What Makes a Bad Client and How to Deal with Them?

For a full-time freelance designer, hardly a day goes by without hearing about or reading some nightmarish client story. Whether I hear about it in person, by email, over the phone or on the web, one thing seems clear: designers like complaining about their clients almost as much as they enjoy taking their money.

What Makes a Bad Client and How to Deal with Them?

While screening out Bad Clients before signing the contract is best, it doesn’t often happen that way. In this article, we’ll go over the warning signs of demon clients, who you should avoid at all costs. You must not only be able to identify clients who will do more harm than good for your business, but also learn how to handle these clients, or you could find yourself living a nightmare.

Why Clients Matter

instantShift - What Makes a Bad Client

Putting most of your focus on acquiring a decent clientele is vital if you want to establish and grow a freelance business.

You will always have questions about how to prioritize new and existing clients. Who to focus on? Where to invest your time and money? What strategies will pay off? Here are some things to consider as you come up with a strategy.

Several studies show that the cost of acquiring a new client is usually between four and six times more than maintaining an existing client. Finding new clients costs more, and keeping old ones is usually easier to do. Keep this in mind.

Ask yourself these questions:

What is your business strategy?

Do you plan to live off many clients or just a few loyal ones? Look over your original plans and notes as you consider this.

Are your hands full?

Chasing potential clients when your hands are already full is not a good idea. Be careful not to get too many projects going; you should always have time to do the work you already have—properly.

How much can you afford?

Marketing can be expensive, and it eats into time that you could be spending on projects. Obviously, a business requires more than just working on projects, but can you afford to look for more clients if you have projects that you could work on instead?

How often do you expect customers to come back?

Knowing how often you can expect repeat business is crucial to staying afloat. There’s no set answer; you’ll just have to sit down and look at your books. If you offer products or services that clients purchase once or rarely—such as logos and websites—you’ll probably need to chase potential clients more often than most other freelancers. If you offer something that clients need occasionally—such as print media, website maintenance, certain types of photography, illustrations, etc.—then focus on those tasks rather than on chasing clients. List your clients and the type of product each buys, and then decide what you can expect.

Could you cross-sell to existing clients?

This could be a huge source of income. Do you realize that most clients need many different services from different providers? Your clients probably have other projects on the go that you could assist them with. The fewer parties they have to deal with, the better for all involved. And if your clients have had good experiences with your service, then there’s a good chance you can expand with more work from them.

Have you lost clients? If so, why?

Look at how many of your clients have come back and how many you’ve never heard from again. Follow up with existing clients to make sure they’re taken care of.

Do you communicate regularly with current clients?

Communication is vital. Make sure that existing clients know about all of your products and services. Remind them periodically that you’re around. When you launch something, they should be the first to know—and why not give them a great deal on it?

To sum up, do the best you can for current clients before chasing new ones. This will improve both your reputation and your bottom line. When current clients are being handled as they deserve, then you can think about getting new clients.

Check out “New vs. Existing Client: Who’s the important one?” if you’re interested in reading up on this further.

What Makes a Good Client?

instantShift - What Makes a Bad Client

Do you know the characteristics of a good client? Can you distinguish the good clients from the bad before you start working with them? Do you have what it takes to become a good client yourself as your business expands and you’re ready to hire other freelancers?

Here are the characteristics of a good client:

  • 1. States expectations clearly. The most important characteristic of a good client is an ability to express their needs. This is vital if you are to deliver the right service. Guessing what the client wants is always difficult.
  • 2. Allows a reasonable deadline for the work. The freelancing world is filled with clients who need the product “yesterday.” A good client understands that quality work takes time, and they plan accordingly.
  • 3. Available for queries. Smart professionals know that getting it right the first time is cheaper than fixing it later. They make themselves available at every opportunity for any queries.
  • 4. Pays decently for the work rendered. Paying less than the market rate results in sub-par products, because freelancers who work on the cheap often take on more work than they can do well just to make ends meet.
  • 5. Adheres to pay cycles. The client should openly discuss payment terms, and honor them. The freelancer shouldn’t have to beg for payment; if they do, then the client risks tainting their reputation.
  • 6. Keeps an open mind. If they’ve hired the right person, then the client should keep an open mind about what the freelancer proposes. They shouldn’t constantly second-guess the freelancer’s abilities.
  • 6. Keeps an open mind.x The best clients understand the value of long-term relationships. They don’t look forward to “breaking in” a new freelancer with every project.
  • 8. Gives due credit. While giving a freelancer credit is not always possible, a discerning client notices when a freelancer has put in extra effort.
  • 9. Committed to quality. Most freelancers take pride in their service and want to produce high-quality work. They dislike when clients ask them to take shortcuts.

What Makes a Bad Client?

instantShift - What Makes a Bad Client

If you’ve been freelancing for a while, you’ve read horror stories about bad clients. Do you yourself spend too much time trying to satisfy impossible-to-please clients, doing countless revisions when the clients don’t know what they want, and doing all this after they have bargained a huge discount? (Meanwhile, you can’t devote yourself to new clients because you’re spending all of your time on one or two extremely demanding ones.) It feels as though a demon has attacked your freelancing business.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that clients tend to fall into certain patterns, which I’ll share here. Personally, I rarely have to deal with a bad client, and I’ll explain how you can avoid them, too.

Here are a few types of nightmarish clients you might encounter in your freelancing career.

Types of Bad Clients

  • The free-samples client: This client wants you to submit an original sample for free. No matter how hard you work, it never quite meets the mark. With a few exceptions, this is a scam to get free work. Yes, it’s important for clients to see samples, but that’s why we have portfolios.
  • The unlimited-scope client: You’ve quoted a fairly low price because the project seems relatively small. Once you begin, though, the project keeps changing, and the client gradually “remembers” certain features that they forgot to mention… which, of course, they want to be included in the original quote.
  • The vague-scare client: This client needs something and wants you to provide it. The trouble is, he is not sure exactly what that something is. He merely says, “I’ll know when I see it.” Unsuspecting freelancers often try to help, but what they suggest is never quite what he has in mind.
  • Mr. Unavailable: You send him an email of queries; days, maybe weeks, pass without any response. He hasn’t left a phone number either. You’re beginning to wonder whether this client is still in business. Suddenly, without warning, he reappears and demands a finished project.
  • The micro-manager: Some clients monitor your every move. Show them you’re a step ahead by thinking out all aspects of the project. Get permission ahead of time to produce work that reflects your sensibilities and not just theirs. Find out where potential clients are coming from by reading up on their company info and credentials.
  • The gossipmonger: This client might flatter you at first. He’s more than willing to share what he knows, especially about other people. Watch out, though: before you know it, this client will be dishing the dirt about you as well.
  • The relentless bargainer: No matter what price you quote for the project, they claim to know someone who would do it for less. The best response to this bluff is, “This is a fair rate. If you can get the work done cheaper, please go ahead.”
  • The everything-is-urgent client: In today’s competitive market, some clients expect everything to be done immediately. Help them see what’s reasonable and possible.
  • The never-happy client: Occasionally you’ll run into clients who aren’t happy no matter what you do. Changing their attitude can be difficult—sometimes impossible. As long as you do what was decided on, your conscience should be clean. Try to involve the client, and show that they’ve made a lot of decisions about the project. The never-happy attitude could stem from a variety of things: maybe they’re busy or afraid of scams or just shy. Do your best (as you always should), and treat them with respect—the rest is up to them.

There are many more demonic characteristics—I’ve seen almost all of them this past decade—but these are the most important. Many clients are a mixture of multiple characteristics. Study them, and you’ll be better able to keep them coming back for other projects.

How to Deal With Them

instantShift - What Makes a Bad Client

Now you know what to watch for, but what do you do if you’re in the middle of it? What’s the best way to react, given that your job as a freelancer is to please customers? Your success depends on good service, which means treading carefully with certain customers.

Will you have to deal with demons forever? One of the best things about freelancing is that you have the privilege to pick and choose clients.

Questions to Ask Before Dropping a Client

Don’t burn bridges if you can help it. If you can’t help it, then ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this client taking up a disproportionate amount of my time?
  • Have I done everything possible to make the project better?
  • Is my creative freedom being compromised?
  • Is working for this client hurting my reputation and dignity?
  • Has the scope of this project changed significantly since it began?
  • Am I being compensated enough for my work?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, then you’re probably in a sticky situation and it could be time to put an end to the project, which is keeping you from being productive. Ending a business relationship can be tricky, though. Below are a few tips.

How to End It With Nightmare Clients

Ideally, all client relationships would end positively, because you rely partly on referrals and testimonials for future business. Terminating a bad relationship should be a last resort.

Unfortunately, keeping everyone happy is impossible. If you do have to end a business relationship, try to leave on a positive note. You could say something like, “I thought I could do this project, but I no longer believe that I’m the best person for the job. I’ll refer you to someone who I know is better suited to it.”

Will the client be upset? Maybe. Will you get your money? Maybe not. But at least you’ll have your time back, which means you’ll be free to pursue projects that are a better match for your abilities.

Of course, saying those final words is difficult and, depending on your delivery, might come off harsh. Here are some gentler approaches to consider before cutting the tie:

  1. Negotiate the scope and deadline. Maybe the client would accept less work by the current deadline, or perhaps the project could be divided into phases. If the scope has broadened, you could even renegotiate the deadline. Be creative, and consult with the client.
  2. Delegate the work. Delegating work to another freelancer would take some of the load off you. Of course, as the outsourcer, you will have to oversee the project and monitor the quality. All client communication should go through you.
  3. Refer the client elsewhere. You might have to wash your hands of this project if no other option is viable. Refer the client to a reliable freelancer who you know. Of course, the client could very well prefer the new freelancer to you, but at least you’ll have left them with the impression that you’re helpful.

Once in a while you’ll encounter an unreasonable client who won’t be satisfied with any of your proposed solutions, and you’ll have to decide, finally, whether to end it. If the client is completely unwilling to compromise, you’re probably best off avoiding them.

Conclusion

Picking the right clients and building strong relationships is essential to freelancing success. If you work with the right clients, then your reputation will grow and the income will keep you motivated. Get to know your clients, and keep developing the relationships, even when you’re not directly working with them.

Have you ever dealt with a demon client or nightmarish project? How did you handle the situation? Please share your tips and advice with other readers; we’d love to hear your thoughts. Thank you for reading, and good luck with those clients!

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18 Comments

  1. Interesting Stuff!

  2. The “Mr Unavailable” is one of my biggest pet peeves. I can’t stand when clients are unreachable or slow to respond. you hit it right on the nail with this one

  3. Where’s never-pay client? I miss him mostly. :)

  4. I once got a client that needed a super well developed website which included php and java script besides html and css… and he tells me: “u know someone told me that they could do it for 600 bucks and i know u work on this and i prefer to give that money to u, but i need a discount” and i thought for a little bit while talking about the project and about his needs and then i said: “i’m not really good on php and java script so i would have to contact someone else which he would be charging more than that, plus my design payment, u would be spending more money going through me”

  5. Such Interesting article to read and thanks for sharing

  6. Great tutorial buddy thanks for share

  7. Actually while it doesn’t make them a bad client in the sense that they are in fact bad, a boring client or boring project is a big one to avoid…

    Ever want to sap your creativity and work on a project that drags on and on, agree to a project you don’t find interesting and it’s every bit as bad as the other items mentioned!

  8. There is one part of this that has never been explored on this topic and that is to look inside the freelancer to make sure they did not do anything wrong to begin with.

    I learn from these types of posts but has anyone considered the possibility that it is not the client? I think it is time for an article that will force the freelancer to look at their system and make sure that they are not at fault before passing the blame onto the client.

  9. For me it comes down to people who come to me but do not want to be part of the process at all.

    Here is my money make me a website.

    I try to suck as much out of them as possible to get more idea’s of what they want/expect. But they just seem to lazy and want magic to happen.

  10. I have a few red flags that make me turn and run once they pop up:

    • “This will be a great opportunity for you!”
    • “There will be plenty of money for everyone later on!”
    • “It’s great exposure for your work!”
    • “I have lot’s of friends who will also need design work!”

    As for the “I’ll know it when I see it” client. I tell them I’m not a mind reader and can’t work on more than one starting point (which I have brought out of them in putting together a creative brief). After that, they are either changing their mind or are afraid to make a decision. With a deposit under my belt, I have the power to fire them.

  11. maybe to understand the culture they belong to help you make bad client good to work with

  12. What I had about these”bad clients” the most are the ones the try to hold you up and say…”Well, I think you’re rates are a little unreasonable and ‘so-and-so’ a much more reasonable rate”….. seriously?

    THERE IS ALWAYS that person who will offer these bad clients a rate below minimum wage that makes them think our work is dirt cheap. Clients don’t understand that their not just paying for our work, but mainly our ideas and creative thinking.

  13. Ugh, bad clients are a nightmare. I especially shudder at the mention of clients that doesn’t regulary check their accounts, but are vicious and demanding when they do remember.

  14. Nice points to consider. I especially liked the “Types of clients” column on your article. As a freelancer for 5 years, I got every kind of customer on your list. Looking back, I was really irritated at first because of the demands. It also got me confused because on my end, I was conscious on my price range because I felt that there are other freelancers out there who can really go down on their prices while maintaining a supposed “Quality” on their sleeve. Slowly, I had confidence in telling the client the value that I am offering and setting expectations on what I can do for his/her business. I guess it worked. Yes, you cannot please everybody but at the end of the day you get clients that are loyal to you.You are happy, they are happy.

  15. Very Nice points! I have had my share of nightmare clients, but I guess it is always part of the job regardless of what business you are in. To lessen this kind of clients from coming my way, I always have an open communication with potential clients (PR included) and make detailed descriptions of my advantages and boundaries. This way both of us are tied on the specifics of the project.

  16. Thank you buddy, it was helpful, thanks for sharing!

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