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How to Spot and Put Down Clients from Hell

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Michael Davis
Michael Davis
How to Spot and Put Down Clients from Hell

We’ve all had those clients that make us want to go running, screaming for the hills. Those clients that make us want to bash our collective heads against a rock (preferably one that is large and pointy). They started off being receptive, were quick with getting you content/information, and were excited about getting their hands dirty. They had deep pockets and a real desire to grow their business. Then they turned into one of the following:

  1. “What?! You mean that when you said that I was going to have to do some work you were being serious?”
  2. “Oh, you want to get paid? Why do they call you ‘free’lancers?”  *crickets*
  3. “I know that what I’m offering is about 2x the cost of my competitors (won’t consider lowering the price), all of my products are garbage, my website sucks (won’t update it), I won’t write blog posts (or pay people to write them for me), but why isn’t my traffic/conversions/sales increasing?!”
  4. “I know that this is outside of the scope of our agreement, but you need to do this right away and I don’t want to pay you more.  I can always find someone else!”
  5. “Where were you?! When I call you, you need to answer me! RIGHT AWAY!!!!”
  6. “I need this done tomorrow!” (after not contacting you for months)

These are the clients that keep us up at night. The guys that string us along, taking up 90% of our time while only contributing 10 percent of our revenue (if that). In short, they suck! What is an independent consultant to do? How do you spot a nightmare client before they show their teeth? What do you do if you find yourself in a situation where the client makes it impossible to accomplish the task? I am so glad you asked!

Spot Them Early

sniperThe nightmare client is very difficult to spot unless you know what to look for. The worst part is that no matter how long you’ve been in the game, they can still slip by and grab you by your short and curlies. The good news is that there are warning signs!

1) They have fired several other consultants: This seems like a no brainer, but you would be amazed as to how few of us ask the simple question, “Who have you worked with before?” We get excited about getting another client and we know (from the bottom of our soul) that we can help. A simple, “What have you done in the past?” or “Have you worked with an agency or consultant before?” can save you tons of heartburn. If they go on a long tirade about how their last five consultants swindled them, you can rest assured that they have unrealistic expectations/suck ass. I’m not saying that firing a couple consultants is a bad thing (there are a bunch of bad ones out there), but a history of hiring and firing consultants is a huge “asshole” indicator.

2) They question your pricing: Hopefully, you have reasonable pricing and (most importantly) understand your worth.When you get a client that fights you on every little line item, it is time to move on. There is nothing wrong with a client that wants to understand what they are getting and want to make sure that they are getting a fair price, but if money is a sticking point from the start, it will be a sticking point throughout your relationship. If they don’t understand the value of what you’re doing, it is easier to find a client that does. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that taking some money is better than no money. All this will do is set you up for failure. It can also screw you if other clients find out you discounted your services for someone else

3) They keep rescheduling your meetings: If they’re hard to get a hold of starting off, they will be impossible to get a hold of after they hire you. They will be late with payments and they will NEVER do their homework. I hate to make generalizations, but this is almost always the case. When you’re considering taking on another client, you should view it as a job interview on both sides. Rescheduling (more than once) shows a lack of respect, plain and simple.

4) They want the easy fix: If they say, “all I want is a quick and simple ___” or “just the bare bones ___,” RUN! Some people believe that what you do is easy. It isn’t. People wouldn’t pay so much if it was easy. This is another example of someone undervaluing what you do and how much effort it takes to do it. If they want you to help them, they should trust you to tell them what they need. Anything else would be setting both of you up for failure.

5) They think you can work miracles (no matter how many times you tell them otherwise): When people wave money in your face, it can be difficult to say no to a project even when the client obviously has no idea about what you do or how fast you can do it. Amazing work requires hard work from both parties. There isn’t a magic button for digital marketing, and if a client thinks otherwise walk away.

6) The expert: Information can be deadly, particularly is small doses. While your client was researching the need for a consultant, they likely read a few articles on online marketing that made them believe that they understand what you do. Reading an article does not make someone an expert. I will say it again – reading an article does not make someone an expert. If a potential client starts spouting off jargon incorrectly or telling you what needs to be done, walk away. Fast. Frankly, you telling them what they need is what the pay you for. If they already ‘know’, then why are they hiring you?


shake on it

There are many ways to prevent getting hosed by a client, but the simplest one is to have an airtight contract. I know that there are some people who believe contracts are only for the big boys and are more hassle than they are worth. Having to deal with lawyers and arguing the fine points of a service agreement is annoying, but unless you don’t like getting paid, they are necessary. Don’t download a template contract and change the business name. Take the creation of a contract seriously. It will be a lifesaver WHEN you need it. Get a lawyer to draft the contract up for you and make sure that it addresses all of your fears. Lawyers make you money and no matter how much it hurts to pay them, they are worth every penny. Just as your clients need you to run their business, you need a lawyer to run yours.

Mike Monteiro, Design Director, and co-founder of Mule Design Studio gives a great talk that stresses the importance of contracts. Though it’s geared towards designers, it is relevant to anyone in independent consulting: Mike Monteiro | F*ck You. Pay Me.   (Language is NSFW!)

Crap!! They Got Past Me!

The first thing you need to understand is that IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. You didn’t make your client go nuts, nor did you promise anything that you did not deliver (at least I hope you didn’t). Your client is the asshat and the fault lays squarely on him/her. Additionally, there is nothing that you’re going to be able to do to make it better, and working harder (and most likely for free) will not solve the problem. Now that we got that out of our system, what do we do now?

firedFIRE YOUR CLIENT. Seriously, FIRE THEM!!!!!

I know it might seem counter-intuitive, especially when you depend on the money, but imagine how many clients you can take on if you didn’t have to deal with this guy.

Hopefully, your contract has a clause for you to make a quick and hasty get away, but even if it doesn’t, it is often times better for your sanity to simply walk away. If you don’t have a contract, many times a great paper trail will serve you well in case you need to get lawyers involved. Something to consider – often times a refund is the simplest way to get rid of a toxic client.

Additionally, make sure you tell your friends to watch out for this client. We all know that we are in a small community (especially in a specific city). Make sure your friends/colleagues don’t get treated the way you did. It is the right thing to do and they will thank you for it.

Finally, after everything is settled (you got paid), ignore them. Many times a fired client acts more like a jilted lover than a business professional.They will send you emails and try to call you and it will be hard not to respond. DON’T RESPOND. They are no longer your problem and it might set you up to agreeing to do something you shouldn’t/don’t want to do.

In Conclusion

Fortunately, the really awful clients are relatively uncommon and if you know what to look for, they can be even rarer. Protecting yourself and realizing when you should walk away should take care of those who might have slipped through the cracks. As a consultant you must realize that you are not your client’s employee, but a partner that is there to help them grow their business. If they start mistreating you or undervaluing what you do, it is beyond acceptable to fire them and walk away. You are an expert (pat yourself on the back) and there are a lot of other businesses out there that you can help who will actually appreciate what you do for them.


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Michael Davis

Senior Director of Marketing, Communications, and Media at RZIM

Mike is an online marketer with over 15 years experience (in-house and consulting) in helping businesses drive traffic to their ... [Read full bio]