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What is a bad client? After more than a decade fending for myself in the business world, I think it is very interesting to observe a particular pattern from (luckily) just a subset of clients. Further, I am quite happy to say that I’ve literally experienced client turnarounds. The client has told you off multiple times that you are too expensive, they are back out there looking for someone affordable and reliable and simply cannot; then the less prideful come on back and I welcome that person as they will now generally be more respectful.
But here is my own description of ‘Bad Client Syndrome.’
A bad client generally comes to you with a specific, low-ball estimate in mind, usually at a flat rate. After you repeatedly ignore them (by not doing the pesky sales follow up routine) or even just turn them down out right repeatedly, they end up insisting you are the right person – they are sure of it! – and okay, they will grant you your ‘exorbitant’ rate for the job.
Then, a week or two into the job, they proceed to remind you that they are overpaying you, thus forcing you to feel obligated to remind them of why the rates are what they are and that they already agreed to the terms. This pointless, time wasting discussion will occur every few weeks. Additionally, you will now end up spending more time documenting every step down to the detail because you know they pick every cost apart. This will cost you your own time to some extent most likely because you know they will complain if they see:
Fancy, over-elaborate invoice: 2 hours // $160 total (for example).
Meanwhile, this same client will take every possible opportunity to let you know when your technology is lacking – why don’t you have the latest x, y, z gadget, software, computer? they want to know (after all your rates are so incredibly high in their minds, even when you happen to be at the very bottom in terms of the hourly rate pool because you are a woman in technology – and – ohmygosh – old to boot!).
And meanwhile, after the ‘client with the wallet’ watches their team member berate you for nothing (because you would not go on a date with said person, perhaps?) and then will reward this bad behavior with a promotion. Now Mr. Sexual Harassment is your ‘boss’ and subsequently Mr. Sexual Harassment will sit on all your work requests for months, email, text, phone and in-person efforts all blocked – thus eventually forcing you to do their job for them – so that you can simply get to a place where you can do your own promised work per the contract terms – because ‘client with the wallet’ who rewards sexually harasser let’s him continue to gaslight because he (perhaps unknowingly) loves the drama – thus eventually forcing you to a situation where you have to discount off your fee due to incredibly elongated time-frame for something you’ve never done before, $1K out of pocket (thanks so much Mr. Sexual Harassment! – no, sorry but one breakfast burrito from you does not mean we are cool now, that probably just won’t ever happen as I have zero trust in you, but I always finish the job. Thereafter my goal to just get as far away from you as fast as possible).
And because this is all the contract economy, no one is an employee. There is no HR department to report the issue to. Your only options are to endure or to walk out on the middle of the project, thus risk the client suing you instead, unless you have the cash to pay back all the fees received (even though you are under no legal obligation to do so, based on the work terms, but we are talking about dealing with the mean people of the world here).
And meanwhile the ‘client with the wallet’ – while berating you for not having the best phone, camera, etc. – literally refuses to read any text or email you ever send him and s/he is so proud of being a business illiterati or perhaps they have dyslexia and think you should charge them less because of it – because they are ‘disabled,’ etc.
But they basically will refrain from all reading during the entire project – not an email or text will be read. They may also refuse to listen to a single voice mail.
Further, they will never, or on a greatly delayed schedule, send you anything they’ve written and prefer you take their dictation by phone, thus further driving up costs.
Then, once you hit the point where they think they’ve paid you quite enough (usually in my field that is going to be around $2500), suddenly the payments will slow down greatly (you’ve already been given the ‘right’ amount per their view). They will continue to expect you to work and run up the bill if you let them, then basically may just stop paying you altogether and do their best to string you along to the end without any intention of paying you – as they know you are basically helpless against them unless you sue them.
So my friends – even your so-called ‘friends’ need to pay up front – if you are a small business that is your best protection!
And avoid new business start-ups if possible, definitely if the person is inexperienced or you are seeing flaws in the plan they are blinding themselves to. For example, a not-usually-bad client decided to open a second restaurant in a totally different environment though it was a chain, and spent way too much on the build out because his business partner was an architect and bad with business numbers. He felt pressured by this man. He ran up his bill with me in this time-frame, promising he was good for it. Then he died from the stress. Looking back, I wish I had been way more adamant that he was very foolish in his plans for that second restaurant, not that it would necessarily have mattered. But at the end of the day it would have been the best thing for my long-term conscious.
If at all possible, avoid friends starting new businesses who think they should be exempt from your policies due to ‘character.’ Starting a new business is brutal – and you – as a small biz consultant – will always cue at the bottom of the payment hierarchy unless you enjoy frequently threatening lawsuits. So get paid up front!! Always!
And finally, I learned something in a biz dev class a decade back that is so helpful – when the client asks for a third copy of your contract with their revisions, that is generally a good time to become incredibly busy with a new fake project. Because time and again, when I’ve broken this rule, I’ve paid for it! Generally the person that fussy up front will just keep it up the whole time and these are the people that have ended up in the Bad Client file draw.
On a bright note, in my most recent, and should I hope last? installment of the Bad Client files I learned how to do at a good part of Mr. Sexual Harassment’s job since he was not only not helpful, but a project saboteur who I could not count on for anything. Now I have new skills for my resume, although granted these come at an exorbitant emotional cost and I would not sign on to do this project again.
Clearly I am somewhat exaggerating the Bad Client profile – usually I don’t have to deal with such explicit, condoned and hostile sexual harassment – but the other parts of the syndrome generally hold across cases.
Good luck out there!
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The self-published book by Dolores Hark entitled, "Living Frugally with Purpose and Style: the New Conserver," is now available for download.
Dolores has a Master's Degree in Economics and in Sociology from a reknowned U.S. based university. She provides a serious look at how to better manage Household Economics.
View the book outline here