By Craig Buckler

12 Signs of a Problem Client

By Craig Buckler

Problem clientsWe all have great clients. They understand their market, communicate their goals, work with you, offer constructive criticism, pay on time, and rave about your business. They make the hard work worthwhile.

Then there are the jobs you regret starting. The ones with the problem client who’s never happy no matter how hard you work, how reasonable your rates, or how successful their project becomes. Their payments are late and they’re a burden on your business.

It’s easy to recognise a problem client once you’re working for them, but can you spot one before you start? Here are 12 signs that should set alarms ringing before any contracts are signed…

1. Their first question: “what do you charge?”

Clients are cost-conscious, but how can you provide a quote without knowing what it involves? Most clients understand this, but the problem client wants a number and they won’t be happy if your final estimate exceeds it.

2. Incessant meetings

The problem client will demand constant attention prior to “starting”. Although you should help clients understand your services, some will use you as a general IT help-desk. You’ll be fixing their laptop before you know it.

3. Horror stories

Problem clients have a selection of stories about inadequacies, issues and struggles they’ve experienced with other suppliers. Make sure your business isn’t their next target.

4. Too many business interests

Entrepreneurs juggle business ideas. That’s healthy, but the problem client will have too many. They could lose interest and move on to their next big thing leaving you with their half-finished project and no payment.

5. Vague specifications

Clients should be experts in their field and have some idea about their requirements and budgets. Problem clients won’t.

Worse are those with “revolutionary” ideas. They cannot reveal their secret details but still need a quote. Be prepared for lengthy legal negotiations and NDAs to discover they want a Twitter clone.

6. Moving targets

Projects evolve naturally but some clients won’t just move goalposts — they change the game. If it occurs frequently you know it won’t stop.

7. Poor recall

Their version of agreements is always different to yours? Strangely, it’s always in their favor?

8. They’ve got a mate…

A friend of a friend has a mate down the pub. He can complete this project in an afternoon for $150. Wish them luck as you leave!

9. Continual haggling

Be on guard when you hear “but we’re only a small company” or “we cannot pay your rates”. Their company won’t be smaller than yours. Never haggle: it devalues your service and they will just ask for further reductions. It’s easy to slash costs — simply cut project features.

10. Unreasonable conditions

The client is happy to pay once they’re #1 in Google for “software”. Or perhaps they’ll pay a percentage of profits? No one offers profit sharing if they believe their business will be a success.

11. It’ll be great for your business

The classic: “Think about the publicity! It’ll be great on your portfolio! I’ll tell everyone about you! If anything, you should pay me for the privilege of working on it!”

Your best response: “Great! Give me your <products>. I’ll use them every day and tell everyone. Think about the publicity. You should pay me to have them!”

12. They know your job better than you

Web development’s easy! You just type and add pictures. Anyone can do that.

If that’s the case, the client can complete the project themselves. You could even offer a free appraisal of their handiwork — it won’t take long.

Problem clients are a fact of life for all businesses. You can avoid them, but it’s not always possible to pick and choose who you work with. Ensure you have watertight contracts, clear costs, and late payment procedures — you won’t go far wrong.

  • Don’t forget the problem client that is never satisifed with the quality of the work you do and won’t accept anything less than 100% pixel perfect matching with their design comp (that they spent “hours” working on), and force you to work 24-7 for a week non-stop “or else”.

    (Folks, I’m actually saying this from experience. It happened a couple times when I started out, and once nearly put me in the hospital – possibly the morgue. Don’t let a client – good or bad – get in the way of your health and well-being.)

  • joho3001

    you misssed one:
    your client is consulting proof. all proposals and recommendations are declined by one arguement: I don’t care. I pay, you do what I say!

  • José Mota

    If a certain client shows you a 2000 parchment paper pages archive and says he wants his project complete in two months, walk away in that moment. You will be so surprised…!

    Also if he speaks funny and thinks he’s some kind of businessman who knows as many synonyms as he can fetch from the dictionary, in order to corner you for misunderstand him.

    These two happened to me recently, it’s not pleasant at all. Be a normal guy and help normal client guys.

  • zidane_zizu

    At least 50% of this situations happened to me … Thank you for this list! I will use it as a constant reminder.

  • oh god, we once had a client who ticked all 12 of these boxes. Luckily, we fired him quickly, before we got in too deep!

  • Shahriat Hossain

    Nice experienced with clients :)

  • I think I’ll print this out and put it on the wall as a constant reminder to steer clear of these kinds of clients.

  • Miguel

    I was there many times.

  • bluedreamer

    “can’t you just start building the site then we can tweak it as we go along” is another one. In other words they don’t really know what they want!

  • Since most truly problematic clients only show their true colors once a project is underway, it would have been nice if you’d provided some strategies for dealing with these issues. I can’t imagine that replying with pithy comments is a particularly good way to maintain your reputation, either.

  • @krues8dr I wouldn’t make pithy comments either. But once you’ve had enough experience, you can recognise some of these traits in initial discussions with the prospective client. Then is the time to decide whether you want the job and if so, how much extra you are going to charge for the hassle factor.

    Another weapon in your armoury is a good contract and a tight specification before you start work, so that you can either extricate yourself from the job, or charge extra for work outside project scope.

  • @krues8dr
    Obviously, I wouldn’t advise taking this too literally!

  • An old joke that unfortunately happens both freelance and in the corporate setting…
    “We don’t know what we want… but that’s not it.”
    Gotta love it ha!
    Jim S.
    Jacksonville, FL

  • Cat Lady

    I’ve got a REALLY good one!

    What about the client who feels that they’re your best friend so they don’t have sign contracts. “Oh, we’ll get to it later. We don’t have to worry about that, you know I’m good.”

    No, you’re not good until you sign this contract.

  • What makes me wary of a potential client is when they phone you and say they have a small website they want built that shouldn’t take long and you find out that they actually want an e-Commerce solution.

  • James

    We had a client who had us do a website design. We finish the design, and after a couple months waiting for content to put on the site, he delegates the website to a relative. She wanted to start the design from scratch, until we showed them the quote to redesign the site. We ended up changing colors and re-organizing the existing website, and we think we’re all good to launch once we get content. Except this time he says he doesn’t want to use any of our work but will pay for it.

    I should post this on clientcopia.com.

  • Hamranhansenhansen

    One thing that I find helps with client communications (even with good clients who have reasonable expectations) is to prototype very aggressively. The point is to start and finish the client part of the project before you even get most of the Web development team involved.

    When I produce a site, the first thing I do is build a prototype. These days I use Flash, but I used to use Dreamweaver. Anything that is built to be fast and can make magic happen in the browser is suitable. The magic is only for the client, and only in 1 browser, and only on an extranet. It’s like making just the front 1cm of the website for the client to see well in advance of the launch, and even well in advance of the build.

    Then I work with the client directly, and whatever input they have is channeled directly into the prototype. If they say “the Help link has to open in a new window” I don’t make a note of that somewhere (which would later need to be read, shared, approved, implemented, whatever) I go into the prototype in Flash and I change it so the link opens in a new window. Later, the developers who build a website from the prototype will know to make Help open in a new window not because they got a note about that but because they see it doing that in the browser when they view the prototype. Same with 10,000 other details that are hell to track, but pretty easy to absorb when seen in context.

    I also find that when client’s see stuff in the browser for approval, they either approve or disapprove. When you send a spreadsheet around with 20 details that need to be approved, you get 18 of them approved by each of 10 people, much debate and compromise, then later when everybody sees those 20 details in the browser they all complain that is not what they wanted, not what they thought it would be. It’s make-work, it’s a total waste of time. You’re not actually getting approval until they approve the browser view. So show them the browser view FIRST, get approval, then proceed.

    At some point, the client sees what they want to see at launch in their browser window as they view the prototype, and they approve it as “ready to launch.” The client starts celebrating, because this is the end of their part of the project. On our side, however, the project is really just beginning. We are about to take on the task of creating a functioning, widely-deployable website from a functioning, narrowly-deployable website. The task is narrowed down to being similar to when you rebuild an existing site on a new CMS or new server platform. Much simpler!

  • ricksure

    Nice summary Craig. I too have faced every one of these situations. It drove me so mad and cost me so much lost revenue that I decided to do something about it. I developed a series of online video tutorials and I insist that any new client watches them before committing to a project. Although they do include some great content, they are intentionally basic and don’t completely replace the consultation phase. The idea is to filter out those who aren’t prepared to do any work. The videos take less than one hour to watch so if someone isn’t prepared to spend that time, they are likely to be a difficult customer. Those who do go through this process are grateful and tend to be good customers.

    Writing and producing videos is a lot of work but you can produce some sort of “filter” into your screening process. If someone fails the filter, your line can be something like “thanks for your interest but I/we have just taken on a lot of work this week which will keep me/us busy for several months so I/we would not be the best choice of developer on this occasion”.

    If you want to get an idea of my approach have a look at website planning.

  • ricksure

    sorry – looks like url was stripped in previous comment. Not sure if linking is allowed here but if so go to http://www.websiteplanning.com

  • and to those “fixing their laptop” people don’t let the problem client try and buy you dinner for your work.

  • I have a client that falls right into most of these descriptions. She’s a fat electrician who thinks she knows it all. Top that off with being a total hick that doesn’t want to pay and you got a class A customer!

  • How about the client who initially admits to knowing nothing but bit by bit becomes an expert who knows more than you do.

    I recently had a client in Texas who said it was okay to use Javascript but not okay to use AJAX.

    I eventually told her that she would would probably be a lot happier working with someone else. And I never heard from her again.

  • Angelo

    I do SEO and the most frequent question customers ask me is: How much it cost being first on Google? I don’t go into details such as “first for which key-phrase” or “nobody can guarantee anything”. I usually answer this stupid question this way: I cannot give a quote not even knowing your needs. It is like asking a surgeon how much costs a surgery (including hospital fees) not knowing what is the surgery about (it can be anything in between gallbladder removal and lung cancer). Needless to say that they don’t bother to answer; maybe this is my way to fire a customer.

  • How about the client who says they are seeking an “Expert Intern” (non-paid)? This is the worse, first there is no such thing as an expert who is an intern, secondly you are trying to get expert qualified work done for free. Well, I am a firm believer of ‘you get what you pay for’ so more power to them if they seek free professional services.

  • RenaissanceNOW

    Uh-oh… I have a meeting tomorrow with a long-term client who tested positive for 8-1/2 of the signs. The one-half is for the time she didn’t believe that browsers interpret CSS differently, but she changed her mind after talking to other business owners. So I give her 1/2 point credit for being open-minded.

    Thanks so much for this timely list. I will make sure everything we agree to is well-documented, that she signs the agreement before I begin any new work, AND that I get half the estimate in advance. Thanks also to bluedreamer for item number 13 and to ricksure for the websiteplanning link.

  • colcol

    l really have to laugh at this, l ran a garden service business years ago, lt involved quoting and delivering the service, about as far away from IT as you can get,—-and l have met all your problem customers!! the “how much” the “l have a mate” and the ” good god l can do this in fifteen minutes” guy , these customers obviously move around.

  • beenthere2

    My favorite client is the one who says (more or less): “I desperately need a website, but I don’t know what I want it to do, or who it’s meant to reach. How much will it cost me?”

    I have been asked, by people who wouldn’t hire me because they want a free web site, to look over their site and give them advice on how to make it better. One girl wanted me to advise her in making her own site, and when I refused, she complained that all the developers “out there” were too selfish to help a beginner, and what ever happened to mentoring? I told her mentoring is fine if someone is paying you (like when you work for a company and you get a salary while you train the next generation). But basically, you want me to train you to compete with me, and you aren’t willing to pay me for the training. That’s not mentoring, that’s shooting myself in the foot.

  • _mark

    Win. Thanks for sharing what we’ve all experienced or will possibly experience and now hopefully avoid!

  • solas

    I had a really bad client recently and they must have qualified for 80% of these warning signs…. Fantastic warnings, great advice to heed!

  • oleo

    I had a client that recently told me to take off the limits from the estimate I gave them for SEO. He said he wants unlimited exposure. I laughed and said nothing on Earth is unlimited especially not my time. But if he would give unlimited service in his limousine company then I would give unlimited SEO. He gave in, paid me for my defined limits, and said to please make it a success. Amazing!

  • Been doing this for years and had a feeling this potential client would be trouble…. wanted the perfect website, they supply rough idea of design and text, wanted the site to be professional and top in Google – wanted to pay peanuts!! Needless to say nothing I produced was ever quite what they wanted, talk about dotting I’s and crossing T’s. I spent so many unchargeable hours that I don’t like to think about it.
    Eventually after they had nearly corrected every word they supplied and every way the text or images were 3 pixels out, they complimented me on a good job…. Never again when I get that feeling will I take the job on.

Get the latest in Entrepreneur, once a week, for free.