Old time sea monster
A former client did a chargeback on my company this week. I cannot stand looking at his website and seeing the work we did for him. Right there for all to see! Still, he claims we did nothing.

I’m tempted to whine about him and blather on about how unjust the chargeback process is for small businesses.

But, I won’t.

Instead, I want to talk about how I could have avoided taking on this client in the first place.

In the 8 years I’ve been delivering my services, I’ve had very few lousy clients. But, when I do get a lousy client, they wreak serious havoc. Not only have they robbed me of my profit, they have stolen my peace of mind and messed with my sanity.

In 8 years, I’ve figured out one essential element to barring the door and keeping out these potential energy drainers.

Listen to your gut. Instinct. Intuition. Red flags. Whatever you want to call it. This is the key to avoiding lousy clients.

If you listen to yourself, you can avoid bringing them on in the first place.
I’ve worked with hundreds of people in this business. As I look back, I can see the red flags now. But why didn’t I see them immediately and run the other direction?

Well, I did see the red flags and I chose to ignore them. My gut was shouting at me, “NO!” But, my fear of not getting another paying client overcame the voice of my intuition.

After a few of these experiences, I decided to figure out exactly what triggers that uneasy gut feeling.

It’s not just intuition. Lousy clients are lousy potential clients, too. Here are some red flags:

  1. Questioning price, asking for discounts. “Can you beat this price?”
  2. Asking about my refund policy.
  3. Asking to trade services or products instead of actually paying for services. “Can we give you yoga equipment in exchange?” or “You are going to get so many referrals from working with me!”
  4. Suggesting I become their business partner by investing in their business with the in kind value of my services. “My idea is so amazing! I just haven’t found the right business partner to help me with my website SEO and really get it off the ground.”
  5. Surprising me with news that the proposal I’ve already submitted will be made part of a larger bidding process which requires many more steps (a.k.a. hours of time) to complete. “I’m so sorry, again! We promise this is the last thing we need from you.”
  6. When it becomes apparent the potential client has in-house team members (or family members) actively working against bringing on our services. This usually comes out during awkward conference calls.
  7. When the prospect asks for another proposal for a different project but never responded to the last proposal I sent.
  8. More than one missed appointment in the lead up to becoming a client.

Sometimes people get past my or my employees’ radar.

Usually these people have burned through many website managers before finding us. They just don’t seem to have any “luck” in relationships.

I have experienced all of the following. Now when any of these issues come up (especially if they happen repeatedly), I know I need to help see a client out the door:

    1. Questioning of the character of my team by challenging the amount of time actually spent on a project. “I could have done that work myself in 20 minutes!”
    2. They identify non-urgent situations as urgent and expect immediate responses. “I know it’s Friday night, but there’s an extra period at the end of a sentence in my website footer.”
    3. Abusing access to my cell phone number by texting me as the primary method of communication even though I am easily reached by email. “Hey, Emily! Can you add this to our website? [dozens of 5 MB photo files attached via text]”
    4. The card on file keeps getting declined for insufficient funds and they wait for us to chase them down for payment instead of proactively calling to update the card. Or, problems with paying on time. “Can you wait until next month to charge me for that work you did 6 weeks ago?”
    5. Bringing in third parties to criticize the quality of our work with false information. This is an indication of a client is easily swayed by the next gimmick that lands in their inbox. “Can you read through this 30-page website speed report I got for free from speedupmywebsite.com and tell me why you are failing to do a good job?”
    6. People who quickly swing between happy with everything we do, to being angry and dissatisfied with everything we do.
    7. People who stop participating in the process and do not respond to emails or phone calls.
    8. Sexist comments or attempts to sexualize discussion. Any kind of verbal abuse is a bridge burner.
    9. And, of course, someone who uses the threat of a chargeback as a method of getting additional work for free.

What to do?

The more experience I get in my profession, the more I realize that bad potential clients will show up no matter what I do.
For me, it’s not about never attracting a client who attempts to cross my boundaries. It’s about knowing exactly what those boundaries are for me and my employees, and standing firm.

What do you do to set boundaries with potential and existing clients?
Comment or ask a question below.

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Welcome to WebDev Success. I’m Emily Journey and this podcast is where I take a hard look at the challenges facing the website development industry. Learn how to attract loyal customers, how to raise your prices with confidence, and take steps to craft the work life you’ve always wanted. Subscribe, listen in and develop brilliantly.

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  • Hi Emily – Earlier in my career I would do just about anything for a client to be happy without any boundaries. I took a lot of abuse. So for me, it was a learning process. Today I am much choosier with our client list than I was before. For me, it took the sting of a slap in the face from someone you have done back-flips for before you learn to sever the relationship and invoice for work done and move on. To take authority. To be strong. To do the right thing, so I’m not waking up at 3 in the morning thinking about someone whose face I want to punch out. I refuse to let a client affect my health and happiness. Today, if I have a client speak down to me, or demand the unrealistic, or text me at 11 pm, or be rude to me, or anything that is aggressively unprofessional, I push back and to be honest, I stop it in its tracks and it is no longer a problem. I actually said to someone, “Look, my kids wouldn’t dream of talking to me that way and I won’t take any crap from someone whose life I make easier by my ability to make you look good to your peers so back off.” Now that said, I am also at a place in my life where NOTHING is more important than the happiness and health of myself and my family. In addition, we no longer will work with someone who does not have a designated marketing budget.

    • I love this. Same here. I didn’t start out with strength and confidence. It just became ‘not worth it’ to put up with certain things. I don’t want anyone to feel they have to put up with these things. Isn’t it awesome to finally realize this?

Further reading

Web developer working at table

Hi, I’m Emily Journey. I founded and lead a website consulting agency with six coworkers. This blog is where I write about the things I’ve learned at my real job.
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