No such thing as bad clients: True or False?

There’s a saying that there is no such thing as a bad client, but is that true? If you know me, you’ll know I am one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet. I see light where it’s dark and often give a new customer a chance, even if I’ve been warned off by their old agency. Granted – every time, these have turned out to be a right pain in the butt initially… BUT over the course of a few months, they can often be shaped into model clients and they save a fortune by following the process, so is there really such a thing as a bad client? We all have pet hates, or nags with customers no matter what industry you are in, but are they bad clients? Top issues often talked about in our industry:

  • “Scope-creepers” that don’t like to pay for additional work
  • Ask you to do the work knowing they can’t pay for it
  • Blame you for their or their previous agency’s work
  • The “Everything is urgent” customer
  • Questioning everything you, the expert are doing
  • Demanding things are done a certain way, even if it’s against your expert recommendation

Bad clients or bad client management

Now I will be the first to admit that some “bad clients” are caused by, or at least nurtured by bad client management. Firstly, we should not be afraid to sack a potential problem customer, or not accept them in the first place, but personally it goes against my ethics as I like to help everyone. We’re not perfect either, I know that and sometimes we make mistakes too, but we’re damn good at what we do and always ensure you get great work at a great price.

We could definitely be more forceful and refuse to do work unless an itemised quote is signed. Likewise, we can refuse to bend over backwards to meet unrealistic deadlines. However, that’s not me. Do I really have to change myself and my desire to deliver, just to “train” a very small minority of clients that are bad?

Examples of bad clients

I’m struggling to find an example as most the clients I’ve worked with will follow a process if it’s explained to them, but over the last 5-6 years and 218 clients, I’ve probably had 2 that using the points above, would define them as bad clients. Sure there’s been a couple that have been scope-creepers, bad payers and one that spent the funding the government gave him for the site on himself meaning he couldn’t pay us… but on the whole, we’re blessed with awesome clients!

Example 1

Never work with friends, right? A few years back we took on a job for a business very local to us at the time and immediately got bad vibes – we even got a “Good luck!” email from their old agency. In the end, we took it on, just because they were basically neighbours – not a good decision in hindsight.

They ticked off all 6 of the issues mentioned above! Our reputation and portfolio speaks for itself and yet this customer was the only person in 6 years to demand references. On average they were 132 days late paying invoices. Their scope creep was on a level I had never even seen before. They’d demand that things were done their way, then 6 months later when their friend who has never built a site before starts helping them, they were angry at us for doing it that way! Eventually we did get paid (well most of it), but recently I received a bizarre email saying that they don’t think they should be paying for hosting, because… yeah no reason they just don’t want to pay.

What happened next? We wrote off some invoices knowing we’d likely never get paid anyway, vowed to be stricter with who we take on as clients and their new friend convinced them to get yet another website. From what we hear, history repeats itself…

Were they a bad client? No! While they weren’t exactly the best client we’ve ever had, I think a quieter agency could still work with them effectively as long as they were firm and forceful up front and had great cash-flow.

Example 2

Sometimes when you’re a social enterprise you can get too attached. We took on a project for someone that really couldn’t afford it, but business was good and so we part funded it to make it fit in their budget. There was just something about the project and the person that I admired, and I just wanted to make it work for them. I’m an idiot I know!

At first they were on all measures the ideal client. Other than some odd amend requests that went against all of our recommendations, they followed all processes and we made a great system for them. We realised that the odd design requests would mean the site wouldn’t be able to be in our portfolio, but at least this person’s dreams would be realised. Completion time came and the customer wanted to completely change things… 2nd completion time and they want to change them back… you get the picture.

3 years of long silent periods and then urgent rushes going yo-yo with changes, new features, taking features away, changing how things work, etc. There’s no way the customer would be able to afford all this, so I stupidly subsidised a lot of it too! The initial testing budget was used up, so it was agreed the customer would do their own, or use a software testing graduate friend, then it was our fault we didn’t do the testing.

In 3 years as you all know, technology changes a lot, but naturally that customer doesn’t really way to pay us to do the mandatory changes to get the app through the app store approval process… I will be the first to admit that we added to some of the delays over the years due to scheduling already committed to and we obviously failed to manage their (admittedly wild) expectations well enough.

The project had real promise, solved a problem and could have been making good headway in the marketplace by now, but instead it’s looking doomed to failure because the priority is things the customer wants rather than what they need

What happened? We’ve certainly toughened up our stance recently and hopefully the project go live soon. The annoying thing is, we really want to help them and if they listen to our advice, they’ll save money and get revenue coming in sooner.

Were they a bad client? No! Sorry to disappoint you, but while clients like this can be challenging – stick at it and you’ll get there in the end. Sometimes, they may be incompatible, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.

Summary – are there bad clients?

I don’t think so really. Unfortunately, just as there are bad agencies, there probably are bad clients, but it is rare and certainly not as frequent as some agencies make out. Most of the “bad clients” we’ve been referred have been turned around or weren’t a problem in the first place. Even using our criteria above, 2 out of 218 is not bad at all and I’m still struggling to label them as bad clients really. If you’re experiencing bad clients, keep at it, manage your customers and share your successes.

Come back soon when I do a lengthy honest blog listing the times we feel that we’ve let people down in some way – how’s that for an honest approach!

Chris Ryu "Chameleon"

Chris has been a developer for over 15 years. Known for his unique experience crosses over many fields.

Comments: 2

  • Mat June 28, 2019 12:29 pm

    Do you feel this is a wise or professional thing to do? this type of post made by an agency only reflects badly on them and not the customers they are alluding to. And this sort of thing would only put potential customers off using such an agency. Clearly you have issues with your customers (which we all get I should know having worked with some big brands on an agency basis) but its never wise or professional to publicly bemoan them whether its anonymous or not as they will know who they are even if no one else does.

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