10 Warning Signs of a Toxic Client

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Helen Nuttall

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Hi, I'm HELEN

In order for your business to run successfully and make money, you need clients. And when you are properly aligned with your clients, the majority of them will be a pleasure to work with. You’ll want to go above and beyond for them. You understand each other, you have similar values, and you respect each other’s boundaries. 

However, every once in a while you may come across a client who isn’t the easiest to work with. But how can you know this before you go into business with them – are there any red flags that might highlight trouble? How do you know what to look out for? Here are 10 warning signs of a toxic client to help you avoid major headaches and potential problems.

What is Toxic Client Behaviour? 

We all have relationships with people in our life, some harmonious, some not so easy. If a person’s actions are upsetting you and negatively affecting your own well-being, you might consider that to be toxic behaviour

I have had a few experiences of my own, that have enabled me to spot the signs even as early as the discovery call. Also it’s helped me clarify which parts of my process were unclear and lead to onboarding a toxic client.

When you’re in business, toxic clients and how they act can impact your confidence and self-esteem. So, what can you do to avoid this, remain level-headed, and grow your business instead of retreating back to your old, safe life? Here are some behaviours to look out for. 

1 – They don’t have any clear goals

Copywriter writing about 10 Warning Signs of a Toxic Client

Effective marketing results in your messaging resonating with your prospects. When you draw attention to a problem they’re facing, they’ll look to you for all the answers. However, if they don’t have any clear goals of where they’re going, they may be expecting you to wave a magic wand. i.e., they know they want to grow their business, but they aren’t sure which step to take first. 

Do they need to focus on their website first? Their social media marketing? Their SEO strategy? Or their email marketing? The uncertainty of not knowing where they want to go can quickly lead to frustration on your part and dissatisfaction on theirs. 

If you really want to embark on a business relationship with this potential client, get them to be really clear on what it is they want to achieve in their business before putting together any proposals. 

My experiences – in the past I have not adequately explained the parameters of my service and it lead to one client pushing for things way beyond the scope. I caved to this and did the work, because my contract didn’t exclude it. But I edited my contract, so that it never happened again. Phew!

2 – They’re not used to working with freelance service providers

When starting out, many entrepreneurs and small business owners may not be used to working with freelancers. They’ve likely done everything themselves so far, and may find it difficult to trust anyone else with their pride and joy. 

Unfortunately, this could result in a lack of trust on their part in your ability to do your job. It’s worth asking your potential new client if they’ve outsourced anything before, and essential that you’re confident in your own expertise and skills. 

If you’re at all worried about an unequal relationship dynamic, then look for clients who are used to working with freelancers. And will therefore trust the judgement of you, the expert. 

My experiences – I have had this with another client, who wanted to know when and I was working and access to my timer. At the time, I didn’t realise that this was unacceptable behaviour as I wasn’t an employee. (Actually straying into being against labour laws). If you are a freelancer, you DO NOT have to inform your client exactly when you did the work, or clock in and out. As long as you meet their deadlines, this is enough.

3 – Asking you to submit a proposal – then ghosting you

Preparing proposals takes time and energy. From working out how long a job will take you, adding a buffer, and putting together all of your suggestions to help your potential client get from A to B. 

If you’ve marketed your services correctly (e.g. knowing your target audience and ‘warming them up’ through consistent messaging), then you should be attracting the right kind of client. 

But occasionally, one will come through who is simply looking for a price, and will be pitting your offering against other potential providers. If you suspect this might be the case, consider asking if they have approached any other freelancers. 

In an ideal world, clients come to you because your business and messaging resonates with them. Dream clients are the best kind, but there will be others who are simply looking for a commodity, not a business relationship. 

My experiences – honestly, I don’t waste time anymore creating complex proposals. I am moving more and more to one service, which keeps things simple. But even when I had more than 3 services, I would prepare an approximate price, share it on the discovery call, and then confirm that price in a simple email after. Timed saved= hours.

4 – They don’t understand what’s involved

Whether you’re a copywriter, graphic designer, social media marketer, or website designer, there are, unfortunately, potential clients out there who really don’t understand how much work goes into what they’re paying you for. 

As any creative knows, there is a process to producing work, and it’s certainly not a case of hourly-paid data entry. 

If a prospect asks you to just ‘throw’ something together, or put together a quick series of posts, they don’t understand what’s involved. Sure, they might be able to just throw something together or ‘bang out a 5,000-word blog’. But if they can do it, why have they come to you? 

Yes, they may be overwhelmed and looking to outsource, but they may not have the funds to pay for your service. Which leads us onto the next red flag. 

5 – They have no clue about a budget 

This one is a huge warning sign. If a prospect has come to you with an enquiry, they should have at least a fair idea of how much they want to spend. It may be that their budget won’t cover your service, and that’s ok. Perhaps you could adjust your service accordingly if you particularly want to work with them (as long as it’s on your terms). 

But if they don’t have a clue how much they want to spend, it’s possible they don’t have the funds to outsource the work in the first place. Make this one of your first screening questions – before you waste your time putting a proposal together for them. 

My experiences – I always ensure that clients are aware of the minimum pricing by adding it to my website, or social media, so my prospects know before the call.

6 – Then they try to drive your price down 

If a prospect really wants to work with you, they will respect your prices, your processes, and your expertise. If they try to negotiate on your price, stick firm. The price is the price, and accounts for your experience, your time, your energy, and your overheads. 

If they still aren’t happy, walk away and find a client who is happy to pay your price. 

My experiences – this type of client probably hasn’t got the budget, or has a scarcity mindset when it comes to money. If you have a lower cost offer, offer them that, but I’ve learned not to waste my time talking about money. Even the mention of money by a client, tells you they haven’t got the budget. Often these are the clients who will try to get you to do more than you agreed on.

7 – Their business practice goes against your values 

As previously mentioned, effective messaging in your marketing should attract the types of clients that you want to work with. But occasionally you may attract a business whose values don’t align with your own. 

Perhaps you love animals, and your prospect hates them. Perhaps you have kids, and your prospect never wanted a family, is career driven, and finds children annoying. 

Your life and values affect your perception of the world, and opposing views may create a lack of respect and hinder the relationship from the offset. Discovery calls are a great way to get to know someone before you work with them, and can decide from the offset whether you’re a good fit. 

My experiences – I now go with my gut on this, as it’s usually a really strong feeling. My gut has never been wrong. I have had one of these calls recently and after the call, I emailed saying I felt I couldn’t serve them in the way they deserved as I felt like I wasn’t the correct fit. Job done.

8 – They don’t respect your private time 

Copywriter seeing signs of a toxic client

Have you ever been bombarded with text messages and emails from the same person, at all hours of the day? While technology can enable us to turn off notifications and create filters, having a prospect who keeps sending you messages (particularly outside of your working hours) can feel very invasive. In a time where more and more people’s work lives are blurring with their personal lives, it’s really important to set some boundaries. If a prospect keeps pinging you with messages with little respect for your personal space, you might think twice about pursuing a working relationship with them. 

9 – Communication is like pulling teeth 

Some people are great at communication. With others, it can be very difficult to get a straight answer from them. It may be that they’re extremely busy, and speed-reading any correspondence. 

But even if you’ve been very specific in your communications, you might find getting the answers you want like trying to get blood out of a stone. 

If your prospect struggles to articulate themselves, doesn’t fully express what they need, or avoids your direct questions in any correspondence, you may be heading for a frustrating, one-sided relationship. Get a good feel for how they communicate in those initial interactions. If it’s too much like hard work and you foresee future headaches, maybe sit this one out. 

10 – Doesn’t work with you but then implements all your advice 

While you can’t spot this one until it’s happened, a lot of the previous warning signs may lead to this anyway. Be careful what information you share with a prospect; especially if you have put together a proposal which includes ideas on how to move their business forward, 

Hopefully these warning signs will help you when choosing who to work with. While these may be red flags for a challenging business relationship, they don’t necessarily mean that the person themselves is toxic. As mentioned before, we each perceive the world differently and therefore don’t always react to things in the same way. 

Of course, some problems may occur due to a lack of boundaries in your working relationship. Which is why it’s so important to set business boundaries in advance, and make sure your prospects are aware of these.

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