Tell Us About Your “Nightmare Client”

August 30th, 2006 by Bob Bly

Every copywriter, graphic artist, Web designer, and service professional has had at least one “nightmare client.”

My friend Jim Alexander, founder of Alexander Marketing — a great B2B ad agency in Michigan — once told me: “I can handle a client who is ignorant. I can handle a client who is arrogant. But not a client who is both.”

If a client is ignorant but not arrogant, you can do great work for him, because he will let you, for the most part, run the show — and look to you for advice and guidance.

If a client is arrogant but not ignorant, he may be demanding, but you can learn from him — and take your work to the next level.

A nightmare client, to me, is one who is both ignorant … he doesn’t know anything about your service or skill … and arrogant: even though he doesn’t know anything, he proceeds to dictate to you how to do your work.

Have you ever had a “nightmare client”? What were they like? What did you do about it? Did you keep working for them? Or did you “fire” that client?

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 30th, 2006 at 10:12 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

21 responses about “Tell Us About Your “Nightmare Client””

  1. Michael A. Stelzner said:

    Hey Bob – Have had LOTs of nightmare clients in my days as a writer. One of the worst recently was a rather large marketing company (that will remain nameless). I was working with their CEO to develop a thought leadership piece. We had a blessed outline and I conducted tons of interviews (with the CEO as well as others).

    When I sent the draft in. The response was “We love it. You nailed it!” from my primary contact and her boss. However, as it worked its way up the chain to the CEO, he did not like it at all.

    This was one of those CEOs who travels a lot. Needless to say, I had no “re-direction” and the project ended up taking 10 months to complete. The payment was “in the mail” 5 times and finally showed up this week. AND, got a message that the project is “almost done.” I have pretty much given up on this client for future work.

    Moral… There are some folks who change their mind about messaging AFTER they see what they have been saying and there’s not much you can do to make them happy.
    - Mike

  2. Lisa Taylor Huff said:

    My nightmare client is one I haven’t even started working for yet. He’s a ghostwriting client who is dead set on having me be his ghostwriter for his book. Six months ago we met (he flew to my area to meet me face to face, at his own expense), discussed the project and agreed we wanted to work together, and he left me with a huge box of his disorganized notes and dozens of tapes after he went back home. Over the days immediately after that meeting, we negotiated the finer points of our arrangement, I sent him a contract, he was about to sign and send me a 50% deposit.

    Then the “nightmare” began. First, his mother took ill and he had to fly out to be with her (sadly, she didn’t make it). Then he “needed time” after that. Then he was “almost ready” to start… when another family member died. Then he needed “a bit more time”. In June I finally told him I wanted to send back his box of notes and tapes because clearly he was never going to be ready to start this project and I was accepting other work… he made it clear he still wanted to work with me and he didn’t want another writer, so I said if he was ready to make the commitment we could still start. Another week or so passed, and around early July he was “ready” and asked me to resend the contract with the dates adjusted for the delay. Days went by, then weeks, then a month — no contract signed, no deposit check, and no response to my emails and phone calls.

    I figured he’ll get around to starting when he’s ready and until then I know he’s not working with another writer because I have all his materials here in my office, in a big orange shoebox, which I will not open until I have a check in my hand.

    You might wonder why I continue to put up with this and why I haven’t just given him the boot for good… frankly, the money and the experience of working on this project is just too good, and I can’t afford to pass it up because it will enable me to realize some of my own dreams. Last week I got the opportunity of a lifetime, to take over an apartment in Paris for a year, which has been my dream for many years. Starting and finishing this nightmare client’s book will financially enable me to jump at this opportunity to live and work in Paris for a year. I called the client, and he said he was thrilled that I called and yes, he was ready now, would I please send the contract.

    I am still waiting for the check to arrive and holding my breath that this apartment in Paris doesn’t get rented to someone else in the meantime because it’s perfect. Of course, the client lives in Orlando and now there’s a tropical storm taking place… yet another “reason” for yet another delay, I guess. But even though he’s already a PITA client I have made up my mind to deal with it, mainly for the money but also because I want to get more experience in ghostwriting and this book will go a long way in helping me build my portfolio. Sometimes we make the sacrifice to take on the nightmares as a means to an end, and this is definitely one of those times.

    I look at it this way: my goal will be to finish this book as fast as possible to get paid and to get this guy out of my life once and for all. So at least I’ll have lots of motivation not to drag it out, once I actually get STARTED!

  3. Deborah Chaddock Brown said:

    When we are writing in the solitude of our office, (which for me is a perfect place to be) we forget that the nightmares we experience are being experienced by others. I too have had my share of nightmares but my fav is a customer who was interested in a newsletter but didn’t think I could write because I didn’t have twenty years in his industry. He finally agreed to a trial on a Monday afternoon. I said that I could meet with him the following afternoon to discuss and begin writing the following week. He said, “no, I need the finished product written, designed, approved, printed and on my desk Thursday before 11am.” Oh. Well, good luck with that.

    He called two months later – it was November – and said, if I gave you two weeks notice, would that be enough. Well, business was slowing down with holiday and so I said yes. Then the nightmare began – in our first meeting he had a screaming match with his sales staff over pricing that would be included in the newsletter. Long story short, I left the turkey to my mother to fix while I worked with the guy over the phone on Thanksgiving day.

    I figured that was that, but he called on January 27th needing a brochure – for a convention that started the following Friday. I said that I couldn’t turn it around that fast. He then said, so would it be too late for a newsletter. For March? I asked. No for February 1. I said – you know, I think perhaps I am not the right person for the job and requested that he no longer call me.

    Lesson – when someone doesn’t respect what you do, they treat you with the same lack of respect. My business is better for not having him as a customer.

  4. SpongeBob Fan said:

    A friend of mine had worked with a company for 10+ years. He did great work for them and they loved him. Everyone prospered. Then my friend’s main contact was promoted. For a while, everything went well. One day my friend was told that – while his original contact was still officially “in charge” – he would now be interacting on a daily basis with a new person who had been brought in.

    It’s not what you’re thinking – my pal got along fine with the new person. Unfortunately, the original contact didn’t and eventually he decided that neither that person nor my friend were capable of getting the job done.

    With informal coaching from colleagues and with a real desire to salavage this previously-great situation (for the money reasons and the personal reasons), my friend bent over backwards for more than a year. Finally, he had enough and told the original guy that he believed it would be better if they started fresh with somebody new.

    The original contact BEGGED him to stay. Said they needed him, totally valued him, things would change and it wasn’t all the way it seemed to my friend. So he stuck it out for another 6 months – same crazy situation, same crazy projects, same crazy problems between the original contact and the now-not-so-new-person.

    One day, my friend got an email from the original contact, thanking him for sticking with the company and saying he looked forward to many more years of a productive working relationship.

    Three days later – NO JOKE! – the guy called my friend and said he thought it would be best if they went their separate ways.

    My friend licked his wounds for about 6 months.
    Mostly he was upset with himself – that he hadn’t walked away when it was what his gut wanted so much.

    (This one has always seemed like a top 10 nightmare to me. Good person/real contributor trapped in a stupid no-win.)

  5. Easton Ellsworth said:

    Not wanting to break the flow of the conversation here – but I just wanted to say hi to Bob and visitors. Michael Stelzner blogtipped Bob this morning and I was glad to discover this blog (and Michael’s) via that meme.

    I’m impressed at how well and how often you ask your readers questions, Bob. I’ll remember to do that more often at my own blog.

    Sorry I can’t really add to the discussion about nightmare clients – I’m not experienced in that area – but I’m glad to see a lot of thought generated on that here and wish everyone success in their work.

  6. Lauren Hidden said:

    My biggest nightmare client was a professional speaker who had a PR company. I was doing some writing for his clients.

    One day I was looking at my website stats and saw that someone found my site from “Joe Smith (not his real name) in trouble”. I had written about this guy in my blog. I thought that was interesting so I googled the term myself. I then found out my client had been arrested for kiddie porn and had spent a couple days in jail (no wonder he didn’t answer my emails or calls) and was facing some serious prison time. I confronted him about it later and asked him why he didn’t tell me about it. He professed his innocence and asked me to continue working for him.

    He lost the client we were both working on, broke my contract with him (2 weeks notice), and when I tried to get the money he owed me for breaking the contract, he refused, then tried to “compromise” by offering to enroll me in his MLM and give me free product so he had another enrollee under him (um, no thanks). I told him just to forget it, I was willing to walk away and be out my cancellation fee just so I didn’t have to deal with him.

    He begged me to reconsider and asked me to quote a project for a different client. I doubled the rate I’d usually charge, just so the client would refuse and I could walk away from this guy gracefully. This guy then doubled it (quadrupling the fair price), saying he could then “pay me back” the money he owed me from the first client. Fortunately the client didn’t bite and I haven’t heard from this guy since. But he definitely takes the cake for the most unethical, creepy client I’ve ever had.

  7. Chris Lake said:

    I have had blessedly few bad projects, but the law of averages will eventually catch up with me, I’m sure.

    Nightmare of the summer: meet with client about writing his Web site. Talk for two hours, get on the same page, re-confirm target audience, etc., etc., thanks for meeting with us, look forward to your first draft.

    First draft reads pretty well and will connect with the target audience. Client hates it. Gives me competitors’ sites to review–”be more like these,” he says. (What, dull, boring, and ineffective?)

    Second draft is a lot better, admittedly. A little less casual tone, better hooks, more compelling benefits. Target audience will be falling all over themselves to click, click, click!

    Client hates it even more. Suggests I “just don’t get it… you obviously don’t understand our industry and I guess nobody can from the outside.” Hmmm.

    Of course, in retrospect, everything was leaning toward a disaster. Client had no real budget, client was a friend of a friend so I was doing a favor, client said he would just write it himself but he didn’t have enough time, client didn’t pay any deposit on the job (because I didn’t ask for it), client didn’t have a site map for his Web, client rarely replied to e-mail in fewer than three or four days.

    At least I learned more about running my business professionally, valuing my time and expertise and expecting the same from my clients. This attitude has yielded great results both financially and spiritually.

    Small vindication: three months later his site is still not on the Web….

    Sweet dreams, everyone!

  8. Rob Swanson said:

    Never work for a friend.

    Client has outstanding product and pricey services, but the product will be the perfect gateway to selling his service. We’re talking gold with a huge, hungry market. I lay out what needs to be done, but get called away on a family emergency, so I recommend a very talented peer who backs up what I told my friend. I leave, return two months later, and find my friend extremely upset. He spent $17,000 for an ad campaign that didn’t work. I review the campaign and it is pushing the service to the wrong market instead of the product to the correct market. My friend had disregard everything I had told him, and unfortunately, my peer did as he was told instead of walking away. No testing was done, just a mass mailing that didn’t have a hope of working.

  9. Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan said:

    I had a nightmare client in 2001. Everything started out nicely but he gradually realised that by working ON the business required some “IN the business” time and a bit of “personal” time for implementing the new ideas.

    Unfortunately his wife was a government employee, and in the socialistic British Columbian government, civil servants are trained to act as self-appointed gods who have the right and power to boss anyone and everyone around and demand whatever they want to.

    So, she suggested her husband that he started demanding more work from me, including dropping all my clients and working for him full-time. Hm. My fee was a $3,000 monthly retainer, so the full-time gig didn’t appeal to me.

    Essentially I was asked to take over his work, so he could have more time with his family. I was hired as a business coach, but he started treating me as an employee, “Since I pay you, I’m your boss, and you’re my subordinate. Therefore you do as I say.”

    After 5 and a half months of my help and support, he stopped paying, and because I didn’t conform to his master-slave idea, we ended the relationship.

    Three years after “completion”, I received a letter from his lawyer, summoning me to court. The guy took me to court to demand my fees back. And his main witness to “my crime” was supposed to be his wife, testifying that I was an incompetent idiot who tricked his innocent husband.

    And in spite of admitting both in writing and verbally that the project failed because of him due to lack of implementation, he won the case because of my guarantee.

    My guarantee said, “I guarantee MY work with an unconditional money-back guarantee.” The judge interpreted this as a guarantee for results.

    And even the judge admitted that technically I’m not liable for anything per se because he chose not to implement my advice, and the guarantee only guarantees my side of the equation, he still made a decision against me.

    Then later a lawyer friend told me that in the Small Claims court, whoever initiates a legal case, wins most of the time, and he most probably won the case at the moment when he decided to sue me.

    Ever since this event, Realising I can’t guarantee other people’s success. I stopped using any kind of guarantee in my agreements. As a consultant, I provide an opportunity, and it’s up to them what they make of that opportunity.

    And so far, my work nightmare-free.

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