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How to manage every freelancer’s worst nightmare: A bad client

It’s every freelancer’s greatest fear — getting stuck with a “bad” client.

Most seasoned freelancers know how to avoid these less-than-ideal interactions before they happen by paying attention to red flags.

Red flags include when the client:

While I’ve learned most of those lessons the hard way early in my career, every once in a while I ignore that gut feeling that tells me to abandon ship and end up in a less-than-ideal situation.

So the question is … what do you do when a dream project turns into a nightmare?

Don’t panic, it’s not the end of the world

I sometimes call myself a “business empath.” I lie awake at night thinking about a client’s projects and deadlines. I take on rush jobs more often than I should.

And I hate telling my clients “no” when something is beyond my capabilities or the rush job is impossibly tight. I continue to worry about would-be projects even when I turn them down.

While I’m not a mother, I imagine it’s a similar feeling to taking the training wheels off your kid’s bike, wishing them luck and walking away.

So as one might imagine, unhappy clients and wayward projects pain me to the core.

But as someone who has been there and lived through it, I can promise you that a bad customer engagement is not the end of your career and it happens to everyone.

Road bumps are a part of life and they should be expected in business. I have never seen a single company or business, in any industry, that operated flawlessly without any losses or bad reviews.

Take a look at almost any established business on Yelp if you don’t believe me. Even Walt Disney World, the “happiest place on earth”, has more than 200 1-star reviews.

Treat freelancing like a business and look at the big picture. Don’t let one bad egg or bad experience put a damper on an otherwise great career.

Try to salvage the project by focusing on solutions

Luckily, most of the time even bad projects can be salvaged. All it takes is a bit of extra time, attention and a shift in mindset.

Don’t allow yourself or your client to waste time worrying or complaining about things that have already transpired. Instead, focus on productivity and solutions.

Ask the client to be specific about their concerns and provide detailed feedback. Be direct and firm if needed.

Try something like: “I understand your frustrations, and hindsight is 20/20, but now we need to focus on the steps we need to take to complete the project to your satisfaction. Specifically, what do you not like and how can we improve?”

The truth of the matter is that some projects will just require more time and attention than others. The quicker you accept that fact, the better off you’ll be.

Tackle the budget issue head on

Now let’s talk about the number one issue regarding a difficult client: Whether or not you should charge for the extra time and effort involved.

There’s nothing scarier than approaching an already angry client about going over budget.

But the answer to whether or not you’re able to do this completely depends on the contract and your original agreement with the client.

Ideally, you’ve quoted the project with a bit of extra wiggle room built in, and you were explicit about scope-creep with the client from the beginning.

When I quote projects, I always offer a range, with the disclaimer that final amounts may vary which gives me a bit of wiggle room if a project goes off the rails.

For instance, if I’m asked to quote a flyer design, I know that most flyers require about 2–3 hours with minimal revisions, but could require as much as 4–5 hours if multiple revisions are required. So I’m honest with the client and say the project will run $200-$500 depending on the amount of revisions.

I also include a provision for scope-creep that indicates extra tasks will be charged hourly and let the clients know when a request falls outside of that original scope.

Clients don’t like to be surprised. Be as honest as possible about the cost before you start and throughout the project.

But if you’ve sorely mis-quoted the task and have a contract that guarantees a deliverable at a fixed-rate, you may have to chalk the whole project up to an expensive lesson.

If all else fails, walk away

The truth is that some people just won’t be happy no matter what you do.

There are also situations where you might need to cut the contract prematurely and offer a refund.

Unprofessional or rude behavior, a refusal to provide constructive feedback or threatening to withhold payment for work completed may be signs that you just need to jump ship.

Consider offering a refund and moving on.

The loss of income and time might seem stomach-churning on the surface. But think about that loss compared to the weeks (or possibly months) of constant stress that you might endure if you stuck around.

If you would gladly pay that amount to put an end to your misery, it might be worth it.

The importance of mental health cannot be understated.

To date, I have yet to refund a large project due to an inability to work together, but I’ve certainly considered it.

I have, however, backed out of a contract before work began and ended ongoing client relationships once the work was completed.

You would be surprised how often a client who complained throughout the entire first engagement comes back for more. It’s a bizarre phenomenon.

And don’t forget — you are likely forgoing other lucrative opportunities by wasting time where it’s not being appreciated.

That’s the real cost of staying in a bad client relationship.

Turn your experience into an opportunity to learn and grow as a freelancer

The real secret to success isn’t avoiding pain and conflict, it’s learning from it.

Even the most experienced professionals make mistakes from time to time.

If you didn’t have a list of red flags before, create one — and stick to the list when deliberating on whether or not to take on a future project.

If you mis-quoted the project, adjust the next project for more wiggle room or add a clause in your contract that specifies exactly what that original budget will cover and how scope-creep will be handled if the client asks for additional work.

You can rest-assured knowing this: It is highly unlikely you’ll make the same mistake twice. And the more painful the mistake, the less likely you are to repeat it.

Whatever happened, as soon as it’s behind you, you’ll be stronger than you were before.

And that’s the kind of invaluable growth that can only be taught through first hand experience.

“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” — Willa Cather

Morgan Overholt

Tennessee native Morgan Overholt is a freelance graphic designer, owner of Morgan Media LLC and co-founder of Morgan and her team have worked with nationally recognized clientele from all over the world, including the Centers for Disease Control Foundation (CDCF), Kimberly-Clark, and Stanley Black & Decker.

Morgan transitioned into the role of freelancer and small business owner after spending nearly a decade in the traditional corporate world left her feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Today, Morgan is passionate about sharing her story with other hopeful entrepreneurs who hope to follow in her footsteps. She has been featured on, Refinery29, and Business Insider.

Originally published at on December 4, 2020.



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Morgan Overholt

Morgan Overholt is a freelance graphic designer and owner of Morgan Media LLC. She is also a contributor for Business Insider and Collective.