Ways You Can Recognize the Client From Hell

Hell Client
First, as a disclaimer to any future clients (love you!) let me say that very few clients fit into the client from hell category. If you’re an average Joe or Jane who’s spent the majority of your life not getting slugged square in the face, you’re excluded by a mile. Welcome!

That said, here are some warning phrases that any freelancer should tune his ears to. If you hear a lot of these from the same client, not just a couple here or there, be very sure to clarify down to the finest detail everything that’s needed and wanted. And get a contract signed. In blood. On ancient parchment from the fertile crescent. Or, don’t even take the commission.

“I don’t care.”

The client always cares. If he’s writing the checks, he cares. If he’s proud of his business and the things you’re producing for it, he cares. And if he really doesn’t care, the one thing he’ll care about it is making your life miserable though micromanagement and endless revisions.

”It’s up to you.”

No, it’s really not. The client calls the shots and that’s how it should be.

”You can do anything you want.”

Distant cousin to “it’s up to you.” This is the school of thought that gives you just enough rope to hang yourself.

You need a framework. And if you don’t have one this is what happens: You start creating on a commission. The client doesn’t like it so you change tack and he doesn’t like the next version either. Well, given that there is an infinity of options for every project, this process can and does go on for a long long time.

Why give the client a triangle, then a rectangle, then a rhomboid, then a circle, then a pentagram when all he wanted was a square? Why guess through an entire color spectrum when he really was envisioning something around beige-ish?


That is the sound of silence, and is what you hear when the client disappears. Your telephone and email conspicuously fail to say “ding” or “ring-a-ling” for days on end and you feel like you need to start pacing the floor.

When you can’t reach your client by phone or email for more than two or three days, be wary.

Unless it’s a planned vacation or something you’ve discussed beforehand, this could spell danger. Which in this case is spelled A-B-S-E-N-C-E.

One time I had a client that went from about four emails a day to zero very abruptly, which is what made me suspicious. It was one of those loud silences, you know. It turned out that he’d decided not to go on with the project anymore and just “totally forgot” to let me know.

A freelance friend of mine had something similar happen. He was doing a big website for a company. They were in great communication with him, right up until the moment when they weren’t. He learned later, after an agonizing expenditure of time and energy, the company had hired another designer temporarily but kept my friend on “just in case he came up with something neat.”

”We’ve got to put this on hold for a bit.”

All other things being equal, this means funding has run out. At least, that’s what it’s meant when I’ve heard it. Luckily, I’ve never had a project completely die when I was told this, but I came very close.

”We need to make a few changes.”

There’s nothing really wrong with hearing this, especially at the beginning of a project when you’d expect to work out the larger wrinkles. It’s at the end of the project when things are just about wrapped when this one hurts.

See, in my experience this phrase has always been code for “new management is on board and they’re not diggin’ it.”

Again, not a terrible thing. At least the project hasn’t been halted or given to another guy, right? It does, however, usually entail redoing a lot of work, possibly even all of it.

That’s my list for now, but I consider it a living document. Now, I’d like to hear from ye all.

What have you heard from clients that made your arm hair stand up and your eye lids roll up like window shades?


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Charlie Pabst is a guitar-wielding designer, a sharp-shooting writer, and a tell-it-like-it-is ever-kid. He is also not afraid of hyphens.

He is the founder of Charfish Design and Ignite Living.

You can read more about him here. And you should definitely follow him on Twitter.

24 Responses to “Ways You Can Recognize the Client From Hell”

  1. thats a great post. I’d add a few.

    Working for the wrong person in the organization. Your point person could be the nicest person on earth, but if they don’t have the authority to make final decisions, you could be entering project hell.

    Committees can be great, but if you are on a fixed rate, be super careful.

    Anyone who mentions their budget in every conversation (it should be crisp and clear from the get go – the let it go).

    Keep writing – I like ou blog

  2. Charles Pabst

    @Shane – Great additions, man! I especially like the “always mentioning the budget” tip. Very true.

    Thanks, by the way, for letting me know about the broken plugin. I think it was an out of date “Subscribe to Comments” plug. I think it’s fixed. Appreciate the help!

  3. I was nodding the whole way through this post. Yessir, boy, been there, done that. Ive had a few clients have all these symptoms at once (and why is this strange search bar coming up when I type an apostrophe?)

    I think clients dont (forgive the lack of apostrophes…) mean to be like this. I think they just cant see how extremely difficult and painful these few handfuls of sentences can be to the provider.

    Ill (damned apostrophe)add one:

    “I dont know what I want… I pay you to come with ideas.”

    Um, no. You pay me to make your ideas become reality.

    Great post, well written, well done!

  4. James –

    Hey, I know you! Well, your name at least. I think I see your comments on every blog on the planet! It’s great to see you here now, too.

    Glad you liked the post. And you’re right about clients being generally good natured, lucky for us.

    Bummer about the apostrophes…you must be using Firefox.

  5. I am indeed. Does your blog not like Firefox?

    I laughed at your comments – *every* blog on the planet? Nah. I’m working on it though… got 80% of them down…Naomi’s going to be so proud of me. I promise to come make general trouble, spam like mad on your blog and comment until you wished there was duct tape to shut me up. Deal?

    And same here. I didn’t even realize who you were until I read a few posts, and I’m like, Heyyyy… I know this guy….

    Hm. I just noticed. My apostrophe worked!!!

  6. Hahahaha, awesome, James. I can see we’ll get along like gangbusters! You just earned yourself permission to come here and comment any time and as much as you want!

    My sites all LOVE Firefox, but unfortunately Firefox doesn’t like apostrophes much. I know that bug because Firefox is all I use and I’ve gotten really pissed at it more than once. There are a couple “fixes” floating around, but nothing that seems permanent.

    Glad you could have some warm fuzzies!

  7. Hi Charlie,

    This is great! Another one to add: Someone who asks what it will cost, before they’ve even explained what they need. Yes, cost is VERY important, but if that’s obviously what they’re focused on you may have a hard time selling the value of your talents!

  8. Johnny

    Love this list and it could grow three times as large too.

    Here’s some more:

    1. Client shows the nearly finished project/logo/package design/etc. to his wife and she doesn’t like it and now because some unrelated person to the entire design universe said “I like red”, you have to redesign. Forget the fact that it’s more money, (and if it’s not, that’s your fault for not having a great contract) I just want to MOVE ON with my life, please…

    2. You submit 5 logo designs, all completely different directions to get a feel for where the client wants to go. (This happens a lot with midwesterners, they don’t have a clue where they want to go). Then they start mixing and matching looks that don’t go together. You do what they want anyway (against all the advice you could muster) and then they hate the final result. Oh, nice!

    3. Client thinks they can keep adding to the project parameters – (“oh, just another page on the site”, or my favorite, ‘just a few more photos that you need to take and then photoshop to death and then add to the gallery section” “that shouldn’t take you long, right?”) yet does not want to pay a dime more for it, regardless that your contract was spelled out the the most infintessimal detail.

    4. Client approves cost overruns on the phone during the project (Just do it, we’ll worry about that later, I’ll pay whatever it takes) then calls you up to complain about the final bill which all figures were approved beforehand by THEM.

    5. And my favorite: Client decides they are suddenly a Design God and can design the job but still wants you to produce the final product wherein you basically are a production robot on a really horrid design and it sucks the soul from your life until the project is done.

    After 30 years in the biz, I could go on and on… suffice it to say I’m ready to sh*tcan this career and be a fine artist full time.

  9. I can’t resist commenting. There are a couple I could add to your list.

    1. “My friend told me that you offer a payment plan and I assumed it to be _______, so, now that the project is complete, I am now going to pay you _______ per week.”

    2. Client raves about you and about his new website, until he receives the invoice for the agreed-upon price. Then says that he is upset and that you need to handle his upset.

    There’s more, but I’ll leave it at that. I have to say that one danger is being lax on contracts, because someone is a good friend of a friend or whatever. Never again.

    I have only done a bit of freelancing on the side, but at this point I have to say I really admire anyone who can stay with it full-time. Your post warns me of what other future dangers might lie ahead – Thank you!

  10. So I have to say I went through a bit of this today. Let me give you a play by play:
    1. Client contacts me through a referral a couple of months ago
    2. Client tells me exactly “Do whatever, just make it professional and use shades of blue”.
    3. I draw up an agreement.
    4. Client agrees. Pays upfront to take advantage of a discount. Project is slated for 4 to 8 weeks which is a real estate site.
    5. Communicate with e-mails/phone calls. Also threw in some FREE (yes, said FREE) PC work she needed completed.
    6. Client waits until end of development length to contact me and its two weeks after the period. I came out of the hospital from being critically ill for over a week and had been sick previously for 2 weeks. I was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening cellulitis infection. She is upset I didn’t return a call she claims she sent while I was in the hospital.
    7. Sends me an e-mail and states she wants the site complete but provides me no content for 8 pages so I’m left to do it myself and did the best I can.
    8. Tells me to discontinue work until we can meet.
    9. We meet and some gentleman who claims to be the marketing manager for her to create her “brand” is going off on me about how unprofessional the site is and how unprofessional I am. By the way. I don’t know why a realtor with five listings needs a “brand” but anyways.
    10.So I feel at this point I’ve been setup by this “client” the whole time. She is requesting a full refund after I have put in over 50 hours worth of work or she will seek a lawyer. Her hook is the development timeline.
    11.So I sign the damn agreement they drew up in literally 10 minutes. I just want this over with, not worth my time.
    12.Did I mention she CC’d a client that referred her on one of these e-mails she sent me?

    I’ll let you guys fill me in on the rest with your opinions.

    I will say this is the client from hell. I was not on with the timeline which I admit due to medical problems but this was a fully functioning WordPress driven site with custom plugins written by my firm for real estate management plus a fully customized “branded” theme for $895.00 which she stated was “very high”. The design was professional with approximately 12 pages of content.

    The customer never provided me literally ANYTHING and told me that she pays me to make the decisions otherwise she could get her son to do it. The reason I’m so apt to sign this agreement and make the payments back to her. Her referral was her daughter in law that works for a very large real estate firm that pays alot of my bills and I’m sure she knew this.

    Sorry for the long post but I had to vent about this somewhere. Thanks for reading.

  11. John, your situation has wrongs on both sides of the game.


    If you were sick, you should have put someone in charge of the account while you were in the hospital. You can’t leave a client hanging for a week with no contact. You should at least have given them your hospital phone number so there could be NO WAY they can offer up excuses for not contacting you. Sure, you can’t get anything done on their project, but at least you are in contact.

    Change your contract! Mine has all deposit stipulations clearly marked as NON-REFUNDABLE.

    You shouldn’t have to pay someone back for work accomplished, even if you are not still maintaining the site. If it’s up and running, she’s using it. Therefore, she needs to pay for it. Period. Nobody gets design work for free and that’s what she’s trying to get here.

    I’d also write a clear, concise letter to your referring client and explain IN DETAIL what happened, regardless of the outcome. It pays to cover your ass because otherwise this woman will run around town ruining your reputation.

    Also: 12 pages of content with branding design for $895? That’s horribly low and she got a STEAL!!!

  12. JaneD

    How about clients that ask you to develop the next big application, but they have ZERO business skills, no original ideas and have not taken their vision a step beyond the app-envy phase. i.e. “I want my app to be like , but I don’t want to think about the details, I don’t have the money to properly fund the project and I need it yesterday.”

  13. Charlie

    JaneD –

    Oh, man, that’s a good one! Since I started this business, I’ve had a handful of people ask me to make them “Facebook, but better.” Crazy. And with no budget because “it shouldn’t cost much if you’re just copying something else, right?”

  14. Johnny

    Oh yeah… Love the clients that want sites featuring video, google ads, forms out the wazoo and interactivity but don’t want to pay for anything but the template. “That stuff is easy, everyone knows how to do it so I shouldn’t get charged for it!”. Hmmm, yes, that may be true but it still takes hours and hours and hours to create, idiot! My time ain’t for free ya know!

  15. Jim Ryde-Jones

    “It’s up to you.”

    Aargh, tell me about it. Had a client last year, wanted ultra-cheap website/forum/network for a music group. “It’s up to you.” I say MySpace will be the way to go: free, and it has a music option that’s expressly targeted for exactly that role. “It’s up to you.” I set up the MySpace, nicely customised so it doesn’t look like a boilerplate MySpace page. And then the moans start. “Oh, that wasn’t quite what we wanted. People might be suspicious of a MySpace website because free space looks unprofessional. We want a domain and real webspace.” I say that’ll cost. “Oh. Maybe we could cut the cost by getting my friend to collaborate with you.” I say, in what I hope is a gentle joking way, f*** off, it’ll still cost and I won’t collaborate with someone without the least track record in computing or design. Let’s talk about what’ll work. Whoever does it, MySpace or FaceBook is all you’ll get on the zero budget you have in mind. “Oh.” Then I find later in the day that the client – to whom I’d given the password to show I’m not the kind of control-freak web designer you hear horror stories about – has locked me out of the MySpace site and sent me a snotty e-mail about not being able to work together because of my being unprofessional and trying to control the project.

  16. I love this list… sometimes just managing the “client from hell” uses all the budget that was allotted for the site development and then some… Not to mention needing therapy afterwords.

  17. That is a long list when putting together this post and comments. I used to do wedding videos, run a home services franchise and be a sales consultant for several residential project building companies.

    So I MUST say, get paid UPFRONT. No payment plans, no deposits unless they are to secure your services before the job. But at least get paid in FULL before you start the work. No exceptions. If you are good at what you do you should be able to provide adequate demos and testimonials of your work. If that is not good enough for your prospective client let them walk. The good and SERIOUS ones will come back. Don’t be so desperate to get a client as that shows (even subliminally) and it lowers your bargaining power.

    If you are a web designer and/or content writer and are sick of dealing with bad clients. There is a way to still make money. Just setup great WordPress minisites with unique content (10-20 pages is enough) on a particular niche. Then sell them at the internet marketing forums like DigitalPoint or Warrior. Those IMers are easy buyers and love to buy new sites. Might provide you with another income stream. 😉

    Dave from Oz
    First Wave Media

  18. Design gem

    I have to tell you about my client from hell… Got a call on a Saturday wanting me to draw up a template of a timber mirror design from a photo. It looked relatively easy so quoted him 1.5 hours work. Wouldn’t start unless he paid the retainer 80%. Sent an email with a direct email showing my opening hours.
    I hadn’t heard from him for two days and received a ‘where is it?’ email from him at 9:30pm. I emailed him the next day and advised we still have lives, see opening times and he was suppose to contact me first. I sent through my terms and he paid the retainer, then he stated ‘now i’m in the murky world of the internet!’ To give him more confidence in working through the internet I said if he didn’t like what I did, I’d give him his retainer back.
    This was now well into my working week and I was in meetings all that day and didn’t get onto his job. Another ‘where is it?’ email came through late. I did the design the next morning and sent it through stating how many hours was worked.
    He got back to me saying he wanted this and that changed, and the leaves were not right etc. I didn’t want to go on, but he kept on. I worked another 4 hours on it and the day finished at 5pm. I’d finished the design but hadn’t written up the invoice. I get an email that night saying he cannot go on like this with me finishing for the day, and wanted his retainer back.
    I advised I’d finished the job, and sent him the invoice including the additional hours, and when he’d paid the final amount I’d send his file. He refused this and wanted his money back… all $52.80.
    I told him he had his chance when I sent the first file through to stop there, but he didn’t. The guy was refusing because I wouldn’t work after hours for him, not about the job being done right, so wasn’t going to give him the refund.
    He said he’d come and get me and make my life hell. He then proceeded for three days to send streams of emails to me threatening me, then he text me continuously at the same time. I had to change my two email addresses and my mobile number because he started using my details doing things with them on the internet for the next week. Police tried to contact him but he won’t answer the phone.

    Had a bad vibe from him from the start, and I know now never to make allowances – for anyone, and have removed all my private details. Huge lessons from these clients!

    Design gem
    Aussie land


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