When dining with friends, the topic of conversation can move from more personal subjects to working lives and office culture. As a freelance writer and former professional gal about town, the concept of an office environment has been pretty alien to me since the day I told my corporate bosses to stick it and moved halfway around the world to pursue my dreams.
As the resident freelancer of most groups (apart from when in L.A. – where everyone is freelance, with a million side hustles) my friends often comment with envy about their perception of my working situation. True: I don’t have a designated time when I have to be at my desk. True: I have zero commute. True: for the past year my abode has been a series of four-star hotels. True: throughout my misadventures, I may have befriended an A-list personality or two (verdict: their shit still stinks), as well as enjoyed enviable experiences as part of my day job.
But – and this is as big as a but(t) can be – a freelance living can be just as annoying as a full-time job. “Why?” I hear you ask. The answer: toxic clients.
A common misconception about freelance life is that you don’t have a boss. As a sole trader, you do have bosses – many of them – and depending on how many clients you have, you could be working for hundreds of bosses at once. They all want your time, they all want your opinion, and they will all be baying for your blood if your performance is not what they expected. When your business grows as mine has, you are not only responsible for your work, but also the work of your team. If you client doesn’t like your staff’s work, then it’s also your fault, and that blame game can go on forever.
I once had a client with whom I had a great relationship. He laughed at all my jokes, agreed with my high-level decisions, and supported my ideas (even when they were expensive) in front of the board of his company. He wasn’t this way with everyone, though: I witnessed him ritually abusing staff in front of their teams, and exerting his authority over the most lowly of staff members. These behaviours rang alarm bells; the last time I had seen these character traits was working for a sociopathic boss years before. After a while, his attention turned to me: while happy with one side of my work, he hated my copywriting – despite my having gone to school for it, written million-dollar advertising campaigns in the past, and winning numerous awards for my ad copy.
I smelled a rat. Did he really hate my copy, or did he just want to exert power over me? I decided to test my hypothesis, so I concocted a test. I told him we would look for a copywriter since my work wasn’t cutting it for him, and that I would share fifteen short writing samples with him in a blind test.
I chose six pieces by two other writers, while entering nine samples of my own copy. He rejected the other writers’ samples, while raving about the perfection of my pieces. Having exhibited the telltale signs of a toxic client, he found me soon exiting our (seven-figure) contract.
So what is a toxic client (TC) and how can you look for them?
A toxic client is a person whose expectations are not in line with their budget or the scope of the contract. Not all TC’s are toxic people; in fact, many of my toxic client experiences have been with close friends. Especially when a TC is a friend, it can be difficult to be objective in judging your working relationship with them.
Thankfully, the signs don’t lie. Take a good, hard look at a client to see if they display any of these signs of toxicity.
The tell-tale signs that you client relationship may be toxic
Your downtime is yours, but a toxic client doesn’t recognize that. They’ll call, text, and email you after hours, often demanding an unreasonably immediate response.
Another clear sign it’s time to call it quits: your client begins to make demands that are outside of the scope of your contract. Rude behavior is also a huge red flag. If a client becomes argumentative or aggressive, that, my friend, crosses the line of any business arrangement. This includes behaving in a rude or unprofessional manner to their team, business partners, or family while you’re around. Just because you’re not the target of their boorish behavior doesn’t make it any less unacceptable.
Speaking of inappropriate behavior, it’s also a dealbreaker if a client makes sexually charged comments or tells offensive jokes that make you feel uncomfortable.
Respect is a huge factor in the freelancer-client relationship. If a client magically appears at your office without an appointment in sight and demands to see you: no, just no. It’s also unprofessional and disrespectful if a client is consistently late with payments, or delays them based on metrics which were not agreed upon beforehand.
Another clear sign of professional disrespect: your client employs you as an “expert,” but inserts unqualified anecdotes into meetings. You may also find that despite being employed as the “expert,” you have to repeatedly explain your process to the client. Who’s the expert, here? Of course it’s important to consider a client’s input, but service providers are hired for their expertise and clients who resist the knowledge being imparted at a premium are, quite simply, toxic.
Some clients cause a sinking feeling simply as a result seeing an email from them in your inbox. The worst culprits for me were projects riddled with “scope-creep.” No matter what we initially agreed upon, the scope kept expanding, just slowly enough so it was a little hard to notice. (Of course, the agreed-upon budget never had the same problem; it always stayed exactly the same.) Such clients would also approve designs or concepts, and then ask for numerous changes once the work was done. They would change the content of the campaign at the last minute without making any allowance for it in the budget. Toxic clients always manage to demand everyone else’s time while carefully holding onto their own money.
Finally (and this is an odd one), a toxic client who works for a family business may put you square in the middle of family disputes. Yes, it has happened to me, and please don’t ask me to rehash the horror show. Just trust me when I say it’s a clear sign of toxicity.
How to encourage healthy working relationships
A client can be a bit like a dog: with proper training, sometimes you can turn those bad habits into good behaviors, and create a companion you want to keep around for life.
First things first: at the start of a contract, outline your working schedule, your weekly availability, and your process of communication. The training has begun!
In the contract, set crystal-clear boundaries for the scope of work. Outline each area of work in your quote. You need to be highly detailed in your contract so that you can refer back to it if you experience the dreaded “scope-creep.”
Use tools like Trello and Slack to streamline your working process. That way, you’re not exchanging a never-ending stream of emails or fielding phone calls all day. Speaking of phone calls, never give a client your personal number (unless you want to have to change it later). As for your work phone, switch it off after hours. Remember what I said earlier? Your downtime is your time. Never respond when clients contact you after hours.
Discipline is part of every good training program, and client training is no exception. If they ever speak to you in a rude or inappropriate manner, just like with a puppy, you must correct the problem immediately. It’s generally frowned upon to put your client in a crate for time out, so you’ll have to resort, calmly and professionally, to calling them out on their rude behavior. Let them know that being spoken to in an unprofessional way will not be tolerated.
To create a buffer between you and your clients, have assistants schedule meetings, as well as relay messages and answer questions.
How to reward your TC for good behaviour
Comprehensive client training should also include rewards for improved behavior. Be sure to comment on any positive changes you note in your working relationship. Thank them for their improved communication and continue giving them positive feedback when you note them moving away from those negative, toxic traits.
How to punish your client for toxic behaviour
With boundaries firmly put in place and rewards for good behavior at the ready, you’re mostly set. However, you’re still lacking one item in your client training kit: tips on how to address toxic behavior before it gets out of hand.
First, if a client calls you in an angry or overexcited state, don’t bite the hook. Ask them to call back when they’ve taken a deep breath (or several) and have calmed down. If they make rude or demanding comments, simply ignore them.
If your client is contacting you outside agreed-upon hours, don’t respond to them, as discussed above. When you do speak with them (during your normal business hours), reiterate the times during which you are available.
When their demands become absurd or begin to creep beyond the scope of the original project, refer back to your handy, dandy, highly detailed contract. Either you can do the work as originally agreed upon, or they can open their wallet and expand their budget.
Sometimes, things become so toxic that they’re irreparable. If this happens and you no longer believe you can communicate with a client in a professional manner, request that they speak with an assistant or a partner.
How to dump your toxic client
Give your TC three chances to be trained. If nothing seems to be getting through to them, then your business relationship may be past redemption. Once you acknowledge this, you have no choice but to leave. Furthermore, always genuinely be willing to walk away from any client. I find the time and emotional energy saved by dumping a toxic client always produce a better bottom line for my business.
Here are my handy tips for severing a working relationship while maintaining mutual goodwill:
First, you must finish all your outstanding work – or, if your client is truly intolerable, issue a partial refund for work you will not be able to complete.
Second, arrange a date to break up with your client and make sure you stick to it. You owe it to yourself to have a healthy work life.
From here, you have at least two choices:
1) If you think your TC can learn from this experience, tell them the reasons why you can no longer work with them by – as always, calmly and professionally– outlining the behaviors which you found toxic.
2) If you feel the previous approach would be showing a red rag to a bull, send them a firm but fair e-mail stating your business is moving in a new direction and you can no longer work as their service provider. You can even suggest alternative service providers to help soften the blow.
Finally, when you work in a vacuum, e.g. as a copywriter working from home, you can very easily begin to believe your clients and blame yourself for any miscommunications or pushbacks. All clients are businesspersons just like you. Clients may have tunnel vision; they want the best for their business – sometimes at the cost of the happiness of their team.
Remember your value, remember your strengths, and remember that you are an expert. A toxic relationship today will probably remain a toxic relationship tomorrow. Have the strength to cut ties to these nasty clients, and choose to reward yourself with a client list dictated by strong boundaries.