These people will be nightmare clients, guaranteed

Mike Garner

Mike Garner, Story-based email copywriter, strategy, messaging

Go on, admit it. You’ve had the odd nightmare client over the years – toxic people that are difficult to deal with and make your life hell. The ones you dread talking to when the phone rings or reading when an email pops into your inbox. I sure have.

Some will say it’s your fault you have them.

There’s an element of truth in that, but it’s not helpful to say it. I’m here to stop you from attracting bad clients in the first place.

Here are several tell-tale signs that should help you recognise clients from hell or will make you smile if you’ve encountered them before.

But first, the most important thing is to

Start by raising your expectations


Especially when you start a business, it’s quite easy to fall into the “why can’t I sell to everyone” trap. The problem with that strategy is that you will attract anyone – including the tyre kickers, the penny pinchers and the ones that tell you how to do your job.

But tell me something. Is that why you went into business or are you better than that?

If you sincerely think that you can sell to everyone, do yourself a favour and stop reading now. Carrying on will be a waste of your time.

You’ll plenty of examples of the kind of clients you want to avoid in a minute, but just think of this: what kind of clients do I want? Nay, what kind of clients do I deserve?

I’ll leave you to reflect a couple of minutes before carrying on.

If the conversation starts with “how much”


Run for the hills.

They are not your ideal client. They will give you nothing but grief.

Price buyers show no loyalty and will leave you as soon as they find someone offering your product or services for less.

Also, they probably can’t afford you.

Many years ago, when she was poorer than she is today, a national bathroom company visited a friend of mine to quote for a new bathroom. They gave her a lovely design with a juicy quote and went in their merry way.

They then spent the next six months badgering her to purchase said bathroom.

Unfortunately, it was all for nothing because my friend just couldn’t afford the bathroom. Though he made a nice one based on the design.

Tip 1: Only target people who can afford your rates.

If you get unscheduled calls at all times of the day and night


Have you ever had a client call you when you were having dinner? At the weekend?

That’s a sign a client has no respect for your time, or theirs.

They’re likely to be disorganised and reactive rather than systematic and forward-looking.

Do you want to work with clients like that?

I sacked a client last year because he’d call me on a Saturday afternoon mainly to talk about himself at great length. I think he was lonely and looking for validation. Many of my clients become friends, but that’s not the way to achieve friend status with me.

Tip 2: Don’t accept any unplanned calls – especially from clients. They interrupt your thought process and will hit your productivity for six. Even my brother asks me if it’s OK to call me before he does.

If they ask you to work for free first

Just for giggles, have a look at this video to see how ridiculous it is to ask people to work for free.

Asking for spec work is a variation on the price buyer but in many ways worse. “Just think of the exposure it will give you”, they’ll say. If you’re Tony Robbins, Marie Forleo or Amy Porterfield, yes, the exposure will probably be great. But if you’re Billy No Mates with an unengaged Facebook following of three, I’ll pass.

And you’ll pay (upfront) for the work I do thank you.

And I’m pretty sure Tony Robbins, Marie Forleo or Amy Porterfield wouldn’t ask me to work for free because of the exposure it’ll give me as they know the value of other people’s work.

Tip 3: Unless you have an excellent reason, never work for free if someone promises you paid work later. I can almost guarantee that’ll never happen.

If a prospect goes AWOL during the negotiation process


A big red flag.

A few months ago, I believe I dodged a bullet.

I was approached by someone to do some branding and content work that sounded very interesting.

To say he was enthusiastic would be an understatement.

He was a Jack in the Box, Tigger and an excitable puppy all rolled into one.

He thought I was the answer to all his problems (he told me so).

So we arranged a call.

He didn’t turn up.

Fair enough, things happen. We re-arranged.

He did turn up to that, but after 5 minutes he interrupted to say he had to do something quickly, but he’d call me back.

He didn’t.

We were both booked to go to an event (more than an hour’s drive for me), so we agreed to meet there.

He didn’t turn up to that either.

A mutual friend told me (perhaps a bit cruelly) that there were two pairs of trousers in his house and he wore neither.

I’m not able to comment on that, but I firmly turned down the opportunity and I’ve heard nothing since.

Tip 4: Anyone can postpone a meeting; things get in the way. But if it happens all the time, run away, however valuable you think they might be. You’ll tie yourself in knots.

The same follows, of course, if they can’t keep to a schedule when they become clients. My best advice would be to sack them and look for better ones in their place.

If they think they know better


I’ll bet you’ve had one or two of these too.

“I’d do it myself, but I haven’t got the time”.

Believe it or not, your client is not doing you a favour by letting you work working for them.

You are solving a burning problem for them in a way that only you can.

You may have noticed I like to write things with a little “character” – at least in my work at least. I’ll tone it down for clients if they require, but the minimum requirement is that my work reads like an intelligent conversation.

I wrote a small website for a client several years ago now. It was nothing special, but I thought it flowed well.

The client didn’t.

He went through it and struck out everything that had an ounce of character in it.

Why did he hire me?

Not sure.

Tip 5: Target clients that respect your skills and accept you know more than they do.

If they can’t give you a clear brief


Especially in the creative industries, this is a big beef.

These clients are often well-meaning. They start with a vague idea of what they want you to do, but it never gets more specific than that.

Creatives often work best with a very tight brief. You may find it strange, but we love constraints because they give us boundaries.

Clients that don’t know what they want will always be dissatisfied because the results you give will never match the ideas they have in their heads.

Top tip 6: If a potential client admits to being clueless, be cautious. If they won’t commit to specific deliverables and follow your expert advice (because, by their admission, they know nothing), get outta there!

In conclusion

Detecting a nightmare client in advance is tricky. They come in so many shapes and sizes. But the longer you’re in business, the better you’ll get a recognising them.

The good news is also that most clients are a pleasure to work with they:

  • respect your time and expertise.
  • know your worth and will never tell you that someone down the road can do it cheaper.
  • are organised and can plan (especially when it comes to paying you!)
  • know why they’re hiring you and can clearly define the results they want.

And on top of that, they’re ethical; they do things the right way.

Of course, the best way to avoid these people in the first place.

Get a clear idea of what you’re selling (your promise, your offer, your outcome, call it what you will) and who your selling to and these types of clients will never cross your door again!

But how? You may ask.

Start by taking my 6-day ideal client avatar challenge (because 5-day challenges are so last year); it’s six emails in six days that will help you nail your ideal client and how you help them.

Your marketing will never be so easy.

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