“Jason, I strongly suggest you call me immediately!”
The tone was harsh, bordering on threatening. This was by far the rudest voicemail I have ever received from a client.
It was also for the smallest reason.
My client had sent me an email telling me to meet her an hour earlier. It wasn’t a request; it was a command. No explanation. No apology. No room for argument. I politely asked her to keep the time we’d originally scheduled, and that was evidently greatly offensive to her.
Thus the voicemail.
When we had our call (at our originally scheduled time), she interrupted me constantly, was rude and arrogant and aggressive, and generally made herself personally unpleasant in every way. I, in return, was calm, clear, and polite, carefully getting the information I needed to complete her project, and ignoring her insulting manner.
At the job’s conclusion, she told me there was more cash on the table and offered me a second project.
I flatly refused. And here’s why.
How the Cycle of Abusive Clients Starts
Two years ago, this entire scenario would have played out differently. I would have felt pressured to acquiesce to my client because I was fearful of losing out on potential future deals.
It’s a common story. When you start out as an entrepreneur or small business owner, you often feel you need to accept every job that comes your way. Cash flow can be a big problem and is usually a major contributor in why most small businesses fail.
Saying yes to every person who offers you work seems like a good strategy to keep money rolling in. It seems like a good strategy.
But the work can be degrading and soul crushing. Many small businesses get stuck here, especially freelance creative types like myself.
So contrary to your impulses, it may actually be better to turn down the money – even when you really need it – if you want your business to grow.
Identifying Abusive Clients
Abusive clients insist on changing dates and times according to whim, and they will brook no argument. They will, like my client with the nasty voicemail, imply that you are personally inadequate. They will be mean. They will sometimes name-call.
Abusive clients can be more subtle than this. Sometimes their criticism isn’t loud and aggressive, but slid in sideways with a snide twist. “I just would have expected more from a professional, is all.” These clients’ comments often sting worst of all.
What do they hope to achieve by all this? They’re trying to control you. Usually these are people who feel as if their own life is unsatisfying in some way, and it makes them feel powerful to belittle others. It’s their pain, and it’s their problem, and no matter how perfectly you execute your duties, they will never be happy.
The problem wasn’t you. The problem was them. And you can’t fix them.
All you can do is your job. You can do it well, and you can do it professionally, and you can do it without getting sidetracked by the abuse.
And when the job is over, you can choose to not work with this abusive client again.
Why Run From Abusive Clients?
Often, abusive clients have a lot of money. They can afford to be abusive because they think you’ll put up with it as long as the paychecks keep coming. It gives you a reason to stick around when normally you’d never allow someone to be that rude to you.
When you have no money, the money seems worth the abuse. It never is, though, and here’s why:
Abusive clients will suck all the life out of you.
Every time you think about seeking out new clients, your head will be full of the nasty things they said, and you’ll feel like new clients will just mean more grief for you. You’ll be exhausted and ill-tempered, which means every new business contact you make is less likely to go well.
Most of all, your happiness with your job is going to go down, which means you’re likely to perform badly. Hearing how much your work is inadequate all the time will make you start to believe it, and you will lose confidence in your ability. The work you create during these times will not be your best, and you’ll start to think you deserve criticism.
You don’t. Even if the client doesn’t like your work, you deserve to hear that criticism delivered with respect. It happens all the time – the client says, “You know, it just wasn’t what I was looking for,” or “I’m not sure how we got off base here, but this isn’t what I had in mind.”
Non-abusive clients can criticize constructively. They can explain what didn’t work and try to give you the information you need to pull it back on track.
These clients give you faith that even when you falter, your skills are still there. You may have missed the mark this time, but it was because you didn’t understand what they were going for, not because you can’t create great work. And you’ll do it better next round.
Why I Love the Abusive Clients Anyway
Today, I have been successfully running my business as a freelance video producer for nearly 4 years and I recently realized that the clients I’m the most grateful for are the truly nightmarish ones.
The reason behind this is actually pretty simple:
I remember them.
I remember everything about them. I remember how they tried to control me through abuse. I remember how they operated and what they said. I remember what happened when the project was over. I remember how they tried to dangle new projects in front of me like tasty carrots to get me to take the stick.
They showed me exactly the type of person I don’t want to work with.
Now I have list of things as long as my arm that send warning bells off in my head when a potential client behaves in a way that suggest future abusive behavior. These warning bells are my best friends for picking and choosing clients, but I wouldn’t have them if I hadn’t actually worked with these people.
Being able to choose your clients is important – but so is working gracefully with the ones you hate.
When you realize you have the power to decide whether you want this client or not, it becomes much easier to deal with the nightmare clients. You know it’s temporary. You know it’s just one mistake. You know you can finish the job and never look back.
It means you don’t need to lash out or compromise your own sense of self.
You can get through the nightmare, and keep living the dream.
Have you worked with nightmare clients before? Tell me about it in the comments.