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Everything I Need To Know About Business I Learned From Cheap, Demanding, Difficult Clients

By March 7, 2012February 1st, 2018True Stories
Everything I Need To Know About Business I Learned From Cheap, Demanding, Difficult Clients

I want to start this with a disclaimer: If YOU are one of my clients, I’m not talking about you. YOU are wonderful and perfect in every way.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let me tell you why I have such an appreciation – and even perhaps an affection – for the most obnoxious clients I’ve ever met. Chances are, I’ve long since parted ways with these people but they have added tremendous value to my business.

I share this with you because we’ve all had these kinds of clients, and rather than bang our heads against walls or wallow in self-pity and misery, I want you to take a completely different perspective with me and learn what they have to teach, in their obnoxious, difficult and demanding ways, about life, business, marketing and, well, how to survive in a “people” world.

The “Can You Do It Any Cheaper?” Client

Some people will try to negotiate cost because most of us have been groomed to do it since birth. I’ve been known to ask a service provider, “Anything you can do on that price?” It’s practically a Pavlovian response.

I often wonder why we’re so quick to hammer people on the cost of their time for specialized services, but we so cavalierly hand over $50 for a few ounces of shampoo.

Anyway, there are other kinds of clients who, even if I told them something cost $1, would still ask if I could give it to them for 99¢. These types of people are never happy with the price. Both have something to teach us.

Lesson 1: I am worth my time.

Am I providing the value that can be expected for the price I charge? Do I have the expertise required to command my price? If not, I’ve got a whole other problem.

But since I know the answer is yes, I’ve learned to stick to my guns and let people know that my services have value and that I can only provide the best service and the most value possible at the price I ask.

Any industry has its “cheap” version. In my business we design and develop websites as part of our marketing programs. But web designers and developers are a dime a dozen, so when I put a price tag to a project, it’s often met with saucer-shaped eyes and a bit of mouth-gaping.

Why? Because that client knows he can get a website designed for $50, built for $100 and hosted for $7 per month. It may not be the same website, but my client doesn’t know that. He only sees the price tag. It’s my job to fill in the gaps.

If I had never met the cheapies, I would never have had the opportunity to learn the skill of distinguishing between price and value. And it is a skill. Nobody wakes up one day with a clear understanding of their value – until it is challenged.

I’ve learned to meet these types of clients head-on because I know what my time is worth. If every client just paid my price, I’d never have had the opportunity to engage in the self-examination required to truly understand and appreciate my strengths and limitations.

Your takeaway: The “cheap” service providers are not your competitors. You literally cannot compete with the cheap version of yourself, nor should you attempt to. Your job is to price and perform according to your value. The next time someone challenges you on price, it’s your job to educate him on the difference between cost and value and to differentiate your services from the low-end competition.

Lesson 2: There’s an art to negotiation.

There’s no easy formula for deriving a service cost the way a product cost can be determined. A product cost is basically the cost of production, plus a factor of overhead, marketing and distribution, plus some multiplier for profit.

The cost of services is a bit more ethereal and has to do with experience, expertise, and the amount of time and energy required.

All that means is that there is probably some wiggle room in service pricing. Sure, I could take a hard line on pricing and tell clients, “It is what it is. Take it or leave it,” and I’d be well within my rights to do that. Or I could reasonably negotiate as an act of good faith.

I’ve done both, but I can’t tell you when to do either. That’s why it’s so important to learn from clients who want to knock down the price.

I have the “cheap” clients to thank for the fact that I no longer roll my eyes or break into a sweat when someone challenges me on pricing. They’ve given me the opportunity to practice this art. I know where and when I’m willing to cut and I know when I’m not.

It’s still an art in progress, but it’s no longer a scary hair-pulling event.

Your takeaway: Before the next time someone asks you to cut your cost, ask yourself whether or not you’re willing, and if so, why? Is your price too high to begin with? Are you willing to do someone a favor? Do you want the project that badly? There are different motivations for negotiating and I suggest you know yours. Your motivation will help you control that knee-jerk reaction (What?? Cut my cost??) and negotiate effectively.

The “Can You Get That Done Tomorrow?” Client

Sometimes having someone put pressure on my time is even worse than having them put pressure on my bottom line. Time is one thing so many of us are perpetually short on. Factor in an inborn desire to please others and you’ve got a scenario that can really make a person sweat.

There’s a difference between a client asking, “How soon can you have this done?” and “Can you have this done by [insert ridiculously unattainable timeframe here]?” The first question gives me the opportunity to set a schedule, even if it’s not “soon”. The second puts me immediately on the defensive.

But those demanding clients have thrown a bucket of cold water over my head, so to speak, and really forced me to examine what I’m doing.

Lesson 1: There are never any more than 24 hours in a day.

Thanks to demanding clients who want things done now or yesterday, I’ve had the opportunity to learn my limitations. I’ve also (mostly) learned not to over-promise. Few things will make a client as unhappy – or me as completely stressed – as a missed deadline.

That’s why I fight dearly against the urge to satisfy every demand and whim, and instead to just say no.

Can I have it done tomorrow? Not even by a long shot. I’ve learned that being honest is a lot easier than being sorry. It’s also more appreciated. I cannot magically invent more time to do what needs to be done. I can only be reasonable about the time I do have.

Thanks to customers who have demanded quick results, I’ve learned not to promise them. I’ve had plenty of practice saying no.

Your takeaway: Next time a client asks you to do something quickly and your immediate reaction is a flash of internal panic, don’t ignore it. Suppress your “need to please” gene and just say no. It doesn’t come easy at first but the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Offer a realistic alternative instead, even if you get grumbles and complaints.

Lesson 2: I probably can’t do it by next week, either.

Setting – and missing – deadlines has taught me a lot about time management and the time it takes me to perform certain tasks. When I find myself behind the eight ball, I know it’s time to stop and ask why.

Sometimes it’s a byproduct of too much Twitter and not enough to-dos. But often I notice that things take a lot longer than I thought. Especially if I’m enjoying what I’m doing or I get wrapped up in a project, time can go a lot faster than I think.

Next thing I know, I’m assuring someone I can have that project done in half an hour – not realizing I just spent seven on the last one.

Thanks to demanding clients, I’ve not only had the chance to re-examine my commitments but I’ve had the chance to really sit down and think about how long something takes to accomplish. That makes me a lot better at giving realistic deadlines and budgeting my time effectively.

Your takeaway: Sometimes keeping a timesheet on your desk can help you figure out where your day goes. Write down what you’re doing and the time slot you’re doing it in, so at the end of the day when you look at a big gap where “played Castleville” should have been “finished project” you’ll know where you went awry. It can also help you realistically see how long a task took. You may think it was a few minutes but be surprised to learn it was a few hours.

The “Can You Just Make This One More Change?” Client

In my business, this is the equivalent of moving the living room furniture around… then moving the couch a little to the left… no, a little to the right… um, maybe back to the left… no, I liked it on the original wall better.

Constantly revising a project can result in an endless loop of tweaking and perfecting but never being done. That means someone is investing a lot of time (me) and someone is investing a lot of budget (also me – unless I’ve convinced a client to pay for the overtime).

Lesson 1: Time is money.

It’s so easy to get caught in “scope creep” especially when the changes seem so small and undemanding. Add a word here, change a color there.

I’m not talking about project-derailing changes like, “Can we skip the whole website thing and go with a Facebook page instead?” I’m talking about the little, innocuous changes that clients ask for that inspire me to answer their demands with, “Sure, no problem, give me five minutes…” And it may, in fact, only take five minutes.

But when I add those five minutes up, plus the time it takes to discuss the changes, present the changes, review the changes, and start and stop the production process in the first place, I find whole days have gone missing from my schedule.

That’s why I’d like to thank these clients for being so nitpicky; because without them, I’d never know when to stop. I’d be tweaking and perfecting and moving the living room couch until the day I went bankrupt. I’ve learned when to say no and to insist on an end-point where revisions are just that – revisions, after the project is done.

I’ve learned how to recognize the tendency to tweak when I work on my own projects, too (Blog posts? They only take me two hours!

Plus the next two hours pondering my verb selection. And the next two hours rewriting titles. And the next two hours looking for too many instances of passive voice. And…)

It’s important to set a finite and attainable goal, hit that goal and stop. Or restart if necessary, but always stop first. Never just keep going.

Your takeaway: I want you to write this down and tape it to the wall next to your desk: Every second that you spend tweaking a project without getting paid for it is another second you could be getting paid to work on another project. Next time a customer asks for just one little tweak, promise you’ll do it – separately, as soon as the project is done.

Lesson 2: Specifications are my friend.

Ah, the good old days of telling clients I’d build their website, only to be caught on a revision track with no end in sight because, as my client could argue, I didn’t say I wasn’t going to include a photo gallery and six contact forms and a Flash intro and a login page and a product database…

I exaggerate, but the reality is that without a project specification it’s not entirely unreasonable for a client to demand new features and revisions and additional content. Without a specification, there’s no way to know whether what I think a project entails is the same as what my client thinks it entails.

Thanks to clients who wouldn’t let me get away with vague project parameters, I have learned to be clear and specific. I tell people what they get. And I tell people what they don’t get. It’s never a perfect process, but the more detailed I can be, the less likely a client can say, “But you never told me…”

This is true of any project, whether you’re a web designer, photographer or plumber. If you don’t tell your clients what to expect, and conversely what not to expect, I guarantee you they will default to expecting the most and the best.

Your takeaway: Make two lists in every project contract. The list of things you’ll do and the list of things you won’t do. Here’s a cheat for those of you who know that you’ll never cover all contingencies: Include this one short line in your project contracts: “Any task or item not specifically referenced or offered in this proposal will be included at the discretion of [your company].” One sentence has given you the flexibility of saying, “No, I did not include that in the project,” or “Sure, I’ll include that, no problem.” (You may want an attorney to help you with the wording but that’s the gist.)

The “I Don’t Like Anything You Did” Client

Oh the joys of being a complete and dismal failure. Of presenting something to a client only to have her tell me she hates everything about it. She hates my logo design. She hates my photography. She hates that sentence or the green or the marketing plan I put together.

Some of these people are just chronic complainers. Some of them have a “vision” in their head of how they would do something and therefore how they expect me to do something. Yes, I thank them both.

Lesson 1: My career as a psychic will never get off the ground.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, through some magic process of psychic osmosis, I could read my customers’ minds and figure out exactly what they want? A lovely fantasy but in the meantime, I’m stuck doing my best to turn conversations and specifications into an outcome that makes my clients happy.

So I’d like to thank those miserable, unhappy clients for prompting me to be doubly and triply sure that we both understand expectations. Part of this is having a good specification so nobody is unhappily surprised by results. Part of it is making sure that I spend time talking with my client, getting their input and understanding their needs.

I’ve learned never to take anything for granted, but always to ask – however small and trivial the question – to be sure that I’m clear about what I understand, and that the client is clear about what I’m doing.

Your takeaway: Head off conflicts by having clear project parameters and a good contract and by taking the time to get to know your client so that you’ll understand her vision and expectations. The best thing I can tell you to do is to write it down. Every interview, every word, every question and answer. If you have a document that both you and your client can work from, you’ll never be stuck trying to defend yourself as you splutter through explanations of what you thought she said on your last phone call three days ago. A simple email follow up… “Just to confirm in today’s call, we agreed that…” can save tremendous headaches later.

Lesson 2: I can’t please everyone.

Sometimes a miserable, unhappy client is just miserable and unhappy. It could be a personality thing. It could be that we just don’t hit it off. It could be nothing but bad luck. Whatever the source, nothing is going to please some clients and it’s important to know when it’s time to walk away.

When we’ve reached a point of irreconcilable differences, when it’s not fun anymore and my client is one misplaced breath away from punching me in the head, I swallow my ego and admit to losing the battle.

But remember, losing is not failing, because I’ve still learned something. I’ve learned how to handle a worst-case situation. I’ve even learned some humility. I’ve learned to re-examine my processes and abilities to be sure that I’m providing the best service I can. I’ve learned to suck it up and walk away confidently if I know I’ve done everything I can but still been unable to please.

I thank these clients for teaching me that sometimes I won’t succeed and not every client is an opportunity for a glowing testimonial.

I’ve also learned that it’s important to keep evaluating and perfecting my services because however “right” I may think I am, there is always room for improvement. Without a couple of ego-blows, I would never have worked on improving myself.

Your takeaway: Make sure your contracts have an “escape clause” that assures all parties involved that nobody is tethered for life or until empty wallets do you part. Then, when a project goes so far south that you know there’s no recovering, you have a process for calling it quits. Once you’re done, I want you to evaluate what went wrong and honestly assess whether there was anything you could have done. Whether the answer is yes or no, you’ve learned something.

I hope you’ve related to some of these scenarios and that you can take a look at your rotten ex-clients and see how much they’ve taught and strengthened you. The only truly bad experience is one that we don’t learn from.

How about you? Do you have any nightmare-client scenarios that you can look back on in hindsight with (new-found) appreciation?

Join the discussion 23 Comments

  • Amy says:

    Nicely done, Carol. “Scope creep” can indeed be a big problem in the web design/marketing world, as can “just make this one more quick change…”

    That’s why I love using a Scope of Work. It can be a part of the contract, or a separate document. This lists out, for us and the client, what we’ll do as part of the engagement, and what we don’t do — sometimes we offer to do the stuff that’s out of scope, but we always provide a separate estimate for that work. 

    Setting expectations is so critical. Not doing so can lead to a world of discomfort and frustration down the road.

    • You’re so right. Managing expectations can be one of the most important things – and the biggest deal-breakers – when dealing with clients. That’s why I believe the “included” and “excluded” lists are so important. It’s easy for someone to assume you’ll do something unless you explicitly say you won’t. 

      And scope creep is the worst offender of all, but it’s also easily controlled if you pay attention to objectives and don’t give in to that temptation to do every little thing someone asks. Believe me, it’s tempting! Especially if you like a client, like the project and really want to make them happy. That can backfire, too, because next time you refuse to do something on the grounds that it’s out of scope the client won’t quite understand why you said no when you were so good at saying yes all along.

      Sometimes we have to learn the hard way! As long as we learn, it’s worth it in the end.

  • That is a very good post Carol! 

    I can sure apply all that for my freelance/writing business.  At this point I do not serve the “can you do it cheaper” client, I am so fed up with them 🙂 They can keep their money and live me alone 🙂 I’ve done cheap my share until I’m a hundred years old.As for the “I am never satisfy” clients I give them an ultimatum after the third review it’s the last. You take it or leave it!Those are very, very good pointers for anyone in business 🙂

    • There are all kinds of people out there and the best we can do is learn to deal with them as they are, and run our businesses well in the process. Your comments are similar to what I do. First, there is no “cheap” – you get what you pay for. Second, I state limitations in contracts so there is a finite set of revisions. It’s always a good idea to manage expectations. I’m glad you stick to your convictions!

  • Adrienne says:

    I’m so glad I’m not in the service industry like this.  

    There are always going to be those that want something for nothing.  Those types of people I know will always complain about something which is why I have learned to nip those conversations in the butt sooner then later.

    Then you have those who want the lower price so you have to question why to find out if they are actually going to do the work needed before moving forward with them too.

    I’m so much better at dealing with these people then I was in the beginning thank goodness.  As you say, it’s a learning process and had we not learned to deal with the things that are thrown at us, we wouldn’t know how to respond.  So I guess all is good.

    • Hey, you either cry and go crazy or laugh and learn! In the end, customers get away with as much as we let them. If we let them knock down our price or make demands or get whiny, then that’s what WE can expect. We need to be the ones standing up for ourselves because that’s our job, not theirs. better to learn than to keep making the same mistakes and complaining about them!

  • Anonymous says:

    I am so glad you wrote this article Carol Lyn.  In my Psychic business I sometimes get new clients that ask “can you do it cheaper?”  Seasoned in my business for about 30 years I just say No.  No explanations, no reasons, just No!  There are so many times I give my clients extra time or do it on the house, but my time is not only money, but energy. 
    I make it clear from the beginning to new clients how I work, how much money it will be for a time they reserve, and if they don’t like the first five minutes of my time, they can hang up.  Or I Will lol. 
    Thing here is that we need to be clear with our customer base from the start.  Lay down all the issues that might come up and tell them before that this is the way we do our business.
    Thanks for posting this,

    • It’s so funny how everyone who commented so far has related to the money issue. There must be a lot of cheap people in the world 🙂

      But seriously, like I said to Adrienne, our customers will get away with exactly what we let them. If they ask us to bring our price down or compromise on anything else, we need to be the ones to set the limits. Time and energy don’t come cheap!

  • Dear Carol Lynn, 

    I love your writing style, first off. 🙂 This flowed so natural for me to read…it was a lengthy post, but you wouldn’t know it by the flow and enjoyment of the read. Kudos.

    So many great points here, but I want to actually underline something that you said about yourself. You stated that you were appreciative of the “opportunity to practice this art (of negotiation).


    This for me is key in any business. We have got to rise to the challenges which have been presented before us. There is always a growth opportunity if we are aware of what is happening and “taking the opportunity” for what it is. 

    As for the “el cheapos” of the world who want to pinch you for pennies, this is something I’ve grown to expect in the world. From the very first job I’ve had as a kid to the various aspects of my professional life, I have witnessed this manifesting itself in different ways. 

    I have come to a point in my own life and business that, all though I can not claim to be a functional psychic either, my radar has become sensitive to alerting me when one of these folks is coming at me with the intent to drain me in some way. 

    I just don’t indulge it most times. 🙂 I’m not saying that I don’t want to negotiate with them, but most times I’m just so busy (yielding profits with something viable in my life/business) that it doesn’t even phase me to tell them to scoot on down the road…

    Thanks for sharing your message, Carol Lynn! 

    Hope you have a fantastic weekend!

    Cat Alexandra

    • Thanks Cat, I appreciate your kind words. I know I can be verbose sometimes (most times?) but there is so much in my brain that I want to get out. I’m glad it was enjoyable. 

      Everyone has had their fair share of cheap clients, but the fact is, like you said, it’s something you have to learn to expect and just deal with it. And you’re right, after time you do get a sense of who is going to be a good fit and who is just price shopping. 

      I especially like your comment that you’re “too busy” to bother with people who are going to argue about cost. That’s perfect, because you understand your value  and you know you could be doing better things with your time!

      Not easy lessons for some, and plenty of us (me!) learn things the hard way. But live and learn and get better.

      Thanks for your insight and for reading to the end 🙂

  • Nicky_price says:

    Wow – super, super post !
    Could relate to all of these and was also going to comment on the “knowing your worth” because that is so powerful, but I also liked your last comment “The only truly bad experience is one that we don’t learn from” – that is so true.  So long as we have the continual “how can I serve better” attitude then we will continue to grow and thrive.

    Really enjoyed that post Carol,

    • It’s all about growing! If I’ve learned nothing else after 14 years in business it’s that the road is never smooth. But the more you deal with what you’re given, the better you become. 

      Thanks, Nicky, I’m glad you enjoyed this.

  • Mari says:

    Great article, thank you!! Boy can I relate to that! 🙂

  • Chris H says:

    Wow!!! I can see you have been a fly on the wall in my office. In the last 12 years of being in web developmentI have experienced each of these and then some.
    Scope, price, expectations; I learned that the best way to handle this is to do an exact quote, I them put down on a word doc page by page of what they
    want on the website. i.e. Home page, product, services, contact, etc. Then I
    quote based on the number of pages, then a list of possible variables, not covered in the quote, with prices, then in addition I have a variation rate per hour, if they want to add on they know eactly how much it will cost.
    Thanks you have reminded me of a few basic systems I need to put back in place.

    Well written. Thank you for your takeaways.

    • Thanks Chris. As a fellow web developer I’m sure we’ve run into a lot of the same issues. I take a similar approach to yours with one caveat. I put everything down on paper, what’s included, what’s not and optional features. Then I provide a budget but I add a clause that it’s an estimate that depends in part on how closely we can follow the specs, how timely the client is with responses and how efficiently we can work together. Usually I tell people to budget an extra 10-20% to cover the unexpected. Most times we don’t need to ask for more money but it covers us just in case things get off track. And having that clause in there makes people a little more careful about spending our time!

  • Hi Carol,
    I worked in IT consultancy for years before I started on my own. I have to say that I met a lot of people like that. They often start with looking at the price( which is nothing wrong) but then soon the discussion starts with how much can be reduced. They do not understand that it takes time to create things and that is the time we spent for their work.
    The main problem is when client starts comparing two companies feature by feature and from there it goes downhill.
    If I were to deal such client, I would probably refuse to get into such a discussion. I would show them other customer testimonial and some solid data to prove that my service even though costly may give huge value to them.If I am forced in such a discussion, I  would like to pick holes in competitor’s offering by asking questions about their offering.
    It would be a really difficult deal when customer does not like anything we do. A clear cut contract ( as you told) would go a long way to keep things under control .
    Thanks for sharing the tips.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Ashvini. Like you said, you’ve got to demonstrate value. Your service is about more than just the cost. People who are just price shopping will probably never be happy with what they get anyway. They always want it cheaper – and better!

      It happens a lot so it’s best that we’re prepared to deal with it.

  • Lots of good stuff here and I have experienced every type of client that you have mentioned here. Stick to my guns is what I always do if not we end up bending to every client that comes our way.

    • I think we’ve all had “those clients”! The important thing is that we learn and have a strategy for dealing with them. I’m glad you stick to your guns – sounds like you’ll have a lot less trouble and only get the kind of clients that you really want. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • What a great article! Thanks for all the great tips.
    I’ve been in business for only a few months and I’m indeed starting to get these kind of clients 🙁 I thought they were just myth, I was just dreaming I guess.
    As you mention Carol Lynn, we’re learning and we should deal with these clients carefully but fairly.
    Well I’ll have to apply some advice right now, with some clients… Wish me luck 🙂

    • First of all… good luck! So the bad news is that even when you’re 5, 10 or 20 years in, you’ll still be dealing with these kinds of people. Hopefully with a little practice you’ll figure out how to avoid taking them on as clients! The good news is that it’s all a learning experience and all the bad eggs will only help you be better. And did I mention – good luck! Would love to hear your stories too~!