Do you like the client or the money?: How to Deal with Bad Clients
You know the client I’m talking about.
~ sings my mama don’t like you and she likes everyone, and I never like to admit that I was wrong ~
It’s so easy to meet a potential client, hear the scale of their project, think about what that money could do for you, and then say YES and ignore the little red flags that are popping up all over that you’re pretending not to see.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been caught in this. If you’ve followed me on Instagram since the beginning, you may remember a moment when I came onto stories and told you all about the first one. I had agreed to a set project with a client, but they kept asking me to do more. Everything they were asking for were seemingly small tasks, so I figured I would do them and just charge hourly. No biggie, right? WRONG. Soon enough they asked me to do a small task, I agreed even though I didn’t quite know the program it was through, and flash forward 4 hours later when I had finally figured it out and showed it to them - they asked for it to be returned to the way it was originally.
Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot since then. I even had a really big pat-on-the-back moment when another potential client asked me to do a project that is not part of my Service List, and without skipping a beat I said no and referred them to someone who specializes in that!
And yet, with both of these experiences (and more… oh goodness there’s more) in my pocket I still found myself in a situation today, slogging my way through a proposal for a project that I was less than enthused by. I honestly love writing proposals because I am a serious Developer (StrengthsFinder anyone?) and love calling out the potential in people and bringing it to life, so the fact that this proposal took everything in me to write and left me with literally zero energy and a quick dip into the pond of depression that lives somewhere in the forest of every creatives mind should have been enough for me to see the now ginormous and ominous red signs and lights waving and flashing at me.
THIS IS NOT THE PROJECT FOR YOU, CARLY. TURN AROUND. GO AWAY. LEAVE IT FOR SOMEONE ELSE!
So when I give you a list below of all the common red flags that mean a client isn’t for you, know I’ve done some serious research on the topic. And by research I mean: I’m pretty sure I’ve made every mistake in the book. Here’s hoping that now you won’t have to.
1. You don’t feel comfortable sending them part of your normal process.
When I first started WHOLEco, I had an introduction form called HONEST that asked questions about you, your business, and your dreams. After an initial connection (i.e. an interest email), I would then send this back to you to fill out before we had a Discovery Call (or just a call to see if we were a fit, if you’re still learning the lingo), as it would help me come into the conversation with a clearer idea of what we were potentially getting ourselves into in this working relationship.
At a point where I was feeling a little strapped for cash, I had a client reach out by email. However, due to their tone in the email and the nature of their business, I felt like they would think any form called HONEST was too silly to be worthy of their time. So, I didn’t send it and I ended up deciding to with them. I was right they wouldn’t have appreciated the form, and I’m right to tell you now that I should have taken that as a BIG flag that they wouldn’t fit in with the culture of my business (and vv).
2. You don’t specialize in (or worse, even know how to do) the service they are asking of you.
I already gave you my anecdotes above on this one, but PLEASE don’t take money from people when you don’t know how to do something. Sure, you can learn. Anyone can learn. But either they’ll feel like they’ve wasted their money or you will have spent so much time researching and learning that you now feel underpaid. Learn, please keep learning, but do it on your own dollar.
3. You care more about their project than they do.
Thankfully I don’t encounter this one often, but it’s happened enough that it’s definitely worth noting. Let’s set the scene: you meet a client that seems wonderful and has all these big projects they’d like to do. You get super excited with them, but when it comes down to it you realize that you’ll be putting all the work in to make them success.
Sure, successful people outsource. But they don’t get successful purely by outsourcing. If you’ll be spending 45 hours a month on their project and you have to convince them to spend even 20 - that’s a problem.
4. You’re having a really hard time doing anything related to them.
As I said in the intro - I looovvee writing Proposals. Truly, truly do. So if I’m struggling to write a proposal, that likely means I’ll struggle to do any work for them. The same goes for if you find yourself procrastinating on projects, not wanting to respond to emails, etc.
Let me tell you, I have a few clients right now that even if they email me at 10pm (my “office hours” end at 5), I have to actively work to convince myself not to respond right away and wait until morning (trying to practice that work-life balance!). I even have a client right now that I’m doing a BIG project for, and instead of being overwhelmed by the amount of hours involved I get invigorated. That’s what it should feel like.
If you’re slogging, ask yourself why. Chances are it’s not you, it’s them.
5. They don’t respect your boundaries.
That brings me to my next point. When you’re a freelancer, everyone seems to think that you should be always available. What makes matters worse is you likely are enabling this belief system by… always being available. Sure, responding to that text or reading that Facebook message will only take 5 minutes of your time. But the more often you participate in this, the more often the client will think it “isn’t an issue” to want to connect with you at any hour of the day that an idea or thought strikes. Really quickly, that 5 minutes turns into a whole lot more than that (especially when you factor in that it takes about 23 minutes for you to refocus once distracted).
Recently I was messaging with a potential client and I told them that I would be logging off of Facebook for work messages at a certain time. Only problem is I still use Facebook Messenger for private conversations, and so them seeing that I was still active made them think that it was ok to continue asking questions and sending ideas. I of course didn’t read or respond to the messages until the next morning, but I got a subtle pushback from them about this. That was a quick sign to me that they were not going to ever respect my boundaries if they were expecting me to continue being available to them even after explicitly saying I wasn’t.
6. You know that if you brought your Core Values anywhere into the vicinity of the project that the project wouldn’t pass the sniff test.
Your Core Values are the guiding light in your business, and are a reaalllyyyy simple way to help you make decisions. If you’re scratching your head thinking, core values? Don’t worry - I’ve got a free download here that will help you sort them out.
One of my Core Values is PASSION - meaning I want everything I do to be founded in passion, and everyone I work with to be equally as passionate about what they do. Thankfully I’ve worked with so many amazing clients who are exactly this way, and they inspire me daily. And yet I’ve still pursued business with a client who, deep down, I knew wasn’t actually passionate about what they were doing and was more passionate about becoming Instagram famous than anything else. If you know anything about my social media strategy at all, you know that mindset is not aligned with what I do.
7. You already don’t really trust them.
I recently had an encounter with a potential client that, as I was writing their proposal, I found myself thinking, now I can’t put too much information in here otherwise they may hand it off to someone else. WOAH THERE. GIANT RED FLAG. STOP. GO BACK. REVERSE! RUN AWAY!
Need I say more here? If you don’t trust them now, you won’t ever create a good relationship with them and thus won’t ever be enlivened by your work with them.
8. You can’t quite name it, but there’s just something off.
This is me giving you full permission to just say a big, giant, whopping NO. Wherever and whenever you want. Because when you say “no” to something that doesn’t sit well with you, it’s 1) teaching you to listen to your gut, which I’d bet has never led you astray, and 2) opening up space in your life and business for big, giant, whopping YES’s to the type of projects and things that excite you.
I’ve had both situations where something felt off and I did the work anyway, and where something felt off and I said no to it. I can promise you that if something feels off, doing the work will literally do nothing more than drain your soul just to fill your wallet - and sometimes it won’t even do that.
So, how to deal with bad clients?
If you can help it, just don’t open the door and say yes to them. Think of clients that are any of the above as the annoying telemarketer who keeps calling you that you’ve just stopped answering.
Have you already said yes to them? Depending on where you’re at in the process, end the relationship as soon as possible. I should have noticed I was struggling to write the proposal, and simply gotten back to them saying something along the lines of: “Unfortunately, as I have begun work on your proposal, I have realized this is not the project for me.”
If you’re further along in the process (i.e. already working with them), begin to plan your escape. If there is a contract in place, please honor it’s stipulations and use the appropriate method to end projects. I always put in my contracts that they require a 2-week cancellation notice from either party, and there is no repercussion on the clients behalf if I choose to end the project early. If there is not a contract in place, then find out what usual labor laws stipulate in your area, and use these as a guideline for quitting. For example, in much of the United States and Australia labor laws require 2-weeks notice. Thus, even without a contract you can follow this general rule of thumb and end the working agreement by giving reasonable notice.
You are a business, not an employee.
Remember ultimately that YOU are a business, you are NOT their employee. You are working WITH them, not FOR them. Please also remember that they would not hesitate to drop you if the situation so arose, no matter how much they seemingly like you. They have a business to run, and so do you. And at the end of the day, this is a business transaction and needs to be treated as such. If working with them is causing undue harm to your business (aka, often, you), then it is completely valid to terminate the transaction.
You are the boss, CEO, manager, and employee. Ensure you’re getting the appropriate protections throughout each role. A good boss wouldn’t let their employees be treated poorly, so take that same approach here.
With love, Carly