Client Advice

How To Become More Assertive With Your Clients (Without Coming Off As Rude)

I know a brand new, squeaky clean freelancer that has just gotten started in the last couple of weeks. At her request, I actually helped her to find her first client. Since then, she has contacted me about three times a day, asking me to look over her work, the client communications, help her set her rate, and even contacted me in a panic when the client started to question whether there was a way to “pay less”, aka were being cheap.

What has really struck me about this week of interactions is the utter terror in every message, phone call and text. She is so frightened of doing something wrong, as though a piano is hanging over her head on a rope, and a mistake will trigger a swinging blade.

There is a certain amount of nostalgia attached to seeing that fear. I remember well my own nerves every time I took a new project when I first started. It was so intense back then that I would agree to ridiculous terms, rates and conditions out of an obsessive need to please the client.

While aiming to pleasure your customer is a fantastic trait and goal, there are limits. You have to learn to be more assertive, and for some freelancers it is a skill that they don’t quite manage to nail down even years after the early career jitters have passed.

At the same time, finding the balance between being assertive and being a total jerkface can be surprisingly difficult to achieve. Here are some tips for standing up against clients with professionalism and confidence, without verging into rude behavior.

Remember That You Are Your Own Boss

The first bit of advice I gave my friend is the one that I think is most important for all freelancers, regardless of what stage they are in. It is also the hardest to both accept and embody, as it takes you right out of your comfort zone as quickly as you say it out loud. Your client is not your boss. You are your boss.

While the client may be offering you details on what they want, they hired you as an independent. You are not subject to their demands any more than you choose to take them, nor do they have any control over the way you operate. Remember that at the end of the day, the one in charge of your business is you. If they don’t have responsibility for the needs of that business, they are not in charge of you.

Ask: What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

Everybody messes up sometimes. Some screw ups are worst than others. But ultimately, we are not defined by our mistakes. So when you feel that anxiety creeping up, go ahead and let your mind wander to what could happen if you do something wrong. How bad would the fall out be?

The most you are going to likely face is a free revision and an apology. Maybe you will lose that client and have to move on to another. Hopefully they will be understanding and chalk it up to a minor boo-boo, keeping you on to the project.

Know Your Worth, And Demand It

I would say 80% of clients are good about rates. They ask for it, and if it is in their budget they pay it. If not, they thank you for your time and move on. Easy, manageable, and totally normal. But sometimes you come across the less savory ones that will try and whittle down your price, or request extra services, revisions or tack-ons that were not originally negotiated or agreed upon. If you let them, these cheap clients will suck you dry while profiting off of your labor.

You need to know your quality, and demand that it be respected. Remain polite, but firm, and if they refuse to pay your price or continue to try and change it, walk away from the project. A contract is best for these situations, as it will give you something legal to fall back on, proving that they agreed to your business arrangement.

Don’t Be Afraid To Be The Expert

Backseat clients are very, very common. It is also pretty understandable, if you think about it. They have a vision, and they want to see that vision come to life. Unfortunately, sometimes that vision just isn’t possible. Or it might be an achievable request, but not advised. Some client plans are positively disastrous.

While you don’t want to lord your knowledge over them or be condescending, they hired you for a reason. You are the expert, and you need to let them know that. Politely offer them other suggestions, and explain why (in your expertise) you feel it would be a better fit. Don’t talk down to them, and compliment their idea, but show that in spite of it being really good, it might not work out the way they hope for listed reasons.

If Something Doesn’t Work, Say So

There are always projects that start out well enough, but soon they become tedious, overly stressful, or just aren’t paying enough to justify the effort. Maybe you are having to put in too much non-billable time, such as constant communication with a team. Or you just have a better offer out there, waiting.

Don’t be afraid to let your client know that something isn’t working for you, and why. It might lead to a renegotiation, or at the very least you can walk away on good and professional terms.


You are running a business, and no one is looking out for it except for you. That is ultimately what it comes down to, and you have to stand firm to get what you deserve. Being assertive while remaining pleasant and polite just comes with the territory, and it can take some time to master the balance.

Until then, do as they always say: fake it till you make it.

Photo Credit: Pete

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