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4 Types of clients that will drag you (and your business) down with them

Table of ContentsUpdated Aug 22, 2016

In the freelance community, we can all relate to experiencing the headaches of the problem client before.

Naturally, not every project you work on will go as smooth as molasses. But simply saying “it is what it is” and gritting your teeth through it only opens you up to a world of unnecessary stress.

I’ve pitched quotes and then heard radio silence. I’ve put hours of prep into a project to have them change their mind halfway through. And, I’ve finished a project and spent days debating the final price.

This should sound familiar to many of you.

To avoid these situations, here are four ways you can spot them early, and how to manage them if you’re already working with one.


“We’d love to hire you for this project, but can only spend [insert insultingly small figure here]”

Have you ever been approached by a prospect and had them ask you to do an incredible amount of work for an insultingly small price?

If the first thing a client says to you is that their budget is small, chances are they don’t value what you’d be bringing to the table in the first place.

Maybe this is an “excess budget” assignment, or maybe design and creativity isn’t that important to their business at the moment.  So, you probably don’t want to get involved in the first place.

One way to test the water is to require a security deposit. This will test your client’s commitment to hiring you.

Not only is requiring a security deposit a smart way to protect yourself, but it’s yet another way to filter out the good clients from the bad before signing an engagement agreement. That way, you don’t have to break up with the client down the road.


“We love what you did! But, what if…”

Ever have a seemingly productive conversation with a client, only to hop on call with them a week later and find that they want to completely change directions?

Even if they say they love your ideas, they seem to always be suggesting new avenues to explore. This can really halt the design process and just burn productivity.

Your time is valuable! Make sure your client respects it.

Before engaging with a client, make sure to bake in phases of the process into your contract. Use this section of your contract to remind the client that we are past the ideation phase and are at the 9th hour of the design phase.

I always break my process down to three phases:

Research & Conception (20%)
Design (70-75%)
Revisions (5-10%)

I use the Phase 1 to present the client with several different creative directions and make them sign off on one before doing a deep dive into design work. This is the most effective and productive way to ensure you maintain an appropriate timeline and budget.



What do you do when your client suddenly stops responding?

You should consider including a termination fee in your contract. This insures that you get paid for your work even if the project falls through or the client cancels it.

This protects you from times when a client might say, “we didn’t end up using what you did” or, “We decided to move in a different direction”.


“Take your time! There’s no deadline on this…”

Though this may sound like the least stressful design client, it can actually end up being one of the worst.

This type of client may love the work you do all along the way, and not put pressure on you to get it done in any particular timeframe.

But working like this has serious repercussions. On one hand, you aren’t faced with crunched deadlines. But when it comes time for a paycheck, the client may adopt the same “no deadline” mentality, leaving you without a check for weeks or months.

An ambiguous project timeline leads to a loose payment structure and ultimately uncomfortable conversations.

You should always be clear on when you will be delivering a final product, and in turn, insist that they do the same.

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Written by Drew Palmer

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Drew is a multi-faceted designer based out of Philadelphia. He has been working most recently as an interactive designer for various global software development companies. He is also the founder of 5-star freelancers, a platform dedicated to empowering creative freelancers around the world.

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  1. Nice list, I started my own business last year and already found some of these clients.

  2. The poor communicator. The client who tells you how they want something done, but leaves out vital points or doesn’t send required materials, resulting in multiple emails back and forth – until both of you are ready to scream with frustration – and you’re still left without the info you need to complete the project.

    The habitual late payer (this pertains to hourly clients). The client who violates your payment terms with every single invoice, claiming not to have seen the invoice, not to have seen your email reminders about it, or says they’ll pay by a certain date – and then doesn’t. They do eventually pay, but always late.
    (Solution #1 – all work ceases if invoice is unpaid by due date and doesn’t resume until payment is received. If that fails, implement Solution #2 – pre-payment or a retainer agreement requiring advance payment of all work.)

    The blamer. The client who insists on getting personally involved in work that they don’t understand, trying to do it themselves, only to mess it up and then blame you for the mess when their own clients ask why something doesn’t work.

    The kicker: all three of these were the same client.

  3. Thanks for this article Drew! From experience over the past 27 years working for myself I have been through the pitfalls and learned fast that one has to value oneself and ones work and that we provide a skilled service and not a commodity or item/product for sale that can be negotiated. Just as one would never go to see a doctor when one is ill and say that one can only afford so much. The same applies to our profession.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    This has happened a couple of times to me. I ask for a deadline and receive, “oh, no rush – just sometime next week”. The problem with this is, if I’m juggling a couple of projects and proceed to make my own deadline for their project – let’s say Wednesday – I’ve been met with, “well, where is it?” on Tuesday.

    The simple remedy to this is to head them off at the pass and explain your time log for their project. Then, should the above scenario happen, you can (at least) say, “well – this is the timeline we discussed last week.”

    Not ideal. Deadlines – even imaginary ones – work best!

  5. Brittany Klein says:

    This was spot-on! I was just talking with a coworker about nightmare clients, so shared this with her. Nightmare doesn’t always mean a rude client, they can be the nicest client and still drag out a project (or payment), but this article is right on that we need respect for our time! Thanks for the article!

  6. Great tips! Do you include the 3 design phases and % in your contracts for clients to see?

  7. This whole article had me going “yes!” about every other sentence haha I think back to my early days as a freelancer and cringe a little, remembering all the mistakes I made with taking on clients with a combination of the traits described here.

    I used to write it off as just growing pains that were inevitable since I was new to freelancing. In hindsight, I see now the ultimate problem was that I struggled to value myself and my work enough to put my foot down and demand fair pay and fair business interactions.

    I mostly took what I could get without being willing to wait for what I was worth, and as a result all I got was what came to me and I never did get what I was worth (that’ll preach right there!) I had this notion in my head that “if I’m worth it, they will pay” but several thousand miles down the road now I realize this isn’t “angels in the freelance field” and the market is saturated with folks looking to grab a quick design but pay as little as possible without care for integrity in their business practices.

    As a designer, we must protect ourselves and respect our own work and sanity enough to not put up with unreasonably low pay or unnecessarily difficult clients. If we don’t tell them no, then we’ll just continue to be an outlet for those antics and the headache it causes! Live and learn, I suppose.

    1. Drew Palmer says:

      Thanks for such an in-depth reaction, Virginia! I’ve gone through the same struggles you (and so many have) which is why I love sharing in forums like this. Live and learn, yes. But, never sell yourself or your services short! You’ve worked hard to be where you are. Your clients should regard your work as your livelihood, not your hobby. Choose wisely 🙂 And never be afraid to tell the wrong client “no”.

  8. Thank you for the article Drew.

    I had an issue with a web design client who along exhibiting some of the traits in your second point, also backed out of the project because they and I did not really flush out all of there requirements.

    They had a very specific backend database that needed to be seemlesly integrated with there website. In the begining we thought we were on the right path, but later discovered they needed more than what I could do.

    Lesson, learned that has helped me out moving forward, was do more discovery.

  9. Brandon Halliburton says:

    I’ve had all of these types at least once. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Christina says:

    Make it a non-refundable retainer and not a deposit

    1. Drew Palmer says:

      Hey Christina – Definitely a smart way to go with a “non-refundable” retainer. It’ll help weed out prospects who aren’t that serious about paying for creative work.