How to avoid client negotiations turning sour

Illustration by

Jon McCormack

Words by

Amanda Jones

July 16, 2021

As freelancers, we often rely on our networking and contacts to get us work. Most of us start out with a few friends in the field, and many of us have working relationships which we foster over years, and which over time morph into important and sometimes lifelong friendships. Staying on good terms is essential, but like any long-term investment, it’s inevitable that there will be pitfalls along the way.

Luckily, you can prepare yourself! Whether you and a pal are starting out on one of your first projects together, or if you’re working with someone who you’ve known for several years, here are some top tips for navigating the inevitable business disputes:

 

Be clear about what you want and what you’re delivering

Knowing what you’re setting out to achieve is one of the key elements in avoiding a work dispute. Try to be as detailed as possible in the planning / preproduction stages, setting out exactly what your expectations and limitations are. Get inside each other’s heads, so you’re both on exactly the same page as to what your joint outcome should look like. This can help to iron out any potential quarrels or disagreements before you’ve started the work.

 

Be explicit about the financial conditions

Tricky, I know.. but honesty really is the best policy here. Set out clearly what you expect, what your incurred costs are and how you expect to be repaid for your work. Stigma surrounding money can make this one of the most difficult areas to discuss, but if they really are a good friend and colleague, then they will respect your boundaries and your conditions.

 

Stick to your side of the deal

Now that you’ve set the groundwork properly, sticking to it should feel natural. As you commence with the project, make sure to be reliable, fair and concurrent with the agreement you’ve set out. Integrity is key, and if there’s a dispute later on, then it’ll put you in a better position to negotiate. 

Check in along the way

Once you’ve laid down your foundations and are both happy and clear about your individual responsibilities, keep checking in along the way to make sure that you’re both happy with how things are going.

 

Pay attention to bad habits or weird behaviour

Ok, so something’s upset you. Maybe they’ve paid you late, or suddenly thrown in a whole new aspect to the agreement without discussing it with you. Maybe they’ve taken more than their fair share, or expected you to take on extra workload that you haven’t signed up for.

It’s easy at this stage to ‘just let it slide’, knowing that your relationship = your next paycheque. But DO sweat the small stuff. You can approach the conversation fairly and calmly, but don’t let them get away with it! The more you let it slide, the more opportunity you give for them to take advantage. Imagine if this behaviour continued for the next year. Or five years, or even ten. Would you be ok with it? If not, then it’s time to speak up. And it’s never too late to pick up on something that’s bothering you, even if it feels like the moment’s gone.

 

Communicate

So you were clear with them, and the negative behaviour has continued, or something even worse has cropped up. This is where communication is essential. Book in a long meeting or catch up so you can give it all the time you need. Explain exactly how you're feeling and what your experience has been. Let them know where you think things went wrong, and how you imagine it being resolved. Maybe it’s about respect, money, workload, feeling creatively unappreciated, difference in ideas, the direction/vision for the project. As your friend, they should be able to give an empathic listening ear and care that something’s bothering you (even if they might be the cause!). Keep reminding them that your friendship is a top priority, and you want to make sure that your business endeavour won’t get in the way of your friendship.


Listen to their side too

You may be feeling pretty upset, but remember that as a friend, it’s important to hear them out. Once you have explained your side of things, listen to their experience - maybe they have something important that you need to hear as well. More often than not, if one of you feels uneasy, then so does the other. Try to take on board what they’re saying, and if they’re unhappy with something you’ve been doing, listen to the advice and think about steps you can take to change.

 

Compromise... to a point

In life, love, and business sacrifices must be made in order to cooperate and achieve your highest potential. Compromise is essential, so having put both sides squarely on the table, you can  now discuss how to move forward. Try to negotiate a new way of doing things together which you both feel will serve you and your project better. And it really will - any resentment or dispute will only bleed into the project, so it’s vital to come to a new arrangement. With both parties happier, the project is in a better position to thrive too!


Decide when it’s time to part ways

Compromise is great, but there is a limit. Sometimes it’s important to recognise that while you may be great friends, that energy doesn’t translate into your work together. If your working relationship is depleting your friendship or your ability to work, then maybe it’s time to call it quits on the project. This can be done harmoniously - take time to honour what you’ve achieved together, before taking steps to rebuild your friendship once again.

 

Learn from the experience

After settling a business dispute with your friend, no matter how it ended, always remember to give yourself time for an honest reflection. Recognising the behaviour means that you can move forward positively, with confidence that there’s less chance of the situation repeating itself again.

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