How to Deal with a Bad Freelance Client, Pt. 1

Don’t let this clown take you for all you’re worth, you beautiful, freelancing gazelle. Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

If you’re in freelancing long enough, you’ll find your very own. A terrible, awful, no-good client. Amid all the wonderful clients that you adore working with, eventually you’ll find THE ONE. The one who makes you grit your teeth, who makes your stomach drop when you see their name in your inbox, the one whom you curse from your home office, but whose money you willingly take anyway.

Not all bad clients are the same, though. Like wild beasts, they scavenge the savannah of the freelance world, looking for whatever gig worker they can find. They’re the hyena rambling about for some easy prey, while you’re the poor gazelle that just wants to make a living, okay?? (I have no idea if hyenas prey on gazelles in real life, but you get the idea.)

If you’ve been around the freelancing block a few times, you can probably spot the signs of a bad client a mile away. For those who can’t, here are a few of the most popular varieties of bad freelance clients and what to do with them.

The Client Who Doesn’t Know What They Want

This type of client could be either good or bad for you. It really depends on the type of services you sell. If you’re into consulting, then you’re there to help the client figure out what they need to do. If you offer a more mainstream, basic service like writing or design, as many freelancers do, this spells trouble.

Think of it this way. Your client is a shopper and you are the grocery store.

This grocery store is a rad metaphor for your role as a freelance vendor. Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

A shopper goes to the grocery store with just a simple problem; they have no food in their house. Let’s say this shopper has never been to the grocery store (say, we picked him up out of the fifth century and plopped him down in the middle of suburbia), but they know that a grocery store can help them fix this problem of having no food. However, if they go to the grocery store with no grocery list, no clue what they like to eat, no idea what their grocery budget is or how much things cost and no knowledge of how a normal grocery store is laid out, what happens?

  1. They end up wandering around for hours, with nothing getting accomplished.
  2. They likely ask the staff lots of questions.
  3. They get to the register and realize they might not have enough money, so they have to put things back.
  4. They go home with items that they might not like and certainly nothing that can make a cohesive meal.

In other words, when a client has no inkling of what they want, how this whole hiring a freelancer thing works or their freelance budget, they end up wasting a lot of everyone’s time and either go over their internal budget, so they can’t pay you or they cancel right as you’re working on the thing, or they end up with a product they don’t even like.

So, if you are not a consultant and someone comes to you for your services with no idea what they want, just a problem, address it properly. If you’re okay with consulting, go ahead and help them figure things out (just make sure you’re charging an hourly rate for it). If not, tell them exactly. what. you. need. to get the job done. And make it clear to them that you will give them exactly. what. they. asked. for. No more. No less.

If they’re cool with that and give you everything you need, then you’re good to go. They could become a client for life. More often than not, though, this client is the type that falls to the wayside after a few gigs.

The Client Who Doesn’t Pay on Time

Get what you’re owed! Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Now, this client is a little less troublesome. The entire process of working with them could be great! You get along! You love the work!

Then you invoice them. Payment is due in 14 days.

Crickets.

You ping them after the 14 days is up.

Nothing.

You ping them again.

Nada.

Three weeks later, five total weeks after the invoice was sent, they email you back and say, Oh, we had no idea you hadn’t been paid yet! We’re so sorry! We’ll mail you a check!

The check is “lost” in the mail.

Meanwhile, they’re asking you to work on other projects.

Reader, don’t do it. Don’t you dare lift another finger until they pay up. Don’t let them treat you like that. In fact, why did you even wait until after the payment was late to follow up? If it’s the week of the payment being due and you’ve yet to see a payment come through, you make sure (nicely) that they’re going to pay up on time. Just leave a litttttttle hint of threat in the email. Say something like…

Hey XX,

I just wanted to check in on the status of this invoice. I notice that it’s due at the end of the week and so I thought I’d check back. I’d hate for any of our other projects to be delayed while the payment processes!

Best,

Your Favorite Freelancer

Once they get the idea that them not paying you is going to result in them not getting what they want (more work), then you’ll notice a change. If not, though, it means they probably think you’re bluffing, or that they don’t need you that badly. In those cases, drop them. Either they’ll come back later with promises of better behavior (and you’ll have to decide whether or not it’s worth taking them on as a client again) or they won’t (which means you didn’t really need them in the first place).

The Client Who is Just Plain Difficult

Why do some people have to make everything a chore? Are they looking for extra ways to make their lives more difficult than they have to be?

Unfortunately, some of these people end up as your clients.*

They don’t answer your emails, but then ask you why you didn’t do something. Well, if they had read your email, they would’ve seen your multiple questions regarding that something that all needed to be answered in order for you to do your job.

They refuse to acknowledge any kind of communication other than communication sent through some sort of company program, whatever they prefer — Slack, Trello, you name it.

They need to provide you with deliverables in order for you to meet a deadline (copy to go into some graphic design; research or quotes to add into an article or press release; etc.) and wait until the last second to do so…but then still expect you to meet the same deadline.

These clients are the ones who can really make you go gray. However, sometimes it might just be a lack of oversight on their part. They may not even see how their bad behavior is impacting you.

Explain it, gently. Show them the benefits of better behavior (if you get me that copy several days in advance, I can spend more time making the graphics look as nice as possible, without having to rush them and potentially make mistakes).

If they learn, great. If not, find someone else to work with. They’re not worth the stress.

*NOTE: Everyone has their quirks and every client has them, too. If they ask you to go out of your way to do one little thing here or there, don’t think too much of it. That’s not being difficult, that’s just being human. It’s when this type of behavior is widespread and constant that you might have a “just plain difficult” client on your hands.

But That’s Not All, Folks…

These are only three of the most problematic freelance clients out there. Keep reading for the other three, in How to Deal with a Bad Freelance Client, Pt. 2.

Holly Riddle is a freelance travel and food journalist who dabbles in fiction. She can be reached at holly.ridd@gmail.com. Her website is hollyriddle.org and her twitter handle is @TheHollyRiddle.

Travel journalist, full-time freelancer. Passionate about non-traditional careers. Published thousands of non-fiction articles and not one word of fiction.