How to Love Your Nightmare Clients

How to Love Your Nightmare Clients

“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.

Post by Jason Digges

Jason Digges is a video producer, writer, and growth junkie in Boulder, CO. His passion is making the esoteric tangible and giving substance to dreams of an enlightened society.

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  1. Hi Jason,

    A great article and one all new biz owners need to read. And even experienced biz owners. Even we can see the sign “unsafe bridge ahead” and go anyway. Think it’s usually driven by an irrational fear that you’ll never have another client, that you’ll end up on skid row or back working for the man.

    I believe these challenging folks are thrown in our path to teach us something. How to stick up for ourselves, something instinctive that gets schooled out of us.

    I wrote something on my blog a few months back about frustrating client experience even when I knew better. I saw the many “warning Will Robinson” signs and I moved forward anyway. On some level, I wanted to prove the client wrong — that I could come up with a fabulous design – despite the person’s apprehension that I couidn’t. Because I always have created something beautiful and functional and unique for all clients up until that point.

    Well, it wasn’t going to happen. I finally admitted it to myself and then I could walk away. Now, I’ve got another set of identifiers for helping me decide which clients to take on. If clients don’t think you can fulfill their fantasy design or web site or video or copy, etc, you probably can’t. Listen to what they are trying to tell you and spare both of you a lot of frustration.

    Thank you! Giulietta

    • Thanks Giulietta

      It can be hard to walk away, or as I like to call it Fire your Client, but its a skill that every freelancer must learn at some point.


  2. Good for you, Jason! You shouldn’t have to continually deal with a rude customer, and you had every right to part ways with her. I’ve had my fair share of nasty customer interactions (at my old job) as well, but unfortunately my higher-ups wouldn’t allow me to bow out of helping them. You’re right, most of them were super wealthy, but there were a few who weren’t. Why can’t people just learn common courtesy and be done with it?

    Just out of curiosity, did your nightmare client take the news well?

    • I think that people use mistreatment because they are scared… Its true that I have to choose good clients to work with and not put up with bulls&%t, but I can also let these people not hurt me by knowing its not about me.

  3. Oh my…truer words have never been spoken. Or written. Especially the part about their comments stinging the most and how they suck the very life out of you. I worked with one lady that seemed to be thrilled with my work & turnaround time, then started getting more & more specific about her requirements. Then she impressed on me how quickly she needed something, but she neglected to respond to my questions and clarifications. Of course, by the time she finally did respond, I had to drop everything else & rush her projects in order to complete them in time for her to get ’em.

    Then, not a word of thanks or acknowledgement of their arrival even. Then, after another month, comes another demand for a custom product, and yet another short deadline. When I finally told her I couldn’t keep making (free to her) prototypes, she about went ballistic, blaming ME for the outrageous shipping charges she paid because she HAD TO have her product shipped overnight, at the very last minute, because (conveniently forgotten) SHE didn’t respond to my emails in time.

    Clients like that shake your confidence to the core, and you’re right – their money isn’t worth the aggravation they cause. Thank you for the reminder!

    • OMG! Quick turn around time is the #1 request from my clients. Seriously 80% of the people who contact me are in a rush… and need things ASAP. I have strategies to deal with this, but That might be a whole other article.

  4. I’ve found that bad clients manifest in a variety of ways. The worst client I’ve had was one that was always sweet, but constantly demanded more and more of my time, clearly thinking I didn’t have anything better to do than wait for her demands. When I finally fired her, she turned into (insert bad word here) and began ignoring all of my communication. I was amazed how quickly she flipped.

    But you’re right…you never forget, and that’s a good thing.

  5. David Kirkpatrick says:

    Bad clients are the worst. During my years of freelancing I dealt with my share. One of the best (worst) was a publisher of books for professional services practitioners (read: legal, medical, etc.) who asked me during a phone call where the deadlines for a lengthy project were considerably shortened out of the blue if I had a dog.

    I answered, “No,” and was told I needed to get one so I could kick the dog after my client was done kicking me.

    Needless to say I completed the bare minimum on that contract, billed out and politely refused any further work to the client’s astonishment.

    And I had to threaten legal action to get paid on that last invoice. Quite a piece of work.

  6. This is something that tips me off to future pain-in-the-assedness: grown women who ask for huge favours in a baby voice. Run! They are that baby. Can’t keep an appointment, or stick to the agreed fee and they expect policies to be altered to suit them.

    For men: I steer clear of the flatterers. It is not a compliment, nor is it appropriate to be called “beautiful” like it’s my name, by a client. This heralds requests for freebies and unreliability.

    These people are not worth my effort.

  7. I try to operate from the belief that we are all mirrors for one another. When faced with a nightmare client, I look at what I could have done better, been more clear about, or could change in the future so the nightmare situation doesn’t occur again. Bad clients have helped me refine my policies, become more clear, and otherwise tune up the work I do.

    • Talyaa,

      This is precisely it Talyaa, without bad or mediocre experiences I wouldn’t grow nearly as much. My business is the prime vehicle for personal growth and these people have helped me grow professionally. Thats why I love all my clients! (for different reasons)

  8. Yes, yes, and yes! I love it when I read a post that speaks the absolute truth and does it in an awesome way.

    Client attrition should not be panicked over. The opposite is the case. It is a great opportunity to learn. Either about yourself or others. It takes time and experience to learn this lesson and learn how to not let abusive clients inside your head. It is so liberating when you can learn to turn it into a positive learning experience.

    Thanks for the post, Jason!

    • I like this:

      “It takes time and experience to learn this lesson and learn how to not let abusive clients inside your head”

      If a client is treating me poorly its usually because they don’t know a better way to interact, and they have been doing business that way for year. Business is transforming and there are tons of other people who have more skill and know how to handle their emotions even in difficult situations.

  9. I suspect that difficult clients may be looking for a reason not to pay. They may not reveal that reason but simply stall–forever–on paying.

    That the difficult client appears to have money is not enough. I ask for a substantial part of the payment up front. Actually having the money in hand proves that they will pay and tends to improve my attitude towards them.


  10. Great piece Jason. I agree that even one nightmare client can make life a misery, something I learnt within the first month of going full-time freelance earlier this year!

    I’m working on a screening process now so that I don’t get in that situation again!

  11. This article could not have come at a better time. About two weeks ago I went through a nightmare with a client who just wasn’t going to be happy no matter what I did. He told me exactly how I needed to execute the design, where to put every element on the page (even if it threw the design off balance and created discord). He had specific rough wire frames that I was not to veer from, told me how everything needed to be styled, etc. And no matter how exact, I followed his instructions–he was not satisfied. I ended up investing a lot more time into the project and trying to please him, than what the compensation was worth. But more than my time, the true cost was how detrimental the experience was to my confidence in my abilities as a designer. And talk about NO room for creative freedom! The project came to a full stop after a full on revision had been made and my second execution was still unsatisfactory to him. Mind you, this was again after following a second set of very specific instructions. Because this experience was very painful, it taught me a lesson. I definitely learned, the importance of saying NO and not accepting clients just because one is in “desperate” need of money.

  12. I think an article on how to deal with clients who are in a rush is a great idea Jason. In a technology driven world, everyone seems to want their services/products delivered yesterday and for the most part these types of demanding folks don’t have a clue as to what’s involved in and what it takes to execute and deliver the goods.

  13. Kathryn Faye says:

    This is sooo true! In my former job, one that I finally said no, I worked with clients on a daily basis. Good or bad, I had to work with them and during long intervals as well. You go through such great lengths to please them yet they don’t ever seem pleased. You begin to doubt your own abilities, especially when your bosses believe that you are failing because of it. Finally, you just have to say no and walk away.

    Thank you for the blog, I really enjoyed it!

  14. I came across your site from reading someone else’s blog. Thank you for writing this article! I will be forwarding your editorial above to some friends who are entrepreneurs – it would be good for them to know that I’m not the only one who fires clients! 🙂 It is so freeing when you gain the wisdom to spot such people early and make the decision early whether or not you want to work with them (and not them feeling like their doing you a favour). Thanks for this and all the best!

  15. Wow. This hit home for me! I cannot tell you how many times I have stressed over those types of ‘abusive’ clients. They keep taking from you and expect only the creme-de-la-creme (even if there budget isn’t even close). You outline some great points and things to think about before re-connecting with that client just because they have another project for you!

  16. I love this article. It was not only amusing but so true!! We could all do better without the abusive clients!! Great job!

  17. Hi Jason,

    Yes – I do agree. Some of the most difficult client you can learn the most from – especially when it comes to developing your own skills of handling and managing clients a bit more difficult than the normal / average ones.

  18. I feared them, and I loved them. I confronted them and hid from them. And when they didn’t pay on time, I dumped them. It was satifying. I can put up with a lot, but not a slow payer that belittles you. Good article! Really hit home. thx

  19. Hi, great article. I’m a freelance photo assistant and was hired for 7 months straight in the in-house studio of a client I met while on a location shoot. The money has been great, but my boss is highly-abusive. Brash, condescending and patronizing. All the typical buzzwords associated with abuse. Treats me like a child, tells me “no back-talk”. She was finally so rude to me three weeks ago ( I had a witness too) I defended myself. I told her calmly that we needed to cool our current conversation and before I could finish she exploded on me. Telling me (a 35-year-old man) “not a word from you, NOT A WORD!” Needless to say, after 7 months Of straight work I haven’t been asked back. I feel as though I spoke out against the queen. I have little recourse. The head photographer is a complete pussycat and also totally defeated and miserable. He’s witnessed several of the verbal abuses. I know this situation is totally toxic and effecting my happiness and even home life ( I caught myself several times being an absolute jerk to my wife at night TOTALLY UNCOOL!). So here’s the problem: that job was my financial whale and now I’m forced to re-evaluate work opportunities in an honestly rough economy. I know I shouldn’t go back. It’s bad, but the money will be tempting.

  20. Nightmare clients always feel like they are doing you a favour by putting work your way. By caving in, taking their money and letting them treat you badly, you are reinforcing their opinion. It doesn’t build respect. Nightmare clients do suck the life out of you, and by doing so they take away the very things needed to make a business a success. Drive, passion and confidence.

    Great post Jason, enjoyed reading it!


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