Blog: Web Design
Gargoyles depicting hell-scape

There Are No Clients From Hell

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO. is a popular site. It’s estimated to be one of the top 25,000 sites in the world, one of the top 10,000 sites in the United States.

This site is most popular with people in creative industries, like design.

It’s also one of the most detrimental sites to the health of the design industry — and not for the reasons you might think.

There are no clients from hell. There are only designers from hell.

In order to understand the context of this statement, let me explain what this website is about. Basically, Clients From Hell is a site where designers share their most harrowing stories about “bad clients”. Many “designers” find these stories humorous, but it fosters a dangerous belief in the design community.

This site encourages the idea that clients who make non-constructive requests or unreasonable demands deserve to be lambasted and mocked online. This reinforces the fallacy that the designer is always right, and that clients are better seen and not heard.

I find this false sense of smug superiority to be quite disgusting. Designers who ridicule your clients — are you ready for an uncomfortable truth?

No one can become your client unless YOU allow them to be.

Finding A Good Fit

Vetting potential clients is an important part of any good consultant’s process. Not every prospect is a good fit for every consultant. Determining if you can work well together before starting a project eliminates 95% of the potential friction*.

* Not a real stat, but pretty damn close.

What are some of the reasons a client and consultancy may not be a good match?

  • Different expectations of what the service is.
  • Budgets are not aligned.
  • There is a better suited consultant for the problem.
  • The problem is too small for that specific consultancy.
  • The problem is too large for the consultancy.
  • There is a lack of trust or respect for the consultant.
  • The client needs more time to prepare.
  • Timelines are not going to work out.

There’s many more reasons why a potential client may not fit with a particular consultancy on a specific project. In all cases, the consultant should endeavor to send the prospect to a resource that can help them. In this fashion, the designer can give some value to the client, even if they do not work on a project together.

What are some questions the design consultancy must answer to determine if the potential client is a good fit?

  • What were the replies to the contact form?
  • What info was gathered from the initial phone call or meeting?
  • Is the potential client willing to follow the designer’s process?
  • What is the decision making structure of the client’s organization?
  • Is the budget a good fit for both parties?
  • Will this project have a good return on investment for the client?
  • Do we get along? Will it be easy to work together for the duration of the project?
  • Do we listen to each other?
  • Would I enjoy doing this project with this client if money were no object?

Failure to answer these sorts of questions is one way designers end up with clients that they later resent. However, this is not the client’s fault. Every designer must decide to take on a project on their own. No one puts a gun to their head, and this is why I don’t understand the “clients from hell” mentality.

Designers choose their clients, not the other way around.

Nature Abhors A Vacuum

There’s one more reason that unprofessional designers end up resenting the clients they work with. It is their failure to effectively lead the projects they are commissioned for.

Clients come to us for structure. They come to us for process. They come to us for answers.

But if the designer does not lead the project and have a process in place, the client will sense the need for someone to take charge, and step into that role. I believe this is the main source of the entries on the Clients From Hell site.

Projects suck when communication is unclear, and the designers have not explained their process. My advice? Leave no doubts in the clients’ mind. Thoroughly explain how the project is going to run before it even begins. Clients value the minimization of risk. If you disappear for too long, or they feel like there isn’t a process in place, that’s when they will feel the need to step up and impose some sort of order. Designers, be prepared before you begin, and communicate frequently.

Have A Spine

It kills me when designers see every client request as something they must immediately put into effect, if they know that it is bad for business. If you’re a designer, and you’ve made a design decision, then be prepared to explain why it is the best decision possible. Creating is only one aspect of the job. Good design still needs to be sold.

Most clients will defer to a logically sound explanation. But occasionally, you will have to work a little harder to convince a decision maker.

This does not mean it’s a shootout at the OK Corral. That sort of stance doesn’t do much good. But you should be able to present your decisions in a convincing manner, and use your words to persuade the client why you did something a certain way.

No is a word that is necessary to use sometimes. Clients do not hire consultants to be yes-men or yes-women. They hire consultants to tell them hard truths and steer them towards the paths that will make them successful. Having a solid backbone is a per-requisite for being an effective designer.

The pages of Clients From Hell are filled with the crying of designers who never grew a spine. It’s up to you to not take on red flag prospects as clients. If you take them on, it’s your responsibility to convince them of what’s the best course of action.

Client Services Aren’t For Every Designer

Client services is a much different type of beast than say, building the next social network. In a large startup, it is easier to not talk to people outside your own four walls. You can sit at a computer for years and never talk to a single user or customer. To me, that’s a real shame.

When you help clients, you have made the choice to build relationships first, and projects second.

Client services requires you to be a good communicator. You to be able to speak honestly. You have to be compassionate. You must be able to present good ideas and defend the reasons behind your decisions.

But when you throw your clients underneath the bus, YOU are the one who looks foolish, not your client.

We can all do kick-ass work, if we choose clients that fit what we are good at and what we want to work on. Life is too damn short to complain about our own decisions.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO.

10 comments on “There Are No Clients From Hell

  1. Great post, John. Nicely done.

    Some of the problem is actually based on misconceptions, and false information, from pseudo-experts.

    Somehow, some freelancers and service providers get the idea that client work and solving business problems is “easy”, and every client who doesn’t fit into the box is “bad”.

    Solving business problems is not easy; whether one is using design or websites as a vehicle.

    It’s hard, and a lot of it is negotiation: between provider and client.

    Even when we know we’re right about something (technical or otherwise).

    I like how you’ve grabbed the proverbial nail in this post, and then hit it squarely on its head.

    There is no client from hell..only a mismatched project engagement.

    It also depends on the particular circumstances (as an incidental); a “client from hell” one day, could turn into the “rosy associate”, another day; depending on how we speak to we treat them.

    It’s really more about relationships than even “the project” itself.

    One way that freelancers or service providers can help clients is by educating them, even before they arrive at the on-boarding funnel; maybe using blogs, or social media or whatever works well.

    That way, the client knows what to expect, before an engagement begins.

  2. Thanks CJ for the thoughtful response. Education is a big part of setting expectations before we ever start an engagement with a client. Matching prospects to our skills and purpose is also important. When we are not particular about who we will work with, because don’t have criteria for who we will work with, then we take projects that are a bad fit.

    There’s a disconnect between some web designers and developers today, and the rich history or design and client services that they seem to be unaware of. There have always been product designers as well, but some developers believe that products are better, because they can get out of talking to people, and learning how to communicate. But product design is just client services at a much larger and longer scale. You have to leave your customer happy, or your business will fail.

    Individually, we have to take responsibility for the clients we agree to work with. If they are difficult to work with, we need to figure where our process broke down, if there is even a process in place. You only find what you look for. You only receive what allow. People treat you how you train them to treat you. No excuses for your happiness, in work or life.

  3. I think all of this is the ideal most designers strive for, educating their clients and taking the lead in a project. Unfortunately this isn’t always possible, especially when there are layers between you and decision makers — like when you’re working for an agency that has their own clients, or if your contact person is really a middle management lackey with no real power but to pass on their boss’s requirements. I always advise, recommend and rationalize good design as good business sense, but sometimes there is just no good way around bureaucratic mindsets. Compromise is always part of the process, but when it results in abysmal design decisions, then its hard not to resent the client even when they are paying you for a compromised product due to their insistence on a bad design choice. Ultimately it depends where you are: do you have the luxury or being picky about clients? then the ideal is good for you. if not, you have to find a way to live with the compromise and derive your satisfaction from the clients that come from heaven.

  4. Thanks for writing, Greg. You̻re correct when you say we don’t always have 100% control over who we serve. Many designers are part of a larger entity — an agency, team, or they have a sales person in between them and the client.

    In cases like this, what we can do is make sure we are as involved as possible in client education and their decision making process. Creating is only one part of the job. We have to be able to defend our design decisions.

    Multiple stakeholders are tough. Design by committee is no good. It attempts to please everyone. Someone needs to have the final say. If we work in an environment where dealing with this is common, we need to make decision about whether that’s worth it to us. Where and how we work is also a choice.

    Compromise doesn’ have to be part of the process, nor should it be. If the client insists on choosing something that will not benefit them, we need to examine where our own process has broken down. Could we have educated them better? Could we have sold our design better? Clients do not usually purchase design frequently. We need to be their guide through every step of this process.

    Do we have the luxury of not taking certain clients? Hopefully, we are defining who we serve, and screening prospective clients for a good fit. I get it, we all need money, but let’s put ourselves in a position to do good work, and be selective about who we work with. Otherwise, it becomes a vicious cycle we can never get out of.

  5. Interesting post, John. While I agree with the overall point of your post, the specific direction of CFH is something that I disagree with.

    I’ve actually submitted about a dozen personal stories to CFH myself, and I have been reading the site from time to time for a few years now. While there are some cases of “smug superiority” as you mentioned above, or just funny ways for clients to express themselves not knowing the lingo, there is a good number of befuddling stories about arrogant, aggressive and incredibly dumb customers. Often they seem professional and understanding at first, and later on they reveal their true identity.

    6 years ago I had a few calls with a client who was interested in our services. At some point they tried to add a bunch of extra things that weren’t discussed at first, for the same cost, and I rejected them. That was before we sign any contract at all. Their response was: “OK, you’re not a good fit for us. We’d rather work with a freelancer who obeys our orders and we can bend him for the fixed cost until we get everything we need”.

    That sort of bloody assholes should be reported since they take advantage of the large “freelance” community, and small agencies as well.

    I also had a boss 8y ago who spent 2 days on my desk asking me to change all variations of red and gray for our corporate website, and 14 hours later we ended up with the exact initial colors that he hated two days earlier. Yes, they don’t know better, but emotionally they often start insulting or getting angry and forwarding that negative stream of hatred to their contractors.

    I’ll share a few links from CFH that I find legit enough and something that should be visible and available to the large freelance audience. This way contractors can identify that behavioral patterns earlier, instead of falling in the same trap.

    There are thousands more like these, but none of the above does strike me as a superior attitude from a designer/developer towards their customers.

    That said, the amount of education required to teach the masses the basics of Web is way too high, and it’s getting worse with time. Most service industries have some sort of consultants that act as a mediator between the client and the contractor/agency – that is, preparing business requirements and specifying the needs in an expert-readable way. Another way is a discovery meeting/consulting session with the freelancer that is, of course, paid.

    Way too many customers in that industry ask for cheap and quick solution, without knowing anything about their needs or the industry at all. The same goes for other low-cost industries with uneducated customers – ISPs, shared hosting companies and more, dealing with people who ask them all sorts of irrelevant questions or RTFM them back.

    There’s nothing wrong in not knowing anything, but when you have a manual/guide/documentation and you keep calling, yelling and screaming that the company X are idiots, and that keeps happening with dozens of clients every single day who forgot to turn on their monitor and claim that they’re offline, well, this is a problem.

    I’ve actually worked with hosting vendors and ISPs in one way or another, and doing support for other media websites (including galleries, news websites, dating sites etc) and being ignorant and arrogant at the same time is way too common.

    While you are forced to do it as a part of your day job if you agreed to these terms, that’s not applicable for freelance. Yet, far too many customers act the same way with freelancers and small agencies.

    It’s odd since that doesn’t happen too often in a bank, a lawyer’s firm or the hospital. Seems like the impact of getting kicked out, imprisoned or killed is a good motivator to keep your mouth shut, and not delivering a website on time is far less problematic. I guess.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful and impassioned response, Mario. I’m a huge fan of your writing, and I think you are helping push the WP community forward through your writing.

    I feel what you’re saying about clients appearing professional at first, but revealing something different once you have started a project together. No one wants to work with a person who is arrogant, aggressive or dumb. My goal is to avoid taking on anyone that fits that description in the first place. Do I still get fooled? Sometimes, but a lot less now than when I first started out.

    My point is that (at least for me), when I get tangled up in a bad situation, I can always find that I didn’t vet my client as carefully as I should have. I read these example from CFH, and while no one comes off as smug, in each one I can see a place where they should have seen warning signs and either referred them to another service provider or just flat out said “No”. I see some examples on CFH where the consultant missed a big opportunity to clearly define expectations. When the client steps over boundaries, we need to assess whether we have made the boundaries and expectations clear enough. Starting work without a contract of work to be delivered is another missed opportunity I see in some stories on CFH.

    My point is we only receive what we allow ourselves to receive. We have to agree to work with someone before we get into a bad situation — it does not happen randomly. I have been burned before, too, but whenever I do, I get a little better at identifying red flags than I was before.

    You touched on something here, that you’ve written extensively about — the false expectation that what we do is cheap commodity work. In my experience, customers that ask for quick and cheap do not truly value their business, it is more like a get-rich-quick scheme that they have envisioned, but they need someone to build it for them.

    I value a person’s integrity and character far more than I do a technological stack, status, money, or anything else. I try to observe how people treat others (especially those they perceive to be of lower status) before working with them. It tells me a lot about who they are, and how they will work with me. This is perhaps why I prefer working as an independent. You mention the analogy of being an employee, and some clients wanting those benefits as well, while offering none of the protections of an employer. This happens with some contractor-agency relationships as well (no one I currently work for). I’ve been in manipulative employer-employee relationships before, in the blue-collar world — I will avoid manipulation to the best of my ability in the web industry, no doubt.

    I used to read CFH a few years ago, but I really find nothing valuable there for me today. I realize there are less than ideal would-be clients. My goal is to give them every opportunity to bow out before we start working together. Most who have unrealistic budget or work expectations do disappear. I’m content with them being someone ele’s clients.

    I do not want to even entertain the notion that the cases on CFH are somehow normal. While they may be common, I only want to attract clients who are ideal. I do not ever wish to blame a client for my inability to filter them out. I try to take responsibility for it when it does happen.

    You’re so right when it comes to other service professionals having the respect that the solo developer or small agency sometimes struggles with. I see this as an opportunity to stand out from among the unprofessional so-called WordPress experts that most solo clients are used to. I do not know what your experience is, but in mine, the larger the client, the more professional they act. Much of the bad behavior comes from individuals or smaller businesses who have limited experience in selecting a web developer or design team.

  7. I agree much of what we read on is often complaints about menial email exchanges with clients, but to say there are no clients from hell is over-reaching a bit.

    No matter how many processes, safety nets, and expectations setting you do for some clients, there are those who think they own contracted workers, and worse still, those who are unable to do simple feedback exchanges without abandoning professionalism.

    We’re wrapping up with one client who, despite providing in-depth update emails, on-site development feedback softwares, and multiple ways to submit content to our team, would rather ignore all available resources and default to “We already told you! Just do it!”.

    I pride myself on my (and my team’s) ability to communicate with clients, but there are sometimes those who have no learned the skills required to work fluidly with others.

    “Never say ALL or NEVER, because …. sometimes.”

  8. Hi Charles:

    Thanks for checking this article and sharing your agency experiences.

    While it’s true there will always be a client here or there that slips through our processes, or that we take on when we know we really shouldn’t, that doesn’t relieve us of our share of responsibility in the situation. No one can become a client until we agree to take them on.

    Our most important assets as web professionals are our reputation and the trust we build in our client relationships. When we take on clients that we later figure out we shouldn’t have, we have to get through those projects as best we can, because in those cases, we’re the professionals.

    Now, if a client is abusive to staff, then they don’t need to continue being a client. Your staff are more important than that, and abuse is never okay. But if it’s in our power to defuse a situation, we need to focus our energies there.

    The only reason a bad prospect becomes a bad client is because we say Yes because of cash-flow. Good clients know what a good agency is worth, and are respectful. When cash-flow is slow, that’s when we make errors in judgement, and let those red-flag prospects into our client list.

    It’s been a while since I browsed the CFH site. It’s just not a productive use of energy or time. I don’t even like it when I see other web professionals complain about clients on social media. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    The best thing to do with bad projects is learn as much as we can from them, so we don’t repeat those mistakes. When we say No to a poor-fit prospect, much better ones usually appear.

    Best of luck,

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