How to handle a tough client you just can’t afford to ditch right now

Here at Millo we talk all the time about how to go from good to better. Better clients. Better income. Better communication. Better business.

But what about just getting to good?

Not all of us are in the position right now to be selective (and yes, sometimes even veterans find themselves in a slump).

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So when you’re in a spot where you have to handle a tough client, here are some tips for making the best of a bad situation. (And if we left anything out, you can add it here.)

Do it first thing

When you’re really dreading handling a tough client, try talking to them first thing in the morning. Don’t allow yourself to put it off for *just 5 minutes* until “oops! – it’s 5 o’clock again. Guess it’ll have to wait ’til tomorrow.”

Get the worst part of your day (probably handling a tough client) out of the way right at the beginning so that the rest of the day is smooth sailing.

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Be the professional

No matter how they treat you, always be the professional. Never allow yourself to stoop to whatever immaturity they do and potentially risk burning bridges.

Not only will you feel better about yourself, but they’ll also never be able to point the finger at your poor behavior.

Get it in writing

Be meticulous in your record-keeping. Record every detail, save every email, and be prepared to defend yourself politely but firmly.

(If I had a nickel for every LinkedIn discussion that begins with, “What should I do? My client is blaming me for…”)

Double-check in disguise

With clients who ask for something and then protest when it’s done, discreetly double-check before proceeding.

Example: Good morning, Zack: I just wanted to let you know I’m moving forward with the web launch this afternoon. I’ll send you a confirmation email when we’re live.

This way your client can’t come back with, “if I had known, I would have told you not to.”

Be proactive

Clingy clients can bog down your entire day with endless phone calls, emails, and texts. Keep their interruptions to a minimum by sending them short progress emails regularly with specific dates they’ll receive proofs.

Charge for everything

Talk to any veteran freelancer and I’m certain they’ll agree: their tough clients pay more.

Example: If one of my great clients calls or emails with an occasional 5-minute question, I’m probably going to throw that in for free. A difficult client will pay for 15 minutes of my time (minimum charge).

Here’s a script I’ve developed for clients who want to argue over communication bills:

I understand you’re on a tight budget; however, I cannot afford to donate my professional services. 

As you know, my hourly rate is $X. This applies to phone calls, texts, emails, and, in general, work that I do with regards to your business.

When you ask me questions or advice, I put time and effort into providing a meaningful response. In return, I require payment.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me…

Boost your mental health

Working with a tough client can erode your mental and emotional health in no time. Be sure you find ways to relieve that stress and keep yourself in a positive, energetic, and creative state of mind.

Here are a few ways I boost my mental health in my spare time:

  • Work on a fun side project
  • Create something amazing
  • Meditate
  • Fix the minor issues on your own website (a never-ending process!)
  • Read something inspiring or uplifting
  • Play with your pets
  • Go enjoy the weather
  • Clean your office (weird, I know, but it’s helpful for me)

Know where your boundaries are

Finally, know when enough is enough. If your client is so awful that you’re in tears, not sleeping, depressed, or fearing your next day of work, fire them and find another source of income.

Get a part-time job that will pay the bills while you build a clientele of decent human beings.

Share your tips on how to handle a tough client…

Have you ever had to ‘grin and bear it’ with a tough client? How did you save your sanity? Do you still work with them or have you moved on to greener pastures? Leave a comment on this post!

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  1. Oh! this part makes me laugh aloud as I relates that to my past encounters “Get a part-time job…… decent human beings.

    Some can almost make one regret taking the decision of starting a personal business.

  2. Great column April. Every piece of advice you offer is spot on and could go a long way to saving a lot of grief when dealing with tough clients.

  3. I have a very difficult client.

    He wont pay me the full amount of money for the work i did because it’s not complete, of which i understand, However when I want to finish the Job he blocks me by saying he is too busy and i can’t do the work when he is not around. This has been going on for almost a month now.

    What should i do?

    1. Muzi,

      Charge for work completed and move on. If and when he wants to finish, he’ll contact you or he’ll find someone else he can swindle. Stand up for yourself, get the money owed, and find a better client! (PS – there are a ton of resources here on Millo on doing just that!)

      Good luck!


  4. I seem to collect difficult clients. And I mean that in a good way: I have epic patience, a good sense of humor, and an ability to be clear about goals and boundaries for the relationship.

    Oh, and I’m never too busy to LISTEN. I always repeat back what I’ve heard — verbosity is driven by a fear of not being understood.

    As a result, I have some extremely loyal clients. These are clients that have gone through a host of other designers and not found their fit.

    A difficult client can become your best client, but only if they recognize that they are difficult. Difficult clients are sometimes extremely grateful that you make the effort to work with their particular brand of insanity.

    That said, don’t be afraid to distance yourself from clients who don’t value your services or are abusive. Cheap and difficult? Yerouttahere. Make unprofessional, personal attacks? Yerouttahere.

    1. Well said, Alan!

      Sometimes those who are impossible for one person are a perfect match for others. And being willing to tackle people who understand they’re difficult can be a niche in an of itself.

      Thanks for sharing.

      1. This is so tough. My toughest client is my first. I have this loyalty to them…I have even gotten a few referrals… but it is killing me. I would love to charge for the gum I chew to help calm my nerves after a job…

  5. I would add that music can be an escape and an appreciation of how things could be. You could be working in a environment where you are constantly getting haggled for getting your work done or you can create you own structure and complete freelance.

  6. Thank you for the wonderful guide – it is really helpful, and even not only for designers – the tips are universal and can help anybody dealing with clients. I would add that for important decisions phone calls are not enough – it’s always better to send confirmation e-mail after the call with the final decisions to be safe from misunderstandings or clients saying they didn;t want it after

    1. Victoria,

      Excellent clarification – always get everything in writing from difficult clients! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Awesome article April! I am such a big advocate of getting my partners and fellow freelancers to stand up to difficult clients, and there is some excellent advice here.

    Your advice is simple… but also effective common sense. ‘Charge for EVERYTHING’ is golden. Personally I think the best thing you can do is stand up to clients. Many of them are testing you to see how far they can push you, and when they realise they can’t, they end up respecting you for it.

  8. This:
    Don’t allow yourself to put it off for *just 5 minutes* until “oops! – it’s 5 o’clock again. Guess it’ll have to wait ’til tomorrow.”

    That’s usually how I end up letting bad client relationships drag on…

    One danger is that if you feel terribly dissatisfied with a client, there is a tendency to slack off on their work (or at least there has been for me in the past). That’s not good for anyone!

    Great post, thanks for the good advice.

    1. Dava,

      So true! When I’m hating a client, I’m hating working on their project, too. You’d think it’d be the opposite…just get it done! But it’s SO not.

      Glad to hear I’m not the only one!


  9. I read your article April, it got better and better as I read down through it. Perfect common sense, so obvious when it is laid out like this and based on experience. The point of sorting and cleaning the office not weird at all I hope, a very good friend, a poet tells me it is a ‘Virgo sign” behaviour. I don’t know, but it sure gets all the ducks in a row for me every time. Your article is very good advice, we should all employ it – and it made me laugh and feel good after it.
    Thank you,

    1. Aww, thanks Brian! Glad to know I’m not the only one who likes a clean office (though I’m a Sagittarius!).

      Have a great week!


  10. I laughed when I read your script for dealing with difficult clients and the related communications costs. It’s perfect. Thanks, April! What a huge time-suck those situations can be.

    The other measure I’ve been contemplating – but heavily resisting – is beginning to use a time tracking software so I can present an invoice with some back-up data. Time tracking seems like another layer of guk and most of my work is done at a flat rate project-based fee.

    1. Hey Scott

      Try FreshBooks.

      Its easy and efficient. I was resisting to use a time tracking software and after much confusion (and loss of billed time) I took Brent Galloway’s advice and started using it.

      Its so good and easy that I can go on and on about it. But just try it yourself. You can even make invoices and send it to the client through FreshBooks!

    2. You’re welcome!

      For me, I track my time for my own purposes rather than charging, as I usually price per project rather than per hour. However, for hourly clients, I keep a time sheet including date, length of time, and description of work in case they question my invoice.

      FreshBooks is really great from what I’ve seen and heard. I’ve also just kept an Excel spreadsheet, which has worked well, too. (I use QuickBooks for accounting software, and I’m not 100% impressed with the ease of using their time tracking/time sheets (it’s more set up for employees rather than freelancers).

      Happy tracking!


  11. Holy smokes, is this ever a good article, I wish I’d read it sooner! I’ve learned the HARD way that from now on, I will state in all my contracts that clients who ask questions and keep me on for hours in meetings or who demand a lot of extra 1-on-1 time to discuss details, etc. WILL BE CHARGED FOR IT, in 15-minute increments! Funny how they think that they can send multiple emails and text messages and expect us to work for free (ie. not add it to our estimates, which are just that… ESTIMATES!). Interesting also how I just recently learned from another well-established web designer who charges by the 15 minutes as well. Guess that is standard practice, or at least becoming increasingly common. Funny we HAVE to do this or else we will not find ourselves staying in business for very long. Thank you April for this article, it should be the staple of every new freelance designer!

    1. Priscilla,

      Awww, thanks for your kind words! Made my day. 🙂

      I build in some communication time when quoting a project, but when things start getting out of hand, I let them know that they are nearing the limit of their allotted time and that I will have to start charging (and when that will be — in X hours, for example). That way, clients don’t feel like they’re getting nickled and dimed for every single call.

      Check out this post for dealing with high-maintenance clients…particularly phone-happy ones!

      Thanks for sharing!


  12. I had a client that when he called, it took an hour to discuss a 10 minute decision. He was a little more than verbose. I informed him that I would have to start charging for phone conversations because they lasted so long and he grudgingly agreed. From that day on, he called me at lunch. Why I don’t know. I’m not sure if he was expecting me not to charge him or what. The real corker was that, a few months later I heard though one of his people that he blamed me for the conversations being so long and that I was padding the bill with them. I straightened that right out as that was going to me integrity. From THAT point on I actually told him when the clock was running and when it wasn’t. He liked that.

    Anyway, as a professional you need to charge for your time just like a lawyer does. It is the only thing you have to sell. I generally lighten up a bit with a new client but after a relationship is established I do charge for everything I do for their benefit. Even travel.

    1. Especially travel!

      Usually what I do, instead of charging for “every little thing,” is to work a lot of those little things into my hourly rate, and therefore my project quote. If I will be visiting them, I might charge an extra 4 hours for gas and time. If they are very verbose, I might charge more in anticipation of longer phone conversations.

      However, if phone calls do get out of hand (check out this post:, its very appropriate to start charging. Usually they back off, and if they don’t, you make a lot of extra $$. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing!


  13. In my opinion no matter what stage of your freelance career you find yourself at, you should be easily be able to reject or fire a client that doesn’t fit your goals or pesonality. Of course you will all say that you are at the beginning and it will be hard to find another client, but i think before you put money ahead of you put it the other way around because a healthier mind will get you the possibility to find other “healthy clients” as i like to call them. This way you can think of how to progress and not how to fight with your client.

    1. In theory, I think most freelancers will agree with you. But when it’s the difference between heat and food this winter (I live in a cold climate), what we must do to survive sometimes conflicts with our ideologies.

      That being said, I agree with you that money isn’t the end-all, be-all in life. I value happiness and freedom over a giant paycheck that I’m too tired (or too busy) to spend. Clients that “fit” your business will ultimately make you happier and healthier, and rejecting those clients who don’t “fit” free you up for the jobs you really want.

      Thanks for sharing!


  14. It’s funny you wrote about this. I recently experienced the most tough client I had ever had. How did he become that way? I made the godfather of all mistakes and became an employee of the company. Not only that but come to find out the owner had bad OCD, every freelancers worst nightmare come true. So in the end I had to pull out. I did all of the things you mentioned, exercise, spend time with the family, enjoy the weather… I’m feeling much better, less stressed and ready to take on the world. I miss the big paycheck, but in the end I value my happiness and sanity above all.

    1. Sanity and happiness are big perks for any job, and it sounds like you got out right before you lost yours!

      Becoming an employee is a tricky, weird thing in many companies. As a consultant, you’re a valued outside opinion, a professional that is praised (and paid more) for sharing new ideas and encouraging change. Once you become an employee, you lose all credibility and get paid less, too.

      Enjoy your freedom and go tackle something refreshing and fun!


  15. Another excellent post, April! Thank you so much. For added sanity during challenging client times, I find it super important to also spend extra time with my family and friends just to remind myself that there is more to life. It definitely helps balance things out.

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