When Clients Go Bad: Working with Abusive Clients

I’ve written a post recently on how to deal with clients… it was a general how-to on putting up with demanding paycheck-signers, but I really didn’t delve into the realms of the truly abusive clients.

When you’re starting out, a good rule to follow is to turn down only the truly distasteful projects, and the ones you cannot reasonably complete (either the deadline is impossible, or you don’t know squat about the topic). However, even the most desperate of starving writers have a threshold, and shouldn’t have to work a gig that really sucks the life right out of you, making you reconsider that career in dirt-moving.

One piece of advice I gave, in the case of clients who demand the impossible, the immoral, and the illegal, was to turn them down. I stick by that, but I also think that there should have been one other client added to that list…

The Mean Client

working with mean client
A mean client was probably either a bully in school, pushing smaller kids down the stairs, or they were the bullied kid who came home with their underwear tag imprinted on their forehead.

Whatever the psychology that got them here, the result is a client who cannot be pleased and who is just plain mean. This client leaves you voicemails that demand you call them “right this instant,” and send you emails saying that your work sucks, in varying degrees of not subtle.

Often, these clients discover that you’ll put up with their crap and try to coerce you into continuing your relationship. Much like a spouse-abuser, this client finds someone they can push around and then clings obsessively to their new toy.

Dropping the Meanie

drop abusive client
Yes, the money is nice and all…

But is it worth the headaches and stomach ulcers? Or dreading even checking your email, because you just know there will be a hostile reminder that you have a deadline in 4 hours, 36 minutes, and 18 seconds?

Unless you’re literally not eating, you should turn down the money. Abusive clients throw it around as bait and bribery because it’s the only way they can get someone to work for them. Don’t let them suck all the fun out of your job.

When you find yourself in the clutches of one of these clients, just finish the project as professionally as you can, then TURN DOWN the offer of an extension or a new assignment.

Say no. Be firm and don’t back down.

Have an excuse ready, “I’m really sorry, when this project ends I am booked into a 7 month Client Relations Seminar in Bora Bora.”

BTW, if you have to use an excuse that extreme, go ahead and change your email and block their phone number while you’re at it.

Why the Bully Client is Valuable

When you were learning to ride a bike, and got road rash on every inch of you (because you were riding in flip-flops and a bathing suit, in true vintage style), you learned one very important thing.

Don’t do that anymore!


The same concept applies here; a lesson learned, no matter how difficult, painful, and embarrassing, is still a lesson learned. If we’d never tumbled down that gravel road in nearly nothing, we would still be riding around town on an open-chained bike with cards in the spokes and our tushie peeking out.

Okay, that’s extreme… but hopefully you get my point.

Each nightmarish client is valuable. Every one teaches you a new red flag (or 37) to watch out for when meeting every future client. Before it’s all said and done, you should be able to weed out the bad ones before you have to get a mailing address in Bora Bora and have your stuff forwarded to Greenland, where you’re actually hiding.

Tell me about your most abusive clients in the comments… these stories are always fun!

Written by Tori F.
I am a freelance writer and photographer with a wild imagination and inspiration in the form of my two minions (my children), a few feline familiars, and a view out my front windows of the wild West Texas canyons.