Poor Clients: Who They Are, Why We Work for Them and How to Work with the Best People

As creative people, purchase unless we are producing things for no financial reward, medical and especially those of us who work on an independent basis, attracting and winning clients and customers is effectively the most important aspect of the package of work we do (beyond the creative work itself).

Having seen responses to various questions from hundreds of you, it is obvious that problems with clients rank high on the list of frustrations for creative people. Such issues range from being paid too little and late, being under-appreciated as providers of important services and things of real cultural value, miscommunication, ignorance, being dropped at the last minute, downright abuse, being unable to find them, and lack of respect.

Poor clients can be a real source of stress for many of us (not meant in the financial sense, though some of them could be! We’re talking about those people who we provide a product or service in exchange for cash).

For the most part, the ‘clients’ we deal with who give us grief are inexperienced.

They will likely be new to hiring and working with people and immature to the needs and the system behind a functioning relationship between client and service or product provider (that’s us). Think of a poor or difficult client you worked with in the past. It’s likely they were amateurs. For those of you in the process of working out your target client, simply knowing this will already help you get more focused in who to target your services towards.

Before you think of this post as an all out rant at horrid client monsters, know that many clients work with freelancers and others with the best intentions, and for the most part are perfectly nice people. The problem will most often be found in their inexperience and unfamiliarity with working with contractors effectively.

The reason many of us end up with these kinds of people is through a combination of an absence of options, and a lack of personal standards. Let’s look briefly at having options first…


We might be new to the search for clients right at the start of a freelance career, be pressured to bring in extra income, be short on time and unclear about what it is we want and how to proceed.

We jump at the opportunity to make some money on any project and with any client when we are short on choice, desperate, overwhelmed and/or clueless about our direction and in terms of what to prioritise. In this case we often end up serving the client more than entering into an agreement that benefits us mutually.

What are more options? Simply having more potential clients to choose from, so that potentially poor clients can be dropped, with choices as backups, if they crop up in the first place. This kind of ‘weeding out’, has the benefit of forcing poorer clients to improve the way they do business as well.

Having more people approaching us more often, or within our thriving network, means that we as service-providers are in the cockpit, as opposed to falling at the feet of the first prospect to come and offer us a job. We may well be satisfied with a single client who provides us with on-going, well-paid work, year round. But the danger lies in the risk of losing that client overnight, and then being faced with a lack of options.

“Having more people approaching us more often, or within our thriving network, means that we as service-providers are in control.”

This is why it is important to maintain a healthy range of choices for you in the form of prospects, ‘warm leads’, and strong connections. This is the first component in minimising poor clients in your career.

So how to increase the options you have? After obviously working on presenting a quality product or service, this is through making people in your target market aware that you and your quality product exist. In other words, self promotion.

Now don’t fear, self promotion doesn’t have to be cringey and ‘salesy’. The form of self promotion I always advocate, what I call ‘Promo 3.0’, involves a softer, more organic form of growing real and relevant connections into a thriving network. I talk more about this in my book, which you can download here.

With the right kind of promotion, directed at the kinds of people you aspire to work with, you’ll be making ideal clients aware of you, whilst cutting out the chance of working with those you wouldn’t want to, all at the same time.

Having options on their own can be a very solid deterrent to working with poor clients, but is massively strengthened by exerting your own standards too.

Personal and Business Standards

Closely intertwined with lacking options, is not having certain standards in place that help clarify to both the client and yourself, how it is you operate as a professional. A standard that you set as a freelancer could be in not working at a weekend, only working with those who agree to sign a contract, charging for transferral of copyrights, or only working with people who agree to pay an up-front payment of 50% overall fee of the project, for example.

Having a set of standards benefits you in two ways.

Standards help guide the screening process for clients who approach you (once you have created further options, discussed previously) so that you weed out potentially poor clients. Secondly, having clear standards will demonstrate your professionalism and dedication to work (and your craft), which will have the effect of attracting the better clients anyway.

The standards, boundaries and conditions that you set will be incorporated into your interaction with prospects, as well as being displayed anywhere that people can see them when considering whether to work with you, such is within your website’s ‘About’ page and for more technical aspects, your ‘Terms and Conditions’.

Standards do not just appear as written rules, but are also felt through the way you deal with prospects, the character that you show and the attitude you possess. High character will inevitably and often attract clients with similar character maturity. Exhibiting a good attitude can have a strong effect on how others talk about and refer you.

“Standards do not just appear as written rules, but are also felt through the way you deal with prospects, the character that you show and the attitude you possess.”

If you have options, then there is no need to panic about losing a client if they don’t fit in with the standards you have set. As long as you promote yourself regularly with an understanding of your target client, keep standards reasonable and comfortable to you, and you deliver them in a professional manner, you’ll be attracting the right clients consistently.

Do add your thoughts and experiences in the comments area below.


  1. Alex; Red Lemon Club,
    Your VALUE-driven insight and sharing is golden.
    Definitely complimentary forces to another Business Execution/ Mentoring service company one is privileged to know – – Glenn Dietzel’s international company.
    You both extend value-based teachings and principles that are timeless and great to see you highlighting here.
    Best Regards,
    n. nicole

  2. Great breakdown of a topic that usually digresses into “you’ll never believe what this client said…”

    Sometimes personalities just don’t mesh. You just need to remain professional and politely decline future work if absolutely necessary. Avoid trash talk that might get you a reputation as a moody/needy artist.

    Last thing you want is a client’s opinion of you digressing into “you’ll never believe what this artist said…”

    Great topic Alex.

  3. Thinking on this make me realise how much mistakes i have made recently in work dat has me stuck in certain projects that kinda suck the life outta you because its a drag working with a supposedly difficult client. Great post.

  4. Superb read Alex. Totally agree finding the right people and level of work is of paramount importance. When we start to change the way we work or our contacts it can be daunting. It’s easy to fall back in to traps when there’s not much work in, but having the confidence to set your stall out can be a great move as can limit being abused for your skills by the same people who worked poorly in the previous projects you worked on for them. It just takes time and effort directed in the correct locations and with more like-minded people rather than anyone and anywhere.

  5. I’ve been freelancing PT since 1985, FT since 2004, mostly illustrative work … the number 1 problem with clients is not clients, it’s us. There are simply too many illustrators looking for work. The art schools bear much of the blame for this.

    This oversupply means that clients can drop prices with impunity, demand impossible deadlines, etc. There’s always an illustrator who will take them up on their offer to be abused and thus we all suffer.

    In addition, the abysmal standards of contemporary art direction (if one is even dealing with a genuine AD, which is getting pretty rare) reinforces this amateurism. Technical/conceptual standards are minimal … many ADs now regard clip-art as the style to match. And an inability to draw seems to have become the new fad with most of them.

    In a nutshell, amateurism is our problem and clients are taking full advantage of that.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mahendra. Times like these require a little more strategy and awareness for the freelancer for sure, but I don’t think opportunity is decreasing. If anything, with the rise of the Internet, and the widening of emerging markets, demand for illustration is going up. This, coupled with really knowing what your target market want, will mean a lot of opportunity for the creative person in years to come.

      If amateurism is the problem, then let the poor clients work with poor service givers, therefore increasing opportunities for quality working-relationships for the rest of us.

  6. I dig the thought process on this and agree with a lot of it. One thing I’ll point out that really drew me towards this topic in the past was something that Mike Monteiro said in a video I watched. He described a very similar situation, with designers getting all in a fuss on Facebook or Twitter about “How stupid such and such client is.” What really struck me though was his thought process, instead of thinking about how stupid your client is why don’t you consider how stupid you are for not explaining your business well enough for them to understand.

    If you’re working with a dentists office building a website for example, and they ask you to do something outlandish or outside of the scope of your contract it is YOUR responsibility to illustrate this to the client. YOU ARE the professional so if a client doesn’t understand something then you aren’t doing your job right. If the client knew all the answers to the stupid questions they wouldn’t be paying you, now would they?

    This surely doesn’t mean that “poor” clients will stop existing, but I thought it gave a interesting perspective on how to treat working with “poor” clients.

    • Totally agree, Jay. Too often we don’t prioritise the user experience for our clients and customers. This is huge!

  7. I really enjoyed reading this article and all the responses. I suppose as a non creative freelancer I can perhaps comment from the client perspective. Alex you are absolutely right it is the freelancers/creative service providers responsibility to set the stage with the client – not the other way around, but it has to be done from the very beginning!

    Jay Miller hit a chord with me because at the end of the day people like me have ideas that can only be developed with professionals who can do the job they can’t.

    In such circumstances it is important for a client to know what the boundaries are from the outset and in particular the pricing structure. Transparency is key on both sides and by being up front from the start can prevent disappointment and stress later.

    If a client has approached a professional it is because they have already decided they need help. I have been surprised in the past year how short “advice” can be from independent providers I have engaged with. So for example by not prepping the client as to what the pitfalls around their ideas are, not spelling it out but going ahead without the warnings about repercussions, the client can often learn an expensive lesson that has to be fixed later at an additional cost. The client gets the feeling that the provider is more interested in the money than doing the job once properly.

    It can be frustrating for a client because if they had been handled differently from the beginning with reasoned argument the frustrations and the unappreciated comments, described by Alex, could be avoided. It also means the potential client becomes defensive (rather than poor or bad) because they too are under financial/time stresses and the whole reason they go to external professionals for help is to relieve both issues when they can’t do the job themselves.

    No professional should be afraid of loosing custom just because they spell out the way they work and what they charge. If no acceptable compromise can be reached then the work should be declined. End of. Getting rid of cloak and dagger methods of working that often leave a client feeling exposed and stupid should be avoided at all costs. As a retired lawyer I have always advocated transparency – something that many find difficult to grasp. However it is the root to building trust and professionalism and a loyal client base. Clients want to understand the boundaries, the pros and cons, the whys, what ifs and when, the t&C’s because without all that information how can a client make an educated assessment of their own requirements? It is the responsibility of any service provider to make all of those things clear (whoever they are) from the very beginning. I know what questions to ask now – but what about those clients who don’t – how do you help them understand? Not everyone is up for learning so it is always the responsibility of the professional service provider to take the lead! That way professionals will stand out from the providers Mahendra mentions!

    Thank you as always Alex for all the fantastic information you share – you continually add to my CPD!

    • Great comment, Louise, thank you! You’re absolutely right about being resolute in the setting of our own standards and sticking with them.

  8. OK, I confess, with my first client as a business I did all the wrong things that I could do and I failed. The relationship deteriorated so much so that the client at some point didn’t even answer my calls. Not to say that I didn’t even got paid. That was a harsh lesson for me. It’s true that if you don’t stand up for your standards, you’ll end up hurting both yourself and your client.

    So to the new freelancers and entrepreneurs out there: Man up and don’t ever break your standards! Also, don’t ever work on client’s budget, you will only suffer. If the customer is poor, ditch him.

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