How to deal with “bad clients”

Arrgh!!!“Bad clients.” Unfortunately, when you run a service-based business a few not-so-ideal clients come your way. These clients come in different forms — they no longer align with your services, go out of scope, request endless revisions, or don’t adhere to your process. Whatever the situation is, I thought I’d shed some light on this not so fun topic in hopes that you can move past it with grace.

First things first, we need to accept some responsibility! However they stepped out of line, we need to acknowledge our role. Maybe we didn’t set firm expectations, to begin with, establish appropriate business hours for communication, or create a timeline with feedback deadlines assigned to our clients. There are ways that we could have better directed the process. I’m speaking from experience here!

I’ve seen this celebration pop up over the past couple of years over “firing clients...” that I don’t love. As if when we fire a client we should rejoice, have gusto, and feel empowered. Listen, I never have felt this way. Instead, I feel deflated. Just worth a mention here, our goal is to best serve our clients, so saying goodbye to them shouldn’t be a moment of celebration! That’s not a great way to run a business.

But… sometimes it’s necessary.

So, I wanted to share my experience on how to deal with these tricky situations.

Learn from the experience

Before hopping into how to let go of clients, let’s learn how we can avoid these situations moving forward. Ask these questions to yourself, or even jot them down in your notebook:

· What went wrong?

· Where could you have anticipated the wrong turn?

· Is there a way you can set some better boundaries for future clients?

· Is your contract secure? If not, get covered. Now.

Option 1: Continue working together

You’ve found yourself in a bit of a sticky situation, but not all hope is lost and you’re hoping to salvage the client relationship. You recognize you need to establish new terms, or possibly set some boundaries, with your client and then you can proceed with the project.

This can be tough to stomach for those of us who are people pleasers. Part of us considers continuing the project as is, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances if only to avoid confrontation. Yet, another side of us knows we should stand our ground as a professional. Not to fear, I’ve got some helpful tips to guide you through this rough patch.

*To make it easier in these difficult situations, I've provided some responses for you to use when dealing with difficult clients - simply click here.

Out of scope clients:

This is probably the most common client dilemma with designers! If your client requests work outside of the original agreement, by all means, let them know if they are unaware. Let them know you’re willing to work together, and the cost for the additional work.


If your client calls you outside office hours, texts instead of emails, or drips revisions through several messages rather than one response, you have an issue with communication. In this case, I’d recommend responding through your preferred communication channel and establishing your preferences. Be direct and clear to help steer them in the right direction.


Another common pain point with client work. If your client needs to exceed the rounds of revisions allotted in your process, let them know how they can proceed. I typically have an hourly fee I use for additional revisions, and will tell the client how much I anticipate for the additional work. For this response though, your client needs to be aware of how many revisions are allotted in your process. Ie: don’t surprise them with a bill. They should anticipate it coming!

New projects:

If you’ve had a past difficult client who wants to continue working together, you’ll need to establish some boundaries. This is if you’ve already wrapped up the initial project and realized you weren’t firm in your process, but now need to re-establish expectations. In your response, you can mention that you’d enjoy working together, however since the last project you’ve adjusted your process. Then dive into the details.

Option 2: Back away… slowly

So, you’ve opted to cut ties with your client and move on. You realize that it isn’t the best fit, and isn’t worth your time/energy to continue working together. I respect that.

But what next? You’re anticipating a fallout of sorts, and that’s giving you anxiety and stress. (been there!)

Here’s some guidance if this is you (and I’m sorry if it is!!)

· First, take a deep breath. As mentioned before, recognize why they aren’t the right fit. You’ve gained clarity in the process, and that is huge!

· Don’t feel obligated to continue working together if it isn’t the right fit, or you feel abused as their designer. It’s your business, and you can say no!

· Try to resolve the situation first if you can, and then if it is clear it’s time to discontinue working together, you can send them one of the responses in the download provided below.

· If this client is a hot mess, avoid passing the problem along to a specific designer. Instead, you can recommend websites that have design directories they can select from.

· Run a bath or watch a movie after you hit send on your “break up” email. Otherwise, you’ll be refreshing your inbox nonstop!