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25 Warning Signs That You’re Dealing with a Client from Hell

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Maddy Osman
Maddy Osman
25 Warning Signs That You’re Dealing with a Client from Hell

Whether you work at an agency, work independently, or have started your own service-based business, dealing with clients must be handled with as much care as the work you put into your final deliverables.

Most clients are a joy to work with.

Some clients, however, may become the bane of your existence.

When it comes to the latter breed of clients from hell, you’ll want to become aware of the warning signs before getting into business together.

Being able to identify situations that will only lead to stress will help you to preserve room in your schedule for the type of clients that are worth keeping around for the long-term.

Let’s look at 25 of the biggest warning signs that you might be dealing with a client from hell.

1. They Insult You

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” is an early warning sign that your expertise won’t be respected.

And that’s if you’re dealing with a client from hell who has a little bit of self-control.

The worst of the worst won’t hold back when it comes to using colorful language.

2. They Email You on the Weekend & Expect a Response

Some clients use the weekends to get ahead on projects.

While it’s OK to send emails during this timeframe (using a scheduling tool like Boomerang is better), it’s not OK for them to expect an immediate response.

Head off this potential issue by discussing “office hours” with each client — specific times as to when they can expect a response (e.g., 9-5, Monday-Friday), as well as your average response time for emails (e.g., 24-48 hours during the week).

3. They Text You & Expect an Immediate Response

Be wary of the client who’s always trying to text you.

Besides the fact that it’s annoying and bleeds into your out of office time, it’s always easier to manage responses (and items in need of follow up) contained within an email inbox.

Avoid this potential issue by stipulating methods and frequency of communication within your contract.

For example, “With your current plan, you can schedule one included strategy meeting with me per month and unlimited access via email. Any additional meetings will be billed at a rate of $xx/hour”.

4. They Give Zero Direction & Have Endless Revisions

Although it may be your job to develop ideas, that doesn’t mean that your client doesn’t have to chime in regarding some sort of template or framework for the final deliverable they’re looking for.

If they insist that you move forward regardless, you’re looking at endless revisions — perhaps not covered by the scope of work initially quoted.

Head off this potential issue with some sort of intake process that includes questions designed to get this information from your client.

Before starting on any new project, define the total number of included revisions in your contract.

If you still think that you may be in the process of signing a client from hell, make sure to get payment up front.

You don’t want them stiffing you if they’re still unhappy when the project is completed.

5. They Send Passive Aggressive Emails

Elements of a conversation sometimes get lost in written communications.

You might think that a client is giving you lip but it could also just be the way they come across over email.

But if you’re getting more “please advise” messages than “great work!” it might be a sign that you’re dealing with a client from hell.

If you detect what you think is passive-aggressiveness on email, don’t wait — get on the phone and sort it out.

If you can’t come to a conclusion over this new medium, it might make sense to part ways.

6. They Have Issues Signing a Contract

Is there bigger red flag than this?

If they won’t sign a simple contract agreeing to the scope of work and can’t give any specific reasons as to why, you’re better off ditching this prospect before they become a bona fide client from hell.

7. They Consistently Pay Late

Even the clients who are the easiest to get along with can become a client from hell when they fail to show you the respect that you deserve.

If you’re dealing with someone who fails to pay on time, it will stress you out and take your focus away from more important things.

Avoid this potential issue by getting payment upfront, whenever possible.

Clearly define payment terms in your contract, alongside a late fee, so that there’s no question as to when your client has agreed to pay you.

8. They Want You to Use (a Bunch of) Their Tools

Sometimes, working with a new client means an onboarding process that includes being invited to a new project management platform and accounts where you can glean the data that you need to complete the job they hired you for.

Acquiescing to using a few new client tools is to be expected, but being required to learn a bunch of new systems can be extremely time-consuming and hard on your focus.

Head off this potential issue with a great discovery process.

Add this question to your prospecting, “If we were to work together, are there any specific tools I would need to become familiar with and use on a regular basis?”

Based on the client’s answer, you can either build in the cost of getting to know/using these tools – or disqualify them as being a potential headache to deal with.

9. They Have You on a Minute-by-Minute Schedule

…And they want you to report back to them in kind.

These clients from hell will make working with them so annoying that their overbearing nature will inevitably get in the way of getting any work done!

Head off this potential issue by charging a project rate instead of an hourly rate.

By being able to budget for the whole deliverable (as opposed to being worried about variability) will put potential clients from hell at ease — giving you room to breathe and do your job.

10. They Say You Charge Too Much

Maybe you do charge too much, as far as their budget is concerned.

Regardless, someone who puts you down and doesn’t think you’re worth all the hard work you’ve put into developing your skills isn’t someone you’re going to want to have to deal with on a regular basis.

Avoid this potential issue by making your rates (or ranges/minimums) publicly known on your website.

This will deter the clients who don’t have the budget to work with you, while advancing the sale with those to whom your rates are not an issue.

11. They Act Like They’re Doing You a Favor by Giving You Crappy Work at Ridiculously Low Prices

Does it even really need to be said?

Avoid this type of client from hell.

Head off this potential issue by staying away from content mills and freelancer platforms like Upwork.

12. They Threaten Your Reputation

Despite your best efforts, there will be situations where a client absolutely hates a deliverable and decides that instead of giving you the opportunity to make it better — they’d rather publicly smear you.

Set the record straight if a client decides to publicly shame you.

Publish your own account of what happened with simple facts — let readers come to their own conclusions.

That said, you can get into trouble if you initiate any public shaming, so be prepared to drop it if your client keeps their negativity confined to within your private conversations.

13. They Act Weird When You Talk Money Details

If you’re getting a sense that a prospect has issues with your pricing but they’re not coming out and saying it — try directly addressing it.

If you’re still sensing some weirdness, but want to give working with them a try, make sure to charge upfront.

14. They Can’t Answer Simple Questions About Their Business

Even the most pleasant people become clients from hell when they can’t articulate the information you need to know to do your job.

If you’re dealing with someone who has a lot of ideas but doesn’t have the focus to execute any one of them well, it’s a red flag you need to consider.

15. They Don’t Have Time for Small Talk

The best clients start every call with a little idle chit-chat.

This is what separates an awesome client from a client from hell.

If they can’t connect on a human-to-human basis and instead dive straight into business, it’s going to be a tough work environment.

16. They Have Impossible Demands/Requests

“I want to create the next Google” is probably not something that they can achieve based on working with you alone.

That’s not to say that you’re not awesome, just that they have extremely unrealistic expectations.

You might be able to bill them for a few months but when they realize they won’t ever get what they really want and think that you’ve misled them, the fallout will be more stressful than the pay could ever be worth.

To avoid this potential issue, talk about key performance indicators (KPIs) and goals before work begins.

17. They Don’t Listen to Your Expertise, Then Blame You When Things Go Wrong

So many clients from hell can be described as those that take your deliverable and gut it of all the things you implemented for the direct purpose of achieving their goal.

Your work, now an unrecognizable mess, is no longer optimized for its initial purpose.

Even though it’s not your fault, a client from hell will blame it all on you when things go wrong.

And that should be the last project you complete for them.

18. They Expect Immediate Results from a Long-Term Campaign

When selling marketing services, some clients may think it’s “BS” to have to wait for results and may quiz you on progress every day.

Head off this potential issue by educating your client as to typical results and when clients can expect to see them.

If there are still issues, you might have to have the “I think we may not be a fit” conversation.

19. They Expect You to Always Be On Call

Besides immediate responses, they also expect immediate deliverables.

Avoid this potential issue by defining turnaround and rush fees for any accepted projects in need of turnaround in a shorter time frame.

Stress the importance of your prerogative to reject work within a short turnaround time, especially if it would bleed into your personal life.

Establishing boundaries is important for achieving an ideal work-life balance.

20. They Need You to Be Their Tech Support in Addition to the Job They Actually Hired You For

This is especially relevant when you provide digital marketing services but your client has no idea how it all works.

Head off this potential problem by defining the cost of providing tech support/exceedingly in-depth explanations as to what you’re doing or ask questions to suss out a potential technophobe client from hell during the discovery process.

21. They Take Credit for Something You Did, to Someone Else at Their Company

Not unlike a corporate job, this type of client from hell can really take the wind out of your sails.

If you’re not interested in credit, this may not be a problem.

Regardless, dealing with a liar can bleed over to include other troublesome client-from-hell warning signs.

22. Unscheduled Calls & Constant Meetings

All clients are different and some may require weekly meetings to stay on top of things.

If that’s defined in your contract and you’ve accounted for it in your pricing, there are no issues.

A client from hell is someone who’s especially needy and hasn’t given you the opportunity to account for all this extra hand-holding in your contract.

If they’re constantly calling you and require additional meetings on top of what’s stipulated in your contract, you’ll want to cut your losses sooner rather than later.

23. They Make You Feel Like You’re in Competition with Other Freelancers/Vendors

If a client is unhappy with the work you create, their feedback should make that obvious.

If they’re unhappy enough to threaten to outsource your role to someone else — let them.

You don’t need someone acting like you’re no good but stringing you along, anyway.

24. They Ask You to Compromise Your Ethics

With increasing privacy/security standards like that of GDPR, it’s more important now than ever to be compliant with the work you’re doing for clients.

If you inform a client that a specific action clearly goes against your ethics, but they ask you to complete it anyway, you’d better get out before you’re implicated in their bad behavior.

25. Their Edits Take Your Work from Something You Can Be Proud of to Something Tacky

Even if they don’t blame you for what their Frankenstein edits have done to your deliverable, it’s hard to be proud of something that you’ve created if it doesn’t achieve the potential you knew it was capable of.

If a client constantly puts you in a position where your work is transformed into something tacky, you’re better off spending your time looking for someone who appreciates you as you are.

Final Thoughts

If reading these warning signs is starting to give you hives because you’re thinking about your own past – or present – clients from hell, take a break and blow off some steam.

Websites like Clients from Hell and David Thorne’s 27B/6 provide an opportunity for virtual commiseration and humor.

What client from hell warning signs would you add to our list? Tweet us at @sejournal!

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Maddy Osman

Maddy Osman

SEO Content Strategist at The Blogsmith

Maddy Osman creates engaging content with SEO best practices for marketing thought leaders and agencies that have their hands full ... [Read full bio]

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