Everything You Need to Know About Managing Bad Clients

Are bad clients causing havoc? Here's how to manage them better.

Good clients pay you on time and are a pleasure to work with. Bad clients drain your energy, waste your time and may even expect you to work for free.

Odds are, you’ve had a few bad clients before and now want to know how to identify and manage them better. Or maybe you currently have terrible clients and don’t know what to do. Do you try to transform them into better clients? Or do you fire them?

Read on for answers to these questions and to learn almost everything you need to know about bad clients:

  • What the phrase “bad clients” entails
  • How to identify them by pinpointing certain red flags
  • How to transform them into dream clients
  • How to fire them when the relationship is beyond repair

What Is a Bad Client?

Unpleasant clients appear in many different forms—from those who always pay late and bad-mouth other freelancers to those who are poor communicators and expect special treatment.

The term “bad clients” also includes clients who aren’t a fit. For example, I once had a discovery call with a client that went exceedingly well. We agreed that the next step was for me to pitch some blog post ideas. However, after many back and forth emails, it became apparent that we weren’t a fit.

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The working relationship just didn’t feel right, and we both agreed to part ways with no hard feelings. And that’s the thing, fit cannot be forced; it’s something you often intuitively feel.

How to Identify Bad Clients: 12 Red Flags

Given that difficult clients manifest in so many forms, how do you identify them?

Here are 12 red flags that suggest you may have a bad client. As you read through this section, remember that you can’t always identify these red flags early on in a relationship—unfortunately, they sometimes only appear later.

1. They’re Late Payers

It’s not uncommon for the odd invoice to slip through the cracks—your clients are only human after all. However, if late payment becomes a recurring theme, then you have some big decisions to make:

  • Do you stop working with the client altogether?
  • Do you withhold all future work until payment has been made?
  • Do you charge late payment fees?

In the next section, you’ll learn about several tactics you can use to manage late payers and ensure you always have a steady stream of cash flowing in.

2. The Client Bad-Mouths Other Freelancers

Some clients may have been burned in the past and therefore have legitimate reasons for approaching a relationship cautiously. It’s also perfectly acceptable for clients to let you know about bad experiences they may have had.

What’s not acceptable, though, is if those same clients trash talk those freelancers and the profession as a whole. It suggests the client was the problem and not the freelancers.

3. Too Many Points of Contact

When there are too many chiefs working on a project, goalposts change and confusion prevails. You end up spending more time clarifying details than actually doing any work.

Although it’s perfectly normal for there to be many stakeholders on a project, there should always be one point person who collects information and relays it back to you to avoid confusion.

4. They Nickel-and-Dime

Penny-pinching manifests in a variety of forms, from clients saying they’re a start-up that can’t pay well, to those insisting on paying you less than your rate because they have other contractors working for less.

Even worse is when clients expect you to work for free and claim that it will be great exposure. Admittedly, there are circumstances where you might feel okay working for free. But you should, for the most part, charge for your work.

5. They Provide Vague Direction

It’s not uncommon for clients to be unclear on what they want when you first meet them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as you can have subsequent meetings to help them achieve clarity, and better understand their problems and solutions that will help them.

What is a bad thing, however, is when the client is unwilling to engage in these meetings and isn’t interested in articulating their needs, the project details and the scope of work.

6. Their Word Is Easily Broken

Be wary of clients who say one thing one day and then go back on their word. I once experienced this red flag with a client when discussing payment terms.

Although the client initially agreed to pay a 50% upfront deposit on a large project, they later went back on their word, saying they couldn’t pay a deposit, but only one full payment upon completion because they only had a small finance department.

Needless to say, I ended that relationship with a polite email, despite already having the contract in hand.

7. They’re Always Skeptical About the Skills You’ve Demonstrated

Having to sell yourself in the early stages of a relationship is perfectly normal. But when clients constantly expect you to prove your worth despite having already done so, it becomes problematic.

You may begin to second-guess yourself or feel less competent than you are, which can have a negative impact on other client work and business relationships. You do not want to spend time with these clients. You’re better than that.

8. They’re Unrealistic

Desperate clients often have unrealistic expectations. They’ve tried everything under the sun and now need a magic bullet to solve all their problems—and yes, you guessed it, you’re their magic bullet.

Be particularly careful of these clients as they’re usually the hardest to please and will likely expect you to work on a limited budget.

9. They Want Special Treatment

“Special treatment” refers to clients who ask for favorable payment terms or insist you work beyond the scope for free—often classifying this work as only a “minor change.”

As you’ll learn later on, you’ll need to remain firm and set clear boundaries; otherwise, these clients will only take advantage of you.

10. They’re Bad Communicators

Bad communicators often reveal themselves early on in a relationship so you can pull the plug before the trouble starts. While poor communication can take many forms, what usually happens is that a client will contact you to ask if you’re available to work on a project.

You then respond with several questions and insist on having a chat to discuss the project. You then wait. And wait some more. The client doesn’t bother responding to your email or subsequent follow-ups.

Just when you think you’ve been ghosted, the client will contact you and ask when you can get started on the project.

Because the success of any project depends on client input at certain checkpoints, you’ll generally want to avoid working with clients who are bad communicators. After all, if they can’t keep communication lines open early on, what makes you think they’ll do it later on?

11. They Place Unnecessary Demands on Your Time

Clients will value you if you’re willing to be flexible and push on important projects. However, if you’re always having to push and run on constant urgency, odds are you’ll soon become resentful and burnt-out.

I once worked with an agency client who was constantly running on tight deadlines. The inevitable result was that I had to deliver work in ridiculously short timelines—often with zero respect for my weekend.

Chances are you’ve been in situations like these where clients don’t respect your time. Just think about the client who emails you at an unreasonable hour, expects an immediate response and then sends a bunch of nasty emails asking you why you haven’t responded.

These are the types of clients who expect you to be at their beck and call. All. The. Time. They suck you dry, cause emotional stress and cost you money. After all, the time spent dealing with and managing them could be spent working with better clients.

12. They’re Aggressive or Abusive

Aggression and abuse can manifest in overt ways, like yelling and swearing. But it can also be subtle and passive-aggressive. Either way, you’ll know it’s happening by how they make you feel, which is undervalued and disrespected.

These clients are simply not worth working for. Need we say more?


How to Transform Bad Clients into Dream Ones

Before you identify one of the red flags above and “give up” on your clients, consider if you can change the situation.

Being able to influence a client to be better will be a valuable skill as you grow your business. That extra effort might turn a “bad” client into one of your key anchor clients.

The key to influence, though, is to muster up the courage to confront your client and actually put in the work.

Sure, addressing the issue with your client can be daunting, but the reality is that it’s usually never as bad as you think it will be. If anything, clients will begin to respect you more.

Now, with that out the way, here’s a simple two-step process to help you deal with demanding clients and, hopefully, turn them into dream ones.

Step 1: Identify the Red Flags

Firstly, identify what makes them a bad client. Refer back to the warning signs identified earlier to pinpoint why they’re lousy. Pinpointing and understanding the problem will help you identify a suitable strategy to fix it.

Bear in mind that if clients are verbally abusive, you’re better of cutting ties immediately. No one deserves to be treated poorly. Period.

If, however, it’s one of the other red flags like late payment or them wanting special treatment, then move on to the second and final step.

Step 2: Implement the Right Strategy to Transform Your Client

There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with demanding clients.

But most service-based businesses will experience some common red flags over the lifetime of their business. Here are five of the most common red flags and strategies to help you turn those bad clients into dream ones.

1. Late Payment

There are numerous ways to deal with late payment.

Firstly, sometimes all the client needs is a simple nudge in the right direction with late payment reminders. You can send these reminders at specific intervals, i.e. five days, 30 days or even 60 days.

Consider using an email template to simplify the process. For example, for an invoice that’s five days overdue, you can say the following:

Template: Overdue Invoice

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For more email templates like these, grab a copy of Awkward Conversations: A Guide for Small Business Owners.

Alternatively, use a cloud accounting platform like FreshBooks that automates these late payment reminders and removes the need to even have those conversations in the first place. With FreshBooks you can:

  • Create incremental payment reminders when creating new invoices
  • Track all payments and outstanding invoices
  • Let clients pay you in one click directly from the payment reminder

Secondly, if those late payment reminders prove ineffective, it may be time to charge a late payment fee.

Let the interest rate laws in your state guide what you charge. Once you have that number, update the existing invoice and send it to your client. Rinse and repeat until your client has paid.

And remember the following: Charging a late payment fee isn’t always the best idea. Sometimes a softer touch is needed, especially if the client is experiencing personal problems which are causing payment delays.

Pro Tip: Request an upfront deposit from clients before you start working. Deposits weed out clients who resist paying and ensure clients become more invested in your project from the start. This, in turn, prevents scenarios where clients vanish halfway through the project.

2. Having Too Many Chiefs on a Project

You’ve heard the saying, “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Well, as you saw earlier, this is precisely what can happen to your projects.

Having too many chiefs causes confusion and can derail any project. Luckily, you can quickly nip this problem in the bud with a simple email.

If you’re struggling to write this email, then grab a handy template in our book Awkward Conversations: A Guide for Small Business Owners.

3. Not Respecting Your Time

As discussed, clients who don’t respect your time appear in a variety of forms but two of the most common are:

  • Clients expecting you to be on call 24/7, often hounding you with emails late at night and sending follow-ups asking why you haven’t replied
  • Clients always running on tight deadlines, which puts pressure on you having to produce work in ridiculously short time frames

Again, you can solve these two problems with a carefully crafted email. The first email template below helps you set clear boundaries, so you’re not at the client’s beck and call, and the second improves workflow, so you’re not running on constant urgency.

Let’s have a look:

Template: Establishing Boundaries

bad clients

Template: Improving Workflow

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4. Poor Communication

Clients who don’t bother to reply to your emails or are just generally bad communicators can cause real setbacks in any project. However, you can quickly get them to respond by sending them a gentle nudge via email.

If you want a template for this communication, you can find one in this eBook: Awkward Conversations: A Guide for Small Business Owners.

5. Out-of-scope Requests

If you fail to manage out-of-scope requests by not telling clients you usually charge for them and instead do the work for free, clients will learn that it’s okay to always ask for extras because they won’t be charged. It’s a slippery slope.

So, the sooner you adequately address these requests, the better. Here’s an email template that will help you do exactly that:

Template: A Way to Say, “You’ve Asked for More Than We Agreed Upon”

bad clients

For an alternative approach to this communication, see our eBook Awkward Conversations: A Guide for Small Business Owners.

How to Fire Clients If the Relationship Is Beyond Repair

If the above strategies prove ineffective, then it’s probably time to cut ties with your client.

After all, if you’re …

  • Not getting paid for delivering quality work
  • Working on projects that are no longer fun because there are too many cooks spoiling the broth
  • Running on constant urgency because your client is disorganized and doesn’t respect your time
  • Unable to move steadily through a project because you cannot get timely feedback
  • Always having to deal with clients who expect you to go the extra mile and deliver extra work for free
  • Just generally finding the client unpleasant to work with

… then, there really is no point working with that client.

But before you pull the trigger and fire your client, just make sure you’re going about it the right way:

  • Check to see that you’re not breaking your contract
  • Finish all client work that has been paid for
  • Give the client advance notice that you’re ending the relationship so they can plan accordingly
  • Finish any existing projects at a suitable milestone to ensure a smooth transition. You want to maintain professionalism and ensure you don’t leave them out to dry
  • When breaking the news to the client, be polite, honest and firm in your communication. Explain that, unfortunately, you can’t continue working with them but that you are willing to help tie up any loose ends

Here is a template you can use to fire a client without burning any bridges:

Template: Fire a Client Without Burning Bridges

bad clients

Notice how I started and ended the email on a positive tone, and remained professional and polite throughout, while still being honest and direct in my communication?

And how I also made sure not to leave the client in the lurch by telling them I’ll complete all existing assignments?

These small things matter and ensure that your client continues to see your work and relationship in a positive light.

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Start Working With and Attracting Better Clients

You’ve learned how to pinpoint bad clients by understanding the warning signs like late payment, poor communication and not respecting your time.

If you have an unusually large roster of bad clients, then first look in the mirror: You’ll likely find that you’re not communicating properly, setting boundaries or establishing realistic expectations.

After you’ve ruled yourself out, examine whether it could be that you’re not identifying the red flags during the client onboarding process. If so, spend more time to make sure you pay special attention to those warning signs and are willing to address them.

If, however, you’re struggling to find decent clients from the start or are always attracting the wrong ones, then it’s probably time to revisit your process for finding and attracting better clients—something discussed in detail in our post Five Simple Steps to Getting Better Clients.

After all, by concentrating on obtaining better clients and ensuring everything you do as a business owner is geared toward attracting them, you automatically filter out the bad ones.

Have you ever had a bad client? What did you do?

This post was updated in September 2019.

about the author

Freelancer & FreshBooks Customer Nick Darlington is a FreshBooks customer and small business owner who's been running a writing business for close to 4 years now from his home in sunny South Africa. When he’s not sharing his knowledge and experience about how to successfully run, manage, and grow a small service business, he’s helping aspiring and established writers succeed at WriteWorldwide.