How to identify a bad client — The Ultimate Guide
Ok, so, you land a new client, awesome! After communicating for a few days you sign the contract. Fast forward a few weeks, the entire scope of the work has changed, they cost you more than they paid, the stress keeps you up at night, and you simply cannot work with them.
Does this sound familiar?
First of all, let me clear up the title: there are no bad clients. Problems manifest in a relationship between the service provider and the client, a single party is hardly ever to blame.
Certain types of clients tend to attract certain types of providers that create awful relationships, and some service providers act in certain ways that make any client relationship very hard.
It’s important to get a feel for when this is happening and know whether to start at all, and when to stop. Cutting both of your losses after something not working out is not a problem.
“No deal is better than a bad deal”
This is for people offering services or products that solve complex and/or specific problems that your client cannot himself solve. If your client is at point A, your skills should help them get to point B. However, unless they are a perfect client, point B might not be where they truly want to be, and they might not be at point A, so you should feel comfortable helping them find point A, and suggesting a point C or D that better fits their goals, budget, and time constraints.
One thing to keep in mind: clients are not your friends, and you’re not theirs, it’s a purely conditional relationship that even comes with legally binding contracts. They may act friendly, but their goal is to get as much as possible from you for as cheap as possible, and your goal is to give your services for as much money as possible, quite conflicting. Things they say or do may sound friendly, but it’s all a game. This is no problem, you just need to learn to play the game, simple!
What if you could detect this on the first time you meet without fail? Well, this list aims to help with that. I compiled personal experiences and a lot of listicles found on the web(sources at the end) and made this list.
The ideal professional
Before I start to bash hypothetical clients I want to mention that unprofessional service providers will very often turn what would otherwise be good client relationships into awful ones.
If you feel uncertain about your skills, make it clear to your possible customer, get an internship, and/or develop a mentor relationship with someone that is where you want to be. You will develop your skills faster and with much less weight on your shoulders this way.
If you omit your lack of skills and deliver shitty work for incredibly cheap, chances are you will still be praised, not because of your skill, but because you’re cheap. This won’t help you in the long run, it’s fake praise by someone that doesn’t know anything about what you do. You’re setting yourself up to always be doing shitty work for below market value, who wins in this situation?
You likely have preferred methods of communication, timing, meeting style, and a schedule. Make this clear, your client’s respect(or lack of it) towards your rules are clear in showing you who you’re working with.
Some rules need to be written and agreed upon, others not. I’m not going to accept a client’s facebook friend request, but there’s no need to put that on the contract.
Examples I personally like to use:
- Meetings have an agenda, or else they’re not meetings and just waste everyone’s time.
- Meetings require preparation before the fact, I don’t want to spend 20 minutes briefing you with content you could have read yourself.
- Meetings cannot be longer than 30 minutes, but two 30 minute meetings back to back with a break is OK.
- If we’re not meeting in person, I communicate between XX:XX and ZZ:ZZ Monday to Friday.
- My deadlines are affected by how long it takes you to give me what I need to make said deadline, this has to be clear on the contract.
They may still contact me whenever they want, but I won’t reply at 9PM on a Saturday. If I reply, I’m telling them it’s OK, and this is the start to my rules being worthless. If the work in question requires you to be on call 24/7, well, charge extra for that.
If you don’t make these rules, they will be made for you by someone without your best interests at heart, and I guarantee they will hurt your work and quality of life.
The ideal professional is aware of flaws in themselves and their client, but is capable of minimizing their effect on the quality of the work.
You’re never going to work with the ideal client, and you’re never going to be the ideal service provider, but with the right knowledge you can minimize both your shortcomings and have a very close to ideal relationship.
The list of bad traits
Let’s get to it.
1) They are late
If you agree on meeting at 10:00, it’s 10:00, not 10:15, not 10:30, not 10:45. If they are late but genuinely apologize, that’s a different story, but your conditions still apply. If your rate for the first hour is $XX, and by being 15 minutes late they turn your hour into 75 minutes, charge them for it. Their reaction to this will be a dead giveaway of how they react when things don’t go their way, and shows if they are able to take responsibility for their own mistakes.
If they’re late to something this simple, imagine how late they’ll be with payments and deliverables!
2) Everything is urgent
If everything is urgent, then, nothing is urgent. A business owner that doesn’t know how to prioritize is in deep shit, you’re going to have to swim in their shit and maybe even eventually get blamed for it because the smell manifested when you happened to be around.
3) Everything is easy
To coerce you into accepting their terms, everything will be easy. It’s up to you, the professional, to decide whether something is easy or not, if they don’t bother asking you, well, maybe they don’t really care about your professional opinion. Even if it is easy, your rates don’t change because of it.
You might have heard:
It’s just a simple website
It’s just a simple design
It’s just some simple changes
After they get you to agree, you see exactly how not simple it is, because nothing is simple, and because they have no idea how to judge the complexity of the work they hired you to do.
4) They don’t know where they are
These are some things that clients who have the potential to be bad will show, it’s up to you to take them on or not. Some clients genuinely have no idea, and you can point out certain things in certain ways to seriously improve everything and over-deliver.
5) They don’t know where they want to be
This in itself is fine! Your first meeting can be exactly about this and figuring out how you can a) figure out where they should be; and b) help them get there. But, very few clients will admit to this. With time you’ll develop a gut feeling for when this is the case and adjust your tactics. The good client will at least consider your feedback and expertise, and you can agree on a low consequence set of tasks to test your hypothesis.
The bad client will bury his head in the sand and not admit that he could be wrong. It’s not about being wrong or right, things are hardly ever black and white, an adult business owner should know this.
I’m guilty of this myself but thankfully caught it very early. At one point I needed to hire a developer to do some relatively advanced work on WordPress, being quite advanced myself, but simply not having the time, I felt frustrated paying $XX per hour for someone to do something I could easily do, and not fully trusting his judgement. I searched for cheaper developers, but then I remembered that you get what you pay for. Had I gotten a cheaper developer, I’d be much more inclined to micromanage him than a more senior developer that charges more.
When should you drop a client?
Bonus paragraph: if you lose sleep over a client, it’s time to sternly discuss it, and don’t be afraid to drop them.