I hate to say it but, at some point, most businesses find themselves working with a ‘bad’ client. The good news is that the longer you’re in business, the better you’ll probably get at spotting them and NOT working with them.

If you’ve had one in the past or, worse still, you’re dealing with one now, just know you’re not alone. There are steps you can take to stop a bad client from running your business.

Bad client red flags

‘Bad’ clients tend to take up a disproportionate amount of time, constantly shift the goalposts or have unrealistic expectations.

They’re often recognisable by some of these typical behaviours:

  • A tendency to push against boundaries
  • Multiple daily phone calls and/or emails about issues outside of your remit
  • Moving of deadlines or scheduling lots of calls that never lead to a decision
  • Criticising your work or questioning your value (often to ask for a discount)
  • Quibbling about your fees after having already agreed on a quote
  • Being late for meetings or cancelling at short notice
  • Not communicating clearly with you despite your efforts
  • Abdicating responsibility or playing the blame game (often complaining about previous suppliers they’ve worked with)
  • Frequent late payment – or even non-payment – of invoices
  • Not really knowing what they want
  • Admitting they’re not an expert but then ignoring your work/recommendations

In the worst case scenario, a bad client can make you feel bullied, resentful, overwhelmed and act like the most demanding of employers (but without the annual leave or pension scheme). They can lead to legal entanglements, lose you money and even damage your other client relationships.

So what can you do about them?

Have a contract

One of the best ways to stop a bad client from running your business is to ensure that you have a contract for the work you have been asked to provide.

Your contract should include things such as:

  • The work and time frame
  • The project requirements
  • Your role as a freelancer/associate/consultant
  • Your availability
  • Deadlines
  • Fees and payment terms

Having a contract in place means both parties can refer back to it at any time in the working relationship. You are able to say, “This is what we agreed in black and white”.

Count to 10

Before responding to a difficult situation with a client, take some time to step back and view the situation objectively.

Think about the best way to respond – could an email be misinterpreted? Maybe a phone call or face-to-face meeting would get to the heart of an issue better than a written response. On the flipside, if you feel you need a written record of a conversation, email might be best.

The important thing is to be polite and refer to facts and solutions rather than becoming emotional in your response.

Restate or define your boundaries

Boundaries are important in life and business. They help to define relationships, set expectations and create respect between two parties.

Often, a so-called ‘bad’ client emerges when the boundaries in the client-provider relationship get blurred or weren’t set from the outset. Sometimes, just restating or defining your boundaries is enough to get things back on track.

If you have a client who phones multiple times a day, you could tell them that your phone will only ring through to you at certain times and will otherwise go through to your voicemail. You could arrange a weekly phone check-in or meeting to discuss any issues. Alternatively, you could ask the client to pop their questions/comments in a daily email so that they all come through together.

As much as your ‘bad’ client will need to respect your boundaries, you must stick to them too. If you’ve said you’ll be available, make sure you are. If you’ve said your phone will go through to voicemail, don’t answer.

If you want your evenings and weekends free then don’t respond to your clients during this time.

You’re the boss. Yes, good customer service matters but it’s also OK to have boundaries about when that customer service is available.

If the client continues to push against and ignore your boundaries, despite your best efforts to maintain them, then let them know it’s a problem.

Communicate with the client

Although it’s not the right way to go about business, sometimes stress affects how clients deal with service providers.

For example, their budget may have been cut, the business may be changing direction, there could be staffing issues – the list goes on and on.

It’s fine to ask a difficult client if everything is OK.

If, for example, they’re suddenly questioning your fees, you could ask if there is an issue with the budget. If they’re constantly asking questions about your services, you could check whether they fully understand what you offer and whether they need a more detailed explanation about something.

Naturally, you don’t have to put up with bad behaviour just because a client is having a bad day but sometimes open, non-judgemental communication can help to clear the air.

Know your cut off point

Some client relationships just can’t be rescued. If someone is taking up too much time and space in your business and/or affecting your wellbeing then it’s crucial that you can recognise this and walk away.

I know this can be really tough. As service-based business owners, we’re programmed to think that any client is a good client.

But I also know that some clients are just a bad fit.

Everyone has a different cut off point but I urge you to define yours. If your heart sinks every time the phone rings or you feel trapped by a client relationship then it’s time to say goodbye.

Listen to your instincts

As I said at the beginning of this article, experience usually makes bad clients easier to spot but it’s not unheard of for the odd rogue to sneak through.

My advice is to listen to and trust your gut instincts. If warning bells are sounding in your head, there’s probably a good reason.

It’s absolutely fine to say, “I’m not sure my services are the best fit for what you need but I can recommend X, Y or Z” or even, “I’m afraid I don’t have the capacity right now”.

You’ll find some great advice about how to break up with a client here.

Make room for the good clients

Walking away from a bad client – even one who pays well – means that you’ll have more space to work with good clients.

And let’s think about what they look like…

Good clients:

  • Respect your boundaries
  • Value your time, skills and experience
  • Know what you’re worth and have the means to pay you
  • Behave ethically
  • Know why they want to work with you
  • Communicate clearly and give constructive feedback and input
  • Show up for a project
  • Pay on time

Just imagine how good it will feel to run your business around those relationships rather than having a bad client dictate every move.

Have you ever had a bad client relationship that affected your business? How did you deal with it? How confident were you or would you be about terminating the relationship? I’d love to hear about your experiences in this tricky area.

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