8 October 2023

Clients from hell: How to navigate nightmarish scenarios as a freelancer

The worst clients can turn your life into something out of a horror movie. We outline four common types of nightmare clients and explain how to deal with them.


It's almost Halloween, a time when we celebrate the fantastical ghosts, monsters and demons of our imaginations. But less fun are the demons you have to wrestle with in your everyday working life. We're talking about those clients you simply hate working with.


It shouldn't have to be like this, of course. One of the main reasons you left your job and set up on your own was to only work with people you like, in the way you like. No more snidey colleagues, no more horrible bosses. Bliss.


And yet, at some point, the need to pay the rent took over, and you took on clients you weren't so sure about. Clients who ended up making your professional life a nightmare. And the stress they caused even bled into your life outside of work.


To defeat your enemy, you first have to know your enemy. So, in this article, we'll explore four nightmarish scenarios and conjure solutions to vanquish these demons effectively, safeguarding both your work and sanity.

The Ghosting Goblin

The scenario

You've diligently completed the project, sent the invoice, and... nothing. Your client has vanished into thin air. Emails go unanswered, phone calls go unreturned. You're left with a stack of unpaid bills and a growing sense of dread.

The solution

Step 1. At this point, your urge is to tear a late-paying client limb from limb. From a human point of view, that's perfectly natural. But in most cases, a spirit of professionalism will bear more fruit. So it's better to send a polite but firm follow-up, reminding the client of the outstanding payment and how this falls outside the terms you previously agreed.


Even if you must grit your teeth while typing it, resist the temptation to get personal. It might feel good, but it almost certainly won't help. Be professional and courteous, even if you're starting to feel frustrated. At the same time, set a deadline by which you expect to receive a reply, and explain that if you don't, you'll be forced to take further action.


Step 2. If the ghosting continues, it may be time to bring in the big guns. A formal letter of demand, followed by small claims procedures, can help you get the money you're owed. You'll find details of how to make a claim on this page.


Step 3. To avoid ghosting in the future, request a percentage of payment upfront before starting any project. This will help protect you financially and ensure your client is serious about working with you.

The FrankenScope Creep

The scenario

You've agreed on a clear scope of work with your client. But as the project progresses, they keep adding new tasks and modifications, transforming it into a monstrous entity far beyond what you originally agreed to. You feel stuck in a nightmare that seems like it will never end.

The solution

Step 1. When you start working with a client, set clear boundaries and expectations. This includes defining the scope of work, timelines and costs in your contract. Gently remind the client of the agreed-upon scope throughout the project.


Sounds great in practice, right? But let's be honest, this isn't always easy to do. We all want to be liked in client meetings, especially when they get relaxed and chatty. And so it's easy to end up agreeing to things outside of the scope of the project because of the power of social compliance.


There's no easy way to avoid this: you just have to be firm, consistent, and continually refer back to the agreed project scope. So every time someone starts a sentence, "We were wondering if you could just…" or "There's just one little extra thing…" be on your guard and prepare to (politely and firmly) rebut.


Step 2. If the client does keep requesting additional work, it might be better to renegotiate the contract. After all, more work means more money for you, as long as it's recognised and you're fairly compensated for it, and it will ultimately keep the client happy if it leads to better protection. Ensure the new terms are fair and equitable, and be clear about the additional timelines and costs involved.


Step 3. Whatever happens during a project, document everything and keep a detailed record of all additional requests and communications with the client. Yes, this might seem like extra, even unnecessary work when things are going well. And in truth, it's rarely the most fun part of a job. Ultimately, it will help you to protect yourself in case of disputes, so it's vital to do. Plus, the self-knowledge you'll get from doing so should also help you to plan, pitch and negotiate projects more effectively and precisely in future.

The Dracula Downplayer

The scenario

This is similar to project creep. But rather than adding extra tasks to the project, this client simply draws everything out unnecessarily. In short, they downplay your creative efforts and make continual rounds of revisions that seem as pointless as they are endless.

The Solution:

Step 1. The first step is to educate the client on why you are the professional, not them. Many people genuinely believe, for example, that their design vision is as good as a professional designer and that they only hired a freelancer because "they know Photoshop". The same applies to other disciplines: e.g., they only hired you as a photographer because "you have an expensive camera".


If that's the case, you need to politely but firmly explain that there's more to it than that… and they need to trust you to make creative decisions. Unless you can convince them of this basic principle, you'll never get beyond so-called revisions such as "Can we try this in green?" or "How about we find a more attractive model to photograph"?


Step 2. Once the client understands that revisions are not 'suggestions for how you can do your job better', you need to explain what revisions are for and how they should be made. To illustrate this, you could give them examples; for example: "I hate this colour" is not helpful, but "Can we use colours specified in our brand style guide?" is. In other words, emphasise that revisions are not about personal taste but about ensuring the content you're creating aligns with and promotes the company's overall strategy and values.


Step 3. As with project scope, you should always begin a detailed contract outlining the revision policy and additional costs for extra work. Specify, for example, the difference between minor and major revisions. Detail how many rounds of revisions are included in the agreement and that exceeding this will involve extra charges. This will help to avoid any misunderstandings or disagreements down the road.

The Wild and Untamed Werewolf

The scenario

Your client is fickle-minded, unpredictable and constantly changing their vision and direction. This leads to chaotic and unpredictable project development. As a freelancer, it means you're constantly under pressure, worried that your work thus far will suddenly be ripped from at a moment's whim and will all be for nothing.

The Solution

Step 1. You'll notice a theme developing here. This scenario, as with many others, can be avoided if you employ a structured project management approach from the start, with clearly defined milestones and checkpoints. This will help to keep the project on track and prevent any major surprises.


Step 2. As the project progresses, encourage your client to stick to the original project's vision and continually get 'buy-in' on early, exploratory work by getting them to complete structured feedback forms or questionnaires. This will help to reduce the need for changes further down the line.


Step 3. Maintain calm and assertive communication throughout the project, gently steering the client back whenever they venture too far from the agreed-upon path. Be patient and understanding, but also firm in your boundaries.