This week, I interviewed my long-time personal friend and business ally, Alice Osborn. The video is at the end of this blog post, where Alice shares some of the things that she has learned about weeding out the wrong clients and attracting more of the right ones. She also wrote her own blog post on the subject of how to find the right clients.

It’s been nearly 10 years since I left my full-time job in pursuit of my own business. The last decade has been an incredibly rewarding experience as I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of different types of businesses. In the beginning, I set out with only a vague notion of what type of business I wanted to create. I knew that I had a knack for writing, and that I could find a way to apply this skill to the business world. As I started to meet with different business owners, I found that a number of challenges seemed to be the same across the board. Top among those challenges was one factor: the need to find customers. A lot of business owners get into trouble by adopting the attitutde that all customers are good customers, and I’ve paid a high price for making this mistake myself over the years.

In the last several years, I’ve gained a better appreciation of something I didn’t understand back in 2007: there are good customers and there are bad customers. Good customers put money into a business. Bad customers leech money out of it. Good customers are fun and rewarding to work with. Good customers are appreciate of great service. Bad customers are disrespectful and offensive. Good customers pay on time. Bad customers pay late (or don’t pay at all).

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell a bad customer right at the outset, but I’ve learned some of the warning signs to look out for. If there is one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that it is never a good idea to ignore a red flag, no matter how small or innocuous it may seem. One particularly horrible client taught me this lesson; the warning signs were there from the beginning. Over a period of months, the situation grew steadily worse until I was ultimately left holding the bag with a large unpaid invoice. It was an eye-opening experience, and I hope to use it to help others avoid ending up in a similar situation.

Here are some things to watch out for when dealing with any kind of client, prospect, employer or professional peer, regardless of industry or budget.

Displaying a negative or disrespectful attitude.

Good clients respect the professionals they hire, and they understand that time is money. A disrespectful attitude can take a lot of forms, but I’ve learned to go by the way it feels to interact with someone. If I read an initial email from a prospect and my gut says “this is trouble,” I pay attention.

Common disrespectful behaviors include:
  • Insisting that we need to meet in person when an email would have sufficed
  • Demanding that I drop everything because you didn’t plan ahead
  • Showing up for a meeting unprepared (or with a different agenda than we discussed)
  • Calling on the phone and not asking if it’s a good time to talk
  • Ignoring my warnings, then expecting me to deal with the consequences when something blows up
  • Acting as if I’ve already agreed to take on the work when I have not committed to anything
  • Getting right down to price, or asking for a discount in the first line of conversation
  • Pretending that you want to hire me for a paying project to get free advice or information

Asking nosy or inappropriate questions.

I’ve had prospects ask me to reveal the names of my other clients, how much money I was making, as well as personal matters like my religious beliefs, political views and relationship status. (I even had one prospect ask me to explain why I was not married.) If a client or prospect asks a question that seems odd, ask yourself if there is any legitimate business reason for them to be asking this question. You are under no obligation to answer everything a prospect or a client asks.


I’ve observed a common pattern with every bad client I’ve ever had: we make agreements to do certain things, and they later act as if the conversation never happened. In one situation, I worked with a client who would send email recaps after each meeting. During one meeting, he grudgingly agreed to something that he was not happy about. This point was “conveniently” omitted from his written recap, which leads right to my next point.

Avoiding written communication.

I once had a client who displayed an odd tendency to reply to simple emails and text messages with a single sentence: “Call me.” I didn’t think anything of it at first, but I eventually realized that this was a strategy to avoid a paper trail. Bad clients do not like accountability, and they always try to leave themselves a back door.
Last but not least…

Breaking (small) promises without owning up to it.

When a client breaks little promises, they eventually break bigger ones. Nobody’s perfect and everyone screws up from time to time. When a good client breaks a promise (such as paying late or not getting information to me when they said they would), they acknowledge their mistakes and do what is needed to correct them. Bad clients try to “slip under the radar.”
The most common example here is no-showing for a meeting, then acting defensive about it. I’ll never forget a situation in 2007 when a prospective client didn’t show up for a meeting and didn’t call or email. I called and left her a voice mail, and she called me back later that day, not even mentioning the meeting she’s stood me up for. I brought it up, and she became angry and started yelling at me. She then hung up and sent me a flaming email. (Thankfully, I never took any of her money!)
Other examples of broken promises include:

  • Paying late, or paying a different amount of money than agreed, without any prior communication
  • Showing up to a meeting with a hidden agenda
  • Asking for a meeting and then canceling it at the last minute (when there was no emergency)
  • Misrepresenting the nature of our relationship to a third party
  • Committing to a specific timetable and budget, then backpedaling and avoiding the subject
  • Attempting to involve me in matters that are not my problem, without my prior consent
Bad clients are like termites. They will eat away at the foundation of any business. They carry negative energy around with them, and they blame everyone else for their own self-created drama. You can’t afford these kinds of clients. They will absorb valuable time and energy that’s better spent with good clients. The best thing you can do is learn to recognize these dysfunctional signals as early as possible. The sooner you identify bad clients, the easier it is to get rid of them.

One thought to “Nightmare Clients and How to Avoid Them”

  • Olalah njenga

    Absolutely spot on post. My favorite…Breaking (small) promises without owning up to it. That one really gets under my skin. If the client will break small promises – wait for it, big ones are next.

Comments are closed.