Your freelance business does not need to feel like a circus. But you do need to be the ringleader. Here are 6 types of problem clients and how to fire them. I’ll also talk about when it’s you, not them, who is the reason for the breakup.
Your freelance business does not need to feel like a circus. But you do need to be the ringleader. In business and in life, we teach people how to treat us. Identifying and addressing problematic behavior gets you closer to identifying your ideal clients because you learn what you do and don’t want to deal with.
Sometimes, for the money, we choose to continue working with problem clients and make excuses for their behavior, seeing it as a normal part of doing business, especially when there is little work from other clients. I’ve fired some of them for all of these reasons that I’m about to get into (and more), like straight-up Wild Wild West.
6 Types of Problem Clients
Just like in life, appearances can be deceiving when we first meet someone. Problem clients have many faces, some of which I’ve named:
- The Narcissist,
- The Client Who Cries Wolf,
- The Magician,
- The Tire Kicker,
- The Client With Two Faces,
- The Bully.
To clarify, problem clients are usually repeat offenders—not one-off violators, who might actually have a legit excuse such as a having bad day or traumatic life event they’re currently dealing with. Those are not the clients I’m talking about. I’m talking about the ones who do these things on a regular basis, which affects your work and your mental health.
1. The Narcissist
The Narcissist, who thinks everything is all about them all the time:
- might be just plain rude when communicating with you.
- disrespects your policies or process such as paying your invoices late, ignoring late fees, refusing to send edits the way you’ve requested, making it more time consuming for you to make them.
- stands you up for scheduled calls or meetings.
- disrespects your boundaries, like expecting you to respond outside of your set work hours.
- may regale you with stories of how “incompetent” designers failed them in the past.
You are particularly susceptible to this type of client when you lack confidence.
I put up with a terrible one for many years—for the money. She would contact me at my full-time job, which I had asked her not to do. They would often pay me at 90 days past the date of the invoice and have three invoices outstanding at all times. But when I stopped work and sent them them a letter threatening collections after an invoice had been 120 days past due and my inquiries regarding the status of the payment went ignored, I received a nasty phone call from their accountant, scolding me for having sent them that letter and telling me I “should have known they would eventually pay me!” The nerve!
Consequences of dealing with the Narcissist: Your stomach flopping when you get a call or e-mail from them. You hate how they make you feel and feel powerless to gain control back.
Remedy: If you’re not ready to fire this type of client, then reassert boundaries. Make it clear what your policies and procedures are, state the consequences of not abiding by them (such as late fees for late invoices or a charge for a missed meeting), enforce those policies (no point in having policies if you’re never going to enforce them) and re-confirm your work hours. The client still may not comply, instead feeling that you threatened their authority, and may leave on their own.
2. The Client Who Cries Wolf
The Client Who Cries Wolf, also known as “The Disorganized Client,”:
- always needs work done “ASAP” or “by tomorrow,” yet once it’s time for them to review proofs or get you content, it’s suddenly no longer an emergency, and you may go weeks or longer without hearing a peep;
- does not plan ahead;
- may require more handholding and, as a result, more of your time.
Consequences of dealing with the The Client Who Cries Wolf: You reschedule other client work or work later or on weekends to accommodate their rush schedule.
Remedy: If you’re not ready to fire this type of client, suggest a call and come up with a schedule and a plan together to reign things in. You may even suggest tools in order to help them accomplish this such as using a calendar app, Trello board, etc. I mean, design is not heart surgery. Everything cannot always be an emergency.
I once tried this approach with a client for a monthly publication. The work for both of us was the same every month. I wrote up the process with what needed to be done and when every month. The client proved to be completely incompetent. I got asked the same questions over and over every month, even though had addressed them in the schedule. It was like dealing with someone with amnesia every few days. I couldn’t take it anymore.
You can also charge extra for the rushed schedule, in hopes they get their act together. Otherwise, at least you’re making more money to deal with getting the work done at the drop of a hat.
3. The Magician
- disappears at various times throughout a project, not to be reached by phone or e-mail;
- expects you to help jolt back into their reality at the snap of their fingers.
They leave you wondering what happened to that project. You focus on other client work only to have them reappear and want the work finished immediately.
Consequences of dealing with the Magician: Rescheduling other work to fit them in when they decide to re-emerge.
Remedy: Add to your contracts a restart clause, where you charge a fee to restart work after x number of days or months, to light a fire under them and because you have to spend time getting reacquainted with the project.
4. The Tire Kicker
The tire kicker is always focused on cost, not value, and is pennywise and pound foolish. The tire kicker:
- sees your work as an expense, not an investment, seeing a brochure as just a “brochure,” not a marketing tool that will make them appear professional and do something for them;
- requests that you work at an hourly rate;
- may try to negotiate down your hourly rate;
- may question your invoices (“Did it really take you 2 hours for that?!”);
- is always looking for cheapest deal and may even get estimates from other designers and then approach you about price matching the lowest estimate.
You’ve likely tried to help them see the value of your work, yet they continue to see you as just an order taker and don’t value you as a partner. Sometimes this is a result of them being one of your first clients when you had less experience. You’ve since gained so much knowledge and experience that can help them on a higher level, but they aren’t interested in hearing it. They just want you to do what they say and do it cheap.
Consequences of dealing with the Tire Kicker: Reducing your prices to accommodate their low expectations, causing you to be unprofitable and feel resentful.
Remedy: If you absolutely have to keep them as a client, plan to replace them over time with new clients who will respect, value and pay more for your expertise.
5. The Client With Two Faces
Also known as the “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” the Client With Two Faces:
- appears on the surface to be so great to work with, almost too good to be true;
- showers you with excessive praise about your work then complains it’s not good enough later, when they decide they want to go in a different direction.
I’ve had several prospects who fit this description that I was able to identify right off the bat, thankfully, and just say no. But I did end up working with one as a client. In the initial conversation, they were so complimentary of my work and painted themselves as the ideal client, saying how great to work with they were and even stressing how important to them it was to pay contractors on time. What a crock! I had to fight to get invoices paid, then I was eventually fired by them for having “incompatible billing practices.” Ha!
6. The Bully Client
The Bully, a close cousin of the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing:
- is seemingly pleasant until they don’t get their way, having a temper tantrum and verbally assaulting you with insults when you don’t give in to their requests;
- belittles you;
- may display traits of the other client types, so beware!
I put up with a bully client for many years. I saw some red flags and thought about firing him. I thought it was just me, but my gut had always been right. The last straw was when I sent him an invoice with late fees (paying late had become a regular practice for him). He called to gave me an ultimatum: “If I pay your $1 late fee, then we’re done. Otherwise, I won’t pay it and we can continue working together.”
Wow. I guess I could thank him for making that decision super easy! No one should give you an ultimatum.
I decided right then and there I would never let another client run my business. I wasn’t happy about losing work, especially over such a small late fee, but this was about principle. I was more angry than anything else, so I told him those were the terms and stuck to my guns (and it was scary). I had given him enough leeway in the past and was no longer willing to do that. So he said, “OK. We’re done,” and then proceeded to yell, insulting me and telling me I was too expensive anyway and he could find someone else to finish the work for much cheaper.
Later, I realized he acted this way because I had just taken back my power, the control, in the situation by not giving in to the two choices he had preselected for me to pick from.
Well, I got the last laugh. It’s been several years and his new website is still not live. How’re those cheap designers working out for ya?
Consequences of dealing with the Bully: Feeling belittled, frustrated, pushed around and not in control.
Remedy: Firing is the only option, in my opinion. Bully clients affect your business because refusing to follow your processes or abide by your terms costs you time and money. Bully clients also affect your mental health, and that affects your business when it comes to your other clients or talking to prospective clients. Abusive clients have their own drama and issues going on, and they’re constantly trying to drag you down with them. Don’t get sucked in. Get out.
How to Fire a Problem Client
Like I said earlier, if you don’t want your freelance business to be a circus, you’ve got to be the ringleader. You don’t want to put up with any of this anymore—and why should you?
To free yourself from any of these types of clients, explain—preferably on the phone—and then follow up with an e-mail, so you’re also providing written notice that you can reference again if needed, something to the effect of:
“After reviewing my [business goals/your needs], I’ve decided we aren’t the best fit anymore. After [our contract/this project has ended, or, if applicable, provide a date 30 to 60 days out], I recommend you go to [Upwork/Fiverr/competitor]. I will provide you with [____ files or information about your brand, if you choose to do so]. Thank you for your understanding.”
- puts you in control and positions you as a freelancer making a business decision;
- keeps things polite, professional and matter of fact (no emotion and straight to the point);
- provides the timeframe for when the off-boarding will happen, so the client is aware and you know when your relief is in sight;
- lets the client know what to expect: whether or not you’ll be sending them any files or providing information for them to give the next designer, if you choose to do that.
If they’re really unbearable, especially if they’re a bully, you could potentially refund some or all of what they might have already paid and be done, or you could hand over the files you have been working on and not invoice them any further. You might want to look at what your contract says about this too.
The quality of your mental health is greater than the financial loss. Also, you certainly don’t want to recommend them to anyone you like. It’s up to you to decide if you want to invest time in ensuring a smooth transition. The bully may have lost that benefit by being a jerk.
When It’s You
Let’s switch gears. When it’s you who is the reason for the breakup, it may be a result of having outgrown them. Maybe the client’s budget is too small for the higher-level work you’re now doing. Maybe you started working with them when you were fresh out of school, or maybe they were one of your first clients. It may also be a result of a decision to specialize in a certain industry or type of work, and they don’t fit into that category.
When you decide to part ways under these circumstances, especially if it’s always been a good relationship, then I recommend a different approach from the previous one:
“I’m so grateful you’ve entrusted me over the years to help with your work. As much as I’ve enjoyed working with you, I recently decided to focus on [type of work/industry]. This will go into effect once [our contract/this project] has ended [or, if applicable, provide a date 30 to 60 days out]. In order to make the transition as smooth as possible and to leave you in good hands, I have talked to a few trusted colleagues who would be interested in potentially working with you.”
Of course, make sure you have indeed talked to those colleagues first.
In any of these situations, if the client responds to your breakup begging you to stay, stand your ground, especially if your decision was due to their bad behavior.
In a future episode, I will talk about how to screen clients, so you can hopefully spot some these problem clients before you end up working with them.