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June 21, 2022

A Field Guide to Bad Clients (and how to deal with them)

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What we suggest

1. Get a contract that secures weekly hours
2. State your terms at the bottom of every invoice and outline your late fees
3. Don’t reply to emails outside of work hours. Schedule your reply to be sent first thing the following working day.
4. Make it clear that there’s a limit to the rounds of revisions included in your rate
5. Give your best advice and remain professional
 

They say you can’t choose your family, and the same can be said for freelancers finding clients – turning down work is a luxury that not everyone can afford. As tempting as it might be to ghost annoying clients, it’s just not always feasible. But that doesn’t mean you have to put up with their bullshit. 

In this article, we’ve put together a list of behaviours and red flags that are typical of bad clients and provided the best course of action for dealing with them. 

 


 

1. The Time Bandits

 

Red Flag

Securing a retainer client is like winning the freelancer lottery. You get some of the financial security of a full-time job and the flexibility of being self-employed, all in one convient package. So when a company reached out to me offering 10 hours of work per week, it was a dream come true. At least it was until I was only needed for 10 hours per month… and then two hours per month.

The problem wasn’t going from a guaranteed £2,000 to £100 per month (though that’s a big part of it) and it isn’t that I gave them a ‘wholesale rate’ for my time (though that’s also part of it) – it’s that they gave me just one day’s notice before cutting my hours. 

Annoyingly, I ignored rule one of freelancing: Get a contract. 


How to Deal

If this happens to you (or to avoid it happening at all), get a contract that secures those weekly hours.

Although the client might need convincing (especially if you’re already working with them), you can spin your proposal as a safety net for both parties. While you need to ensure they give you the hours they’ve promised, you’re guaranteeing that you won’t quit without notice. 

If they’re really against this idea, I’d advise working with them for as long as it takes to find something else. When that happens, you’ll feel tempted to drop your time-stealing client immediately, but we wouldn’t recommend burning bridges – who knows when you might need them again. 


 

2. The Late Payers

Red Flag

Chasing payments is something every freelancer has to go through, and they’re usually met with a reply like this: 

  • “Oh sorry, I must have missed your last 32 emails.” 
  • “Oh sorry, our accountant is/has been on holiday for 2 months.” 
  • “Oh sorry, but I think we’ve already paid this. Are you sure you’ve not made a mistake?” 

Fortunately, there’s a very easy way to deal with these people that’s remakebly effective.  


How to Deal

First off, know your rights. Legally, payment terms are assumed to be 30 days unless specified – this means that even when you don’t specify 30-day payment terms, it’s still 30 days. 

Secondly, state your terms at the bottom of every invoice and outline your late fees, like I do with this

Payment terms are 30 days.

Please note that in accordance with the Late Payment of Commercial Debt (Interest) Act 1998:

A fixed sum (£40 for debts up to £1,000 and £70 for debts over £1,000) for the cost of recovering a late commercial payment will become due in the event that this invoice is not paid on or before the due date. A revised invoice including this late payment fee will be issued in the event this invoice becomes overdue; and

Starting from the day following the due date on this invoice, late payment interest will start accruing on the overdue payment at 8.75%, being the statutory rate of 8% plus the Bank of England base rate, currently 0.75%. Invoices will be updated weekly to reflect the accrued interest.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. 

Of the very few late payments I’ve received since including this on my invoices, most have been honest mistakes from clients I trust. 

Thirdly, you can use a payment system like UnderPinned‘s that will sent invoice reminders automatically to clients so you don’t have to worry about it.

For the odd one that ignored my emails, I’ve always followed up with something to the effect of: “If payment is not received by [DATE], I will issue a new invoice on Monday with an additional £X as a result of late payment, as per the terms set out in my initial invoice.” 

You can even use this Late Payment Calculator to work out what the penalty fee is. This works like a charm and in my experience, clients pay within an hour of receiving such an email.


 

3. The Space Invaders


Red Flag

Have you ever had a client for whom everything is urgent and has to be dealt with immediately no matter what time of day? 

Some people don’t seem to understand how the relationship works between businesses and freelancers. They might even mistake freelancers for employees and think it’s appropriate to email, text and call 24/7 and expect immediate action. 

While this isn’t appropriate in any professional relationship, it is completely disrespectful of a freelancer’s other commitments and their right to some downtime. 

There are varying degrees of space invaders, some clients might email you at every hour of every day, but it’s the ones that expect an immediate response that are the issue. If they want to work the weekend that’s fine, but they have no right to expect the same of you. 


How to Deal

It’s important to set boundaries from day one. When you’re switched off from work, don’t be tempted to reply to emails at 7 PM. If you can’t help yourself, schedule your reply to be sent first thing the following working day. 

If you’ve got a client who’s really persistent in contacting you outside of your working hours, then you might want to consider stating your working hours in your email signature and setting up an auto-responder outside of those hours. 


 

4. The Emotional Drainers

Red Flag

Have you ever had a client where something as small as an email from them can drain you of all your energy and motivation? It’s like before you even open that email, you know it’s going to be something you’d rather not (or even need to) deal with. 

Maybe it’s another request for revisions, an invitation for a Zoom call or simply an incredibly long and convoluted email expressing something very simple that might not even require your attention. 

These are the kind of clients that micromanage everything you do and take far more of your time and energy than they’re paying for. 


How to Deal

As with space invaders, it’s important to set professional boundaries, though you might need to take a tougher stance with emotional drainers. 

First off, make it clear that there’s a limit to the rounds of revisions included in your rate (and get it in the contract) and if your client doesn’t respect this, provide a quote for additional revisions if and when they request them. You can take similar action with meetings – because any time you’re spending on their project is time you should be paid for. 

As always, it’s important to stay professional but if nothing changes then move on and be honest when telling them why you no longer wish to work with them, because only then will they change. 


 

5. The Know-It-Alls 


Red Flag

Know-it-all clients are truly fascinating specimens. Despite hiring freelancers for their skills, experience and knowledge, they already seem to know everything, which begs the question: Why do you hire freelancers?


How to Deal

In my experience, these clients are little more than a minor nuisance (though I suspect a few of them verge on being Emotional Drainers). 

In this scenario, all you can really do is give your best advice and remain professional. Yes, they’re paying you for a reason they don’t understand but it’s their business so there’s really no point in getting worked up about it. 

If they know what they want and are adamant about not taking your advice, that’s on them. Get paid and move on. 


In the long run, learning how to deal with bad clients is often better than firing them but if your client is draining your energy to an extent it’s affecting your wellbeing, then it’s not worth it.   

At the beginning of a freelance career, putting up with the odd bad client is necessary while building a steady income — it’s practically a right of passage — but it doesn’t take long to realise that when you lose/drop a client, finding a new one is often easier than putting up with the bad ones. 

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