Everyone has a bad client sooner or later. It’s a part of building experience as a freelancer. However, it’s easy to get into a pattern where every client can seem like bad client early on in your career. I remember my first couple of years in business. I had clients who:

  • Never paid.
  • Paid late.
  • Pretended like they didn’t understand something we had agreed on in order to try and weasel out of paying me for work I had done.
  • Wanted to negotiate an already low rate on my part.
  • Agreed to my rate and then tried to continually devalue it through negotiation.
  • Had me agree to a flat fee and then expanded the scope through ongoing clarification of what they wanted.
  • Tried to manipulate me with praise to get more work done or lower my estimates.

They expected the world and didn’t want to pay for it.  I was constantly managing client expectations and trying to maintain my boundaries.  At the time, I took everything in stride and sort of enjoyed the challenge.  Looking back, I can’t believe I worked with so many crappy clients.  Some of the relationships were borderline abusive (and didn’t last because of that.)  Fortunately, I was able to keep most relationships positive, even when I was ending them.  However, my stress levels regularly peaked into the red and I was making peanuts for all my hard work.

While it’s easy to think that a better contract, clear expectations setting, and better communication will fix these problems, these solutions will miss the mark because they focus on the surface issues and don’t address the underlying problem.

The underlying problem is simple: you shouldn’t work with bad clients. Period.  No tool or method will overcome the tax you receive from their projects.

Anytime you see a pattern there is an underlying system that creates that pattern.

I had a system of behavior that was generating projects from bad clients on a regular basis. When I eventually escaped that string of bad clients it was because I had changed several fundamental aspects of how I did business. This changed the system that I used to generate new projects.

A few of the changes I made:

  • I stopped competing on price.
  • I stopped looking for clients in areas where price was most important and where clients were inexperienced.  At the time, this was Craigslist. These days you can add job staffing boards like UpWork and Freelancer.com to that.
  • I specialized to increase the value I could provide a certain kind of client.
  • I learned how to market myself.

There is a world of difference between good clients and bad clients.

I can remember having a disagreement with a client and painfully reviewing every email that we had sent only to realize that what we had agreed to was done over the phone and so there was no record of it.  These days our clients say things like, “Something’s changed and I know that this will impact what you need to do so just let me know how much more you need to bill for and if we need update our agreement.” No negotiation just, “Send me the bill.”

If you find yourself constantly complaining about your clients and in a spiral of negative projects that stress you out, it’s time to take a look at the system you use to get work.