other boundaries?

Use a contract. Use a contract. Use a contract. Have a contract that is your very own and that is for your benefit. Even if you end up signing their contract, you train them to treat you like a professional because you do professional things. Like using a contract.

Don’t break your own rules. If you don’t work on the weekends, you don’t work on the weekends. If you decide it’s a good idea to break the rules just this once, make it cost more and explain the extra cost is due to the fact that you don’t work on the weekends. If you make it cost the same as all your other work, they won’t treat it as a special one off and they’ll ask for it more often.

Take the advice of the nice folks at Zen Cash and say, “Due in 15 days” on your invoices. “Days” are relatable things that help underscore the boundary that is your due date. Avoid saying “net 15,” which doesn’t have the same impact.

By Marcelo Nava via Flickr.com

By Marcelo Nava via Flickr.com

Brag on Yourself 
I talk to a lot of freelancers frustrated that their clients don’t respect the work the freelancer does for them. They’re angry and confused why the client they just pulled an all-nighter for is now “moving in a new direction.”

My first question to many of these freelancers is this: “Did you tell them what you were doing for them and how hard you worked?”

The response I usually get is, “They should know!”

Why? Why should someone who doesn’t do your job and is equally convinced that what you do is (a) magically creative and (b) something their 14 year-old could do, understand for the first second the skill, talent and expertise you bring to the table if you don’t tell them what they’re getting?

Clients are not mind-readers. They don’t know.

Have an “about” page on your website that highlights your expertise and recognition for that expertise. Every award, every speaking gig or guest appearance, every big publication, every client you’ve knocked it out of the park for. This is not the place to be coy.

Stop using “I think” when describing an approach or a critique to your client. Just cut it out of the sentence and say what you were going to say. You have the authority to make strong statements about the work you do; don’t undercut the power of those statements by framing them as just your opinion. If you need a linguistic crutch to replace “I think,” use “Based on my experience” instead.

When they ask you to do work that’s below your level, let them know it’s not work you do, and that it would be needlessly expensive for them if they paid you to do it given your experience. Offer to help them find someone in your field with less experience to do the work.

If work is particularly difficult, make sure they know. Better yet, give them a job so they learn the difficulty. “That’s a particularly aggressive approach, but if we do it the right way we can absolutely tackle it. To make sure everything goes smoothly, I’ll need your help to….” Don’t forget to tell them what might take the project off the rails: “If you don’t have A, B and C in place by the 1st, we won’t be able to go live until the following month.”

By Mike Smail via Flickr.com

By Mike Smail via Flickr.com

I’ve got a ton more tricks and tips for avoiding conflict and making your freelancer work easier. What would you like to know more about?

If you live in Portland I’ll be teaching a course on this stuff at Moxie Studios on February 20th from 6:30p-8:30p. This will not be a fluffy class of feel-goodery; we’ll dig into the details of setting boundaries, determining prices, and negotiating.

You’ll walk away with a ton of practical information you can use to make your freelance career more satisfying. There will also be a meet-up the following week where you can ask questions about applying the lessons from the class and tell me what worked for you (and what didn’t).

Space is limited, sign up here.

Categories: Dealing with People


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Client Red Flags (And What They Are Trying to Tell You) »

4 responses to “Avoid Conflicts Before They Happen”

  1. M!ke says:

    I would like more tips and examples to answer your question “Did you tell them what you were doing for them and how hard you worked?”

    I have a hard time with this. I’m afraid to come off as a primma donna who’s becoming hard to work with. I know that invites disregard from the client, and I want to assert the value of my work and effort.

    Thanks, KL!

  2. SB says:

    How do you approach a client that has not paid an overdue invoice? We have a contract in place that specifically outlines the payment terms so legally they are required to pay, but the question I’m particularly getting at is how to contact them regarding this situation. The communication lines we’ve established are primarily email, but the client is not returning emails I’ve sent and feel uneasy that perhaps they aren’t being received? I feel a little harsh to call them directly in order to “collect” their due invoice, but not sure I have any other options at this point. Certified letter? Singing-gram? (that is a joke)

    • Katie Lane says:

      Hi SB,

      That’s really frustrating; I’m sorry you’re having to deal with a client who isn’t paying up. I don’t think a phone call is harsh at all; they had an obligation to pay you for work you provided and they haven’t done that. A quick call to say, “The last invoice is currently XX days overdue and I wanted to check-in to understand what’s going on,” is perfectly reasonable. If they say, “Oh, yeah, that…um….” ask if they can pay (the full amount) by a particular date, say next week. If they can’t, tell them you’ll need to either get a payment plan in place or you’ll have to stop working on their project until they’ve paid the invoice. If you’ve already finished the work, let them know you won’t be available for new work until they’ve paid this invoice.

      The folks over at Zen Cash keep a pretty helpful blog about getting paid. I haven’t used their services, but I like their approach and advice.

      Hope this helps!

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