How to handle bad clients

Many freelancers end up not getting paid for the work they’ve done. Unsurprisingly, this can cause cash flow problems and stress and is actually why many freelancers seek out full-time work.

If you’re a freelancer, you need a process in place to help you spot these difficult clients or deal with them if you’re already working with them, so we’re sharing some tips after learning some lessons ourselves.

What do bad clients look like?

They look like unpaid invoices — 41% of UK freelancers are consistently paid late, with some going years without payment. Just like me, I’m still owed money from 2017.

If clients ask for work outside the brief/scope but don’t agree to additional payment — they’re not a good client.

If your client has poor communication, again, bad client. Communication is crucial to any successful project, and if you’re not receiving good communication, it’s like flogging a dead horse. It’s time-consuming and a real pain in the arse.

I’m not saying these people are bad people; they’re just bad clients. You need to separate personal feelings from business transactions sometimes, and when you like someone as a person but they’re draining your energy, it’s time to cut them loose.

Freelancers are wasting time working with bad clients

Many freelancers crave income stability, which might be difficult to secure when you’re starting out, particularly when clients fail to pay invoices on time (or sometimes not at all).

And COVID has a massive impact on the freelance community. With almost half of freelancers losing up to 60% of their income. Cash flow is the lifeblood of any healthy business, and the problem is, poor paying clients further hinder freelance cash flow. If you’re struggling to locate high-quality clients, you end up relying on bad clients who fail to pay up — leaving you strapped for cash.

As you can imagine, all this causes stress and worry. As a freelancer, you turn your hand to every part of a business — invoicing, lead generation, general admin, and of course, service delivery. It can be a lot to handle on your own.

Frances, a freelance healthcare writer, says she’s still owed money from one of her clients:

“I confirmed the payment schedule with this one client, which was invoice due on receipt. She was lovely; I delivered the work on time. No revisions were necessary, so I sent my invoice. 100 days later, and it still remains unpaid.

“My advice to avoid this situation in the future is to consider collecting a 50% deposit upfront. Then you know they’re serious and will pay you on time. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but I could have really done with the money at the time.”

How to avoid working with bad clients

All these points below aren’t 100% airtight, but we’ve found they’ve helped when weeding out the bad apples.

Remove yourself from the race to the bottom

When you take low-paying jobs on freelancer platforms, i.e. Fiverr, Upwork, PPH, you really are in a race to the bottom. Some freelancers swear by these platforms, and hey if you find a job that pays well, fantastic.

But remember, they can be few and far between, and you have to spend a lot of proposals where most clients don’t get back to you or give you a second glance — it’s tough and demoralising.

Instead, I focused my attention on LinkedIn and now get over 90% of my leads through here. The best advice I can give you is to take the time to understand the platform. Optimise your profile, upload snippets of your writing work and use your ‘about’ section to talk about your clients and the problems you solve for them.

Connect with marketing managers, content managers, marketing directors and managing directors, and post consistently, so you show up in their feed.

Go with your gut

If they’ve messed you around already, this doesn’t set the best foundations for your future working relationship. Be strong and say no thanks.

The number of times I’ve finished working on a project that just wasn’t worth it, I’d be so mad at myself for just not saying it wasn’t working. Over the last year, in particular, I’ve gotten so much better when it comes to speaking out when I don’t think it’s a great fit. I want to work for clients I like writing for; it’s that simple.

Save up as much money as possible before going freelance

If you’ve already started freelancing, ignore this, but if you haven’t, save, save and save some more. Then you have the power to decide who you do and don’t want to work with.

When I first went freelance, I just jumped straight in, I had a few monthly clients, but I still wasn’t making enough each month to get by. So I started taking awful, low paying jobs. The second time I tried, I had much more money behind me, and it changed my freelance experience for the better.

Break up with freelance clients

If you’ve got a client you dislike working with; whether it’s the work, your personal relationship with them, or the fact that you just don’t want to write for them anymore, and I’ve had many, you need to break up with them. But try not to burn any bridges.

Here’s an email template to help you do this (below). Once you break up with them, it’s the best feeling. You feel weightless and ready to go searching for new work.

Hi [first name],

I’ve really enjoyed working with you over the last few months, but after a lot of thinking, I’ve decided to take my business in another direction, which means I’ll be focusing on writing for other niches.

I don’t want to leave you in the lurch, so please take this as a month’s notice, and I will do everything I can to make this a smooth transition to your next content writer. I can recommend a handful of freelancers if you’re interested?

My last day writing for you will be [date].


BUT If you dislike working with them because they’re fundamentally a poor payer, don’t pass them on to other freelancers.

To sum up

You don’t have to settle for bad clients; there are plenty of fantastic clients out there (even some who pay your invoice when you send it, yes, really!).

You just need to know how to weed out the bad ones to recognise the good ones.

Stick to your guns

Remember that freelancing has its ups and downs (and everyone experiences them)

And, lastly, don’t take shit from clients. Say goodbye and move on to the next.

Now go find better clients!

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