The 5 Types Of Bad Clients & How To Repel Them

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Marketing

Service businesses can’t afford to work with the wrong kinds of clients. We spend so much time immersed in the projects and client communication, and constantly taking on people who are a poor fit will destroy your business.

In my previous post I’ve explained how to use polarization to create a strong brand. Today I’ll expand on this topic with practical ways to use your branding and marketing to repel the wrong clients from your business.

The 5 Types Of Bad Clients & How To Repel Them

Poor fit clients cost you more than you think

They drag your process out of proportion and you end up working more hours than you budgeted for, eating up the cost. At the same time, you’re unavailable for the great clients who glide through your process and enable you to profit from your work.

Poor fit clients won’t enjoy the experience of working with you, so they won’t recommend you to other people (and if they do, the recommended folk will probably be a poor fit as well – we hang out with people who are similar to us). Great clients will enjoy their experience so much that they’ll refer people at every chance they get, and come back over and over again.

Poor fit clients pick apart and strip down your services based on their poorly planned budget. Great clients want to have the best, and trust your professional recommendation.

Poor fit clients are very bad for business.

Here are some common signs that someone is not your right client, and what to do to prevent them from contacting you.

Client mismatch #1: They’re not ready

Sometimes the prospect would be a pleasure to work with, if only they were in a more advanced phase. They appear in front of you too soon. (Good for them for being so proactive!)

If you can tell that someone doesn’t yet have what it takes to get great results out of your work together, instead of just turning them down, you could provide resources, or recommend a coach who can help accelerate their progress. This way, they’ll probably come back to you when they become ready.

Here’s how to tell the potential client is not ready yet:

  • They don’t know what they want to achieve.
  • They don’t know why they need your service or product, they’ve just heard it’s a good thing to do.
  • Their budget doesn’t cover the cost of your service.
  • They’re clueless about how your offer differs from other types of products or services that address the same problem.

Here’s how you can make sure these people don’t waste your precious time.

Clearly communicate where your clients need to be before they can work with you.

If you have enough experience, you know what common traits of your successful clients are. For example:

  • Businesses 2 years or older.
  • Businesses with over $1M in revenue.
  • Businesses who have a clear value proposition and have validated their market.
  • Art school graduates who’ve already had at least one group art show.
  • People determined to stop smoking now.
  • People certain they want a divorce (not just considering it).
  • People whose credit rating allows for financing of a new home.

Mention these defining traits in your marketing copy and address specifically this group of people. Everyone who passes this check can move forward. Those that don’t, can’t.

Create beginner resources you can point people to.

Selling to people who are not ready for your service is an uphill battle. Instead, position yourself as a mentor, and guide them to the point where they become ready.

This might mean producing a book, a course, or a blog series that explains the very basics a person needs to know and do before working with you, or curating a list of other people’s resources. (I do this on my own blog, and with my book The Human Centered Brand.)

For someone who’s still unsure whether working with you would benefit them, they can use this low-priced or free resource to help them make up their mind.

Client mismatch #2: Incompatible customer needs and goals

All products and services help customers reach their goals. Some products and services can help with various goals, while others are tailored for specific goals.

Prospects might come to you with no idea of a goal whatsoever, or with a murky goal, or with a goal you’re not equipped to solve.

For example, a person might come to an online marketing specialist and say “I want our site to be the first result on Google search for the term ‘skiing boots’.” Is this a realistic goal? Is it something a service provider can promise? It depends I guess, but I don’t know of an SEO expert who will hang their reputation on a client’s whim.

If a client comes to you with a goal that you can’t or don’t want to help them achieve, you can either try to get them to change their goal, or choose not to work with them. You need to be honest with yourself about what you can realistically do.

Tell people what types of goals you can and will work to achieve even before they send that inquiry.

Address goals you do and don’t help people with in your content.

You can create a series of articles or videos that clarify what you can, and cannot help your clients achieve.

An example of affirmative content are case studies, where you go into the behind the scenes of a successful project, and highlight what goals the client has achieved with your help. Those success stories will inspire your potential clients to dream up new goals for themselves.

On the negative side, or “what I don’t do” is content that addresses common misconceptions people have about your industry. For an SEO expert, a potential topic can be “Why you shouldn’t aim for a first result on Google”. It acts as a deterrent for folks who are adamant on this goal, and also educates those who are open to listening to professional advice.

Include typical goals you help your clients achieve on your sales page.

Your sales page is a great place to clearly draw the line in the sand – this is what we help you with. Simply list the typical goals you help people achieve, and include testimonials of people who have done this with your help.

The natural reaction of people when they see a list of what’s included in a service is to assume that things that are not on the list are not included. If you want to be sure you aren’t discouraging someone who would make a great client because they have a goal you haven’t thought of before, add a statement below the list like: “If you’re wondering whether we can help you with something else, send us an inquiry and we’ll be happy to answer.”

Client mismatch #3: They don’t want to follow your process

If your industry has been around for a while, chances are people have a hazy idea of what your process looks like. Maybe they’ve worked with someone in a similar industry before, so their past experience guides their expectation of what working with you will be like. Maybe they’ve tried to do it themselves, and think they have a right to pull your process apart because they’re “creative” or “tech savvy”. (A person can be profoundly creative and tech savvy, and still not know the first thing about how a professional process is conducted.)

Clients who come with preconceived beliefs about your process which differ from reality will be very difficult to work with. This is where the stories of Clients from Hell emerge. If your client is not on board with your process, they will fight you the whole way through the project. You’ll be exhausted, and the results may not be that great, either.

Make it clear what your process is like, and reiterate it in multiple places. Here are some ideas:

Use case studies as successful examples of your process.

The “show, don’t tell” principle is very powerful. Instead of talking about your process in the abstract, give an example of how it worked out on a project you’ve completed. In the end, you can bring attention to the process itself, and state that it’s your tried and true methodology that lead to the success of this project.

Present a process roadmap on your sales page.

People who come to your sales page have a lot of questions, and the job of the sales page is to answer them:

  • What exactly do you do?
  • What’s in it for me?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • How do I know I can trust you?
  • What if I’m not happy with the results?
  • What’s my next step?
  • What happens after that?

If you repeatedly attract clients who don’t understand your process, offer a roadmap of the entire process at the bottom of your sales page, so people can prepare for what’s coming. You can use typical time-frames, like “this step takes 2 weeks” and during which phases you will need to hear from them.

(I used to have an illustrated roadmap on my design services page which you can see the screenshot of in this post, but I later moved it to a Welcome Guide PDF brochure where I was able to explain it in more detail. You might also find that a separate document works better than a sales page.)

Address misconceptions in your content marketing.

There’s a bunch of topics you can address on your blog that drive the point home. Here’s a few off the top of my head concerning the design industry:

(Hmm, I should probably write these.)

Reiterate the process during the sales conversation.

It’s possible for a client to pass through all the steps and still not understand how your process works. That’s why you have to repeat it again, even more clearly, one on one. There are several ways you can do this, and I recommend the combination of all of them, just to make sure:

  1. Describe your process during a meeting.
  2. Send them a “welcome” document that outlines your process and policies.
  3. Outline your process in the proposal – mention how many revision rounds they get for the price they’re paying, and what type of revisions is allowed when.
  4. Repeat the abridged version of your process phases and number of revision rounds in your contract.

Hopefully by this step, all of the problematic clients will give up.

(If the client still makes a fuss, point to the proposal and the contract they’ve signed, and say that if they continue breaching your policies, you’ll terminate the project. You don’t have to work with people who don’t respect your process.)

Client mismatch #4: Incompatible personal values

People in large corporations tend to say “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business”. Small businesses who provide high-touch services can’t afford to not take things personally. We spend a lot of time serving people, and a lot of them become repeat clients, business partners, and friends. If yours and your client’s personal values don’t match, you might start feeling like you’re “selling out”, which is never a good feeling.

I wrote more about this in my article Why you can’t separate “business” and “personal” – Introduction to Core Values.

An example of a personal value mismatch might be a meat processing company asking a vegetarian copywriter to write content for their brochure. While some freelancers have no problem helping a business that clashes with their personal belief system, others do. This is something you need to decide for yourself. (I wrote more on this in my piece: The Ethical Impact of Your Creative Business.)

I don’t want to be associated with organizations that are undermining gender equality, the LGBTIQ+ community, reproductive rights, and human rights in general, or companies that exhibit openly destructive behavior toward the environment (like oil mining). I’d rather work with businesses and non-profits who are actively trying to make the world a better place.

If you feel similar about working with companies that go against your values, here’s how to repel them before they even send an inquiry:

Advertise your personal values prominently.

Social media is great for this. Besides the content about your profession, post links to articles about issues that matter to you: human rights, the environment, animal rights, spirituality, political issues, evidence based medicine, etc.

Some may argue that topics like this have no place on a business social media channel, but I would argue they absolutely do – if they’re important enough to you that working with a person who vehemently disagrees with you would be uncomfortable. If it’s all the same to you, than by all means, avoid controversial topics.

If making a positive impact on the world through the vehicle of your business is an essential part of your mission, then take a stand for what you believe in – publicly.

Mention relevant adjectives on your About page.

Feminist? Hippy? Muslim? Queer? Pastafarian? Vegan? Libertarian? Black Lives Matter activist? Own it.

If it matters to you so much that you’re willing to reject business on the basis of your personal beliefs, put it on your about page. Many folks considering hiring you will read it.

Client mismatch #5: Incompatible personalities

Sadly, even if a person shares your values, working with them can still be a pain. Incompatibility on a personal level can look like this:

  • The prospect writes long, rambling emails that have little or nothing to do with the project.
  • They constantly talk over you and interrupt you during calls and meetings.
  • They offer unsolicited advice on personal issues that are none of their concern.
  • They say things that make you uncomfortable.
  • They yell at you.
  • They’re controlling and treat you more like a servant than a professional.
  • They behave irrationally.
  • They just give off a “vibe” you don’t like.

(I’ve once had a client who did all of the above. Yikes on bikes.)

This one may be tricky to detect until you’re already involved, but if you know what to look for, you might suss out from the very first conversation that someone might spell trouble.

If at any point during the sales conversation you notice a prospect showing signs of behavior that makes you uncomfortable, thank them for their interest and let them know you’re not taking on the project.

You might be thinking, “But it’s just one thing, surely I should give them the benefit of the doubt?” That’s what I thought too, and it was one of the greatest mistakes I’ve made in my life (see the list above). Sean McCabe said something when discussing clients from Hell that has stuck in my mind:

Red flags are like cockroaches: for every one you see, there are hundreds you don’t see.

At the first sign of a red flag, run.

How to minimize personality mismatches

You can’t know what someone’s personality is like until they contact you. My advice is to keep a list of all the problematic behavior you’ve experienced with former clients. (Feel free to copy the list I gave you above.) After the first inquiry from a prospect, go over the list and note if any red flags show up.

If possible, get the prospect on the phone or video call. You’ll get a better impression than through email alone.

If you decide to turn them down, tell them that you’ve gotten an impression you’re not the right fit, and that another freelancer might be better suited for them. If you feel generous (and the client doesn’t seem like a complete jerk), refer them to your colleagues. That’s it. No need to apologize and make up justifications – you have full right to accept or turn down projects for whatever reasons you please.

If they get angry and attack you for turning them down, reply politely and firmly that their behavior is not acceptable, and that you won’t engage in further discussion. Block them on all your communication channels and unsubscribe them from your newsletter. You don’t deserve to be anyone’s punching bag.

Working with bad fit clients costs you money, reputation and health.

In retrospect, it’s never worth the cost.

You might be thinking right now: “Great, as if I could afford to turn down clients I don’t like”. I know what that feels like. That’s why I wrote the post Turning down client work when you really need the money. I recommend that you start there, and commit to growing your business to a point where you can say no with confidence.

After all, you started this business because you wanted freedom, right? The freedom to choose how to work, where to work, when to work, and who to work with.

Freedom doesn’t just fall into your lap. You have to claim it – one difficult decision at a time.

Featured photo by DeathToStock


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon or Jackson's Art Supplies. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

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