Don't Be A Nightmare Client

We all have stories about that client. The client who suddenly became an expert in the thing they’ve hired you deliberately to do. The client who revels in screaming, belittling, bullying, and micromanaging you because they believe cutting a check permits them to be indecent. Let’s not forget about the client who refuses to understand that the minor task they’ve asked you to do doesn’t take five minutes because doesn’t everything take five minutes?

While the majority of clients are delightful, every freelancer will regale you with their Rod Serling-level tales. We try to blot out the nightmare project and the client’s torture tactics, and we tell ourselves to watch for the signs. The five-alarm fires and flares that tell you to run, not walk, away from the project. Because there are limits to what one will endure for a paycheck.

I’ve spent half my twenty-year career on the client side, and the remainder in client service and the simplest and most profound lesson I’ve learned is this:when you treat people with compassion and respect, they will go the distance for you. When you demean people, they will deliver the bare minimum: no bells, no whistles, no glinting red blows at the end of the engagement. Instead, the freelancer will collect their check, scream expletives about you into pillows, and move on to the next.

If you want great work with all the trimmings, set your ego aside and take some advice from someone who’s straddled both sides of the career fence.

You Hired An Expert. Stop Acting Like One

The smartest and most successful people know what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. They’re not insecure about the fact that they don’t know how to amortize equipment on a balance sheet or program a website or segment their customer base. Instead, they hire experts to do the work that will move the business forward. From the visionary, Steve Jobs:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

If you were satisfied with your vetting process and the freelancer’s portfolio and case studies, why would you second guess their work or doubt their competence? If they’ve done the thing that you’ve tasked them to do, repeatedly and successfully, why don’t you trust them?

This is not to say that you shouldn’t challenge your consultant or ask them tough questions. A consultant’s job is to educate you about the process and the solution they’re implementing for your business, and they should provide adequate and informed answers to your questions. But at one point, you need to shut up and trust them. The more you act like you’re the expert (because reading a Wired article or watching how-to YouTube videos does not an expert make) and the more you question and micromanage every aspect of their work, your consultant will spend more time managing you instead of the work you’ve paid them to do. I’ve heard freelancers joke about adding an “asshole tax” to clients they know will be combative and difficult.

If you’re hiring a web designer, your job isn’t to be a web designer. Your job is to make sure that what they’re developing will satisfy your objectives and resolve your challenges. You ask them questions as it relates to your business, goals, and objectives to ensure that they’re on task and on time — not how they do what they’ve done hundreds of times before you. Successfully. For clients who weren’t as insecure.

You Take Forever to Pay Them

How would you react if I told you that your biweekly paycheck was going to be a few weeks, perhaps a few months, late? Mortgage, food and car payments don’t magically take care of themselves, and if you expect work to be delivered on time, freelancers should expect to be paid on time. Don’t treat them like a character out of Oliver Twist.

Your Freelancer Isn’t Your Full-Time Employee or Personal Manservant, Punching Bag, etc.

On the brand side, I’ve worked for terrible people. People who were manipulative, abusive, and abrasive. People who hurled salad bowls — filled with salad — clear across a room. However, that’s no excuse to use your freelancer as a punching bag or a repository for your pain or frustration. Company bureaucracy and politics are not their problems — they’re your problems. You hired an expert to help you solve a problem for your business, not to bear the weight of your professional baggage.

And from a pure decency perspective — why not treat people they want you would want to be treated? Your consultant isn’t a vendor; they’re a trusted partner. And your abuse doesn’t grant you more power — it’s a glaring spotlight on your insecurity and character.

The simple act of respecting and valuing the experts you’ve hired will ensure you get the best out of them instead of the bare minimum.

Also, it’s important to recognize that freelancers aren’t full-time employees. While freelancers are glorious for your P&L, you have to face reality. Freelancers are not available 24/7, on your schedule. Freelancers do not have to adopt all of your systems. They’ve designed and perfected a workflow, communication and systems processes that ensure a standout work product. If they’re spending time learning how to integrate your systems into their workflow and dealing with your desperate need to hop on a call every five minutes — guess what? You’re taking time away from the work you’ve hired them to do because now they’re dealing with the bureaucracy that is your company and the attitude that is you.

Freelance projects are short-term in nature. Respect their boundaries and systems, and you will get the solution you invested in, and they’ve promised. Your work will be delivered on time, on budget.

I learned this while I was heading up online marketing at HarperCollins and a consultant taught me how to be a good client. The result? I got the work I wanted, delivered ahead of schedule with a few extras thrown in for good measure. In a serendipitous twist, years later they would become my client.

The World is Small, and People Love to Talk

Years ago, I fought with an executive at a major cosmetics brand. Even though they were in the wrong, I was a smug, overbearing, annoying asshole. When I became an equity partner in a digital/social agency in New York, our CEO pitched this exact person our services. I had to deal with the ramifications of my bad behavior, and I ended up swallowing my pride and apologizing to this executive. We won the business, but not without telenovela-level dramatics. I learned that the world is smaller than we think, and the people we abuse in our come-up are the ones we report or defer to on our way down.

People talk. Word-of-mouth can crush careers. You may be the smug client calling the shots and cutting the checks until circumstance reminds you that karma always has your direct dial. You never know who will be your boss or who you’ll need for that professional recommendation or job. And you never know who’ll be the person who surfaces in your life in ways you least expect and the way you’ve treated them in a former life haunts you in your present one.

Be kind. Be decent. Be respectful. Because you never know under what circumstances you’ll face your freelancer again.

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Sometimes the money isn't worth it. When to fire a horrible client.

Years ago, I landed a whale. This was a client you could casually name-drop in a conversation and put someone’s heart on pause — if you were the name-dropping kind. My team was jubilant. Gifs circulated, music blared, and pizza was ordered. We practically made a template for the inevitable agency case study with the brand’s logo in lights. If only we had seen the arrows pointing to the client with the word RUN propped above their heads. If only we had noticed the chalk outlines of the dozen or so fired agencies, discarded PowerPoint presentations and Odyssean conference calls trailing in their wake. Maybe I knew, but chose to ignore the warning signs that this boldface client would end up becoming a complete and utter nightmare.

It started with the creative director who OD’d on Gary V videos and read one too many Mashable articles. The creative director proclaimed himself a social media expert and proceeded to doubt and micromanage our every recommendation. Every minor tactic (e.g. a Tweet promoting our new launch) had to be backed with research and rationale on the level of a PhD dissertation. However, that paled in comparison to the review process where we went through at least 26 rounds of feedback. I remember inserting a clause into the SOW that stipulated we’d provide three rounds of changes, and then each subsequent round would bear an incremental charge. My boss, the agency’s CEO, deleted that clause from the contract because nothing should get in the way of revenue including his staff’s emotional stability. Pfft. Who cared about sanity or hours burned (thus making the project unprofitable considering the boldface brand’s meager retainer), the days at a time when our client was unavailable or when he constantly pivoted when you’ve got a mortgage on a west village townhouse? #amirite?

After an abusive tirade that brought my account director to tears and the staff to day-drinking, I walked into my our president’s office with the numbers to prove that we were pulling staff away from other clients who managed to be decent human beings (who knew?) and several team members had threatened to quit. By then, I learned that you couldn’t fire lucrative-looking clients in an agency unless they were hurting the bottom line. The account in the red and the team screaming red were grounds for us to fire the boldface client. Simply put, the client took more time and grief than they were worth.

Sometimes, the revenue and the bragging rights aren’t worth it.

For the past five years I’ve been out on my own and I can finally set standards for the clients with whom I want to work. I only work with people who consider me a partner instead of a vendor and I pay attention to the signs during the proposal process to determine whether a client is a fit or if they’d be a PITA.

A solid client-partner relationship comes down to respect and communication. Naturally, you want to do everything to salvage the relationship including stepping up the communication, creating more efficient processes, and compromising because every battle doesn’t need to turn into a war. However, certain situations necessitate firing a client — especially if you’ve tried and the partnership continues to suffer. Sometimes you have to cope with the crazies because you have bills to pay (been there, done that), and everyone has their red line, the limit for how much they’ll take. Also, remember, you’re running a business not a non-profit. If a client is straining and draining, this could have an adverse effect on your other clients. Remember when I had to make the revenue/expense case? That comes into play even more than ever when you’re a consultant.

Here are my top five reasons to fire:

  1. The “Why Are You So Expensive?” client: It’s perfectly normal for a client to ask how you came to an hourly fee or project rate, however, repeated questions are signs of red flags. Repeated requests to reduce your rate, work on spec (no way, no day), or promises of business referrals (if you do great work, you should be comfortable asking for referrals without having to work for less) for a reduced rate should be regarded with suspicion. There have been times when I’ve lowered my fee for a dream or cause client, but I do not compete on price. It’s a losing proposition. Someone will always underbid me and I have enough experience and confidence to know that my work is not a race to the bottom. Be wary of someone who nickel and dimes you every step of the way.
  2. The “This Can Be Done in 5 Minutes” client: Remember when I mentioned respect a paragraph or so ago? The client who believes that everything is so easy, or is baffled as to why something would take longer than ten minutes is a prospect that should send you running for the exits. A good client hires an expert who fills gaps in their business. They should trust that you know how long a task should take and that you would give honest implications of schedule changes and unreasonable timelines. If they don’t, they lack a basic respect for what you do and they will gaslight you every step of the way. I live by the Triple Constraint Concept in project management. You want something fast + high quality: it’ll cost you. You want something fast + cheap: it’ll be low quality. You want high quality + low cost: it’ll take time.
  3. The “I Flunked Communication 101” client: This is probably one of the most important aspects of a client-partner relationship. A lack of established lines of communication could put a project in jeopardy, and communication extremes are just as precarious. If you’re dealing with a ghosting client (do you really like sending 500 “just checking in” emails to then hear from a client that they need X deliverable by tomorrow, 2pm EST or ELSE) or an overly needy client (see #5) — both will get you no satisfaction, as the song goes. I had a client who could never properly articulate what they wanted, even when they were presented with examples, questioned, and coached. Hours and dollars were wasted even when they liked the finished product. Why? They were never quite satisfied with it. Their constant nitpicking on the small stuff took time away from the things that really mattered. They didn’t understand that done is often better than perfect, which leads me to their micromanager…
  4. The “Don’t Mind Me Stalking and Screaming Over Your Shoulder” client: Who feels empowered when they’re micromanaged? While your client may know their brand and business inside out, they hired you as an expert to help them with an aspect of their business. When they get too involved in the strategies and tactics for which they hired you, or if they constantly second-guess or question your judgment, fire them. Micromanaging represents a lack of respect, and it also demonstrates an unhealthy level of control. Micromanagers never grow into leaders because they don’t know how to trust and let go. As a result, your work will be inefficient and you’ll probably be blamed for every misstep and failure — even though the client did the equivalent of wearing earmuffs while you offered your expertise and recommendations.
  5. The “Why Haven’t You Responded to my 35 Emails in 10 Minutes” client: Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. I used to tell my staff that they should take their work seriously but we’re not curing cancer. Not even close to it. While it’s important to be responsive to your client, you don’t need to be on a gurney answering emails. Set communication expectations from the onset. Now, I even bake into my contracts and remind them in my onboarding email series. I note the hours of my availability in time zone, when they should expect to hear from me, and communication protocol for emergencies. And by emergency I don’t mean, that pixel is off-center. You had better be on a gurney. You don’t have to act like a first-responder when it comes to emails in order to be an effective consultant. Sometimes a response requires time and thought, and it doesn’t always pay to be instantly available and immediately reactive. If a client fails to understand that and has a rage blackout that I’m not holding my phone at 3am, we have to part ways.

The last thing you want to do is cut the cord on a relationship, especially when your livelihood depends on it. In five years, I’ve only let two clients go and trust me, I took a lot before I decided I couldn’t take anymore. However, I’m now attuned to the warning signs in the proposal phase — how a client communicates, what kinds of questions they ask, etc. — so I can avoid the painful process of saying, it’s not me, it’s you.

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