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How to avoid crappy clients; a guide for small business owners and freelancers

In the beginning, when the business was starting and I would have done anything to get work, I naively thought there was no such thing as a bad client.

I suspect my gullibility was obvious because I was soon approached by one individual who was willing to let me write a sample web page for him, on the promise that if he liked it he’d pay me a good rate.

He also promised that there would be ‘plenty more where that came from’. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I spent an inordinate amount of time writing and re-writing to produce my very best work. I sent it, waited for him to come back to me with an offer of more work and I never heard from him again.

I am pleased to say that these days I am a little more discerning. I now have a core of clients who wouldn’t dream of taking me for a fool and are a pleasure to work with, but I’ve learned a few things along the way, like how to recognise a lousy client when they pop up on my radar.

There’s no escape

Crappy clients don’t limit their cheating ways to newbie writers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a photographer, a website designer or an accountant, you will, at some point, come across a crappy client. He might try to trick you into doing work for free to ‘build your portfolio’ or he may string you along, with promises of work or payment. He might be the type who will pick up on every minor error, be difficult or confrontational, all in an attempt to reduce your price.

Recognise crappy clients

There are usually signs to warn you of trouble. If you can answer yes to any of these questions then you probably want to steer well clear;

  • Does he know what he wants or does he change his mind several times before he decides? You could be doing an awful lot of unpaid work before he’s satisfied
  • Does he consider a contract to be unnecessary?
  • Is his communication inconsistent? – He may go ‘silent’ when it’s time to pay the bill.
  • Does he promise future work, on the back of a freebie?
  • Does he challenge your fee? Don’t confuse this with the perfectly reasonable request to ask for less work for a smaller fee if he has a limited budget but if he says you’re ‘too expensive’, walk. You know the value of your work, don’t expect less.
  • Does he expect you to work for free to ‘build up your portfolio’?
  • Does he act as if he owns you, expecting you to be available 24/7?
  • Does he bad-mouth other businesses? – don’t think you’re the new hero; it’s only a matter of time before he bad-mouths you

This is not an exhaustive list.  Your gut will know when you’ve encountered a crappy client.

Trust your gut

As a business owner, it seems counter-intuitive to turn down work but if your initial thoughts are that a potential client could be trouble, trust your gut feeling. Otherwise you could end up with one who will drain your enthusiasm with his unreasonable demands or his crafty ways. You will feel violated, taken for a ride.

Stay clear

There is not enough time in the day to waste your time on clients who frustrate you so much that you want to tear your hair out and sob into your bath suds every evening.

Running a business or working as a freelancer takes time and energy. It can be stressful enough without having to justify your fees and chase after payments. Stay away from clients who make excessive demands, ask for the impossible and constantly complain. These clients can hinder your business and steal your soul if you let them. Instead, focus on the good, worthy clients; those who value your work and your business.

What about you? Have you had much experience with lousy clients? What did you do to get rid? Have you had a warning sign that a client may be from hell, but who turned out to be a good client? Let us know.