Clients from hell: 4 signs you’re working with one + how to part ways

No matter what field you’re in, you’ve probably dealt with various clients from hell at least once or twice in the past.

It’s an all too common encounter especially when you’re just starting out and you don’t know any better. If that’s you, there are telltale signs to look out for to determine whether you’re currently working for one.

Once you’re able to confirm that, you can always decide to let go of a client if you think they’re overstepping your boundaries.

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However, it’s important to do this professionally so you don’t end up jeopardizing your hard-earned reputation.

Top 4 warning signs for clients from hell

Clients from hell don’t just come out of nowhere. Most of the time, they come with warning signs. Although red flags for difficult clients can be wide-ranging, there are common signs that you could look out for in every potential prospect that comes your way. Below are just some of the things to be aware of.

1. They’re rude to you

Beware if a client is rude to you at any point while working with him or her. A person who resorts to insulting you or your work instead of providing constructive criticism is someone who doesn’t know how to treat others professionally and with respect.

Maybe they’re going through something or maybe it’s just how they are. But either way, those aren’t excuses to treat others like crap.

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2. They’re super demanding

There’s nothing wrong with having exacting standards—but there’s a thin line between wanting the results to be amazing and expecting perfection in the process. Because as we all know, perfection only exists in an ideal world which isn’t the one we’re currently living in.

Other times, a client’s demandingness shows in how responsive they expect you to be. Some will message you during the wee hours of the day or during weekends and expect an immediate response. In some instances, clients will also expand your scope of work and balk at any suggestions of adjusting the project fee.

3. They provide unclear instructions but make you do countless revisions

There are also clients from hell who give minimal, to no direction but expect you to read their minds and come up with something that is exactly like what they’ve envisioned. The only problem with that is since we’re just humans, none of us are capable of reading minds just yet.

4. They lowball or refuse to pay you

More often than not, a client who bargains with your rates or refuses to pay you is someone who doesn’t value what you do. It’s fine if they just want a little wiggle room to work with.

But if they’re offering you rates that are far from what you find acceptable or remain non-committal about giving specific payment dates for work that’s already been done for a long time, then think long and hard before taking them on or continuing to work with them.

clients from hell

How to avoid working with clients from hell

In order to steer clear of clients from hell, it’s important to draw up a thorough and complete contract from the onset. Make sure to include all the important project details in it such as the scope, work fees, deadlines, clauses for revisions, and your payment terms, to name just a few.

Having a solid contract will ensure that you’re protected and have something to fall back on in case your client suddenly changes anything.

Another excellent way to avoid working with troublesome clients is to set expectations from the start. Let them know what you will allow and what you won’t. For instance, you can let them know beforehand that you won’t be answering emails or calls past 5pm during the weekdays or any at all during weekends.

Creating the rules and boundaries in the beginning can help you avoid many headaches later on.

Lastly, attract better clients by positioning your brand more effectively. You can do this by making your differentiator clear—let them know what sets you apart and why your work is valuable.

Top 3 mistakes that can turn good clients to bad

There can also be instances when nice clients can suddenly become unpleasant to you — and sometimes it’s our fault. If that’s the case, it most likely has a reason and it can be any of the ones below.

1. You keep missing deadlines

Deadlines have a purpose and the most common one is that the client needs it by the said date. So if you keep missing deadlines, it could be affecting their bottom line or delaying a specific aspect of their business operation.

2. You don’t follow the required project specs

Every project usually has some sort of required specifications that you have to follow. Those guidelines are in place to ensure that the outcome is a fit for the client’s business needs. When you fail to properly follow a project’s outlined requirements, it can result in needless delays that could significantly affect your client’s business.

3. You keep the client in the dark

Majority of clients prefer knowing how their project is progressing as it goes along. If you’re not updating them or aren’t responding to their requests for update, chances are, they could switch on you and show their opposite side.

Breaking up with your clients from hell

If you want out of your working relationship with a client from hell, it’s better to do so professionally. Talk to them or send them an email about your decision to let go of the project. Keep your wording civil and no need to get into detail about the reason.

You could say something along the following lines such as, “I just don’t think I’m a good fit for this project anymore” or something to that effect. This way, you don’t burn bridges and you’ll be able to keep your reputation intact in the process.

3 Relatable clients from hell stories

We’ve all been there — now let’s hear from a few fellow freelancers about their clients from hell in the hopes that we can learn something for ourselves.

“I took on a client who requested 9 pages of wireframe layouts (3 mobile and 6 desktop versions) to be delivered in one week. He lowballed my rate despite knowing it was a rush job but I still agreed because I needed the money at the time.

One week passed and I was able to submit the nine pages required along with nine extra pages and additional mock up design work he requested, which weren’t really part of the original scope but I still did anyway.

After passing more than what was outlined in the scope—for free, he had the gall to claim I’m still missing three other pages and proceeded to file a dispute on PayPal to get back the down payment he paid me.”

— Al, Wireframe and mockup designer

“A client hired me to write a landing page for him so I made him take an intake form and asked a few questions about the project. He gave very brief answers that didn’t explain much so I was left with very little to work with. Nonetheless, I made sure to do my own research and submitted the landing page on time.

A few days after submitting, I received a Google doc notification of all the revisions they did. They virtually rewrote everything and turned some of the specific benefits I included and replaced it with vague analogies to sport teams. And the worst part is that they never paid me the remaining balance for the work I’ve done!”

— Jen, Freelance B2B writer

“I got an email from this lady who wants me to write content for a new business she’s starting which is a women empowerment brand. After working out the details of what she needed, I raised the topic about compensation and she said I’ll only get paid if they decide to use my work. Well, so much for women empowerment.”

— Barbara, Content writer and marketer

Making the most of it

Whether you’re currently working with clients from hell or have worked with one, there are telltale signs to look out for and ways of handling it professionally. Remember, it’s on us to educate our clients in order to be in control of the creative process. It’s easier said than done, but the important thing is to not let it affect you and to treat it as a learning experience for building a better freelance business!

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Millo Articles by Jeanne San

Jeanne is the copywriter behind The Copy Psychologist — a sales copy clinic specializing in helping digital businesses craft compelling website copy and brand/product messaging that attracts more business. Aside from copywriting, she also writes about branding, buyer psychology, and content marketing, among others.
Read more from Jeanne.