8 painful lessons from my horrible client from Hell experience

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Personal, Tips for creatives

Last year, I’ve had the most awful “client from Hell” experience in my 12 years as a professional designer. I’ve only told a few people about it, and didn’t want to write about it until now.

Honestly, I was ashamed. Ashamed that I didn’t fully practice what I preach. Ashamed that after all these years, I still fell for some of the red flags I ought to have known about already. Ashamed that even though I boast with my clients all being amazing people, this one bad apple somehow sneaked in and invalidated all that. Ashamed that even though I form lasting partnerships with my clients, this one I’d rather forget.

8 painful lessons from my most horrible client experience
Photo by Vladimir Mudrovčić

I didn’t think I’d ever be willing to talk about it publicly. But you know me, I like to expose my flaws if it makes a good teaching lesson… And the lessons I’ve learned through this had been invaluable. (A lot of the blog posts I’ve written since had been a direct result.)

While the experience itself was horrible—so much so that I’ve started seeing a therapist to help me get through the crisis—the things that came out of it made my business so much better. Oh, I can’t even begin to tell you how much.

I’ve grown more as a professional in the last year than in any year prior. I’ve started respecting my own boundaries, because I’ve learned what it’s like when I let people trample them. I’ve become more selective about the clients I work with, because I know the price of working with the wrong clients. I started saying “That’s not how I work” way more. I’ve lost “opportunities” for it, but I don’t regret a single one—they weren’t the right fit.

In order for this to work out, I first had to realize where my professional process was faulty, or where I wasn’t following it to the letter. It was a transformation that took months of concentrated effort, and it was worth it. Here are the lessons that inspired it.

Lesson 1: Trust your instinct when it tells you to run

The first phone conversation signaled that working with this person will not be pleasant. And still, I gave them the benefit of the doubt, because I liked their mission and thought they had a great product. I wanted to be a part of that story.

The client was interrupting me all the time and talked on and on for 45 minutes in our first (unscheduled) phone conversation. After I hung up, I was exhausted. I’ve told my boyfriend “This new client is going to be difficult.”

This foreshadowed our every future interaction. They were squeezing the life out of me. Usually when I meet someone like that I avoid them, but when you’ve signed a contract with this person, you’re stuck.

If I knew it in the very beginning, so why did I go through it anyway? Yeah, that’s the question I still ask myself. I suppose I was pressed for money and didn’t want to decline a client based on my “irrational” first impression.

Now I have proof that my “irrational” personal impression holds a great deal of truth, and I should heed it.

If your instincts tell you to run from a client, do it. Don’t ignore it, or you *will* regret it.

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Lesson 2: Always, always, always stick to the process—it’s there for a reason

At the time when this project took place, whenever I got an inquiry from a client, I would send back a PDF questionnaire with in-depth questions about the business that help me estimate how much work there will be. This time, the client’s assistant sent me a description of what they need through my contact form. I thought to myself, “Well, this should be enough information to give them a proposal”. I’ve based my quote on the information they gave me and sent it away.

Such a rookie mistake.

It turned out the client didn’t actually want what they had said. I had to do extra hand-lettering that I didn’t factor into the price and raise the price mid-project. The client agreed to it during an in-person meeting, but later complained when I’ve sent them the invoice.

I’ve allowed the client to dictate the start of the process, even though they didn’t know the first thing about it. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn, because it still pops up in different forms, and I need to learn to recognize them all.

My professional logo design process is here for the benefit of my clients, as well as mine. I’ve developed it through years of work, and have proof that it works. Veering away from it never ends well.

I’m such a big believer in having a reliable process that I preach it to any service-based business owner who is willing to listen. You can learn more about how your business could benefit from it in my article Creative professionals: design your client process.

Always, always, always stick to your professional process—it’s there for a reason.

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Lesson 3: Involve a lawyer early

The client wanted to sign an Non-disclosure Agreement, which I didn’t find problematic, save for a few details:

  • They’ve set the jurisdiction in a different country.
  • We had a “misunderstanding” about what the NDA covers—they ignored some of my emails, and claimed I agreed to something I didn’t.

I’ve only contacted a lawyer friend after the shit hit the fan, at the end of the project when all was done and paid for.

My friend wouldn’t let me near a contract that’s so blatantly one-sided had I told him about it on time. While I did have a court case, I didn’t want this to drag on further than necessary. We both agreed it was better to leave it be and move on, so I never have to hear from this person again.

If a client presents a contract you don’t understand, involve a layer. Obvious, but few people do it.

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Lesson 4: Get everything in writing

Oh, man. I can talk all day about this one.

Human memory works in strange ways. I’ve been gifted cursed with strong memory, and dealing with gaslighting has been an issue in my personal life. I’m amazed at how much details can change in a person’s account of a situation in a matter of days. I know this is a normal human thing that I’m not immune to, but seriously, some people…

Here’s the thing, honey, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise:

You can never be too clear, or repeat a thing too many times.

You think you’ve reached an understanding in that phone conversation? You need to get it in writing.

You’ve had a great in-person conversation and got a bunch of notes? Transcribe those notes and email them to the client, so they can confirm that these were the conclusions of the conversation.

Seriously, if you do one thing I’ve listed here, it has to be this: confirm everything in writing.

Get the client to confirm everything in writing.

I thought I did this, but it turned out I didn’t do it nearly enough. The situation warranted a stricter approach, where every single decision had to be documented and double-checked before proceeding.

I thought that was a hassle, so I didn’t do it. The real hassle was trying to convince the other person that there has been a misunderstanding, and that what I recall them saying isn’t the same thing they remember saying.

Get everything in writing, no matter how dorky or control-freaky that might seem to you.

Get clients to confirm *every* decision in writing. You can never be too clear.

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Lesson 5: Decide on what your professional boundaries are and stick to them

Since the client was a nomad, we used a combination of in-person meetings, email, phone calls, and Viber calls. Even when I’ve unplugged from all the business communication, the client was able to reach me past my working hours.

I didn’t state my working hours in the beginning, so I didn’t set the expectation that 7 PM (after I’ve taught a 4-hour class, following client work in the morning) isn’t the best time for me to talk about their project.

I won’t even get into the long, rambling emails and people losing track of the documents I send them.

Now I use Trello to track the entire process and the entirety of the project-related communication happens there. I also have a document I send out immediately when potential clients inquire about my project which lists my communication channels and working hours, so there’s no surprises later when I don’t pick up the phone at 7PM.

You’re not a bad person if you stick to your boundaries. No boundaries = irritable, exhausted you.

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Lesson 6: Be more firm about your personal boundaries

What is it with older people and their compulsive need to give advice to everyone on topics that are of no concern to them? I thought it’s just my mom, but no—clients can be like that as well.

This particular client offered unsolicited advice on several occasions (including commenting my food choices). None of it was related to them, or the project.

Usually when things like that come up, in the interest on preserving the relationship, I smile and let it pass. Now I realize that it’s not doing anyone a service. I should be more frank and say something like “I appreciate that you wish the best for me. But we’re here to discuss [the project] and not my personal life, so let’s focus on that, shall we?”

If a client makes you uncomfortable, tell them. Smiling and nodding invites more inappropriate behavior.

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Lesson 7: Speak up more

During our meeting, the client said that the logo they want is “like Apple and Nike.”*

I thought to myself “You’re not paying me like Apple and Nike.”**

In retrospect, I should have said it. I didn’t want to be rude, but really, anything that might have gone wrong in that situation would have been for the better.

  • Either they would have laughed, and it would introduce more light-heartedness into our conversation, or
  • They would have felt insulted and dropped the project, which would save me a lot of time and headache.

Either way, I wouldn’t have a reason to be writing this post.

* According to them, they did receive the logo that was “even better than Apple”, but I can’t show it to you (see next lesson) so you need to take my word for it.

** A common story is that in 1971 the designer Carolyn Davidson was only paid $35 USD for the Nike logo. They later gifted her Nike stocks and a logo-shaped diamond ring, so she’s done rather well.

If you’re snarking on your client behind their back, maybe you shouldn’t be working with them?

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Lesson 8: If there’s something specific you want from a project, make damn sure you get it

This goes back to the “involve a lawyer” thing, and “get everything in writing”.

The main reason I did this project is that I wanted this reference in my portfolio. I had faith in the product and the impact it would have, and I wanted to be able to say that I worked on this project.

My portfolio is what does the selling of my services for me. Without it, nobody would hire me. If I can’t show what I did in my portfolio, I might as well not even do it, because the money alone is not enough. (Standard practice is to pay 50%–100% more for undisclosed work.)

Turns out, this client really didn’t want me to put the work I did for them in the portfolio. They were willing to pull all sorts of ridiculous legal maneuvers (which had no impact on my rights as an author).

They’ve mentioned in the beginning that they’re concerned about counterfeit products and the logo on my website would be a liability for them. I wrote back that it would cost extra. They didn’t respond, and I didn’t push the subject either. Big mistake. In the end, the client got what they wanted by exhausting me to the point when I was just “OK do whatever you want, I don’t care, just get out of my life and never call me again.”

Even if the law supports your case, it’s not always enough to get what you want. The money, time, and energy it would take to defend your case in court may just not be worth it.

Make sure you’ll get what you want before you sign the contract.

If it comes to the point where you have to defend your case by pointing to the contract, the battle is pretty much lost. I mean, you can sue, but do you want it to get to that? It’s much better to iron out any potential misunderstandings in the very beginning, and walk away if you can’t reach an understanding.

Now I know that I never want to sign an NDA again. I have a clause in my contract that prevents both parties from revealing any proprietary information about the other person’s business. If you want more secrecy than that, I’m not your girl. I’m an open book: I like to brag about the great projects I get to work on and post sneak peeks on Instagram.

Make sure you’ll get what you want from a client project before you start, when you can still walk away.

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It was all for the better in the end

The sheer absurdity of this situation where one person is able to poke so many holes in my process appears to be almost by design.

I subscribe to a “all life experiences are lessons” worldview, and this one sure had a truckload to teach. If it had been all dispersed over a string of less-than-satisfying-but-generally-fine client relationships, I would’ve looked over it. It was only because I was driven to my wits end that I stopped to examine every single element of my process from the very first inquiry, to how we parted ways, and saw many opportunities for improvement.

In a single concentrated effort, I’ve tightened up my process, created better systems, and documented my policies. I’ve grown more confident in my judgement: this is what things need to be like in order for me to be able to do my best work.

Because of this Client From Hell, I’m a better professional. I’ve paid the tuition, and now I’m able to take on wonderful clients and exceed their expectations.


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5 responses to “8 painful lessons from my horrible client from Hell experience”

  1. Seems like this is something you had to go through, not for the pain you have felt but the lesson(s) you have learned. Thank you for sharing this with us!

    All are really good points and for me, the most important one is to trust your instinct. That one can make your life so much easier and happier, but many of us are giving more importance to logic and to proof. The sentence “listen to your heart” is not there for nothing:D

    Once again, thank you very much. So much valuable information in this article!

  2. Thank you for sharing those painful lessons with us, Nela. Even when we “know” such things, it’s good to be reminded of them regularly. So thanks :)

    Regarding instinct: I’ve read somewhere that instinct is a highly efficient pattern-matching mechanism, gifted to us by evolution. Humans are very good at matching patterns, sometimes so good, that we don’t realize in on a conscious level. Having a bad feeling about a person is not a magical thing, it’s a result of millions of years of evolutions, and decades of collecting personal experience (in a “big data” sort of way: our brains are capable of sorting through all that noise in a split second, in order to come up with something we call “first impression”. I know this, I regularly read about this, and still – I’m prone to falling for the same trap you did.

    Gurl, we should celebrate and trust our “irrationality” :)

  3. @Igor: Thank you! :)
    I kept saying that to myself when I was feeling really bad about this: soon enough the pain will be gone, and these lessons are priceless. Or as Havi Brooks likes to call it, “the price of admission”. You pay a price to learn something very important about yourself, like you’d pay for university.

    I’ve read research that shows humans use (twist) logic to rationalize their emotional decisions, and they’re not even aware of doing it. Every decision is essentially an emotional one, only backed up with logic after the fact. We should stop pretending we’re rational beings :))

    @Višnja: Thank you :)
    I agree, I love reading things like this myself. Sean McCabe talks about “the magic of 7”, or how people need to hear something at least 7 times in order to process it and really understand it (he got that info from some book I think, can’t remember who wrote it). So here’s my attempt to be contribute to someone’s 7 times :)

    Oh, I’d love to read more about that, feel free to send some articles or book recommendations my way :) I haven’t heard of that explanation, but I knew there had to be something to it, because of how effective it is.

    I don’t know how true this is, but I’ve heard that people who’ve grown up in abusive environments respond to even the slightest displays of deception and threat (ones that people normally overlook). It could be because their subconscious pattern matching is working overtime. I’ve always been the “on edge” type and could spot a liar and a manipulator months before other people caught on. So sad that I’ve chosen not to believe myself this time! Better luck next time :)

  4. Very interesting. I’ve dealt with my fair share of awful clients since I started freelancing last year, and I’ve learned the hard way. I’ve also dealt with terrible employers.

    Since then, I’ve learned to watch out for the red flags in potential clients and I now avoid working with clients that I feel could be potentially problematic.


  5. Ah Chichi, too bad that so many of us have to learn the hard way :(
    Yes, if there’s even a slight chance of a client becoming problematic, it’s safer to say no.

    I’ve become quite selective as well, but whenever I talk to other freelancers they worry they won’t get any work if they turn people down.

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