How to be a terrible client (and what it will cost you)

Working freelance is like a dance. When your partner works with you, it can be glorious. If the partner is oblivious, it is painful and ugly.

Here’s the thing: I love my clients. I really do.

There is the bright and energetic woman whose book will deliver great advice about how to succeed at work. I like her because she learns so quickly from my coaching and is always getting better.

There is the guy who’s writing the world’s most authoritative book on the future of autonomous cars. I like working with him because the edits I’m making to his book will increase its impact and enable him to have the influence he deserves.

I even like the huge firm that’s preparing the annual projection of the biggest trends affecting our future. Those folks are smart. I can help their writing to read more smoothly, more consistently, and more powerfully, which will enable them to accomplish their goal of creating credibility and influence.

Those clients are all very different from each other, but there is a pattern. They know what they need, and we agree on what that is. They picked me for my specific expertise to help with that need. They appreciate my help, even though it is my job to be critical of their work. And when I give them that advice, they think about it and act on it. This means that my work has an impact, and that matters to me at least as much as the monetary compensation.

These clients will produce. I will see their work published. They will get the credit they deserve, but I’ll be proud to have helped.

I will work like a mad for these clients. I will turn things around quickly, even on weekends and holidays. If they need to make a change that requires a fast pivot on the work, I will do that for them. I will encourage them and tell them they’re great (because they are). And I won’t nickel and dime them, even if there is a little extra work we hadn’t planned on, because I just want them to succeed.

Unfortunately, not every client is like this.

The other kind of client

If you are a freelancer, you know the other kind of client. (In fact, there’s a whole blog about them).

Here’s an incomplete list of what they’re like:

  • They insist that you to do work outside your expertise, then complain that it is inferior.
  • They ignore the deadlines you set, crunching your own work time down to nothing — and the only reason is that they weren’t paying attention.
  • No matter how much you explain publishing processes and the penalties for violating them, it doesn’t stick. Then they wonder why there is a problem with their impossible requests.
  • When you deliver a critique, they defend their work against it, rather than considering why you detected a problem and how to fix it.
  • They fail to review materials in early stages, then detect problems far later when it is expensive and difficult to fix them.
  • They make requests with no awareness of how the level of effort balances with the level of reward.
  • They never seem to learn anything.
  • They’re nasty.

We all end up working with clients like this — we might have been fooled up front, or we might just need the money.

But working for these clients is not glorious and joyful. And the results will be harder to be proud of, since the clients have undermined their own ability to be successful.

I charge these clients by the hour, and they pay my highest rate.

I don’t do freebies when they’re in a pinch, because they used up their supply of free outside-the-scope help long ago.

Quality is no longer the ultimate goal on these projects — finishing is, because the clients make it difficult to actually attain anything we could agree is “quality.”

As a result, these folks are paying top dollar for worse results than the clients that are a joy to work with.

Often, these folks come back for return business. I think it is because they have worn out their welcome with other freelancers, or because their perception of the process is better than it actually was. (They don’t tend to be very perceptive about relationships.) If I’m at all busy, I’ll find that somehow, I can’t fit their new project into my schedule.

If you hire a freelancer, consider the type of client you are going to be. It’s not just a question of being nice. Being the right kind of client will get you incredible freelancer effort, lower prices, and better results.

Of course you could ignore this. Then you’ll end up with greedy, transactional freelancers who don’t give a shit.

There’s only one smart choice here. Can you figure out what it is?

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  1. This post made me smile, Josh. Knowing how difficult clients can be, there’s an opportunity when you are the client.

    Case in point: I just had a discussion with the video guy for Slack For Dummies. I’ve done trailers for all of my books and want to do the same here.

    As the discussion progressed, I mentioned how my video-editing skills are minimal. I know enough to know that I don’t know that much.

    I showed him some of my past book trailers. I described how much freedom I’ve given the creators. I mentioned how, as a vendor, I hate micromanaging. The same holds true when I’m the client. After we agree on a vision, I’m hands-off.

    Needless to say, the call went well and I can expect a quality trailer for the book in the next month or so. The video guy smile and told me that “I had him at ‘no micromanaging.'”

    Brass tacks: Negative experiences with clients can make us better clients ourselves.

  2. We’ve all had those clients. It’s the good ones that keep us engaged. I once made a billing error on a consulting gig with a good client, in effect overcharging. I knew the invoice would have already been submitted internally. It was embarrassing for me and I thought would be awkward for her internally. I called and apologized. Her response was, hey we’re in this together. We’ll figure it out. What a joy to work with her.