What to Do with Clients When You’re Sick

Calling In SickA few weeks ago, I was sick. Taylor was sick. Everyone was sick. There are times when you can power through sickness and get your work done. But then there are those other times…

The times when your head has been aching vaguely for three days and every bone in your body feels like you have early-onset arthritis. The times when you’ve forgone the boxes of Kleenex for 70 rolls of toilet paper. The times when summoning the energy to pour a glass of orange juice feels about as easy as lifting a small mountain.

Those are not good times to keep working. Even if you get the work done, it’s going to turn out lousy. Even if you technically manage to do a good job, it’s not going to be the best work you can produce. It’s also going to exhaust you physically and mentally, and that just keeps you sick for longer than you have to be.

How do you tell your clients that you need an extension on a project because you’re sick?

Warn Them of Impending Storm Clouds

If you feel like you might be getting sick (you get that vague sore throat and you seem to be more tired than usual), let your clients know immediately. Right away.

“I think I have a cold coming on… I’m feeling under the weather since yesterday…” Slip it into conversation. Mention it. You don’t have to panic and stop the presses, but you do have to point out the storm clouds looming on the horizon.

If you warn clients in advance that you might be getting ill, they’ll be able to take that into consideration and plan for it. They won’t be shocked and dismayed when you finally do announce there’s no way in hell you can get out of bed and that their project is going to be late.

You also won’t accidentally be rude to them because everything hurts and you haven’t slept. It’s really easy to sound snippy or short, or say something less than tactful when you’re right in the middle of a week-long virus. If you tell them in advance, you’ll have politeness to spare and you’ll get their sympathy instead of their shock at your bad manners.

And the worst that happens if you’re not actually sick and you recover? It was a false alarm – that’s great news.

Give Yourself a Reasonable Extension

If you’re already on your way to being sick, you know that you won’t be able to jump right back in and start producing high-quality work the day you start feeling a little bit better. Most of us take a day or two to recuperate.

Factor that in when you ask to push the deadline back. Ask the client for enough time that you feel confident you can meet the new deadline. If you shortchange yourself and have ask for a second extension because you aren’t quite up to snuff yet, your clients aren’t going to be nearly as nice about it.

Err on the side of caution.

Let Them Say No

Most clients, on hearing the news, will be more flexible and say it’s just fine to deliver a week later than expected. But some clients really do need you to deliver on time to avoid some serious repercussions for their business.

So, let them know it’s absolutely all right to say no to an extended deadline, and that you will take care of it. Explain that you’re feeling lousy and you’re not producing your best work, so it would be nice if you could have an extension – but if you can’t, you understand.

That makes the client think that he doesn’t need to run out and hire another freelancer to take your place. The client will probably also be glad he has a freelancer who meets deadlines come hell or high flu season.

Once you know what you have to do and what you can set aside until you feel better, ask yourself if you can actually get the work done. If you can, great. If you can’t, hire someone who can help you. It’s much better to keep that client on your side and get a next assignment than to lose the person entirely.

I’ll add a caution, though: Be transparent with your client. Let the person know that you’re working with someone else to get the job done. That conveys honesty, integrity, solution-minded thinking and proactive attention. It’s a win all around.

Your Clients Know You’re Human

Everyone has been sick at some point, and especially at this time of year, it’s entirely possible that your clients have recently been sick or had to deal with a loved one who was feeling ill.

They’re sympathetic to your plight. They know there’s nothing you can do about being sick. It’s not like you’re having some sort of emotional trauma because your girlfriend just broke up with you and you wish you could just curl up into a ball. No client is going to feel like they should give you an extension for that.

But they do know that you can’t do anything about being slung over a toilet bowl with the flu or having your sinuses plugged so tight that the compression might explode your head. And their reaction is going to reflect that.

So go ahead. Ask for a little sympathy. And then go back to bed and sleep as much as you can, so you can get better and get back to kicking ass a little sooner.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. I can’t speak from a freelancing standpoint but I can completely relate from someone who has hired many writers. It’s always fun to work with people who can accurately tell me when to expect their work.

    Most people (that I’ve worked with anyway) seem to not be so good at this. I guess they’re still learning or I need to keep looking for super high-quality. Can’t afford you guys yet, but soon I will 😉
    .-= Henri @ Wake Up Cloud´s last blog ..121 Ways to Improve Your Life and Be More Awesome =-.

  2. Beautifully framed and I like the way you painted both sides of the equation … after all, good service is always in the eyes of the beholder.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..8 Ways to Be Heroic =-.

  3. this is a heavy situation. I think the only think you do with the client is WAIT! Wait and Wait still you become normal.
    .-= condo finder´s last blog ..Top 3 reasons to buy a condo =-.

  4. I have found it’s better to be honest when sicknesses and emergencies come up. Most clients are very understanding and you’ll deliver the quality of work expected from you when you take the time to get well. I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s hard to put out my best work when my head is cloudy, my nose is stuffy, and my chest is sore from coughing.
    .-= Heather Villa´s last blog ..Weekend Reading: My fav’s from this week: 12/18/09 =-.

  5. Mary E. Ulrich says:

    Right now I’m being thankful for not being sick. Needing 70 rolls of toilet paper is quite an image.

  6. @ Mary – It’s better than 134 boxes of Kleenex. Toilet paper definitely comes cheaper when you need it in bulk.

    @ Heather – Bingo. I would much rather call a time out and get well so I can do my best work. I find that giving clients quick updates every couple of days helps as well, so they can “see” the progress of the illness and know that the end is near.

    @CondoFinder – I think you should read our comment policy. We don’t accept keyword comments here and prefer real names. Thanks.

    @ JD – There’s always two sides to everything (and sometimes more!), so it’s important to put yourself in the client’s shoes for a minute and see how they feel. Just plain polite, no?

    @ Henri – There are a great many writers out there who do struggle to meet their deadlines. No one is born knowing time management, and I think unfortunately, the creative types suffer problems with it just a wee bit more than the average person. Embracing scheduling and knowing exactly where you’re going and when you’ll deliver – and delivering! – is key to success.

  7. As we just tweeted, I’ve been sick as a dog for a while. I finished up a freelance gig 4 weeks with the intention of doing a whole bunch of writing, a bag of guest posts and heap of work on new products and services.

    But I haven’t achieved anything.

    I’ve given myself permission to effectively sign myself off sick for a month, and without that i can guarantee I’d be feeling a whole lot worse.

    I often find that it’s YOU that you have to get permission from about slowing down and taking time out before you ask anyone else, and that’s where a lot of people sell themselves short. Most clients are very understanding, but if you don’t allow yourself to step back first then you’re not giving them or yourself a chance.

    Right, time for a nap.
    .-= Steve Errey´s last blog ..Don’t Let Them Put You Down =-.

  8. Talk about timely!

    I’m just recovering from a very bad cold (or mild flu). It’s thrown everything for a complete loop. I’m supposed to have a detailed quote for a client today which is based on exploratory code I was to have written over the weekend.

    Forget it! I slept all Saturday afternoon. Then went to bed early and got a full night’s sleep.

    Feeling better now, I hope I can salvage some sort of proposal. No worries if not.
    .-= Dave Doolin´s last blog ..How to Increase Your Search Ranking — By Doing Absolutely Nothing! =-.

  9. I rarely get sick. But when I have, it’s never been a problem for clients. There really is no choice. If you can’t work, you can’t work. If a client gets sick, you can bet the project gets pushed back. So most people understand your situation.

    The real problem is doing creative work. Billing, answering emails, and little tasks are usually not a problem unless you have one of those “oh god please let me die” type of sicknesses where you just don’t care what gets done.

    Scheduling helps. I always ask for more time than I need because you never know what tomorrow holds. If you have extra time built into projects, that may be all you need to weather the storm.
    .-= Dean Rieck´s last blog ..How to write the perfect sales letter =-.

  10. Sending cyber chicken soup to all of you! Watch out for the pixels (they’re crunchy).

    I do like the way you gave the client the option (deadline or deathly ill)…
    .-= Jodi Kaplan´s last blog ..7 Secret Shortcuts for Writing Great Headlines =-.

  11. As long as you tell the client in advance (if possible) that you are sick and require an extension, there is no harm in that. It is better than producing work that is not up to your usual standard.

  12. @ Darren – There’s never any harm in being human and needing some time to be better at your game.

    @ Jodi – Ha, thanks! I’m sure I’ll be cashing in on that soup again at least once this winter. (Ugh…)

    @ Dean – Scheduling extra buffer time in is always a great idea. Worst case, you use it up and the client gets his work on time. Best case, you deliver early and he’s thrilled. Either way, he’s happy and you’re safe.

    I had to laugh at the “I want to die and just don’t care” part – Been there, done that. Recovered, thank god. You’re right though – sometimes it’s good to have someone handy who could help out in a pinch.

    @ Dave – Oh wow, sounds nasty. I can relate to the sleeping part, too. I came down with something Friday afternoon and slept 75 hours over the last 48 hours. I gotta say, I was lucky that I didn’t have anything pending, because I would’ve been knocking on Taylor’s door!

    @ Steve – That’s a fantastic point, and you’re right. Most freelancers do worry about when to stop and try to push on until they know they’ve lost the war. I learned a while back that saying yes to yourself first is what really makes the difference between a healthy person and someone run down and tired.

    That, and learning that there’s nothing to feel guilty about – which is another thing the creative souls in the world tend to struggle with sometimes.

  13. Susan Johnston says:

    This is why it’s wise to build in a little extra time for illnesses, computer blow-ups, dating break-ups, etc. But sometimes that’s not enough, so this is sage advice, especially about giving them veto power. Hope you feel better soon, James!
    .-= Susan Johnston´s last blog ..Guest Post: Getting Personal with Essay Subjects =-.

  14. Those nice and very helpful tips I think, but some clients are really not that easy going, even if you provide them with a great excuse they act like they are pissed off lol… I make sure I don’t disappoint my clients because they are important to me and they pay me good 😉
    .-= chakkravarthi@blog seo´s last blog ..6 Reasons Why You Should Not Panic About Google Personal Search =-.

  15. I can relate to this problem being sick all week and again this week. I think next time I’ll take a sick day rather than trying to struggle my way through it with a fever. Unfortunately, with the holidays and end of month looming, the work just had to get done sooner or later. Thankfully, the holidays are around the corner and I can sleep in! I agree if you’re not feeling well and you’re not going to produce a high quality of work, then you really need to ask for an extension on the deadline. We’re only human afterall and our bosses/clients should understand this.

  16. @ Gillian – Once we’ve been through Dean’s ‘I’m gonna die and I don’t care’ a time or two, I think it’s easier for us to see that the world doesn’t fall apart if we’re gone a few days and that sometimes, our health is the most important part of all. Take the sick day!

    @Chakkravarthi – Here’s my way of thinking: If they’re sounding so angry that they make you feel forced, put you down or pressure you, then it’s not worth it to deal with clients like that. If they sound mildly irritated or put out that they have to pause their plans or miss their intended launch date, then be understanding, sympathize, and know that that’s just voiced grumbling, nothing more.

    @ Susan – I think that when clients are presented with solutions to the situation so that they aren’t left scrambling, they take it much better in stride. You’ve given them a problem, yes, but you’ve also given them fast options that they can put into action, which eases the situation into a win-win.

  17. This is one reason why I don’t like taking on clients myself; I much prefer to be responsible to me and only me. I’ve had my share of clients back when I was in corporate land at the big huge telecommunications company…..
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..You NEED this to start 2010 off RIGHT – Save BIG on ….. =-.

  18. Great post! As someone who is on their 5th box of Kleenexes this week, I can totally relate. I had pneumonia last around this time last year as well, so I’ve definitely been in this situation before. I was hesitant to let people know that I was sick and needed an extension. I didn’t want to seem like I was a whiny baby. However, you’re right – when you don’t feel well, your work suffers. You also can become resentful for working when you feel like utter crap. I agree with @SteveErry – it’s more difficult to give yourself permission to take a break than getting the reprieve from the client.

    Thanks for the encouragement that it’s okay to be honest when you’re not feeling your best. Merry Christmas!

  19. Sometimes it’s so hard to remember that life does happen, and that in some situations your business just has to fit in with it. I think that clients can be more understanding about this than business owners themselves can!

    It works both ways though – you’ve got to be understanding with your clients, too, when they have their own emergencies.
    .-= Ravi Kuwadia´s last blog ..Treasure Coach Review and Bonus =-.

  20. Yes dude. recently i was in a similar situation.
    You’ld have posted this before a month.. haha..
    Thanks dude. Nice tips 🙂
    .-= DesignFellow´s last blog ..CodeIgniter quick reference cheat sheet version 2.0 released =-.

  21. There is usually a way of bluffing it and getting around it but if it is worse case scenario then a little bit of honesty goes a long way. If it is a once a year occurence anybody reasonable is not going to have a problem with it but if it is happening all the time and you are constantly making lame excuses they are going to take their business elsewhere, nothing could be more sure

  22. I just found your blog, so forgive me for the late comment.
    I haven’t been freelancing for all that long, but I’ve always wondered what I would do if I were too sick to work. Thankfully it hasn’t come up yet, but these are some good tips for when it does!

  23. I would be completely honest with the client and let them know I’m seriously sick. If they have a problem with that they can go ahead and hire someone else.


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