Why Freelance Designers Need the Client from Hell

“We’ll drill them a new asshole if they won’t do it.”

Our client wanted us to make some changes to their website. The changes they wanted were reasonable enough, but that wasn’t the problem.

They didn’t want to pay for it.

They felt their “history” with us was payment enough and they demanded that we comply. They tried all kinds of tactics to get us to fall in line. Name calling, threats, shaming – you name it.

Have you ever had a nightmare client?

The kind of client that’s abusive, demanding or clueless? Maybe you’ve run into the manipulative client who’s always trying to come up with creative ways to get more free work?

These nightmare clients can be incredibly difficult to deal with. One wrong move and they’re plotting revenge, posting bad reviews on Yelp, threatening you with chargebacks or simply refusing to pay.

These clients are a threat to your business

They typically have feelings of condescension or entitlement, that they “own” you, or that you need them. And to make matters worse, freelancers validate those beliefs.

Many freelancers are afraid to lose these clients.

These nightmare clients smell their fear, using that to gain an incredible amount of control, power and leverage over them. They terrorize freelancers with their bad behavior and demanding attitudes.

Freelance designers need the client from hell

The clients from hell do serious damage because as designers, we’re afraid. There are three specific fears every freelancer needs to face and defeat if they want to master the client from hell.

  1. Fear of losing business. This fear comes from not having enough. Not enough leads, sales or clients. When we don’t have enough, we become needy and insecure.
  2. Fear of being humiliated. Clients pay us for our expertise and advice. We think this comes with the expectation that we should be smart, that we won’t make mistakes.
  3. Fear of being inferior. There’s nothing worse than realizing your clients look down on you, that they feel you’re beneath them. Designers become conditioned, doing everything they can to fight for, and uphold their social status.

Did you catch the biggest problem with these fears? They make us self absorbed.

These fears force our attention away from our clients (where it belongs) and places it on… us.

That’s right.

Our fear of losing clients means we’re more likely to… lose our clients.

It gets worse.

Clients manipulate these fears to get what they want. Could be a better price, better terms, free work, etc. Doesn’t matter really. Once clients pick up on these fears, they tend to use them to their advantage.

The client from hell forces us to face…

… Our fears. When you’re dealing with someone who sees your vulnerability and wants to take advantage of it you have two choices.

  1. Accept the abuse
  2. Face your fear

Most needy designers take the abuse. They realize very quickly that this option is worse than they’ve feared.

These nightmare clients do their worst. They shred your business with nasty reviews, hammer you for discounts, bonuses and incentives or they work you into the ground.

Believe it or not, this is good.

Wait. What?

The fear, the abuse, all of it is good for us.

Why would freelance designers need bad clients?

Bad clients vaccinate us from fear.

Let’s say you’re targeted by the client from hell. They throw everything they’ve got at you – the screaming, bad reviews, chargebacks, and legal threats.

They hammer you into the ground.

You’re bloody, beaten up and worn down. You crawl to your knees. Then, feeling wobbly, you get up. You’re on your feet. You’re standing. Your business is still standing.

When you get up everything changes, permanently

The beating isn’t as terrifying. The fear isn’t as strong. When you were in the middle of it the stress was unreal. The fear, anxiety, panic attacks.

They’re a little bit better. Things aren’t as frightening.

You’ve just been vaccinated.

All of the pain, suffering and anguish you’ve gone through has made you stronger and more resilient. You’re able to deal with much more than you could before.

It’s different for each designer, it doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone. But the abuse you’ve endured has started the process.

At some point you’re harder to break. Harder to manipulate and harder to abuse.

Okay, when?

That all depends on you.

These bad clients are trying to help you

Fear drives these clients towards selfishness causing them to misbehave or act out. They bring their fears into the relationship, poisoning the group with their toxicity.

But you’re the antidote.

Thanks to your previous experience and the lessons you’ve learned you’re able to neutralize the poison they’re spreading.

Handle it well and you change your clients forever. When you share the lessons you’ve learned you show them…

  1. Only good behavior is welcome. You set the standard for behavior that’s acceptable to you. You reward the healthy behavior you want, ignoring or rejecting everything else.
  2. You can be trusted. Clients are like children. In the beginning they test the boundaries to determine their limits with you. Designers with strong, healthy boundaries make clients feel safe and secure, creating trust.
  3. You’re not afraid to lose their business. This sends an implicit message. You need me more than I need you. Facing down this fear takes away their power over you. At a minimum, it establishes you as an equal in their eyes.
  4. Humiliation and inferiority won’t break you. This gives your clients confidence. You’re willing to do whatever it takes to care for, guide and protect them – even if it’s embarrassing or humiliating.

Facing these fears moves you to the top of a client’s list. All-star clients will be drawn to you and bad clients will be changed by you.

What about the bad clients who refuse to change?

How do you deal with them? It’s simple. You quarantine them. If you need the money and you have to continue working with them you minimize contact.

If they’re verbally abusive or manipulative, you stop taking their calls, choosing to discuss things via email instead. If they’re unreliable you freeze the project or tax them for your time.

Slowly but surely you set limits on their behavior, doing what you can to protect yourself from their toxicity.

What if you don’t need them?

If you’ve finished working together you’re off the hook. So you begin the process of letting go. This isn’t about “terminating” or firing them, it’s about creating distance.

You create and maintain distance so long as their behavior remains dysfunctional.

Simply stop calling them. Don’t send them emails or pitch them for more work. If they ask you for more help you can quarantine them and continue. If you don’t want to continue working with them, let them down easy.

  • “I can’t get this done for you right now.”
  • “I need to focus on xyz right now, rain check?”
  • “I won’t be able to start on this for another 3 months. Can I recommend another option for you?”

Let things fade away slowly.

Protect their dignity. Give your bad clients the opportunity to save face.

No one looks for bad clients

Bad clients aren’t born, they’re made. Our behavior creates them, our marketing draws them in.

Don’t accept their abuse.

Learn from them. Use the experience they bring to make your business better. Vaccinate yourself against their toxicity. But whatever you do, don’t make the mistake needy freelancers make.

Don’t give in to your fear.

Wouldn’t it be better to avoid bad clients in the first place? It’s an obvious problem, right? Needy designers aside, who lets the client from hell into their business knowingly?

We all do.

Most of us at one time or another have trusted our feelings. “I’ve got a good feeling about this one,” we said. So we let that client in, only to find out we were wrong.

It’s a common mistake. It’s true, the vast majority of disasters are avoidable. But you’ll miss a few, it’s inevitable.

Bad clients feed on dysfunction and toxicity much like rats feed on garbage. Take away the garbage and the rats leave.

The nightmare client isn’t a threat

They’re abusive, toxic and manipulative. They’re difficult to deal with. But they can’t hurt you or your business if you eliminate your fear.

Sure, some may lie to you. Others may try to hurt you. But you’ve been vaccinated. Your fears aren’t in control, you are. Experience tells you, you can deal with anything bad clients throw at you.

You’ve dealt with your garbage and as a result, these toxic clients have nothing to feed on. Keep your garbage clean and soon you’ll find…

You no longer need the client from hell.

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