Crappy clients: How to spot, avoid, manage and fire them

Crappy clients: How to spot, avoid, manage and fire them

The business gurus give us plenty of advice on how to win more clients. But knowing how to avoid certain clients is just as important.

Crappy clients can be a huge drain on your time, finances and emotions. So in this article I’ll show you how to spot, avoid, and manage them.

Or, if the worst happens, fire them!

1.The crisis client

They’ve left everything to the last minute and now the deadline is URGENT!!!

How to spot them: Brief emails that seem rushed, and excessive use of CAPITAL LETTERS, bolding and exclamation marks!!! They may also have a slightly squeaky phone voice that’s fraught with stress.

Why you should avoid them: While everyone forgets stuff now and then, last-minute clients tend to be just plain disorganised. And quite often their stress becomes your stress, which leads you to cut corners, rush work and make mistakes.

Crisis clients often take more time and effort, so weigh up the value of the job against the risk of possibly pissing off existing clients.

Management tips:

  • Stick to your processes.
  • Be honest with yourself about what you can achieve by the deadline.
  • Give the client a clear, detailed project timeline.
  • Consider charging a ‘rush fee’ – an additional percentage (around 25%) on top of your standard fee to cover the inconvenience.

2. The cavalier client

They don’t have time to complete your brief or take your call because they’re soooo busy.

How to spot them: Exasperated tone on the phone, frequent mentions of how busy they are, email responses that simply read ‘ok’ (or even just ‘k’).

Why you should avoid them: If you’ve ever hired anyone to do anything, you’ll know it’s not a case of just handing over your project and forgetting about it. To get good results you need to stay involved – from explaining what you want and writing a good brief, to reviewing work and making considered changes.

The cavalier client often doesn’t pay attention until the job is over. Then they come back with changes. They’re impossible to get on the phone, pay invoices late, and you’ll spend far too much time chasing them.

Management tips:

  • Stick to your processes. (Yes, I’ve said it before. And I’ll probably say it again.)
  • Give them a detailed timeline with set dates/times for them to discuss or review work.
  • Send them meeting requests for everything.
  • Consider using a project management tool such as Basecamp.
  • Get a 50% deposit up front.
  • Ensure they understand that final payment is due on a certain date, regardless of how long they take to come back with amends.

3. The chatty client

They want to discuss every single detail of every single element of every single project (and tell you a funny story about their cat).

How to spot them: Emails that start with ‘Let me just give you a bit of background’, and then spew forth a War and Peace-style epic life story. They leave super-long voice mail messages, and their phone calls start with ‘I have a rough idea of what I want, but let me talk you through it…’

Why you should avoid them: Let’s face it: the world can be a lonely place, and perhaps chatting with your supplier is the only human contact you’ll have all day. Chatters use up a lot of your time, and cause untold stress as you frantically try to end the phone call without sounding rude. Even if you charge them for the calls, the sheer agony of hearing the same story for the fifteenth time is often soul-destroying.

Management tips:

  • Stick to you processes. (See? I told you.)
  • Outline a set amount of ‘discussion’ time in your proposal.
  • Explain to the client how you work and when you’ll need to talk to them.
  • Send them meeting requests for a set amount of time – 30 minutes maximum.
  • Book meetings directly after the calls so you have to get off the phone.
  • Keep track of your discussion time, and alert the client when it’s about to run out.
    (Example: “We’ve nearly run out of our allotted discussion time. I’m happy to add more time to the final invoice at my hourly rate of $x. Let me know if you’d like me to do that.”)

4. The clueless client

They want to start an online business (something to do with knitting or fish fingers), but they’re not quite sure how they’re going to do it.

How to spot them: Vague emails full of questions rather than answers, and phone calls that start with “I’m just putting feelers out”.

Often their brief is rather scant, their competitor research non-existent, and they answer your “Who is your ideal client?” question with “Everyone”.

Why you should avoid them: Many business suppliers I know actually refuse to work with start-ups. Why? Because they’re ten times more effort to work with than an established business. Often they’re not just looking for a copywriter, designer or whatever. They’re really want a business counsellor, someone to bounce ideas off, or someone to validate their thinking.

If you’re happy to hold their hand, working with a start up can be hugely rewarding. (I’ve worked with several and still feel hugely invested in these brands.) But if you don’t want your ear bent and your shoulder moist with tears, stay away.

Management tips:

  • Stick to your processes.
  • Ask the client to outline exactly what they’re after. Deal in specifics rather than vagaries, so “A website” becomes “A WordPress website with 8 pages, a contact form and booking tool”.
  • Include time for competitor research in your proposal.
  • Include time for scoping and planning in your proposal.
  • Possibly allow time for an additional round of amends.
  • Be prepared to project manage your client by setting clear deadlines, chasing them up, and being firm about bookings.

5. The clever client

They know it all and can do it all, but they’d rather micro-manage you.

How to spot them: Detailed emails littered with industry jargon and buzzwords, and calls that start with “I have a lot of experience in <your skill set>, but I just don’t have the time to do it myself”.

Why you should avoid them: While education is awesome (and something I hugely advocate), a little knowledge can be a dangerous and bloody annoying thing. You’ll spend your time arguing with the client over best practice, an article they read, or advice their cousin’s hairdresser’s wife gave them.

Clever clients will have you muttering “Just do it yourself, then” under your breath after every call. And unless you’re supremely confident, they can really give your ego a mighty blow

Management tips:

  • Lay out the ground rules. Ask what they’re expecting of you, and how much involvement they want to have.
  • Be clear about the number of rounds of amends and the discussion time that’s included in the brief.
  • Take their opinions on board – you might learn a thing or two.
  • Pick your battles. If they’re determined to be right about a certain point that’s not super important, let it go.
  • Stick to your guns. If there’s something you really think is right, then say it and give your reasons. But if they’re not convinced, again let it go.

Toon tip: I recently had a client who wasn’t happy with the way I’d formatted their copy.

“Why have you broken it up with bullets?” they said. “I’d prefer it just in one big paragraph.”

The client was a personal trainer, so I explained it this way:

“As a personal trainer, you know the best way to do a sit up, and you advise your client how to do it. If they then choose to ignore you and do it the wrong way, that’s up to them. But as the experts, it’s your duty to explain it to them, and help them understand that by ignoring you they won’t get the best results (and could even hurt themselves).”

 The explanation worked, and the copy stayed as it was.

My favourite bad client video of all time

Firing a client the easy way

Unfortunately, all the pointers I’ve given you don’t always help you spot a stressful client before it’s too late. Often these sneaky beasts don’t show their true colours until you’ve committed to their project.

But just because you’ve agreed to work with a client doesn’t mean you have to stick with them through thick and thin. Obviously it’s important to try your best – not just for the sake of the client, but also for your business relationship.

Of course sometimes things just don’t work out. And part of running a business is understanding when to let go.

If you’re thinking about firing a client, I suggest you consider the following:

  • Time invested: Consider how much time you’ve spent so far, and how close are you to project completion. Can you push on through the pain?
  • Bum coverage: Ensure your terms and conditions are clear and precise about who owes who what in the event of a project termination.
  • Honesty: Explain your issues to the client clearly but politely. Remember, they may not even realise they’re being a Pain In The Arse (PITA).

Toon tip: It’s always (and I mean always) better to have these kinds of honest conversations over the phone rather than via email. It avoids any ambiguity over the tone of you message.

  • One last chance: Give the client a clear explanation of what needs to happen for you to continue the project. Keep it emotion-free. (An email with simple bullets and dates works well for this.)
  • Be prepared: It’s always nice to get paid for the work you’ve done. But if you’re going to fire a client you may lose some money (or even need to give them a refund).

If, after all this, you still want to fire the client, then be brave and do it.

Some tips include:

  • Use polite, clear and straightforward language.
  • Make them an offer in terms of financials (e.g. “I’m happy to refund 20% of your deposit”).
  • Provide details of another supplier who might be able to help. (But ask the other supplier first. Don’t just dump a bad client on someone else – that’s mean!)
  • Apologise for the fact it “hasn’t worked out this time”, but don’t be overly apologetic if you genuinely haven’t caused the problem.

Business relationships break down all the time, and while it’s unfortunate it’s often better to nip things in the bud before things get nasty.

If you’re clear and honest, your client will respect you for it.

Over to you

Have you experienced any of these client types? How did you spot them, and how did you manage them? Are there any client types I’ve missed?

Have you ever fired a client? How did you do it? Was it a good or a bad experience?

I’d super appreciate your comments below:

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  • Amajjika

    I would add The “Can You Just… ” Client.
    This client is probably one of your nicest clients but they have an uncanny way of getting you to do extra work without paying for it.
    The key way to spot them is their use of the word “just”… It’s an interesting word because it somehow trivialises everything that comes after it…

    Of course getting wise this word is the first step in your salvation.
    The second step is learning to be eloquent and articulate as you ask them whether they’d like to purchase more “consulting hours” to complete the task!

    • Oh that’s a fab addition, I might have to rework the article to include them. I find the can you just clients super hard, especially if you’ve already completed a job for them and don’t want to be rude.

      Now I try to answer with a comment like
      “I’d love to, would you like me to send an estimate of my time before I start?”

  • Perry Bernard

    “All I want is a simple change…” Simple? Really? Do it yourself then.

    • Yep – I totally – like Amajjika’s can you just client…

  • Jo C

    Reading this list is like going through my client list from a few years ago!

    I’ve had all of these lovely types, but I’d say by far the worst is the ‘too busy’ client. They expect to be able to see results with absolutely no input, making my job rather difficult. At least the chatty ones are friendly and you can cut them off. The busy ones you can’t get hold of are more of a challenge!

    I loved your personal trainer example, and I’ll definitely use that if and when I need to in future. Thanks for a really great article!

    • Yep I think the too busy one is the worse, closely followed by the chatty one. I don’t really mind the clueless or clever ones that much!!

  • Oh yes, I’ve had my fair share of crappy clients in my 18 years freelancing! I recognise most of these types above, but would include three more types: the “Can You Just…” (as suggested by Amajjika), the “Money Is Tight” (usually one (wo)man bands who try every trick in the book to beat you down on price) and the “Lots More Where This is Coming From” (who try to negotiate a discount on the basis of future work – which rarely materialises).

    Looking back, most of the time my gut was telling me to walk away – fast – but I’m just too soft and don’t like to say ‘No’. Am slowly getting better at that but still need to toughen up!!

    • Yep you do need to toughen up lady!! Yes the ‘cashless client’ addition!! I may have to update this article with these awesome suggestions

    • Charles Cuninghame

      Oh yes Geraldine! How many times have I heard the ol’ “If this goes well there’s plenty more work in the pipeline” line. Now I just reply, “That’s great! When you’ve given me $10,000 worth of work I’ll be happy to give you a 10% discount.”

      • I’m using that line in future Charles

  • Bridie Jenner

    I agree Kate, too often people accept crappy clients because they think they have to. One of the most liberating experiences you can have as a business owner is to be able to say no to someone your gut is telling you will be a PITA! So far, in 11 years, mine’s never been wrong… But people need to learn to listen to their instincts and be brave enough to refer that person on.

    I’m interested, why do you recommend only a 25% premium as a rush fee? I’ve recently upped mine to 100% if clients need it the same day, it takes into account the amount of juggling I’ll have to do and also the fact I’ll have to work extremely late to catch up with everything I’d scheduled in for that day. It certainly works well in weeding out exactly what IS a rush and what’s just someone trying their luck!

    • Hey Bridie, at my rates a 100% rush fee would make me completely unaffordable. To be honest I don’t often charge a rush fee. If I have time to do the work I do it, if not I don’t. I can’t/don’t want to work weekends and nights no matter how much money I get paid.

      25% is just a quick, basically charge something, whatever your time is worth to you. It’s more the principle than the percentage.

      Yes PITA spotting is a talent that takes time to develop and saying ‘no’ is something I’m still working on. Thanks for your comment 🙂

      • Bridie Jenner

        Good point, I guess it does depend on what industry you’re in, and also what you consider is a “rush”. For me, it’s same-day transcription and I know that doubling my rate puts me on a par with other same-day service providers.

        Warning signs for me are lots of emails back and forth, lots of phone calls or just “that” feeling. I tend to use the excuse that I’m already booked up but here, try these guys. 🙂

        • Yep – same day would for sure be a 100% price hike! Maybe even 1000%!!

  • Belinda Weaver

    I’ve learned to spot the ‘too busy’ client. I’ve found that if a client is ‘too busy’ to fill out and discuss the brief, they are usually ‘too busy’ to engage in the process. And it’s a collaborative process and their input is a hefty part of my ability to be awesome.

    • Yep your comment on Google+ today was very timely. These days I don’t really do much chatting before I see a completed brief. Taking the time to complete the brief tells me you’re serious about working with me.

  • SolitaryPhotographic

    I used to have this issue, but then I sorted them into A,B, C and D clients. I then sacked all the C and D clients. That said, I’ve just had a situation where I spent an entire evening trying to work out what was going on with a website I just shot for and all along, I knew it was down to the web designer doing something stupid with my images. I lost an entire evening with my family trying to help this client and in the end, it was the web designer doing something stupid with my images. NEVER AGAIN. EVER.

    • Yep, it’s so important to know where to draw the line between helping out your client and getting taken for a ride. Thanks so much for reading the post and for your comment.

  • Lucy Smith

    What about when you get a client that’s a combination of two? Say, one who’s really busy but wants to micromanage, so you get sketchy responses to the effect that they don’t like your copy but don’t have the time to give specifics. Or one who’s both chatty and clueless.

    Fun times! But then along comes a client who’s an absolute delight and it’s all worth it.

    • Oooh if you got a combination of the too I think you’d have to either fire them or set really clear rules and regs. Fun times indeed. Gives me a headache just thinking about it!!

  • Pingback: 6 shitty things that happened to my business (and the lessons I learned) | Kate Toon()

  • Urgh. When I was a paralegal straight out of uni, I used to work for a ‘crisis’ employer. She used to leave frantic voicemails on my phone and cover my desktop with post-it notes starting with ASAP!!! and FYI!!! To this day I cannot see those acronyms without horrible flashbacks 😂

    • haha I had a boss who typed IMPORTANT!! and URGENT!! at the start of every email. Sadly it’s a habit i’ve picked up and sometimes use