3 Important Lessons I Learned From Horrible Clients

These clients snuck by my radar that is designed to alert me of potential problems.
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The feeling you get after trying to do everything a client asks, and is always unhappy.
The feeling you get after trying to do everything a client asks, and is always unhappy.

At some point in everyone’s career, a client comes along that simply drives you mad and so thoroughly dominates your time and energy that the work you do for other clients actually begins to suffer. I learned a long time ago that sometimes you have to simply cut ties with these kinds of clients, and, if possible, avoid working with them altogether.

Like many of my colleagues, I have had a couple horrible clients. Early in my career, one client proved to be particularly horrible, but I learned some exceptionally important lessons that have made me a better professional and helped me provide better service to all of my clients, good or bad.

I have always felt that every experience is an opportunity to learn something useful for the future, even when the experience is so challenging or so frustrating that you might prefer not to think about it ever again. The following lessons serve as proof that bad experiences can yield positive outcomes, as each of these lessons were the direct result of my experience with a terrible client.

Establish Clear and Consistent Expectations - No I can’t, No I won’t!

It has always been important to go above and beyond for my clients, but it is not possible to exceed expectations when a client expectations become unreasonable. The worst client I ever had kept making requests that were outside of the admittedly loose guidelines we had initially set. As I continued to do more and more work for the client, the client continued to take advantage of my eagerness to deliver what I thought was outstanding service.

In the end, the value of the time I invested into the project far exceeded what I earned, not to mention the endless frustration I had to deal with. Had I simply set absolutely clear expectations with the client right from the start, I could have pointed out precisely how the specific requests were outside the terms of our original agreement and could have therefore limited the seemingly never-ending madness that followed.

Be Thorough When Selecting Clients - Trust your gut!

I have heard countless terrible client stories from industry peers in which they begin with something along the lines of “I had a bad feeling right from the start…” Most of us have great instincts, and those natural instincts are usually pretty accurate when it comes to recognizing a potentially disastrous client.

I recently received a text at 10:00 p.m., and I’m an early riser so that’s past my bedtime! My “Do Not Disturb” setting was enabled on my phone so I didn’t see the message until the morning. When I checked my text messages he had sent me three in total. The first one was his request at 10 p.m. asking me to help with his online marketing. At 11:30 p.m. he texted again saying, “Hello? You there?” His last text came at 2 a.m. and said, “If you’re not going to at least tell me you’re busy, I’ll find someone else.”

During the course of my sleep, this non-client decided that he would pursue someone else to help with his marketing. Fine with me, I don’t need that kind of crazy in my life!

Fast forward a week and he’s texting me again asking me to perform the service. I politely told him that this was not a good fit and wished him the best. He continued texting and I ignored it for two days. He called very upset that I wouldn’t reply to his texts and I politely explained again that this wouldn’t be a good fit.

Over time I developed something a client-selection system that ultimately serves a dual purpose. During our initial meeting, I have specific questions that reveal a great deal about the client and provide some insight into what working together will be like for us both. Not only does this reveal whether or not there is a fit between myself and the client, but it also provides a wealth of information that is valuable regardless of the project.

With enough experience, I can tell that a client like this will end poorly. Rather than wait for that inevitable end, I was able to cut it off before it ever reached that point. Unfortunately, I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way.

Don’t Be Afraid to Cut Ties - Fire your bad clients!

Over the last 12+ years, I have had to fire a couple of bad clients. These clients snuck by my radar that is designed to alert me of potential problems. This most often happens to be when the person or business has a good story to tell.

Recently a lady called about reputation management. Her husband was abusive and they had recently gotten into a fight. The neighbors called the police and they were both booked into the local jail and now her mugshot was showing up online.

Her small business would be threatened even though there were to be no legal proceedings and the charges were dropped.

As we discussed her situation, I asked, “Has your living situation been resolved?” My goal was to figure out if this was going to be an ongoing issue because, once again, I avoid conflict like this. She assured me that he was gone out of her house and out of her life. Since she now was on a single income she couldn’t afford my normal rate but could only afford half of it. I finally relented (against my gut’s better judgment) and agreed to work on her campaign.

We immediately went to work, bought a couple domains, ordered content, set up a couple of social media accounts and spent about $500 total as soon as she paid the invoice.

Literally the next day, I received a call from someone claiming to be her husband wanting to know why there was a charge on her credit card. I explained what reputation management was and how it helped and suggested that he also needed help as his mugshot was showing for his name. He had a few choice words for me and I explained that any other communication would need to come through his wife, not him.

She called me twp minutes later telling me that she didn’t want to go through with the reputation management and asked for a refund. Literally the next day, after I had spent $500.

I didn’t listen to my intuition and learned a costly lesson.

I am at a point in my business that I feel like I can tell who is going to be a good client and who will be a bad client, but ultimately only time will tell how accurate my intuition is!

How about you, have you had any similar experiences with clients?