The Seven Habits Of Highly Annoying Clients — And How To Profit From Them

Like it or not, it seems that my market niche lately seems to be “highly annoying clients” — those folks that just seem to come with more baggage than the Gabor sisters and more issues than National Geographic.

dandelionYou all know who I’m talking about.  In the first five minutes, they’re telling me why their last guy was such an idiot.  Or how their niece could do this for them for free, but she doesn’t get to the halfway house until next week.  Little tiny warning flares from God that the road ahead will not be six lanes wide and newly paved.

Once upon a time, I tried to just blow these folks off.  But in this time of recession and depression (the recession is making me depressed) you want to grab every nickle that is dangled in front of you.  So I thought it might help to come up with some suggestions on how to handle some of the more common varieties of Clientus Problmaticus that might come stomping into your garden.

The Nickle Pincher

This guy is working on a limited budget (aren’t all budgets, by definition, “limited”?) and he thinks you should cut your price to get the work.  He talks a lot about all the work you’ll get later, all the big companies he’ll send your way, and all the “exposure” you’re going to get by working for him.

I tell him that sounds great — and give him a first price about 50% above what I might normally offer, then gradually allow him to shave it down lower and lower.  He gets the thrill of negotiation, I get enough that my hamsters eat two square meals a day.  Win/Win.

Ms. Deadline Adverse

You’ll know this little villain by the fact that she’s late for your first meeting.  Late for conference calls, late to return email, and late to pay.  You’ll also be getting your drafts signed late, your content and graphics late, and (very probably) complaints about your awful work late in the process — right about when she’s supposed to be paying you.

I’ve found that setting milestones as “final layout delivered 48 hours after client signs off on draft” is a much better deadline than “draft delivered Wednesday, final layout delivered Friday.”  It helps focus their attention and protect your soft, pink rear.

The Frustrated Artiste

I’d love to sing like Streisand, paint like Rembrandt, and blog like Chris Brogan.  But a man’s gotta know his limitations. (Thanks, Clint Eastwood.)  Some clients want to believe they’re actually copy editors, designers, or creative savants.  So each iteration of your project comes back with lots of little suggestions, additions, deletions and comments.

My quotes indicate that you get one draft to review and that’s it.  Additional drafts are charged at an embarrassingly high fee and take additional time.  Unless I screwed it up.  Which, of course, has never yet happened.  Ahem.

A Ghost Client

If you remember Whoopi Goldberg and Demi Moore in “Ghost” you’re probably aware of the Ghost Client.  They show up when the person who signed the contract seems to have to show all of your work to some other person before they can express an opinion, sign off, or even agree that you’ve completed that stage.  And if your Ghost Client is off visiting another Realm when you’re up against deadline, that can be problematic.

I find it quite helpful to specify (either in the contract or the project plan) just WHO it is that signs off at each step of the project, HOW they will be contacted, and the fact that if they don’t respond with XXX hours I will assume they have no issues and will move forward.  I then copy this info in the handoff mail that goes out to the team as each step happens.

So far, the only client I’ve never heard back from Patrick Swayze.

Miss Ida Know

When I was little, mom would take the four kids to the ice cream store with 33 Flavors.  In a flash, I picked what I wanted and got my cone.  My sister, on the other hand, would be there for ages — trying to decide exactly which flavor she was going to try this time.  (This may explain why I’m basically “ball-shaped” while she’s still running marathons.)

Never, EVER give your clients too many choices.  (See The Tyranny Of Choice if you’d like some background.)  I usually offer up three:

  • An OK one, that I’d be willing to do
  • The most awful, godforsaken ugly thing on the planet
  • My favorite

This allows the client to feel as though they’re participating in the process, and whichever one they choose I’m happy.  (If they pick the awful one I’ve got fodder for emails to all my friends for the next six months.)

YhaBut ChaKnow

Much like Boba Fett in the Star Wars movies, YhaBut is a strange creature that we humans will probably never understand.  He confuses us constantly by saying he completely agrees, and then utters his unmistakable call of  “YhaBut ChaKnow” and goes off on a huge list of things we should change, revise, or somehow make different.  When he finally runs down, he usually ends with a faint squeak of “I’m just sayin’” to protect his ruby-red tail feathers.

I’ve found that you can often satisfy this bird with “Those suggestions will be great for our next version” or “We’ll make sure to bring those back at the post-mortem” and he’s fine — like the Cuckoo Bird, he’s mainly trying to be noticed by the other birds and doesn’t care if his calls have any real impact. Once he knows you’ve heard and appreciated his unique song he’s off to sing from another tree.

Al MostPerfect

Al is a very, very quiet guy.  During the vision, design and draft portions of the project you’ll probably never hear a peep out of this client.  Everything looks great, seems fine, and there’s not a care in the world.  But come near him with anything stamped “FINAL” and you’ll be deafened by the noise.  Suddenly extra copy appears from nowhere — and it’s the most important concepts that have ever been heard.

Photos and artwork will spring from Al’s briefcase like a river in the spring.  New colors, patterns, concepts and design ideas leap to the fore.  Because, you know, now that it’s FINAL he’s FINALLY going to pay some attention. I love clients like Al.  They get charged 100% and 200% rush charges for changes (it’s in the contract) and the deadline slips accordingly (it’s in the contract).

One single “Al” bought me a really nice waterski boat a couple of years ago.


Now, before y’all go off on me in comments — take a deep breath and realize that this blog sometimes uses humor and exaggeration in the interest of entertainment.  So while I’m accurately identifying some of these clients, the names (and tactics) may have been changed to protect the guilty — as well as my income.

But my point here, if you’re still reading, is that in times of economic downturn you’re going to have to rein in all these critters if you want to keep making money.  So identify them fast, stop them from causing problems, and make sure that they don’t cause you a heap ‘o pain.


  1. Sherra Scott says

    I can’t imagine anyone would slam you! If they do, then it’s obviously because they’ve never had to deal with one of the aforementioned clients. I haven’t had them all, but I’ve dealt with quite a few. I got a kick out of your descriptions, but your advice, although hilarious, was pretty solid.

  2. JudyAnn Lorenz says

    I’m so glad Sherra pointed this out to us. Excellent information and you must have had a lot of fun learning it all the hard way.
    “Experience is something you don’t get till just after you need it.” Steven Wright.

  3. Deb Gorham says

    Oh my goodness! Sherra is right, though you have spoken with humor, your descriptions are dead on. I’ve had 3 of the aforementioned types of clients. It took me a while to realize it’s best to “just walk away” when you begin seeing those red flags. Finish up a project if you have one, don’t sign them up if you aren’t already working with them. NO amount they can pay is worth the headaches they will give you later.
    Late pay (with excuses of course), unsigned contracts (more excuses), refusing to communicate with you (“i was sick..”) then blame you when work isn’t completed. I even had one client talk about the projects coming up yet would never contact me to actually renew, then got irritated because I asked! This was the very same client who never paid on time, had to be tracked down any time I needed to ask a question and was a royal pain to all she came into contact with. Oy vey!!!!
    I’m happy she left me hanging, it gave me the courage to finally realize who needs a client THAT badly!
    Thanks for laying it all on the line for all to read. The biggest problem is, these clients do not see themselves in these descriptions. haha!

  4. David Ryder says

    Thanks! These are good tips… just starting out I had absolutely no structure. It’s difficult to draw out specifics and this will definitely help. :)

  5. Sherry says

    This is a BRILLIANT post. Have personally dealt with all these varieties over about 15 years. Would love to see some of that stuff you’ve written into your contracts too and compare notes! HA

  6. Steve LeBlanc says

    I love this list and the reasonably compassionate approach you take to such challenges. Make the customer feel good while not getting lost in anger and requests. However I am reminded of Agile development, which requires lots of iterations. It builds the feedback of The Frustrated Artiste into the process. If your kind of work lends itself to great results after one round of edits, then you’re a better man than I am. My hat’s off to you. I’ve also seen this issue from the consumer side, where companies who just don’t want that much feedback accuse their users of being too demanding. By definition a customer who asks more of you than you want to deliver is asking too much of you. But that does not make him too demanding.

    I do get that this piece was largely in jest. And I enjoyed it immensely for that. I just wanted to get a little serious and point out the value of what might mistakenly be called The Frustrated Artiste. Certainly some folks just like to put in an endless stream of fixes that don’t actually improve anything. They need to be contained in the way outlined above. But some people really do have value to add to the work, and that value may come in the form of “lots of little suggestions, additions, deletions and comments.”

    Perhaps this idea applies more to startups than to simple contract work. But when you are building a community, you want to celebrate all the feedback you get, if only for encouraging the flow. You especially want to celebrate and encourage the useful ideas. Implementing an idea is only half as powerful as also thanking the person who suggested it. Once people think you don’t care about or want their feedback, they lose passion for your product.

    Thanks for the insightful fun.

  7. dickcarl says

    @Steve Oh, certainly — in the Agile world revisions are the lifeblood of the process. In that case, the contract would just state that each day/week/cycle (depending on how the scrum worked) we’d all meet and then incorporate the changes.

    What I’m talking about is typical content development, where clients tend to want to have you write something, give you changes, and then when they see the final version they “suddenly” discover a bunch of other stuff that they don’t like. This leads to a nearly endless cycle of edit/submit/edit/submit and you run up hours that are never paid for.

    Calling out that they need to review the whole thing (or pay for the privilege of doing it over and over) just keeps everybody honest.