What to do about bad clients is a Google search no one wants to make. You are great at what you do. You’re a good person, a genuinely nice guy (or gal), and you don’t deserve to be treated badly. Perhaps the client isn’t treating you badly but is just a bad fit for you. Or maybe they’re just a jerk.
Most of the people who are attracted to me are excellent, kind, and appreciative people. I’m guessing the same is true for you. But once in a while, someone who seems to be a great fit turns out to be Clientzilla.
Good clients versus bad clients
Client A is a dream. He is a repeat client and he pays on time, every time. He follows the standard procedure. This client says nothing but good things about and to me. He instantly agreed to a substantial rate hike because he respects me, is well aware of the value he has in me, and wants to keep me for life. Most of my clients are in this group.
Client B demanded his own way, insisting that procedure be changed for him. He didn’t follow agreements or deliver on promises. This guy wouldn’t pay his bill. He claimed to not understand how it works. He’s worked with numerous people and has paid many bills, but he suddenly didn’t understand how it goes. Also, he claimed to not understand some things he’d been told over and over, by three different people in my agency. We work with some disabled clients, and they sometimes need things repeated. We have patience in those cases (and that’s also why we have email and other things they can go back to if they need to hear it again), but the only disability this man had was Narcissistic Personality Disorder or a selective form of deafness: the could not hear the word “no.”
He called my cell phone frequently, including in the middle of the night when he knew not only that I was sleeping but also that my entire household had been sick for days with a torrential stomach bug. When asked about it, he said he felt 100% justified in doing that because he wanted my attention at that moment and because I hadn’t answered earlier that night (he had already been told multiple times not to use the phone to contact me).
When he didn’t reach me in the middle of the night, he contacted team members behind my back about me, saying less-than-stellar things. He harassed me and my assistants, and then called me “a peddler of cheap goods.” That showed what he thought of my coaching, editing of his books, and expertise, I guess: no respect. He certainly showed no respect for me, my wishes, or my disabilities—of which he had been informed.
The signs were there
Subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) abuse and manipulation were present for quite a while before I terminated the relationship. For the first time in nearly a decade of business, I told a client I would not serve them in the future due to their behavior and treatment of my team and me.
I finished the book despite it all. He refused to pay his balance, claiming to be confused about what it means when I said, “The copy edit is complete, and your balance is due.” Then he attacked my team members and me. I responded to that by saying, “Do not contact any of my team members or me again.”
Signs of a bad client
In the last bit of Client B’s time with me, I told my husband, “When A or any of my other great clients messages me, my response is an eager ‘Ooh, what does it say?’ When B does, it’s ‘Eww, <hands over eyes, peeking through fingers> what does it say?’ That’s a sure sign that you have a bad situation. Sometimes, the client isn’t an abuser, they’re just a bad fit for you or doesn’t know how to be a good client. Here are some examples:
- They break protocol. Maybe they just don’t know how it’s done.
- They argue with you even though you are the expert they brought in.
- Some clients neglect to make payment as promised.
- They call you outside of business hours but within reason. Some people work early and late, and some don’t keep good track of the time.
- They demand special treatment or excessive attention.
And then there are the people who are outright abusive.
Signs a client is abusive
- They use a forbidden means of contact. This is doubly true if they hunted down that information, such as your home phone when you give out a business phone number.
- They stalk or harass you. (It’s rude and creepy to follow them on their vacation, Bob!)
- Real jerks send food they know you’re allergic to.
- They call you constantly or call your cell phone in the middle of the night—knowing you’re asleep.
- They demand more than they paid for and refuse to pay for it.
- Despite being told the rules, they break protocol repeatedly.
- They breach the contract.
- You detect that they are trying to manipulate you or your staff.
- They recruit someone else to contact you on their behalf. This is called triangulating and is psychologically sick.
- They insult you or otherwise attack your or your staff.
Even if you are fabulous at what you do, even if you attract some amazing clients and have spiffy credits to your name, you will get a client here and there who is a nightmare. That is a promise I hate to make, but it is the truth. I’ve been doing this full-time since 2009, and I’ve had a few clientzillas. We even have a name for them here: Tim (for a man) and Kim (for a woman). We also have names for our most common category of clients, the ones who are respectful and easy to work with: The Nicks.
What to do when you have an abusive client
Fire them. Life is too short to be someone’s punching bag.
If your contract does not have a termination clause that says you reserve the right to terminate the project if the client becomes abusive to you or your staff, please add a termination clause to your contract right now. If you don’t have a solid contract, please get one. The book The Paper It’s Written On is a good and very affordable place to start. Just click the image below (affiliate link) to check it out and get your copy.
How to fire a bad client
A short and sweet email is all you need, and there are some pretty good examples of email scripts for how to fire problem clients available online, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here.
Please know this: having in place all the screening measures in the world still will not weed out every abusive client, so if you get one, please don’t beat yourself up about it. Every single one of us gets the occasional bad apple. The key is this: once you’ve had a taste and know that fruit is rotten, throw it out immediately. No one deserves to be treated like that.