Marketing / Business relationships

6 1/2 dud clients: Some customers are always wrong!

As one frazzled freelancer said to another: “Business would be great if it wasn’t for my clients!” The Seagull, Power Tripper, Jilted Lover… not only is the customer not always right, but here are 6½ that are very wrong.

24 December 2016 by

As a freelance copywriter I’ve been lucky enough to work with many brilliant clients. But, after 15 years on the keyboard I’ve also come across a motley crew of usual suspects that are best avoided for your peace of mind and profitability.

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Here are seven unsavoury customers to look out for and avoid:

1. The Jilted Lover

Them: “I’ve tried so many copywriters in the past and they’ve all been hopeless! I could’ve done better myself. But, my friend reckons you’re ok, so let’s talk.”

You: Run. Fast. Don’t look back. It’s not you; it’s them. People like this bring expectations and attitudes that set you up to fail. More often than not the projects drag on forever and invoicing can be like pulling teeth before they move on to a new victim.

2. The Power Tripper (a.k.a. The Bully)

Them: Their attitude is: “I pay you so you do whatever I say!” They schedule meetings, which they are late to, so that you can read them documents that they are ‘too busy’ to read themselves. They will ask you to jump through hoops and love to call on Friday afternoons with urgent work due first thing Monday (that they don’t look at for a week!)

You: Life’s too short and there are too many tasty fish in the sea to deal with Power Trippers. Immediately and liberally apply the no @#$hole rule as described below.

"The no @#$hole rule is broad spectrum test that can be applied to any prospect."

3. The Seagull

Them: They fly in, crap everywhere and fly off. You can pick them out with comments like, “I like what you’ve done, but could we approach it from another angle.” And “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know when I see it!” Their emails are also chock full of seemingly random links and attachments.

You: While working with animals is notoriously risky, Seagulls can be ok to work with if you set boundaries and charge appropriately. The best Seagulls simple want a safe set of hands to throw projects too. But, don’t let their disorganisation and priorities become your own.

4. The Skeptic

Them: “Look, I’m not really sure what a copywriter is, but my wife told me I needed to get someone like you to do some good stuff. Personally I reckon my stuff is pretty spot on.”

You: “You’re right, your work is fine J Trying to convince someone of the value and benefit of your entire industry is not a good start. DIY-ers at heart, rarely will a Skeptic be convinced of the value of paying top dollar for a professional.

5. The Freeloading Game Changer!

Them: They are creating “The Uber of <insert industry>”. So while they don’t have any budget right now to pay for your services, there will be stacks of ongoing work down the track once you’ve done this free or discounted trial.

You: Don’t believe the hype! But stranger things have happened, so also just be sure you’re not actually saying no to 10% of the next Facebook before turning away too fast.

6. Promiscuous Briefers

Them: “Hi, I’m contacting your business for a quote for XYZ.” Their opening email doesn’t include your name and looks suspiciously like it’s been sent to everyone they could Google in your industry.

You: In my experience, these projects rarely materialise and are generally from people shopping around for the cheapest deal. By all means send off a quick proposal, but don’t invest much time to start with. Push for a budget early to filter out tyre kickers.

6½. Friends, family, next-door neighbours, serial killers etc …

While this is not a complete list, proceed with extreme caution when mixing business and personal contacts, and avoid working for the underworld as much as is possible – even if the pay is good.

Bonus tip: The no @#$hole rule

The no @#$hole rule is a broad spectrum test that can be applied to any prospect. I first heard it from a veteran ad man who, sick of dealing with unreasonable people, decided that he would never again work with anyone he didn’t like.

The result, he said, was more enjoyable and more profitable work. I’ve since tried to apply this rule wherever possible. Life’s too short to try and please energy sappers. Just say no.

If you do need help ridding yourself of unwanted clients Andrew Griffith’s article How to turn away difficult clients has some smart and practical strategies.

But don’t forget! Most clients are lovely

Fortunately, most clients in the world are the delightful types that are great to work with and help keep us in the life we have become accustomed too. THANK YOU to all those wonderful people!

And, I’m in no way saying us business owners are all perfect! I’m sure there’s an equivalent list of “57 dud suppliers” floating around the internet too.

Do you recognise any of these people?
Or have your own warning signs we should look out for?
Do you have any tips for dealing with difficult clients?

Peter Crocker

is a director of Flying Solo responsible for marketing and advertising. As a business copywriter he partners with digital agencies and corporate clients on websites and digital content. He’s the co-author of Flying Solo Revisited – How to go it alone in business.


  • I can relate to the all of the above. They drain you, and your business’ bank account too. 4 years ago, I set up my business’ Red Velvet Rope Policy. 4 in 5 of my clients now are a joy to work with.

    • Thanks Nester. I just had to search ‘Red Velvet Rope Policy’ and I’m glad I did. A great way to filter the joyful clients from the draining. I haven’t ever got around to read it but Book Yourself Solid seems to be a classic in the service industry. Thanks for sharing.

  • Couldn’t stop laughing at The Freeloading Game Changers! They are all over the place especially looking for website and app developers in the IT industry

    • Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂 Yes, the tech industry does seem to attract the speculative (free) projects with the promise of some big payday in the future. Can be tempting sometimes but very hard and time-consuming to try and evaluate which ones may or may not be worth a punt.

  • Oh Peter this is laugh out loud reading, especially the great pic-very Australia Day appropriate. As a singing teacher I get this all the time. “I just want a few lessons. I’ve entered The Voice and expect the get to the finals”. “I’ve been with this teacher 16 years and haven’t learnt a thing”. “She never turned up on time”. “Can I pay by the lesson and let you know what my schedule for the week looks like” ME-“How’s practice gone this week”. THEM: “Practice? But I thought it would just happen”. I have to admit that it takes time, a development of a sixth sense and a few burnt fingers (code for bank balance) to know a dodgy, time waster, stingy, deluded – well, I shan’t go on, potential (non)client. But learning to spot them is one of the great skills small biz people learn- quickly!

    • Thanks Kath, those are great examples. It seems that every industry has their own unique set of client clangers 🙂 The ‘unrealistic expectations’ example that you give is another one that all service providers would come across from time to time. Learning to spot the tricky clients and also attract ideal clients is a key part of small business success. Thanks 🙂

  • Not bad, Crocker, but “can we approach this article from a different angle?” Just joking of course. I wait with bated breath for your articles, and once again you have not disappointed. This was both a hilarious and accurate summation! I agree with your end point too, 99% of clients are AMAZING, which makes being a copywriter pretty darn awesome. In the early days I worked with a few difficult clients, but nowadays I try to go with my gut feeling, and it’s never wrong. The beauty of using the rule you outline in your article is that it means you only work with delightful, like-minded clients, who in turn refer other delightful like-minded clients. Anyway, time for you to write your next article. Not sure what I want yet, but “I’ll know when I see it”. 😉

    • Haha! Thanks for your always witty comments Lucinda 🙂 I’ll give this another look from a different angle and see if I can give it some more ‘oomph’. And yes, the gut feel rule is just as effective at screening out the bad eggs. Thanks again

  • Hi Peter nice article and a nice laugh as well. But on a serious side most people have good days and bad days. So you should no rely on first impressions. What’s the old saying, “you can’t tell a book by its cover…”.

    We used to have a US based supplier that we dealt with, Frank, he flew in once a month for a review meeting. One meeting we gave him a model of a buzzard which we called, you guessed it, Frank. It took a while for him to figure out that buzzards flew in, tore strips off, crapped over everything and then flew off leaving the carcass. He turned out to be one of the best people that we could deal with and we had a great relationship.

    Don’t be too quick to rush a judgement and maybe its one of your own off days. Agreed most customers are great to deal with those that are not so great a generally a good lesson.


    • Thanks John! ‘The Buzzard’ is another great one. Sounds like a much fiercer version of ‘The Seagull’. It’s a very good point you make about not judging too quickly or harshly. Sometimes all it takes is some clear communication, like you did, to set up a fruitful relationship. Client management is a key skill and often overlooked. Thanks for the insights!

  • I really enjoyed this article, and recognise many of these client types. I’d also add the “What’s your hourly rate?” clients. I’m yet to have a pleasant experience working with someone who insists on paying by the hour. I find they want to micro-manage and know every last thing that is done in order for them to actually pay. The most often heard comment from the (few) clients I’ve done this with is “But what have you been doing?” and sometimes it isn’t tangible. I’ve now learnt to say “I’m sorry, but that is not how I work… I will provide you with a project cost, that way you know exactly what you are paying and exactly what you are getting.” If that doesn’t work for them, I’ll walk away from it. Life is too short…

    • Thanks Heather. Yes, I think if clients don’t respect the way you like to work from the start then it’s a warning sign. While the hourly rate can work well for many, it’s not always the best option for sure. Indeed, escaping hourly rates is a very common objective for many soloists selling services/expertise.

  • How many of us fulfill these roles when we are the customer? Peter – the truth is, if you look up when you are around me, you do so at your peril. You know what I am capable of!

    • Haha! Maybe I should wear a rain hat 🙂 Actually, it is a good point and worth considering when we’re on the other side of the equation whether or not we act like the ideal client ourselves!

  • Great article Peter, but you forgot the one who asks a thousand questions, takes all your advice but then goes with a cheaper option.

    • Haha yes. I know that one… maybe they could be “The Interrogator”. Get a quote in early in those cases I reckon!

  • Beware the two-headed dragon. One of my rellies was a 5 and 6.5 combo. I had to slay that one pretty quickly. Great insights, Peter.

  • I’m lucky in the sense that we have professional services charges and SLA’s. If the works not covered in the SLA, it costs money which has to be approved by an account holder before the work can be done.

    If they want it done outside of business hours, the professional services charge increases to an out of hours charge.

    I’ve found saying “Hi, to meet this deadline by Monday (today before Friday), it will be six hours of work split three hours over Saturday and three hours over Sunday. This will fall into our out-of-hours professional services charging bracket at $250 per hour ex GST.”

    Watch them back out quick 🙂 And if they don’t back out; $1500 for six hours isn’t a bad weekends worth of work.

    • Hi enix, yes that’s a good approach. Attaching a specific fee to rush work certainly makes people think more carefully about how urgent it really is 🙂

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