How to deal with nightmare clients

Have you ever taken on a client you were a dubious about? A client that refused to Skype with you, expressed doubt about legitimate parts of your contract, or did something else to spike your suspicion?

Have you ever taken on a client you thought was amazing, only to see they're actually not?

In these situations, alarm bells go off in our minds because we realize we may have just booked a nightmare client; the kind of client that could drive us crazy for months on end and then refuse to pay us the money we deserve.

It's every freelancers worst fear. But it undoubtedly happens to every one of us at some point in our businesses. 

I've had lots of happy, I'm-in-love-with-my-new-brand clients over the past twelve months. But I've also had 2 nightmare clients in the past twelve months. 

Why am I telling you this?

Because this club is where I promised I'd be totally honest about my successes and my failures, even if those failures are huge or embarrassing.

It's important to talk about our bad client experiences because new freelancers only ever see the shiny frontage of experienced freelancers. They see the wonderful testimonials we may have collected, the portfolios we've built, the friendships we have with past clients and other freelancers... I looks like we have it all sorted out. 

Today I'm here to tell you that's not the case.

My business isn't perfect- nobody’s is. Every freelancer runs into bumps along the road, no matter how much experience they have. The important thing is that we learn from those experiences. When we don't, we miss out on amazing opportunities to improve our businesses. 

Now, let's get onto my nightmare clients... 

Nightmare Client #1

Initially: When we spoke over Skype she was bubbly, funny and friendly. It was like we’d known each other for a lifetime. She talked a lot and tended to veer off subject, causing us to go way over the time I allot for consultation calls, but at the time I didn’t mind. 

Throughout the project: She provided feedback on time which was great! She also gave me a lot of creative freedom, which was also something I like about her. On the other hand, she kept adding to the project scope and expecting me to do the additional work for free. She wrote long, confusing essays for emails and she sent me about 4 emails a day, going back and forth on the decisions she'd made. 

After the project: A month after her project had ended, she emailed me asking me to complete another design for her. I couldn't fit any more work in my schedule so I kindly explained and referred her to my colleague. But what happened next? She flipped out and wrote me a long email telling me she thought I was brushing her off. She also said she was finding Wordpress really hard to use and couldn't believe she'd wasted money on the site I built for her.

The way she'd written her email was sharp and hurtful. I read this email just after I came out of a movie theatre with my sister on the weekend, and it honestly made me feel sick to the stomach.

I felt so guilty I ended up doing the project I'd said I couldn't take on- for free. I know that wasn't the right thing to do, but all I could think of at the time for how awful I felt and how much damage this woman could do to my reputation if she started bad-mouthing me. It was irritating, the fact that I hadn't really done anything wrong, but I just wanted to resolve the situation.

I also offered her a free one-on-one training session about Wordpress, even though I'd already sent her video training specifically tailored specifically to her and her website. Annoyingly, after she accepted the free training she admitted she hadn’t watched any of the tutorials. She missed her training session twice and cancelled it altogether in the end, but told me she really wanted to have an ongoing relationship. Unfortunately, I did not. 

Lessons learned: We should all take some responsibility for our nightmare clients. In this case, I readily accept that I made a lot of mistakes. I shouldn’t have been a push-over and given her free revisions, I shouldn’t have become her friend instead of her designer, and I should have tried harder to explain more clearly why I couldn’t take on her project when she wanted me to.

This project made me realize I needed to offer my clients one-on-one training on how to maintain their website instead of just providing them with tutorials. Now, I hop on Skype at the end of my design projects and I show them how to use their site. I also then provide them with access to a Client Area, which is filled with tutorials and advice. 

I turned a bad experience into an opportunity for improvement, but it wasn't easy. 

Nightmare client #2

Initially: This client has been a client of mine for 2 years. We've probably worked together about 15 times and she has been pleasant every time. I never turn her away because I appreciate the ongoing work she brings my way and I really enjoy working with her.

Throughout the project: When providing feedback, she only ever wrote a few words like ‘Looks great’ or ‘Can we try something else?'. She offered no explanation for why she didn't like certain designs, even when I prompted her for one.

I was confused because I had created designs that I knew she'd love- they were the same style as the designs I'd created for her in the past. So what was the problem?

It turned out that she was really frustrated with the website design someone else had created for her and her frustration was leaking through into her work with me. 

Lessons learned: The reason this project stressed me out was because I knew what she was usually like. She was usually friendly and bubbly, not cold and quiet. I felt awful throughout the entire process because I felt like I’d done something horribly wrong. I hadn’t, but that’s the way I felt.

Sometimes, your client may be going through a rough patch in their personal life or in another part of their business, and you may feel the brunt of it. But if that happens, I've learned not to take it too badly.

I never replied to my client in the blunt way she was writing to me- I always tried to keep my messages happy and helpful. I didn't want to make the situation worse and destroy our relationship in the process.

Always remember to treat your clients with respect and kindness, even if they're being unfairly critical. 

I’m not telling you of these experiences to scare you away from freelancing. 

I’m also not telling you this to panic you. 

I’m sharing these experiences with you to make you aware of the things that can go wrong when you work for yourself. You’re definitely going to encounter nightmare clients because your business isn’t perfect and it never will be. You’re bound to let a nightmare client through the door without realizing.

If you do, here are my tips:

Learn from it. The best thing you can do when you have a bad client is learn from it. Ask yourself how you can avoid booking a client like that again, how to can better resolve the situation next time it happens, and what you can do differently. There is always something positive you can learn from bad experiences. As Willie Nelson said, 'Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you'll start having positive results.'

Improve your business. When clients are being critical, you should analyze what you’ve done and said to them so far and check if there’s room for improvement. Are your processes simple and understandable for the client? Are you talking to your clients in a friendly or cold manner? Are you being as helpful as you can? I’ve found a lot of my clients issues could be resolved simply by making improvements to my systems. 

Don’t take it personally. Bad clients sometimes attack freelancers unnecessarily, or for insignificant things. Try not to take it personally. They could have had a bad day or they could be short-tempered person. If they’re really unreasonable, try not to let it get you down. Just calm yourself with the knowledge that you won’t be working with them forever.

Talk about it. Sometimes it helps to tell other freelancers about your bad clients. You can tell your fellow Shelancers in our private group! Kory told us of a bad client she was dealing with and gained lots of supportive, helpful replies. 

Read of other people's experiences. When you encounter a nightmare client and you feel like curling into a ball and crying, don’t. Instead, go to and make yourself feel better by reading about some of the clients other freelancers have had. I did this when I had my first nightmare client and it made me realize that my situation wasn’t as bad as it could be.

Have you ever dealt with a nightmare client? Tell us about your experience in a comment below!

Nesha Woolery

I build beautiful brands & websites for passionate entrepreneurs!