Nightmare clients: tricks to spotting them first

May 5, 2011


We’ve all experienced them at some point, both as freelancers and as other-employed persons: the nightmare client. It’s not uncommon for a client to request additional reviews or hound you for updates but the relationship can become troublesome if boundaries get crossed too regularly. Detecting a difficult client can largely be avoided by keeping your eyes peeled for a few telltale signs:

Ghosts of the past

If your initial discussion with a prospective client involves them naming all the various reasons why former consultants weren’t up to their standards, consider this a big, red flag. Remember that the common denominator in those failed business relationships was this client. And, unless your life typically plays out like a cheesy romantic comedy, you probably won’t be the one to get him to change his ways and commit.

Too Many Chiefs

In this situation (normally involving big, conglomerate clients), multiple people will be assigned as “points of contact” for you to wrangle with artistically, stylistically, conceptually, and every other thing-ly. You’ll know you’re in this situation when you get twenty conflicting emails from different people before the project has even started, and probably end up in an odd, politically-tinged mess. Don’t do it! Or, if there’s no fire escape in sight, insist your client reduces the number of people you’re in contact with to a single internal project manager or team to simplify the arrangement.

Vague direction

Early on when you’re hammering out the details of the project and your client seems to be less interested in making sure you understand what they want and more focused on the terms of payment, you’re better off letting this project go. The client may not know exactly what he/she wants, and may end up dragging you around with them until it’s uncomfortably clear that they aren’t prepared to give a commitment to a project yet also not prepared to let you go. Stringing you along to push you for more isn’t fair and you’ll be left feeling frustrated when they pull a disappearing act at the prospect of committing serious funds to continue. Leave this client to come to you with a plan proposal at a later date and avoid being left with an unpaid bill. And a whole lot of bitterness.

Complete Availability Demanded

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s also the client that sends you three hundred follow-up emails for every minute you’ve delayed a response to a query and then gets upset and hurt if you can’t bum around on a two-hour call. These clients may or may not be aware they are showing you little-to-no respect at all for your time. Remember that you’re not obligated to give them any more time than you see is appropriate, so find ways of reminding them about what was originally agreed upon and spelled out in your terms.

Control Freak

“Control freaks” pay you to give it your all on a project but then don’t trust you enough to not to breathe down your neck or make significant changes behind your back. He/she doesn’t respect your expertise at all, and will continually cut down your suggestions. You can usually catch this in the early planning stages of the project.

Any of these fiendish characters sounding familiar?

Ultimately, trust your instincts and you’ll catch the signals. In case a nightmarish client does manage to sneak past your radar, be sure to have built exit strategies into your contracts so that you can make a call (albeit a tough one) about whether you want to continue at check-in points along the road.


about the author

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