The Zen Guide to Shitty Clients

The Zen Guide to Shitty Clients
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Shitty clients – we’ve all had them.

Sometimes you sense it. After the first call, you’re left thinking that something’s not quite right. There’s that niggle in the back of your brain that says:

‘No, for the love of God no! Run, RUN!”

Occasionally you’re even strong enough to listen to that voice.

More often, due to a poor cash flow or blind stupidity, you take the client despite your doubts, and then spend weeks or months cursing the day.

Once in a while they blindside you.

Perfectly normal clients turn bat shit crazy for no apparent reason. You’re left with your gob well and truly smacked. What went wrong? What did you do? Could you have avoided it?

And I know I’m not alone. In fact, just yesterday I received an email from some fellow copywriting dudes, who told me:

“Most of our clients are very happy, but there are always the ‘few’ that are dissatisfied and it doesn’t seem to matter how much we want to resolve the issue and make things right, they seem to shut down.”

One of the questions I get asked most is how to deal with difficult clients. So let me give you my take on it.

I’ve been there

In the early days after client meetings, I waited nervously for the phone to ring or the email to arrive. I fretted like a teenage girl.

Each copy draft I sent was torment. Waiting for amends was agony. Every change felt like a tiny dagger in my tender heart. Any major criticism plunged me into an abyss of self-deprecation and doubt.

If a client was genuinely unhappy I ran the full gamut of emotion from anger through to fear, pride, self-pity and anxiety.

But now? Well now, I don’t care (as much).

Don’t get me wrong; I love making my clients happy.

There’s nothing that gives me a bigger tingle than positive client feedback and I’ll type my fingers to the bone to get it.

A photo posted by Kate Toon (@katetoon) on

Now, these days it’s debatable which is bigger, but I know that I get a deeper sense of satisfaction from an email thanking me for my work than I do from a notification of payment.

So I’ve stopped sweating the small stuff where difficult clients are concerned.

Here’s why.

The copywriter client relationship is just that; a relationship.

Sometimes it’s love at first write.
Sometimes they’re just not that into you

You can’t please all the people

I’ve had jobs where I know I could have done better, and others when my best just wasn’t good enough.

Last year I had two freelance copywriting projects in a row that went south.

The first involved ten lengthy phone calls for five pages of copy.
I knew everything about the client, her business, her goals, aims, dreams, her cat’s second name and her favourite childhood toy. She was unsure about her business, nervous about advertising and generally a bag of neuroses. But I persevered. Three drafts later the client wasn’t happy.

“I can’t put my finger on why I don’t like the copy, I just don’t.”

Ultimately I knew we just weren’t right for each other and that no matter how much I tried to please, it wouldn’t work. So I charged for the time spent and moved on.

The second was a copywriting equivalent of a one-night stand. We had such rapport on the phone – we laughed and joked, I got him, and he got me. He sent me a brief, I merrily wrote the first draft and he hated it. With a passion.
To me the copy looked great; to him it was a pile of crap.

He rang me to dissect each line. We tried to work it out. It was painful for both of us.

In this instance I didn’t try any further. Instead, I gave a full refund and we parted friends. Somewhere out there is the right copywriter for him.

Learning when to let go

One of the most important things I’ve learned as a copywriter is to know when a client relationship is waning and when it’s rotting in its grave. If things start to go bad, I generally get out as fast as I can.

Sometimes there’s no point jumping through (excessive) hoops for clients you can never please.

Here’s how I see it; at least 98% of my clients love my writing. Of course they have changes and amends, but they like my style, my process, my approach and the words I produce.

For the 2% who don’t, that’s absolutely fine. There are plenty more copywriting fish in the sea.

So my advice to those of you dealing with difficult (or shitty) clients, is to let them go.

A nice clean, quick break might seem painful from a revenue point of view, but think of the hours of fretting you’ll save.

I believe that:

Making this your goal will lead to untold misery. So settle for a lower number and realise that, no matter how awesome you are, some people just won’t get your awesomeness.

Over to you

Have you ever had a terrible client experience? What did you do to resolve it? How do you decide when enough is enough?

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