• Rachel Mawhirter

How to Handle Clients that are the Worst

We’ve all been there. You see the 42nd email from a demanding client pop into your inbox and you just can’t anymore. They don’t respect your office hours and they want everything done yesterday. Whether you’re a designer or freelancer or whether you’re in the service industry, this article is for YOU.

Some clients can bring us so much gratification, and others end up being a huge pain in the you-know-what. And over the years, you learn how to weed out the bad ones and foster long term relationships with the good ones. So for those of you just starting out or still struggling with difficult clients, listen up, because we are going to share some wisdom about how to handle clients that are the WORST.

First and foremost, determine your pricing ahead of time and refuse to haggle.

Designers and freelancers get asked all the time to do things at a discount, either because it’s for charity or because the client promises to refer other people your way, or because they plan to do lots of work with you. But as a rule of thumb, clients asking for discounts now will continue wanting to pay less than you’re worth forever. Once you have your pricing set, feeling confident about your value will help you weed out the clients you don’t want anyway. If they don’t see your value, they won’t respect you later either.

Second, be specific with your contracts, and avoid handshake deals with new clients.

Because you never really know someone until you’ve worked with them a while, avoid handshake deals or making assumptions about what they understand about your processes. We’ve learned the hard way that it is always better to take the extra time to provide a thorough contract or proposal that outlines what you’re agreeing to provide, how many rounds of revisions you will include, how long you anticipate the project to take, what you need up front before you can start (a deposit, files from the client, etc), and how much it costs to add extra time if they don’t keep their end of the deal. It’s a good idea to include how and when you will bill them, and how long they have to pay those invoices, as well as the consequences if they don’t pay on time (interest charged, late fees, etc). We also recommend including an “out”, giving you the option to cancel the project and keep their deposit if the client does certain things that cross a line… For example, if the client fails to respond to calls or emails for more than 2 weeks, or if the client mistreats a member of your staff. Very rarely have we ever had to use this, but unfortunately, there are those instances where you find out your client is just a jerk and you need to part ways.

Third, protect your boundaries.

Good clients value your time, the same way you value theirs. If a client calls you ten minutes after sending an email to ask why you haven’t responded, that’s a red flag. They’re assuming you have nothing else to do but handle their projects. Another example, if a client is blowing up your personal cell phone after 8 p.m. or on the weekend, you might need to enforce your boundaries and let them know you’re happy to hear from them, but that you’ll respond when you’re back in the office.

Last but not least, know when to walk away.

It can be so difficult to have that conversation with a client about needing to walk away from a project. And hopefully, it doesn’t happen very often. For me, I’ve only had to do this a few times in my career and all of them were extremely difficult and for different reasons – for one it was because they couldn’t pay their invoices. For another it was because they would never get back to us with edits or approval, so projects were piling up. And despite all our best coaching efforts and offers to be more accommodating, we couldn’t get past it. For another, it was because the client was just flat-out disrespectful and rude. And after a while, you can only be so humble before you realize it’s damaging your mental health and the morale of your team.

If and when you find yourself facing one of these unfortunate situations, don’t sugar coat things. Let the client know why you need to terminate the relationship and when. We usually try to give them at least 30 days’ notice, or we offer to get to a good stopping point and hand our files over to their staff so they can hire someone else who can pick up where we left off. Don’t let the client bully you into staying either. At that point, someone who behaves that way will probably never be happy and will likely refuse to pay their final billing anyway. Cut your losses and move on.

In the 10+ years I’ve been in marketing and communications, I have luckily only ever been forced to “liberate” 4 or 5 clients, and some of those were on great terms. But the 2 or 3 that come to mind that were the WORST still haunt me to this day, so maybe you can learn from my mistakes and wait for the good clients, because they ARE out there and they make brand-building so enjoyable!

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