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Three Warning Signs of a Nightmare Client
and why we sometimes don't heed them

 1:08 pm on Jun 24, 2006 (gmt 0)

Once upon a time, I received the "three warning signs" from a potential client all in the first sentence: "I don't have much money, I need my site up and running a.s.a.p., and my current web design company won't return my calls".

Hmmmm...why, I ask you, did some benevolent lightbulb go off in my head - the toxic urge to help someone in need, perhaps - and not the glaring warning flares? I don't know. I took the bait. We met, I agreed to slash my rates, get it done in 30 days, and thus began a relationship with a client that, because of their micromanaging and nitpickiness, ended up diluting my hourly rate to about minimum wage.

I learned early on how to spot the warning signs of a nightmare client. It just took me a little while to figure out how to say "no.". Early on, I am sure that the desire to grow my business was at the heart of the acquiesence, even in spite of that feeling of dread you feel when you are about to execute the contract. Now, with plenty of work from corporate clients, many of whom refuse to micromanage because they have jobs to attend to, I can be a lot more picky.

With that, here's my anaysis of the Big Three. Feel free to add your own.

"I need to do this as cheap as possible"

Usually, this comes out in their first inquiry. If I track the nightmare clients' profile, I can definitely trace this comment to usually the very first phone call. In fact, it's interesting how many of the potential clients who made this statement from the outset would ultimately either stand me up, or cancel the first consultation before we ever got off the ground.

"I need your best price" certainly sends up the red flags now. Not because clients who insist on a fair and equitable price are inherently nightmare clients, but, clients who begin with this as their foundation, those who are price-driven, ultimately don't understand value. They ask "what will you do for me?" instead of "what will my website do for me?". And usually, this type of stance is followed by:

"I need it yesterday"

A tight time constraint is not, in and of itself, a problem. In fact, a number of my better clients have been somewhat urgent about a launch date. But taken in concert with bullet point #1, this becomes indicative of a client who has no understanding of or regard for the process. They think you are sitting at home with nothing else to work on other than their $1000 site. Usually, all other aspects of their business, project, etc are equally in disarray. They are close to closing down, and their website is a last ditch effort to generate business, and so on.

This type of frenetic urgency is interesting, in that, usually, these people are the nitpickiest clients of all - critiquing every font, gradient, and crop. Wanting it done over and over until the picture they saw in their head begins to take shape, or, more likely, until it begins to look like their friend's website, which is what they wanted it to look like all along, but were afraid to say so.

Until I began to grasp the concept that "your failure to plan is not my emergency", I was usually being reactive to the timeline wishes of the nightmare client. Now, the launch date is set by when the calendar will allow.

and, finally, but most daunting of all:

"My current web designer won't call me back"

I have seen and heard many varients on this theme. Sometime it's couched in secrecy, i.e. "our last company we just had a...well, it just didn't work out"; sometimes overt, to-wit: "the web design company I hired dropped me" or "says they won't do my site because they don't agree with my content".


Now, this is much different that the client who breaks with their existing web design company because truly, they are getting bad service, or perhaps they entered into a relationship with a fledgling designer who either got in over their head or evaporated before they ever got off the ground, but you can definitley tell the difference.

This is the client who, by the tone and description of their "falling out" is clearly suspect, and it's very soon apparent that the reason they had a falling out is because they were pouring scope creep into their relationship by the truckload, micromanaging, changing their minds, and diluting the value of the already whittled-down price way past the point of tolerant. I have had a few of these clients and have come close myself to dropping them mid contract (in fact, I did fire one mid-relationship. It's rather liberating)

The fact that there was a break in the relationship with their previous designer should send you running for the hills. When combined with the need for speed and the demand for your rock-bottom dollar, there's almost no need to follow up with questions about why the previous relationship ended - you know why.

Being able to turn away business is a little intimidating at first. It seems counterintuitive to growing your company. But IMHO, it's just the opposite. Turning away BAD business, and there is most definitely bad business in this field, frees up your time to market yourself to and design for quality clients. Clients who get it - who understand that a website is about value, not about price, and that will trust you to do your job in the manner in which they have hired you to begin with.

Just my two cents. Any other red flags?

Best Regards,




 5:11 pm on Jun 24, 2006 (gmt 0)

Fantastic post.

"your failure to plan is not my emergency"

This often takes quite a while to learn. Stressing over other people's mistakes and problems only reduces your lifespan and quality of life. Helping within reason is one thing. Trying to always be the hero for a lost cause is quite another.

I think those three probably cover the best reasons not to take on a client. All three, as well as perhaps any other can probably be boiled down to "unrealistic expectations". The real problems start when you don't correct these expectations.


 5:14 pm on Jun 24, 2006 (gmt 0)

Excellent post. We just had this *exact* same scenario happen to us.

Don't spin wheels on these types of clients -- cut em loose ASAP.


 5:46 pm on Jun 24, 2006 (gmt 0)

There is saying in the printing industry -

Fast, Cheap, or Quality - pick any two, you don't get all three.

Inevitably though, it all comes back to how you react to it. We all answer the call to "help someone out" and it almost always winds up being a mistake. Once you compromise your policy, customers begin to expect it. Worse yet when word gets around that you charged X half what you charged Y, it becomes known in the community that you can be had.

My reaction tothe nightmare customer is the opposite these days. A lot of compensation falls under "nuisance charges." This may seem obnoxious but you know this is going to get out of hand and it's the only way to keep food on the table.


 6:01 pm on Jun 24, 2006 (gmt 0)

I need to do this as cheap as possible

I think that's also a legitimate concern for some who may have limited resources. That's why they make Hyundais. You can still get from here to there in a Hyundai- which is what some people are mainly interested in, anyway.

If you can produce something that's limited in scope, but will still move your client from here to there, then you may have found a middle way to please them while not reducing your rates.


 12:25 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

If you can produce something that's limited in scope, but will still move your client from here to there, then you may have found a middle way to please them while not reducing your rates.

but then you're playing into their hands

why do half a job?


 12:45 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

I love this post. I subscribe to <snip>.com's project notification service just for entertainment purposes. I get about 3-4 e-mails from them a day with contract postings... My favorites are when they say...

"I have a friend who says this can be done in a few hours by someone who knows what they are doing..."

Or my other favorite...

"I'm looking for someone who has done this before or already has the code built and can deliver by tomorrow".

So you are looking for me to "give" you my hard work for cheap just because I already did it? Maybe I'll sell you a license but I'm not going to just roll it out for you since I already did it in the past.

The topper is when they specifically ask for someone with good communication skills, highest quality work, but low rate and overseas labor preferred.

Then I also enjoy the frequent follow-up's from previous job posters:

"Guys. This is the third time I've had to post this... I don't know what is so hard about this..."

Yeah, I want to work for you! Sign me up!


[edited by: stuntdubl at 4:52 pm (utc) on July 9, 2006]
[edit reason] no urls please per TOS [webmasterworld.com] [/edit]


 1:02 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

"I have a friend who says this can be done in a few hours by someone who knows what they are doing..."

heehee...exactly. Or better yet, they try to play you against the firm that already dumped them.

"Wanna hear what the other company was gonna do it for? Five hunnerd bucks".

"Really? You mean the one that won't return your calls or emails?"

I guess it's a lot like when I was a claims adjuster for a large midwest insurance company. We had a saying that "the smaller the claim, the bigger the headache".


 1:14 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

Have some more:

A customer knows exactly what he wants but has no idea how the web works. -> You have to explain everything and will still never fulfill what he wants. He will blame you for everything that goes wrong. All your positive input will become his very own ideas.

A customer is calling you at 10PM to ask about something. -> Next time he will call you at sunday, 2 AM.

"Please, Just that small modification" - customers: Having a close relationship with your customers is great. Some use it to ask you constantly for little favours. If you fulfill these (for free) with a smile - be prepared for more favours coming up. Much more.

God, I have so much more...


 1:47 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

Great initial post. What's funny, though, is reading some of the responses.

I'm a "client" - in that I hire web designers. One or more of the responders seem like "nightmare vendors" to me:)


 2:20 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

"Please, Just that small modification" - customers: Having a close relationship with your customers is great. Some use it to ask you constantly for little favours. If you fulfill these (for free) with a smile - be prepared for more favours coming up. Much more.

Yes, it doesn't hurt to do an occasional favor for a good, repeat customer. When you do, be sure to include the expense, along with a "customer service credit" on your invoice. The cost becomes more real to them. It makes it harder for them to forget the favor and easier for you to bring it up.


 2:39 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

The more bitterly the potential client complains about his previous service provider, the louder the warning bells are. Of course, they may have had a jerk for a previous provider, but there are almost always two sides to every story.

"They were incompetent - they couldn't get the site to work, and refused to keep trying" is often doublespeak for, "I kept changing the deliverables during the course of the project until they demanded more money to do what I wanted."

If you can, checking a potential client's "references" in the business community is a good idea. Some firms/individuals develop a reputation for being hard to work with, slow paying, etc. - learning this before you sign them is a lot better than after. ("You are working for HIM? Good luck...")


 2:45 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

One or more of the responders seem like "nightmare vendors" to me

I agree. I am also a buyer, rather than a seller of web design services.

Some designers I've dealt with seem to think that *they* will make a site to fail or to succeed.
Should I put frames on my site, because "all out clients loved it" (and they have a ready template)?. Or should I pay US$500 for a half an hour Flash job, just because their other clients have no idea about Flash, and think it takes a studio to produce it?

To me, high quality *content* is more scarce (and more expensive) than high quality design. And Google, Yahoo and msn seem to agree with me.

Notice, please, that I am not in confrontation with the original poster. I am just trying to expose the other side of the coin (maybe I shouldn't be posting on a Professional Webmaster Issues board?).

[edited by: julinho at 2:48 pm (utc) on June 26, 2006]


 2:47 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

Great post. I'm going to ad a couple of extra "words of wisdom" from my father, who's launched several very successful businesses over the years.

A quote is not a negotiation. It's a statement of what I believe it will cost for the project in question.

Stick to your quote. If you're good at what you do, and have done your research, your quote will be a fair reflection of what it will cost to deliver the project. Once clients start getting the sense that they can negotiate your quote price down, they'll believe you're trying to gouge them with your quotes, and are going to start questioning every expense you give out.

You're gut will tell you in the first few minutes whether you want to work for this client. Listen to your gut.

If that little voice at the back of your head tells you to walk away, then listen to it. Your lizard braind is very good at intuiting whether or not someone is going to deal with you fairly. That niggling voice isn't always right, but it's right often enough that you simply can't ignore it.

An unplanned vacation is better than a bad client.

Never take on work you'd normally avoid just because you have a hole in your schedule. Take downtime in stride. Use it to work on your skills, develop new business relationships, or just as a chance to relax and recharge your batteries.


 3:10 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

I'm not a web designer but I smiled at the first post because it is so true in any service business. Another red flag: the client who wants it done cheap, and fast, but won't say exactly what they want or answer relevant questions. Sorry, I'm not a mind reader. That's why the first consultation is free, to make up for that shortcoming on my part.

But what's this?
If you can produce something that's limited in scope, but will still move your client from here to there, then you may have found a middle way to please them while not reducing your rates.

but then you're playing into their hands

Oh no, we can't find a way to please the client while still maintaining our rates, that's much too win-win! ;)


 3:28 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

We do SEO, and we have a policy that we will not do any kind of work that is 'design' related; but once in a while there will be this little tiny change that seems harmless to do (changing a phone number on the site, or adding a little tiny graphic. Well, it never ends there. Every single time that I have taken the time to do that little change, the client has invariably come back with more and more 'favors'. However, I have never hesitated putting a stop to it. In one case I asked the client to understand that this was the last change that would be requested, or even that little change (it was a phone number) wouldn't be done. It worked. ;)

Another good thing to do is to simply wish the potential client luck as soon as they try to bargain for a better price. But I have someone who'll do it for $400 (meanwhile my rough estimate was around $3500); so I congratulated him on finding a great deal and told him to not let that provider slip away.

I am also a client (of content providers) and have several writers that do projects, and know the quality of work that is available for the prices I pay. I never try to talk anyone's price down. If their price is too high, I simply let them know that I cannot afford the services, and move on to the next applicant. Because if I try to get him to drop his price, then I know I'm going to get a lesser quality work and that he'll be cursing me under his breath while doing the project. :)


 3:47 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

This thread is just reinforcing stereotypes.

I've never heard a Romanian complain about too many requests from the client.


 4:13 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

I subscribe to Guru.com's project notification service just for entertainment purposes....The topper is when they specifically ask for someone with good communication skills, highest quality work, but low rate and overseas labor preferred.

There have always been and always will be people who have high expectations but are unwilling to pay to get the results, yet I wonder whay kind of impact all of the "guru.coms" have had on the web development industry and others as well (writing, graphics, accouting, etc). I mean, it's hard for me to believe that work usually going for $30-$80 hr. can be done for $5-$10 hr. without thowing a monkeywrench into the economy.

Signs in my dad's shop.

You want it when?

We can do it: Good and fast, but not cheap. Fast and cheap, but not good. Good and cheap, but not fast.


 4:13 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

Great thread, On a side note its another reminder to never work without a detailed proposal/invoice, which helps prevent any discrepency by itemizing your services.
Seperate priceing for html,text menu,rollover java with origianl custom buttons, image processing, flash slideshows or animations,logos,asp etc.
With a deposit secured and an itemized invoice you give them much less room to overtask you without reward.


 4:15 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

I started web design and hosting services in 96 at $35/month and $30/hour. Within two years I had added some value (logs, SEO, ads on my local sites) and raised rates to $75/month, $60 hour. This brought me more clients and of a better ilk.

In the first meeting, I let the clients know that I will work with them to understand what the website can do for them (discuss benefits to their customers -- an important selling point) and my willingness to help them do things like setup their email accounts on their office computers, etc. I also stress that "I am not the cheapest game in town. This is a great selling point, believe it or not.

Once I had a meeting with a couple wearing big diamonds who keep trying to lowball me, saying things like "Is that all you do?" I politely said that it appearred that the services I offered were not what they needed and walked away. They looked a little suprised and it felt GOOD.

Most of my clients make good money from their sites. One school paid close to a thousand bucks for each new student recruited through traditional methods, I was bringing in students at less than a hundred bucks a pop. Another client consistently says, "not only would my business not be what it is without the Internet, it wouldn't be what it is without Atticus."

That being said, I never made over $25,000/year doing web design/hosting. Started making sites on topics I enjoy and running banner and text ads. Stopped taking on new clients three years ago (kept current stable with a strong retention rate), focused on my own sites and tripled/quadrupled my income.

If you are good at what you do you will prevail. And you will have many a good chuckle over the years looking back at the idiots who didn't let you make money for them.

Dumping bogus clients is easy once you know how. Have a contract that details your responsibilties and theirs. Many bogus clients have a problem paying on time. Put some language in your contract about cutting service if payment is not received in a certain period of time. Many of my clients are a little late -- the clients I like, I let slide, the one's who suck get the boot.


 4:22 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

This has been a great thread and a great reminder to me why we fired all of our clients last year. Reading some of these posts brings up past nightmares and is a great reason why my health has returned.

My favorite is when a client called me at 3am and said, "I was just up thinking about my site and wanted to run a few things by you."

... and the worst part was - I let them. No more.



 4:46 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

Any other red flags?

The Profile: A young guy with money but no job, who wants to avoid work at all costs.

I guess this sort of dot-com craze isn't so common anymore, but avoid anyone who wants you to create a money machine for them.

An attitude like "Then I'll just sit back and let the money come in," can quickly become, "I'll use my limitless free time to make you miserable because I'm not getting the free money I want."


 5:21 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

I should have read this post 4-5 years ago - damn I've would have been without a lot of worries.
Anybody starting up as a e-lancer should read this before anything else...
I'm of to fire my last clients right away and make bugs working (real job) and gaining $$$ from adsense sites.


 7:10 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

Any other red flags?

"We are a start-up..."


 8:16 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

I keep hearing great advice in this thread about fixed quotes and dynamic clients. I don't do web development, however I do have many years experience in design engineering.

When a customer communicates "I need your best price", this is called "negotiation".

When you give a fixed quote for a job fully completed without specifying the deliverables and exact work to be completed - then the customer can safely assume changes are a possibility.

In design engineering, the project or product expectations are clearly defined in the work agreement. When a customer changes thier expectations or requirements - this is called "out of scope work" and additional charges apply.


 8:36 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

Try and guage the potential clients level of technical understanding.

Most our our clients don't know a lot about the web beyond how to surf and shop. That's okay.

However, when we had a client call who wanted to use an ecommerce site as an outlet for his wife's artwork but he had never had or used a computer, wasn't sure about what email was, etc. we knew we had to walk away.

There's a minimum level of understanding that a client must possess to have a web site. Otherwise you will be doing EVERYTHING for that client almost as if it was YOUR business.


 9:57 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

When a customer communicates "I need your best price", this is called "negotiation".

I disagree. That's called setting a tone. Negotiation begins with an offer. In any business, from building a 3-season porch, having custom cabinets built, to commissioning a painting of the baby, starting the conversation with "I need your best price" communicates something very specific about how the remainder of the relationship is likely to go. Not well, I submit.

It's different than stating a budget; i.e. "I have $1500 in my advertising budget to work with; please get me a proposal that reflects a website that can be built for that amount of money.". That is, I think, defining expectations.

I spent 19 years in the claims business negotiating thousands of personal injury cases. Approaching plaintiff's counsel with an opening statement of "I don't have much money to spend so I need your best price" would actually be seen as the opposite of negotiating.

If a potential client calls and immediately states that he needs it cheap before EVER articulating what it is he needs, the warning flags go up, no questions asked. Usually, "I don't have much money to spend" is followed by a detailed discussion about photo galleries, virtual tours, and lots of Flash.

As I stated in my original post, it's not the desire for a fair and equitable pricing that sends up the red flag. It is this, coupled with the "I need it yesterday" mentality and the "my prior company won't call me back" that merely begins to demonstrate that there are particular clients who may simply not be worth taking on.

I'm not asking the clients to just open up their check book, bend over and take it like a man. I'm simply stating that there are warning signs, there are nightmare clients, and we've all seen the profile. The question is, can we see it coming a mile away, or do we only see it after the contract is signed?


 10:00 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

One or more of the responders seem like "nightmare vendors" to me

since we all basically agree...either we are all nightmare vendors or you are one of the clients we are talking about since I don't believe I read unreasonable post from a vendor on this issue ;)


 10:21 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

Hey you guys forgot one common thing that cheap clients always do....



 11:31 pm on Jun 26, 2006 (gmt 0)

"That's called setting a tone" - Negotiation is a complex process/game.

Check out the book by Gary Karras "Negotiate to Close".

You will never see the world the same after you read it..

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