What My Worst Clients Taught Me
You mute them on social media. You block the sound of their voice out of your head. You never re-read the emails and you’ve probably deleted the worst of the lot. When you hear their name in passing, you wince. When you remember them, you do it in the dark. You close your eyes and replay scenes like you’re watching an old movie, but the movie ends up being a low-budget slasher and the voices were once real and belonging to the clients you’re desperate to forget.
On a long enough timeline, everyone will encounter the nightmare client. The client who’s never happy. The monosyllabic client who delivers cryptic one-word responses in lieu of constructive feedback. The client who tries to add to the scope so much they pull a hamstring from the stretch. Well, this is technically part of the deliverable. The client who views one too many Gary V videos and believes they know as much about your work as you do. The client who admonishes you for your lapsed membership to The Psychic Friends Network because you should just know what I’m thinking…
We’re talking about the kind of client that makes Jack Torrance of The Shining look like a perfectly normal individual — even when he’s wielding an ax in a remote Colorado hotel.
Nightmare clients have an arcane way of removing us from all sense of logical reality. We doubt our competence and sanity. I could’ve sworn I added that to the contract (when in fact you did). We become exhausted from the overwork and the landmine-dodging explanations. Every call spikes your blood pressure and even the sight of them invading your inbox feels like an assault. Give me my muzzle, you think. Otherwise, I’ll tell them what I really think.
After twelve years on the client side, I took my first job at an agency and I had a fashion client who was irrational and incoherent. She was convinced we were plotting her ruin to the point where I told her she needed to stop being paranoid. She was the marketing manager at a sample sale e-commerce site, not the director of the Pentagon. Twenty minutes later, my boss, the CEO, closed my office door and gave me a cruel lesson on client management.
So, wait. I can’t tell them they’re crazy when they’re acting crazy? This went on for about a half hour — his words, my state of shock and surprise. Soon, I became adept at using the mute button on conference calls strategically and “re-framing” the discussion so that my clients’ needs were always met even if it gave me ulcers in the process.
It took me a long time to see the value in nightmare clients and the indirect lessons they often teach, and I’m going to share them with you.
The Sociopathic CEO
I’m not going to mince words here — I straight up worked for a textbook sociopath. Let’s call him Charlie. Charlie was brilliant, charming, narcissistic, and manipulative. He also lacked compassion and empathy — he was the kind of guy who fired twenty people in one day, had them paraded out in front of their peers by security, and then he whined over the phone about how much he was suffering. That year, he would collect a $1.5 million bonus for his suffering.
Behind closed doors, he’d laugh about the people he fired — the tear-filled, shamed, and shocked. People who had families and mortgages. In business, firing people is inevitable, but you do it with compassion, respect, and grace — even when it’s warranted. You don’t take a wrecking ball to someone’s life and joke about it.
Charlie was also cruel and emotionally abusive. Insecure over the fact that his #2 and I had grown the business farther and faster than he ever could, he would issue tirades berating us for our incompetence, for not running every minute decision by him for approval. He second-guessed every strategy and decision. In short, he was a petulant child who got his way by stamping his feet and micromanaging. His #2 wouldn’t put up with it, but I did. At one point, his #2 (now a mentor and friend of mine) said, don’t let anyone tell you your worth. Only I had the provenance to determine units and measure.
After nearly four years I resigned, depleted and shell-shocked. The #2 resigned within a week of my notice. It took me a full year to recover. Out of the wreckage, I learned three important lessons:
Lesson 1: You can either work to further someone else’s dream or your own.
Look at you, the #2 said. You’re working these crazy hours, killing yourself, for what? To get him richer? Girl.
At the end of the day, the #2 was right. There’s a difference between doing your best work and handing over your life to someone else. My losses were incalculable. This company wasn’t my company, and I learned there’s no value in staying up to two in the morning working on PowerPoint slides. There’s no benefit in ruining my physical and mental health so a CEO can reap the financial rewards. I’ve learned that there is a limit to what I’m willing to give and it’s never at the expense of myself.
Now, I define my work parameters in the proposal phase and in my contracts. I stipulate the hours I work, when and how I can be reached, and specifics about scope down to review rounds and revisions. I map out a detailed timeline that makes the client and I accountable for delays and how those delays affect the overall project from a timing and financial perspective. After the contract has been signed, I send out a “new client magazine,” which is a beautifully designed booklet that reiterates my workflow, processes, and systems that I outlined in previous phases.
And I stick to it. If a client emails me over the weekend, they get a response Monday morning. If a client sends me a text message that isn’t urgent, I send an email to the client politely reminding them that all communication must be conducted via email so that there’s a manageable trail and nothing falls through the proverbial cracks — “re-framing” language, eh-hem, that serves to benefit the client.
At the end of the day, you’ll never get back the time you’ve lost so be surgical with it. Tend to it. Protect it.
Lesson 2: Only you determine your worth and value and you are worthy.
Don’t let anyone define your worth. Only you have the right to that math. No one deserves to be yelled at. No one deserves verbal abuse. No one deserves to hear that they’re worthless, stupid, or an idiot. You are the guardian of your worth.
Constructive feedback is a valuable tool, but it doesn’t define you as a person. We will fail. We’ll botch a job or make mistakes. Value comes from learning from the missteps, in creating systems and processes for yourself that reduces the likeliness of that mistake from happening again. Your worth is not the measure of your failures, but how you’ve rebounded from them. How you’ve grown professionally AND personally. It’s about you standing up in the wreckage and saying, okay, let’s keep going.
Your worth is not bound to your work product — it’s defined by all the things that make you, you.
Lesson 3: People have long memories, so operate from a place of grace.
When I resigned from the company, the #2 warned me about smack-talking. My feelings about Charlie were perfectly valid, he said, but that didn’t mean I needed to roll up to Fifth Avenue with a megaphone and air all of Charlie’s dirty business. Crooks undo themselves — let Charlie be his own downfall. Karma has Charlie’s direct-dial, the #2 said. That was a hard lesson because I wanted to shout Charlie’s misdeeds from the rafters. When peers at other companies probed for details behind my resignation, I smiled and said it was simply time for me to move on. Privately, I raged. Professionally, I kept things on an even keel.
The #2 was right.
I also applied this lesson to my personal life. I’ve had falling outs with friends and I’ve made it a point not treat those episodes like a telenovela. No one needs to know the details. No one should be privy to the morsels. When a friendship is over, it’s over. Very few people know the minutiae and why should they? Friendships are complicated and sometimes messy and it would unfair to reduce it to petty gossip, anecdotes over dinner. Be angry, but don’t hold on to it for too long or too hard.
Don’t be known as the person who smack-talks around town.
The Predator Posing As a House Pet
I’m usually a good reader of people, so believe me when I say that this massacre of a client engagement took me entirely by surprise. First, I’d worked with this client in a previous company and the relationship was collaborative and communicative. Second, the proposal process was smooth and filled with clarity. My role and deliverables were clearly defined. Third, they paid on time and even fronted funds when I was in a financial pinch. On paper, the client was perfect!
I had no idea what was ahead of me. Let’s just say I had Charlie flashbacks through a painful four-month engagement.
Let me preface this by saying that when I hire someone I trust their expertise. The point of me hiring them is they’re filling a knowledge gap. I don’t know how to design and code a website so I’m going to hire capable people who can do the job and I don’t micromanage or second-guess the process. I’ll have questions and give feedback, but I rely on their counsel to steer the project in the right direction. This is how I define a partnership — it’s rooted in mutual respect and trust.
The client with whom I worked previously now founded a company with his father and he had free reign over marketing and creative development. He had zero experience in either capacity, so I thought he had hired me to fill the gap and bring in others who could supplement when it came to web design, visual identity, etc.
That was not the case. I don’t understand what makes people think they’re marketers or creative directors when they’re not marketers or creative directors. I’m fascinated by neuroscience and surgery, but I’m not about to walk into an OR with a scalpel because I watched The Discovery Channel.
Soon, the relationship devolved into a mixture of paranoia and insecurity. The internet and his friends’ opinions became viable marketing strategies. My thoroughly researched and crafted plans, backed by my years of experience of building brands and companies, were second-guessed and picked over like a carcass in the wild. The creative director I subcontracted routinely said his direction wasn’t rooted in design principles, best practices, or common sense. Rather, he saw something he liked, shrugged, and figured it could be applied to his business. Email responses from the creative director came in the form of question marks and can we get on a quick call to talk about his feedback?
We’d be on the phone for two hours.
His constant retort to any pushback was: I don’t know why this is an issue. I don’t know why this is taking so long. This is so easy. I can do this in ten minutes. In his world, anything can be done in ten minutes. In his world, everyone had to be micromanaged and he was the only expert in marketing, building a business, and creative design and development. The irony that he hired experts when he wasn’t one appeared to be lost on him.
Emails and phone calls became passive aggressive and abusive. I’d receive ranting texts at all hours. And when the work I created started to slip from exhaustion and defeat, I respectfully resigned the project. This wasn’t going to be The Charlie Sequel.
A few months later, my replacement sent me an email and asked if we could speak. Apparently, my replacement was going through exactly what I had been through and wanted advice. I told her I couldn’t tell her what to do, only what I had done.
Lesson 1: Work with people who are confident in what they don’t know
The best leaders want to be working on their business, not in their business. They’re plotting the future while the team they’ve hired focuses on the present. Successful leaders trust and respect the people they’ve hired and are open and honest about what they know and don’t know. A CEO is not an accountant, financial officer, lawyer, marketer, designer, CSR lead, etc. They may have questions along the way and may challenge the work (and they should when it’s appropriate), but it comes from a place of mutual respect.
If you encounter someone who reduces the complexity of your work, run. If you engage with someone who believes they can master what you’ve worked on for years in minutes, run. If a client, after you’ve explained the process, doesn’t understand why something complex can’t be achieved in ten minutes, run.
Work with people who appreciate and respect your expertise and advice — that is a true partner.
Lesson 2: Even pros can make rookie mistakes
Anyone who knows me well knows I don’t start any job without a detailed, iron-clad contract. A contract serves to protect you and your client from worst-case scenarios and it also defines and sets parameters around the engagement. A contract is a useful tool to prevent scope creep and a means for an out if the situation becomes unbearable. The best contracts aid both parties and it’s important to be thoughtful and methodical about how they’re drafted and executed. I always have a contract.
Except for this one engagement.
A combination of trust from a prior project to issues in my personal life and finances, I made this one grave error — an error that could have been my solace throughout the engagement. I could have controlled the number of revisions (I routinely had to make upwards of 30–40 revisions on a document, where the final nearly resembled the first draft). I could have shut down scope creep and billed for all the incremental work. This is on me. I was the idiot who made the rookie mistake and now I know that’s NEVER happening again. If it’s a $500 project, you get a contract. If it’s a $25,000 project, you get a contract. The end.
Nightmare clients are the exception rather than the norm, but even the most tenured of consultants can find themselves in a horror movie-level engagement. I’ve learned the best you can do is tend to your wounds and determine what you’ve learned. You can find knowledge in every experience and I often believe that some of the greatest learnings can come from the harrowing experiences.