How to Deal With Nightmare Clients

Regardless of how smoothly your business may operate, no one is completely immune to criticism and controversy. With BP’s disastrous oil spill continuing to dominate the headlines almost three months after it took place, it’s becoming alarmingly clear that even the world’s most powerful and formerly respected brands can take a hit online.

But what if you’re not a major brand – just a small online service provider? While failed projects and disastrous clients are unlikely to spread the word as far, they’re just as likely to cause a great deal of damage to your business.

From minor fall outs to projects that didn’t quite go as planned, there are hundreds of reasons for formerly solid client relationships to turn sour.

We’ve prepared this guide to help you respond to such situations. With Google’s dynamic search results pushing “scam” terms to the top of the ranks and speculation-friendly social media outlets giving almost any disgruntled client an outlet, monitoring your online buzz is more important than ever.

The five strategies below can help you keep your name under control, and keep your clients from turning against you.


1. Offer alternatives, new solutions, and even a discount

Managing problematic clients is an art that requires practice. It’s also something that requires a reasonable understanding of trade-offs and sunk costs. If a project has gone poorly and ended in what could become public criticism, you’re faced with two possible choices as a service provider.

The first is to leave it be, pushing your client towards other providers and increasing the chances that you’ll end up with a very public negative testimonial. The second option is to offer a solution to clients in private, extending your service and possibly missing out on such a lucrative project payment.


It’s up to you to decide between the two, but we think it’s worth preserving your name in exchange for a slight hit on your company’s bottom line.

If you’re forced into a position where a dispute could result in negative feedback and a search-friendly public posting, offer a discount on the project or eliminate costs altogether. It will hurt in the short-term and you’ll likely lose any future business, but it’s certainly more welcome than a smear post or high-ranked “scam” forum topic.


2. Have your own public outlet prepared

Don’t have a blog? Start one. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to challenge most companies on their promises, not due to a devaluing of opinions but because of the huge increase in company blogs over the last few years.

Businesses that were once uninterested in blogging and unresponsive to public criticism have taken a different stand, posting weekly to keep a public outlet open.

That one blog can be the difference between a very public fallout and a reasoned response to criticism. With the anonymous nature of the internet and the occasionally shady tactics of many online workers, it’s inevitable that you will one day attract public criticism, particularly if you operate a large business or work with hundreds of different clients.

Prevent that criticism from being the only post on you or your company by building your own public outlet. All it takes is a single blog post weekly – something that takes less than ten minutes and has its own set of promotional benefits.

Control your own outlet and you’ll be prepared for criticism and public disputes, both in the blogosphere and in the search results.


3. Respond to blog posts, “rip-off” reports, and forum bashing carefully

Not every critical blog post deserves a response. Major companies and in-demand online presences often selectively ignore unfair criticism of themselves, instead choosing to focus on their goals and respond to complaints that are justified.

It’s a situation that’s difficult to navigate – when trolls post unfair and inaccurate opinions on your business, many people can take them at face value.


But responding to trollish, untrue comments can sometimes make a bad situation worse. When the complaint is based on nothing but hearsay and anger, a reasoned response can often just ignite fires and push more people to post unfair criticism.

The United States Air Force has a ‘counter-blog’ chart which we’re big fans of – it demonstrates how to respond to the right criticism, and why you should ignore criticism that’s not grounded in reality.


4. Fire your problem clients

Some clients aren’t going to love your service, no matter how great it may be. They’re a type that’s present in every form of business, complaining that extra features aren’t the norm and continually bartering for a discount.

It’s tempting to cater to problem clients and offer discounts to cut down could-be controversy, but doing so leaves you in an annoying and financially difficult position.
Marketing expert and ultra-blogger Seth Godin made the same point in a blog post, stating that you can “put up with the whiners, write off everyone, or, deliberately exclude the ungrateful curs.” We agree with him – it’s best to tailor your business to the clients that bring you more than just long-term projects and income, and eliminate those that could lead to issues.

So take a more forward stance to could-be problem clients, and work them out of your portfolio before they grow to be an annoyance. Some service providers and consultants recommend using your prices to drive away problematic clients, but we think it’s best to just close the door entirely.

Eliminate problem clients before they produce crises and you’ll have more time to focus on those that your business meshes with.


5. Don’t astroturf: make it clear who you are and why you’re defending yourself

The only thing more damaging to your business than an anonymous complaint is an anonymous complaint with a very suspicious ultra-positive response.

With most online complaint boards open to almost anyone, users have grown conditioned to think that anyone singing a company’s praises must be a paid shill.


Don’t fight it – there’s no way to overcome online conditioning and the way people respond to controversy. Instead, be completely open about your affiliation or ownership with the business in question, and explain exactly why you’re responding to any public criticism.

Users aren’t against service providers and businesses from the get-to, they just like their information free of bias and false impartiality.


Preventative action:

Responding is one thing – actively monitoring is another. We’ve picked out three strategies that can help you keep your online reputation clean and criticism-free. Think of public responses and visible explanations as a last case scenario, and use these tools and tactics to ensure that you’re never put in a position where it’s a necessity. Here are 3 ways to keep your company’s online image dispute-free:

Use Google Alerts to keep track of your trading name
Google Alerts should be one of the most frequently used tools in any freelancer’s arsenal. Both an amazing marketing tool and an incredibly effective service for reputation management, it’s one of the most immediately accessible tools out there for searching the internet for your name (or your business name) and monitoring the conversation. If you’re in high demand, set a daily reminder and check over the results once every evening. Small businesses and freelancers can get by with once-weekly alerts, which should be configured to email information on their competition, client reviews and public forum posts, and any potential clients with an interest in their services.

Reach out to clients in private if you feel things could turn sour
Never make things public if your name is at stake. Every designer has run into at least one dispute with a client, sometimes over the most minor and inconsequential of details. Even if you feel as if you’re being unfairly targeted or treated poorly, don’t take the matter public unless you’re forced to. Reach out to troubled clients and offer them a solution via email, phone, or an instant messenger. As tempting as it may be to name and shame a problematic client, it reflects poorly on your business to release details of a client’s requests to the public. Aim for private solutions, and let disputes become public only once you’ve exhausted any private options for reconciliation.

Control your search results using social media outlets
Every online business should aim to control their first-page search results. Not the results for their industry, but the results for their trading name, or for freelancers their full name. It’s an exercise that takes surprisingly little effort (unless you’re called John Smith) and is immensely rewarding when it comes to reputation management and handling online disputes. Start with the top spot – one that should be inhabited by your own website – and work your way downwards with social media outlets and other small websites. Controlling your name has obvious benefits when it comes to your online reputation, and it’s also an indispensable method for helping potential clients find your business when referred to you by a trading name.

Written exclusively for WDD by Mathew Carpenter.  He is an 18-year-old business owner and entrepreneur from Sydney, Australia. Mathew is currently working on Sofa Moolah, a website that teaches you how to make money online. Follow Mathew on Twitter: @matcarpenter. Follow Sofa Moolah on Twitter: @sofamoolah.

How do you deal with nightmare clients? How ‘far’ do you have to go? Share your view below…

  • Mia Lazar

    This artice must read all freelancers.

  • Darkened Soul

    Good read, let’s hope no one gets bashed to dead because of some ill-rooted bad publicity… And I always think people should first see for themselves, good constructive clients will always try your expertise out if they have a sense of “peopleness” …

    otherwise everyone would end up doing their designs for free…

  • Jamie Northrup

    Great article Mathew, too many people put up with way too much heat from customers that they shouldn’t have to. I will sometimes decline jobs because of the customers attitude right from the start, if you get someone with a good attitude and things go wrong, you can usually talk and work out some sort of deal.

  • James

    An often overlooked but great and free tool, recommend using Google Alerts to keep track of your company name being referred to.

  • Chris Web

    I think one of the best ways to deal w/ problematic clients is prevention. Be completely clear about what services you are going to provide and when they will be completed, and for how much money.

  • Brittany

    I think point 3 is very important, because responding to some complaints can make a company seem like a bully.

    I also never thought abut it, but the closing statement about controlling your own name is important and effective. Every designer out there is competing for the same key words… “design” “graphics” “web design”, etc… but not everybody is searching for your specific company name, and that can be an advantage if you build up a good reputation. Great post!

  • Ramona

    If the “bashing” is well deserved, I’d to anything to help clear my name and actually make the client happy. Otherwise, if the relationship goes sour, I just let go. Have lost some projects in the past, but won some peace of mind. Was lucky to get 2-3 clients who thought paying for a site actually mean having rights over me, my time and everything for as much as they felt like, so I realized this is not something I’d like to be in. Abuse is not OK. I am not abusing my clients, I do not take crap from anyone.

    Fortunately these occasions have been scarce. Usually my clients are good people who understand how we should work together and everything is just fine.

  • Wijnand

    Good article! It’s always tough to deal with difficult clients.

  • Ben Stokes

    A problem client is just a client not worth having, best way to deal with these clients is to give them a full refund – believe me they are just not worth working with as they will use all of your resources leaving no scalable time to work on other projects you may have.

    Thanks for the post :)

  • benedetta

    Really interesting article, a good advice how to deal with clients, in particular problematic ones!

  • Elizabeth

    Great article–I wish I’d had this handy when dealing with a problem client that it took me forever to finally fire. I kept bending over backwards, rescheduling shoots, sending more proofs, unedited proofs, etc. when I really should have just said “You know, this isn’t really working for me. I know another photographer in your area that might have the flexibility you need and which I cannot provide.” I just didn’t know I could do that.

    The hardest thing for me is ignoring the trolls. I want everyone to think my brand is awesome and my new project is genius, even though my Faced With Injustice project is (by nature and design) controversial. It’s a personality flaw that I want to be liked or at least appreciated by everyone, and to sit back and not respond to unjust criticism is something I’ve never handled well.

  • Rachael

    Great article and one I’ll definitely refer back to. Fortunately, I have been lucky (so far) and haven’t had any real client problems. Fingers crossed, it’ll stay like that but I guess everyone at some point gets a difficult client.

  • paris

    Great Article, many of you might not know how trouble some clients can become unless you meet one! Recently have encountered such a troublesome client which i have yet to recover from!

    here is a little story still in the making for you all :)

    6 months ago we started 2 projects for a client that forced us to cut 30% of our price, although we normally don’t do such discust to new clients, only returning ones and not even that much! However we were not busy at the moment you accepted work instead of sticking to a solid pricing and sitting doing nothing!.

    Projects were completed in less time than quoted thought client kept winning asking the projects done in half time although. Note that formal proposals(12 pages) + agreements(4 pages) were in place!

    The way we work is 50% payment once web design of the project is presented and agreed upon and 50% on project completion. First 50% payments were dropped to 35% and were paid with post dated cheques so we actually got the first 35% at the same time projects were completed from our part.

    Client kept asking for features not agreed in our proposals or agreements and projects got halted for 3-4 months! They were actually asking us to do copywriters work on one site and for the other site they were complaining that it did not have features as another competitors website. They did not say anything specific but kept saying the site did not have competitor X features! Again something such vague was not in our proposals anyway! although we did a few things that were not agreed we stopped at the stage that they kept asking for competitor sites features with nothing specific in their emails and asking us to do copywriter work although we offered to subcontract this to a copywriter ( we are talking about 50-60 pages of text here)

    3-4 months later they emailed to remind about the project and the same discussion continued them asking for extra features not agreed and us refusing to do any extra work on unpaid projects. We kept asking for a meeting and they finally agreed to meet! We met they paid 1/4 of the balance and agreed to pay half copywriters work to get the projects done along with a few more things needed to finalize the projects.

    3 weeks latter and 99 emails from them of which mostly asking us to do work never agreed, although we have spend several hours doing most of it, they started whining that we did not respond to their requests the same day. We got fed up refused to do more extra work unless the projects were paid in full. Advised that we can help with extra work once projects are fully paid considering we are provide with a list of extra featured and this is quoted and agreed upon.

    Spend so much time on this client that we ended up having left other projects behind! Got so fed up with this client that even stopped answering phone calls from them, something completely unprofessional but had no choice! Had to slam the door to them in order to focus on other reasonable clients!

    Not sure how to handle this client from now on, but they only way i see is taking things legally since we have quotes and web design agreements signed from them, and all the work we agreed to do was done several months ago. I might even bill all extra work done in their last 99 emails!

    Any advise and your thoughts on this situation will be much appreciated!

  • Graham

    Great article.

    I find that one of the best first line of defence mechanisms is my intuition.
    Everytime my gut says no but I go ahead anyway – it always turns out bad.
    Follow your instincts and it will save you in the long run – even though it is hard to reject business when you really need it.