How To Deal With Bad Clients

No matter what industry you work in, what your position is, or what you do, we all have experiences with bad clients, terrible customers, and sour relationships. It’s part of doing business.

When someone asks me how they should deal with a problematic client, though, my response is always the same:

There is no such thing as a bad client or a good client.

They’re all good clients, they just might not be a good client for your business. It’s your ability to know which companies you want to work with that defines if they’re a good fit for you.

Embrace clients as business relationships

Our problem is usually that we look at our clients as transactions; instead, we should look at them as relationships. These are the people you’re going to be working with for long periods of time, they’re going to be the people counting on you to deliver the things they need to be successful. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. Effective client relationships are in total economical alignment – you’re not doing a favor for someone, or vice versa.

You need to have a very tight focus on your business and know which clients will push you forward and which ones will hold you back. Just because someone comes along and presents a great opportunity and cash, it doesn’t mean they’re the right fit.

How to assess a client

We’re in business to make money, that’s true, but you can’t make money if you spend your time doing work for clients that don’t make you happy, don’t let you show off your talent, and drive your employees away. That’s a short route to bankruptcy.

Remember: the money is only one part of any transaction, don’t focus on it alone and forget about the other parts. Those other parts include: can you deliver what they’re asking for? Are your employees able to do it well? Is the client a good partner to work with? What is the long-term benefit or cost of working with this client? Don’t be blinded by the check with a lot of zeroes.

Sometimes we get distracted by the opportunity. We think, “Oh, this is going to lead to X or Y or Z.” But we can’t lose focus on our present situation by betting on an uncertain future. In my agency, we don’t work with any client unless we are able to do it within our three pillars:

  1. Our work has to amaze and astound the client
  2. We have to be able to do it within a specific timeline and budget
  3. The work we do should grow our business

If a client wants us to do work that doesn’t fulfill all three of those pillars, we simply do not accept the contract, and we move on.

Make sure whatever work you’re bringing on is going to do as much for you as it is going to do for your client.

Great work brings great clients

A lot of people think that the hard thing is separating the good fits from the poor ones, but it’s actually easy to get great clients if you’re doing great work. If you don’t do great work then it is hard to attract great clients.

If you’re putting your work out there and doing great things, your clients are going to recommend you to others who are like them, who will then seek you out. Your good work becomes your salesman; you don’t need to persuade people that you’re a good company, because they can already see it. We all know that when a car salesman, or any kind of marketer, begins talking about the benefits of their product without actually showing the product, they’re trying to sell you garbage. When you feel the need to explain or talk about your work instead of just showing it off, it’s probably because you’re not producing great work, and you need to fill in the gaps with words.

It’s when you begin begging for work that isn’t a great match.

The scope of work is the baseline for success

How have we avoided begging for work? How do we consistently produce work that we’re proud to show others? Simple: we don’t limit ourselves by the scope of work.

The client’s deliverables, the scope of work is the baseline for our success. That’s the starting point, not the finish line. Great work only happens after you meet the bare minimum, not before.

When we sign a scope of work that states we produce X campaign within four months, we deliver X campaign plus Y, and do it in three months instead. We consistently under-promise and over-deliver, and word has gotten out. We have the burden of opportunity now – we have clients that are requesting that we work for them, and not the other way around. Now, it’s up to us to pick which ones we want to work with, and that means we can focus on the work that we know will allow us to do our best work.

We don’t have to settle.

That being said, there are three steps in dealing with “bad” or difficult clients. The first is avoiding them entirely, the second is preventing any client from turning into a bad one, and the third is what to do when you find you’re working with one.

1. Know how to identify bad clients, because the best way to deal with bad clients is to not have any

The most important part of working with difficult clients is the beginning. Once you start working and you’re obligated to deliver things, and finances are tied up in the relationship, the situation becomes much hairier.

So your best option is to avoid that situation before it happens in the first place.

When people hire my agency, they ask around, they get referrals, they want to make sure they’re getting good value for their money. Your business should do the same. It has to be a courtship; as much as they’ve done their research, do your own.

I don’t know of any leader who has complained that they didn’t work with a client. I always hear the opposite. They have horror stories of bad clients, bad projects, but never bad stories of turning down a client. There is usually a reason that they turned them down, and in the end, they realized that they had made the right decisions, no matter how hard they were.

Trust your gut. If an opportunity looks too good to be true, it probably is. Every company is going to work hard to make sure they look like the best option, it’s part of doing business. Don’t fall for that sweet talk. If something doesn’t quite add up or if it feels suspicious, cut those meetings and move on. There’s no point in wasting time talking with them or working with them. If you’re going to feel nervous and second-guess yourself the whole time. That’s not a good way to do business.

Choose your clients as carefully as someone chooses their service providers, ask people who worked with them. If you get any sense that they’re not good, don’t do it, because there’s nothing worse than realizing you just signed a contract with the wrong client.

2. Prevent clients from turning bad

How you start your working relationship is really critical. Hold each other accountable.

Before you get too far, make sure that you ask these three questions that we ask all our clients. We aim to get the answers to these questions before work ever begins, not only because it helps us do great work, but because it helps keep everyone targeted at the same goal.

These questions are:

What are your key objectives?

You will be successful when?

What is that success measured by?

If your client can’t answer those questions before you begin, you’re already setting yourself up for failure. Those answers need to be very clear. If not, how will you know what you’re working toward? How will you know what failure looks like? Miscommunication is often the root of bad relationships.

Normally, there are lines we don’t let our clients cross. When a client is getting aggressive or provides unconstructive feedback or calls at all hours, those are red flags of trouble to come. Sometimes it’s because you haven’t set the right rhythm or precedent, or set the right boundaries, so first take care of that. Make sure clients understand the rules of engagement. Who’s calling? What is acceptable behavior? What’s not? Do all that at the beginning, and don’t wait for a situation to happen to then try and reframe the relationship.

Take the time to set yourself up for success instead of failure.

3. Cut ties with bad clients quickly

I don’t take on every client that comes my way, I only take on the ones that I know we can accomplish within our three pillars.

But, what do you do if you find out you’ve been bamboozled and the relationship is now toxic?

There is nothing more demoralizing to a company than having to work with a bad client.

We had a bad client recently, and because we were trying to make ends meet we didn’t let them go when they started acting badly. They mistreated our employees and, as a result, one of them quit shortly after. In the aftermath, I couldn’t believe I’d done it. Sure, we’d got the money, but what was the cost?

It cost us good people. It cost our company culture. We sacrificed things we shouldn’t sacrifice for a client that would never be satisfied.

Understand the costs of working with bad clients. Sometimes you don’t want to get rid of a client because they pay a lot of money, but the real cost isn’t the money, it’s the toll it takes on your team, your staff.

Avoid letting bad clients get out of hand

A second example is a client that I realized was a bad client before it got out of hand. I noticed that their business practices were questionable, and they were asking our employees to do things that would compromise their excellent work. They weren’t being honest with us, which was a risk to our creative ability and our integrity. So, to quote Tony Hunter, I “delivered bad news well.”

Finally, a third example. I happened to be passing our conference room when I heard a client yelling at our account team over the phone. However, I wasn’t on the team and wasn’t familiar with the project, so I didn’t know the context of the call, but I decided to jump in anyway.

I told the client that this conversation sounded less than productive. Then I asked if there was anything he would want to discuss with me directly offline. He continued to give unproductive feedback, so I thanked him, told him we were done. Then I proceeded to let him know they were no longer our client so they will never have the opportunity to speak to my team that way again.

At first, it caused problems with the team and everyone was confused for a while. But in the end, it created a sense of loyalty from everyone in the room.

Prioritize your team over bad clients

That’s something you can’t get by sacrificing them to the bad clients.

Now, when I see that clients treat my team wrong, I don’t hesitate. Your employees are with you for years, your clients will be with you for months.

You should always be prepared to walk away from a bad client. A bad client is someone who tells you to win with the winners. First of all, no winner has ever said that that’s a fallacy. 

Be smart. Don’t look at them as clients, look at them as if they were someone you might date. Any form of business is a relationship. If you’re not willing to date them, go out with them, or spend time with them, don’t do it.

Do you really need to stay in that relationship long term to find out how deep the rabbit hole goes?

Or do you just cut your losses and walk away?

Ron Gibori is a nationally recognized entrepreneur and award-winning creative director at Idea Booth–a creative think tank. His work with mtvU on the “Half of Us” pro-social campaign received several Emmy nominations and won a Peabody Award. Ron frequently writes about entrepreneurship, leadership, creativity, and innovation.

  • Originally published April 22, 2019, updated April 26, 2023