For a small business owner or operator, a bad day at work can often be attributed to one common denominator: a rotten client.
When it comes to working with clients as a small business owner, you get to experience the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Good clients are a gem. They're easy to work with, they pay well and on time, they're detailed in their requirements, they answer all your questions, and they typically appreciate the work that you're doing for them. These are the clients that make the freelance/ small business game so worth it. Hang onto them forever.
But, you're not reading this article to gain insight on how to deal with the good clients—that doesn't really require any insight. You're here to learn about how to deal with the bad, ugly, and downright nasty clients or customers from hell. (On a side note, this type of client is so popular and abundant that even Twitter has a feed on the subject: #clientsfh.)
There's no shortage of people venting about bad clients out there. But, because they are—and will always be—a fact of life in small business, we're aiming to do something productive about it. This article covers everything you need to know about working with customers from hell. You'll learn how to spot the red flags and danger signs from afar, we'll explore a list of the classic archetypes to steer clear of and avoid, of and we'll wrap up with helpful tips advice to keep you and your business on the road to success.
How to spot a "client from hell"
As a small business owner, you hold yourself to high standards. Imagine what would happen if you held your clients (or prospective clients) to those same high standards. Ultimately, the power to create strong relationships with clients or customers rests in your hands, so why not be selective on who you choose to work with from the very start?
The great news about clients from hell is that they usually don't appear out of nowhere. And, while they might not come fully equipped with flashing red lights and blaring alarm bells, most rotten clients have a tendency to emit subtle warning signs that—if you're not careful—can slip beneath your radar.
Here are a few common warning signs to be aware of when interacting with a new client or customer.
They're rude or condescending. Are you sure you know what you're doing? With this type of question, it's likely your work or expertise won't be appreciated. What do you mean you can't fax me the *&%$ing document? Colorful language has a tendency to become extremely vibrant very quickly, so beware.
They're vague on project details. Before agreeing to take on a project, the client should be able to flat-out explain all of the fine print associated with the project. From the scope of the project to the number of revisions included in the contract, if the details are clear as mud, the project will be a dud. Keep in mind that this type of client isn't necessarily coming to the table with bad intentions. But understanding the true scope of a project—and laying it out clearly—is key to a happy and productive client/customer—agent/business arrangement.
Money-talk enters the Twilight Zone. Compensation for your services should be an important part of your discussion. If the client appears uncomfortable while talking about money (insists that you charge too much; doesn't offer clarity on payment methods; etc.), assume the worst and pass on the job. Many clients just haven't learned the you-get-what-you-pay-for lesson in business. And it's not uncommon for them to come running back once they see the value in paying a pro. Stick to your guns regarding pay; it'll pay off in the long run.
What are examples of "clients from hell?"
From rotten Roberta and negative Nancy, to heartless Harold and ornery Owen, you've probably worked with a number of clients from hell. In this section we share nine additional clients that are not worthy of your time, energy, or expertise. Yes, avoiding or saying no to these types of clients will require you to turn down work and money. But, at the end of the day, both your business and your mental health will be better in the long run.
1 – "Ticking Tanya" - The unreasonable deadline-setter
Sure, a deadline is a deadline. But setting deadlines of 24 hours or less isn't fair to you or your sanity. Clients who demand quick turnaround times are likely to disregard your work and personal life for their professional gain. A good client understands the boundaries of a work-life balance.
Plus, rushing through a job usually requires even more work on the backend to fix errors and mistakes. A good client knows that high-quality work takes time and will plan deadlines accordingly.
(As an aside, jumping on the occasional grenade for a good client and pulling off something important at the last minute can do wonders for your relationship; so it's important not to confuse the two.)
Need proof this type of client from hell exists? Here's an example from ClientsfromHell.com:
I'm a freelance video editor. The "client" here is a "former" friend.
Client: I need a favor. I need a movie trailer for Sundance.
Me: I'm really busy on another project. I wish I could help you but I don't have the time.
Client: I can pay you 180 per shift!
Me: … That's really low.
Client: I need you to finish it in 3 days.
Me: First, that's not enough time to cut a really high-quality trailer from the raw footage you have, and second, I really, really don't have the time.
Client: I need you to start on Thursday
Me: I'm on a shoot that day and the following days.
Client: This is a really great chance to impress my DoP. He shoots dozens of movies a year – this could lead to more work.
Me: I really want to help you but I don't have the time.
Client: I gotta go, I have another call coming in.
Me: OK. Good luck.
A few days later I discovered he unfriended me on social media. I saw him again a month later and he was extremely rude to me for having the gall to actually be doing paid work I guess.
How to deal with this client: Being a slave to your work isn't good for your work-life balance and you shouldn't have to pull all-nighters when they can be avoided. To deal with this client, establish a clear list of what you can do and schedule it on a calendar. Time-sensitive checklists provide your clients with a holistic picture of when you can accomplish a job. If the client disagrees on this process, don't work with them.
2 – "Undercutting Urkel" - The missing cheapskate
Many people in the business world try to nickel and dime others for their services, and the "Undercutting Urkel" is a top offender. Your time and expertise are valuable, so don't sell yourself short. If you have to negotiate with a prospective client who is unwilling to compensate you for what you're asking, that Urkel isn't worth your energy.
If you end up working with an "Undercutting Urkel," keep in mind that they might try to screw you over in the future by expecting more work in return for nothing. Or, you might have to continually negotiate pay.
Here's an example published on BoredPanda.com via ClientsFromHell.com:
How to deal with this client: Your price point is a symbol of value to customers, and good clients will pay what you're worth. Learn more about pricing strategies.
The "Undercutting Urkel" archetype is usually easy to identify. If you're finding that during the negotiation stages, the prospective client is trying to nickel and dime you, walk away. Cheapskates never change.
However, if you truly find yourself desperate for revenue and can't turn down this bottom-of-the-barrel client, be sure to create a contract or written agreement document to ensure you're paid what is agreed upon.
Contracts or agreements should include payment details such as:
- Amount due
- Payment terms
- Work expectations
Your contract could also include interest for late payments. If you don't receive the payment, you can use the contract in arbitration.
"Sometimes, the idea of legal action can get the client to contact you and, at the very least, make an arrangement to pay what they owe," said freelancer Christina Majaski.
Worst case scenario: you sue a client and send them to small claims court. But, keep in mind, this is usually an expensive endeavor.
3 – "Scope-Magnifying Susie" - The project scope-creeper
"Scope-Magnifying Susie” is a client from hell who enjoys requesting project add-ons on top of more project add-ons.
Let's say you're a marketing consultant who was contracted to design a website for a client. A "Scope-magnifying Susie" might—out of the blue—ask you to create printed marketing collateral as an add-on to the project. Or they might ask you to create some other type of additional content to be added to the original project. Oftentimes these type of add-ons or "favors" go unpaid, so be leery of any clients who try to sneak extra work into your original assignment. Scope creep is more common than you think, and it will cost you in the long run.
Here's another example from ClientsFromHell.com:
Client: (two weeks ago) One more little tweak and we're done!
Client: (one week ago) One more little tweak and we're done!
Client: (Monday) One more little tweak and we're done!
Client: (Tuesday) So if we print this 8.5x11 brochure on 11x14 will it look the same?
Client: (today) We're going in a different direction with content and images. We'll get back to you.
How to deal with this type of client: Walk prospective clients through a list of what is within (and outside) of your scope. This approach helps you to establish an equal playing field with the client and will likely deter them from making requests that aren't on the list.
As a small business owner, it's important to create documents prior to establishing what you will be contracted for. This encourages equal expectations from both parties and outlines the exact work that needs to be performed.
Furthermore, you can always add a clause to your contract to account for an increase in scope. After all—and especially with larger projects—there are almost always unforeseen tasks. And that's doesn't necessarily mean that client was acting in bad faith. Just make sure the possibility is accounted for and everyone's on the same page about pay and timelines.
Unlike full-time workers who can count on steady paychecks, the entrepreneurs’ livelihood is funded by billable hours.
4 – "Mike the Micromanager" - The missing micromanager
Do you ever get the feeling you're being watched while doing your work? Do you ever sense there's some sort of presence hovering just above your head? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then you're already familiar with "Mike the Micromanager." This type of client from hell is programmed to be overly invested in the jobs they've outsourced to others. No matter the reason, they always find it necessary to dive head first into everyone else's work.
For example, pretend you're a real estate agent and you've been hired to sell a client's house. A "Mike the Micromanager" would be the client who calls you every 27 minutes, texts you to see if you're following specific marketing techniques to promote the listing, and rings your doorbell at 4 a.m. to ask why that little brochure box on top of the yard sign is empty.
Here's another example from ClientsFromHell.com:
I was transporting some equipment for a client several hundred miles. They insisted on following my truck and were very adamant that I go the exact speed limit. The following took place at the first rest stop.
Client: You were speeding. We had to catch up to you several times.
Me: No. I made sure to set the cruise control at exactly the speed limit.
Client: Yeah. But your engine is bigger than ours.
Me: … Haha … huh? … Ha… Wait. Are you serious?
Try as I might, I could not impress on them that 60 mph is the same no matter how big the engine.
How to deal with this type of client: Don't be afraid to manage your own bubble. Ask for the space you need to ensure the job is done correctly. Once the job has been completed, make this client feel involved by asking for organized feedback or constructive criticism. make a request for organized feedback and constructive criticism.
On the front end, be sure to take the time to research potential clients. Look for referrals, stalk their web presence (in a not creepy way), and do a little detective work.
5 - "Unorganized Oliver" - The unclear or erratic client
Beware of clients who are disorganized from the initial onset. In order to produce an amenable final product, the client should be organized and able to communicate effectively. After all, if the client doesn't know what they're after, how will you?
If a project is unclear from the get-go, this should serve as a red flag that the entire project will be frustrating and miserable.
Here's an example from ClientsfromHell.com:
Me: So roughly what size would you like the finished design to be?
Client: Oh, about the size of a digestive biscuit.
How to deal with this type of client: Great communication fosters an excellent final product. There's nothing more frustrating to a freelancer than a client who is never available to answer questions. Good clients serve as helpful resources who provide the right amount of information necessary to make work run smoothly. Be sure everything for the assignment is documented and in writing and, if you do have questions or concerns, be sure to schedule meetings well in advance.
6 – "Sam the Special-Treatment Seeker" - Seeking special treatment
If you encounter a client who asks for special treatment, run for the hills. Whether they ask for revised payment terms, reduced fees, or if they request different treatment of any kind, think twice before you sell your soul. This client doesn't respect your boundaries at the start of the potential relationship, so it's unwise to think they'll change further down the line.
Here's an example from ClientsFromHell.com:
Yesterday, I met with some potential clients to discuss being involved in one of their projects. We discussed and agreed to a weekly rate for a 40-hour workweek when the following took place:
Client: The expectation is that you will donate 5-10 hours of your time per week to the project.
Me: I'm sorry, we just agreed on me being paid for 40 hours.
Client: That's right, but we want you to work 45 - 50 hours a week, and we'll pay you for 40.
Me: No, sorry. I will work the 40 hours stipulated but no more unless you pay for the extra.
Client: You see, this is why you millennials are never able to afford to buy property!
I still fail to see the connection between working for free and owning property.
How to deal with this type of client: Set up specific conditions for payments, pricing, and timelines in advance. Pre-work with contracts and legally binding documents are also helpful.
7 - "The Over-promissory Pete" - Promising you a future of more work
Clients are the lifeblood of your small businesses. And while the majority of clients can be pretty great, some (as you've already read above) are downright terrible. Meet the "Over-Promissory Pete."
This client will bribe you into working with them by promising work in the future. They'll lowball you to ensure you sign right away to work with them and, with that low-ball, they'll promise future work to sweeten and secure the deal.
Point blank: don’t fall for it!
Here's an example from Craigslist.org:
How to deal with this type of client: While it's great to hold on to the hope of future work, nothing is solidified or guaranteed unless it's in writing. Always get a client's promise in writing (and be sure to have a dollar amount and time-frame associated with it). Written documents provide proof of promises, so hold that client accountable.
8 - "The Houdini" - The client who goes dark on you
Some clients are overly available, while others go rogue and disappear for days and weeks on end. Known as "The Houdini," this is the client who resurfaces for air only when they need or want something ASAP.
While working for a client, you're bound to encounter questions that require answers. Unless you're a fan of constant confusion, this client should be avoided at all times.
Here's an example from ClientsFromHell.com:
I have a client who is notorious for "overworking" ideas. A project was coming close to completion, and it required them submitting their final artwork for printing:
Me: Are you certain this is the final version?
Client: Yes, it is
Me: You're entirely happy with it, then?
Client: Yes - I am. This is it, print away!
Three months later - he calls me on the phone:
Client: DUDE! I'm looking at the prints now! It's not the final version! I can't believe you made this mistake!
Me: I'll forward you the email where you said this was the final version and you were happy with it.
Client: Well, there's clearly been a miscommunication. It looks like someone has used an old draft and sent it off.
Me: No, there definitely hasn't been a miscommunication. You agreed right there that this was the final version. Twice.
Client: So, how much will you refund me for this miscommunication?
How to deal with this type of client: Always be sure to hold clients to their end of the deal. At the get-go, inform the client of the likelihood that you will encounter questions while working on the project, and that you will need them to be available to answer the questions. You can also mention that, if the questions or concerns go unanswered, the client will be responsible for the risk of a deliverable that differs from their initial vision.
9 - "Lack-of-Chemistry Cheryl " - The personality mismatch/jerk
When meeting a new client for the first time, have you ever had that feeling where something seemed a bit off? Maybe the conversation lacked depth, or the interaction seemed dull. Or maybe the client made you feel uneasy or uncomfortable.
Don't doubt your intuition. If you sense that a prospective client is going to be difficult to work with due to their personality, avoid their business. People who are abrasive, disrespectful, sexist, racist, or rude aren't worth your time.
Here's an example from BoredPanda.com via ClientsFromHello.com:
How to deal with this type of client: Believe it or not, business relationships are a lot like dating. You can't force chemistry and a personality can't be changed, so why bother fighting an uphill battle?
Set yourself up for success
The success of your business can oftentimes be attributed to the choices and decisions you make. Here are a few golden rules to remember when weighing your to-be or not-to-be client options:
- It's okay to turn down a job offer. If the client doesn't live up to your expectations, you should politely decline the job. While you might miss out on the extra cash, the world will continue to spin and new opportunities will always arise.
- Establish boundaries. You pick your clients, so choose to work with people who will treat you the way you treat them.
- Set clear expectations. Be clear about your expectations from the very beginning. This will help you avoid future problems.
- Respect yourself. Honor your time, guard your sanity, and monitor your overall wellbeing. Self-respect radiates confidence which, in turn, tends to attract quality clients.
- Business is business. While you're bound to experience a few hiccups in any working relationship, remember that business is business. Be professional.
Wondering what to read next?
Here's what we suggest:
→ 10 Fast + Simple Strategies For Getting Clients
Bad clients are avoidable
As a business person, you're bound to encounter clients and customers from hell—or at least a few that exhibit some less-than desirable traits and habits. But, as you move further along in your entrepreneurial journey and continue to expand your business and its offerings, you're likely to gain an intuitive insight on how to read clients. It really becomes second-nature.
To reiterate a point from earlier: bad clients usually don't appear out of nowhere. Oftentimes, they come fully equipped with more warning signs and hazard lights than a nuclear power plant that's under construction. The trick to dealing with clients from hell is to know how to avoid them from the very start.
Need more guidance when it comes to finding the perfect client? Check out our guide to getting clients.
Do you have first-hand experience in dealing with rotten clients? Be sure to share your hard-won wisdom in the comments section below. What have you learned? What are you doing differently?