The Six Costs of a Crappy Client

Do you know the "velvet rope" analogy in sales? First time I came across it was years ago, in an old edition of Michael Port's Book Yourself Solid.

It's not about getting past somebody's velvet rope to make a sale. It's about respecting yourself enough to screen out bozos.  To only work for the clients you really want to work with. Because there are a lot of ways the bozos can screw up your life.

I have just concluded a year-plus clown-car junket to Bozoville. Let me tell you all about it.

Part 1: Surprise!

I get contacted one day late last year by an old client I'd serviced at another agency. I'd just wound up a long in-house gig and was chasing down new clients as a freelancer and consultant, so the timing was golden.

To my amazement, he wants me to resurrect his marketing program, freshen up his collaterals, a whole raft of stuff that should keep paying activating into next year and beyond. Just like the last time I worked on his business.

What I conveniently forgot, as I was happily scratching out my first estimate for the guy, is how erratic and unreliable he'd been on the last go-round. The migraine-inducing rigmarole involved in every aspect of doing the work.

Another question: why isn't he touching base with his previous agency?

I try to check with a guy who still works there. After I'd moved on, he says, the relationship went south. He can't tell me any more than that. Do I imagine the faint whiff of an NDA? Probably not.

Surely there were extenuating circumstances, we tell ourselves at moments like these. Because we really need the money.

Part 2: Exhilaration!

When a client gives you carte blanche, says he trusts you to do the work, defers to your impeccable good judgement, it's a flight to the moon on gossamer wings. Or at least a sprint to the bank with check in hand.

What's really reassuring is the fact you've done the work before, with proven results. Success is pre-ordained, inarguable, in the bag.

That's a great feeling, a feeling that doesn't come along so often, so relish it. Suck it dry.

Then take a step back and be verrrrrrry careful it's not leading you down a primrose path of your own devising.

The client I was dealing with made all the right noises, nodded at all my recommendations, and we were off to the races. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?

Maybe I should have paid attention to the fact this gift horse had really long ears and a knack for braying.

Part 3: Omens (If You're Looking, That Is)

So the first time I had to chase down a check, I began to remember the migraine-inducing proclivities of this particular customer. The fact his operation was run with improvisational flair. Meaning, no visible process, no clear definition on who to contact or how to resolve issues, such as a lack of essential feedback, or the late retainer checks.

As he explained it, I didn't need feedback: whatever I did was fine by him. That's usually a warning sign.

Because with a client like that, whatever you do is fine by him until it isn't. By then, it's usually too late.

That problem never came up with this client. But the hiccups that did happen - late retainer payments, total lack of communication, and eventually skipped retainer payments -  should've had me show him the door.

My client had excuses. Fairly convincing ones. So I started making excuses for him myself.

See, I liked the guy. The work was good. The results were excellent. His social followings were up, his content was being seen, his inbound traffic was appreciably higher.

I wanted to stick with it as much for my sake as for his, because it would be damned good case study. But the work stoppages I had to impose were getting in the way of that. If I'm not getting paid, you're not getting the work.

The biggest problem? The wear-and-tear this kind of up-and-down creates for the freelancer. Being passionate about, and invested in, the work you're doing can create an emotional whipsaw. Especially when the gig starts out on a positive footing.

Part 4: Firing The Cannon

I wished I'd fired him. I wanted to jam Bozo in the circus cannon and send him on a somersaulting trajectory straight into the elephant stalls.

But it never happened. The client who was lousy about communicating with me in the first place just sort of wheezed out of existence, right after I made a trip to meet him in person where we'd greeted each other like long-lost frat brothers, toasted our success, and he'd asked me for more estimates! More work is on the way!

Squat came of that. When I asked for clarification, some inking of communication, even a formal dismissal? I never got a word.

Truth is, I suspect he was embarrassed. He ought to be.

Tinsel and Dust: The Real Costs To Consider

Back at the start, I mentioned how I'd first encountered the velvet rope analogy a long time ago.

That means I should have known better. Because if I'd been paying close enough attention, any of the situations and clues recounted above would've ball-peened me right between the eyes.

The real costs of letting yourself embrace a bad relationship like this with a suspect client aren't always obvious. But they're absolutely real:

  1. Wasted time, lost opportunity: I spent a lot of time trying to reel in a better, sounder relationship when I should have cut bait. That's time that got taken away from pursuing other clients, too.
  2. Lost money: See #1: I know for a fact the time I invested (read: "squandered") trying to cajole him into being some semblance of a responsive, responsible client wasn't covered by what I was billing him. That's time I could have been billing elsewhere.
  3. Wounded self-esteem: Yeah, I know I did outstanding work on his behalf, and the results were solid, but your passion and buoyancy can't help but take a few nicks when you've invested commitment and skill in what ends up being a suckhole.
  4. Dinged reputation: If it's a visibly bad relationship, you might be perceived as playing lapdog. Especially if the client has a rotten rep: you're going to suffer by association.
  5. Impaired professionalism: To be the among the best in any profession, you've got to hold yourself to a stringent set of standards. Once you've begun compromising them by making allowances for bad clients, the slippage has a habit of cancerously creeping into other areas.
  6. Broken trust and faith: I've been unexpectedly jilted by other clients, had them dodge payment, and suffered worse than I did at the hands of this particular schmuck, who in the end was just fundamentally inept, not malicious or cavalier. Yet every instance like this makes us each a little more cynical and doubting the next time around, which is probably just good business, I'm sad to say.

I didn't go into this too blindly. Contracts and estimates and conference reports are wonderful things. Employ them liberally.

But I'm pretty sure each of us would like to think somebody's commitment and word are worth something. That a handshake is binding.

Unless you come away dabbed with greasepaint.

Then it's time to roll out the clown cannon.


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