How To Deal With Nightmare Clients

Wait … did someone say nightmare clients? Well, they do exist. To some they’re known as “late payers”, others refer to them as “time wasters”, I like to call them “ex-clients”.


But here’s our definition of a nightmare client: a client who either wastes time or money (which is, essentially, the same thing: time = money).

But let’s back up a little. Now that we’ve established that nightmare clients do sometimes exist. I need to tell you why you should hardly ever have to deal with them in the first place.

How to avoid nightmare clients

We shouldn’t have nightmare clients because they should be identified and ignored at a very early stage. Here are some things you must do when running your own design business.


Contracts are more or less essential when it comes to new clients. Download a contract and put your client’s name, your name, a description of the job, the deliverable and the timeline.

These are important clauses you need in your contract:

  • Always specify the amount of changes/revisions/options in the contract. This can be one of the main sticking points. Nightmare clients like to waste people’s time just like vampyres like to drink blood. Always maintain that there can only be 5 or so rounds of changes to a job. If you’re doing a logo, specify the number of options you’ll send (maybe 3 or 4, followed by 3 or 4 revisions, for example). You can be flexible on this with a good client.
  • Have a clause which specifies that if either party wishes to terminate the contract you will be paid pro rata for the work you’ve already done. Nightmare clients will change their mind about a project. They may suddenly realise they didn’t want it after all!

But bear in mind a contract doesn’t magically turn a nightmare client into a normal person! The best way to protect yourself against nightmare clients is to spot a “red flag” and terminate your relationship with the potential nightmare client before they have a chance to waste your time.

Watch out for these “red flags”

Here are a few potential “red flags” (tell-tale signs of a nightmare client) to look out for. If you hear any of the following, run a mile:

  • “This won’t take you very long”
  • “I want the website/page to pop/whizz/sizzle/go bang/go in your face/be touchy-feely”
  • “I’m on a really tight budget”
  • “If you do a good job I’ll recommend you to lots of great new clients”
  • “Can you write a proposal on how to improve these 4 websites?”

There are many, many more. But basically nightmare clients think you should be so grateful for the work that you should pay them to do it. I’ve personally heard all of the above, by the way! :)


More importantly, nightmare clients haven’t got a clue what they are doing and this will waste your time. So, if a client can’t provide you with any material on the following, run a couple of miles:

  • “What is the purpose of the project?”
  • “When do you need it completed by?”
  • “What is your target market?”

Anyone who can’t answer these questions is not worth working with.

Another “red flag” I’ve noticed is that nightmare clients don’t like email. They are unable to write down their ideas as that requires a certain amount of discipline. Nightmare clients will always like to call you on the phone and repeatedly ask to meet you. You’ll then have no record of what was said which makes the next part of the process – getting rid of them – even harder.

How to get rid of a nightmare client

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working in this business and how much you try with contracts and observing the “red flags”, you’ll still can have a nightmare scenario.

99 clients out of 100 are fantastic. They know what they want; they tell you what they want; you do what they want; they pay you. (Although, not necessarily in that order, most designers like to ask for 50% of the total price up front.)

And for this reason, if you think your client is a nightmare, you are probably wrong. Try to put yourself in your client’s shoes. See things from their point of view.

If you’re having a problem with a client never email them or phone them straightaway about it. Leave it and come back to it and, if you can, sleep on it. Try to go over the project again with a fresh pair of eyes or ask a friend. It’s just as likely to be your mistake as it is theirs.

However, for the 1 client out of every 100 that is a nightmare, here’s some more advice.

When clients try to design themselves

Problems can occur when the client says after they’ve seen a visual or an option: “it’s nearly perfect, can you just put some yellow in it”, or “I’d really like you to use Comic Sans”.

Warning: there is some bad language in the following video: :)

This is usually a difficult situation. The client has zero design experience and this will always end in tears. Try to stop the client doing this immediately or jump ship. Say this:

Designs should always be looked at holistically. If you change one element on the page it affects all the other elements. I have usually gone through multiple changes on all the elements of a design before showing it to you. For this reason it is best to tell me why you don’t like the design rather than to trying change it yourself bit by bit.

This will help remind the client to think about the overall effect rather than get bogged down in the details.

When clients ask for too many revisions

This is actually very rare. Most people realise that a lot of changes are bad not only for clarity but also for the timing of the project. Changes and amendments during a design project are unavoidable but, as mentioned earlier, it is always best to put a finite number on them.

As mentioned in the contract we can only have a certain number of changes to the project. This helps both with the direction of the project as well as with delivery. Therefore, if there are further changes, I will have to charge you an hourly rate on them.

This is better discussed on the phone rather than by email. This should only be considered as a matter of last resort when there have been multiple changes on a particular task.

When clients ask for too much

We always try to be flexible. I never tell my clients I run a 24/7 business but I’m never too far away from a computer either. So when a client has an urgent “out-of-hours” request, I’d always like to help.

However, just as low prices attracts nightmare clients, so, unfortunately, does excessive flexibility with requests. By all means, do them a favor. But make sure they know that it’s a favor. Otherwise they’ll come to expect a 24 hour Rolls Royce silver service without having to pay for it.

Although I’m happy to help you out in any way I can, I’m sure you’ll understand, I can’t let my other clients down by responding to all your requests immediately. I must ask you to think before your next request and ask (a) if it’s really necessary or (b) if the query could be better handled via email or at all.

Sometimes a gentle nudge is all a client needs to turn from nightmare to normal!

When clients ask for too little (money)

Believe it or not, I had a client question whether he should pay for rejected logo options! This is thankfully very rare.

Would you consider working for one hour and not get paid for it? No. As a graphic designer of good standing I expect to be paid the industry standard rate. Nothing more, nothing less. You were aware of the prices and procedures in the first place and I don’t expect you to renege on our agreement.

If this or none of the above works and you have tried everything then, congratulations, you have a nightmare client on your hands. You must get paid for the work that you’ve done.

How to get your money

This is where the contract and the emails come in handy. The more you have down on paper (digitally speaking) the better. These are admissible in a UK Court.

In the UK you can file a small claim online here. This is relatively cheap and can prompt the nightmare client to their senses. Most countries have a similar service. These claims are usually sorted out by mediation before the court stage is considered. Click here to see a real letter from a nightmare client who paid in full minutes after receiving a letter from MCOL.

Alternatively, you can contact a solicitor to write a letter to the nightmare client restating your claim.

What you can do

Remember, nightmare clients are extremely rare. Nightmare scenarios can be avoided by clear prior communication and awareness of “red flags” to sever relations with a potential nightmare client before the project even starts.

Have you dealt with a nightmare client? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

Did this help you? If so, please share!

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  1. says

    Great article Rob
    I always work by the 80:20 rule when it comes to clients
    80% of my profit comes from 20% of my clients
    If you are in this 20% then you get my undivided attention, easy way to contact me and priority in anything that you need.
    If you are in the 80% that give me 20% of my profit, then you don’t
    Coincidentally all the clients that I have fired in the past have come from the 20%

    • says

      You’re absolutely right about the 80:20 rule with clients, Paul. Exactly the same here. Part of this article is about recognising the clients that will end up costing you money in terms of wasted time and stress so that, by firing them, you can concentrate on your premium clients and growing your business in other ways (eg. passive income). We’re on the same page, as they say. :)

  2. says

    Fantastic article Rob, you really covered everything here :)
    i have found i have become a pro at spotting those red flags in the past few months, the one that i hear the most is “it will only take a few minutes”. About a year ago i tried to fire my worst nightmare client, he was such hard work the nightclub flyer i was working on probably earned me 50p an hour by the time he was happy :/
    After that Project i typed up a carefully worded email explaining that i wished to terminate our arrangement. it totally backfired on me and he is now my most prepared client, i always look forward to projects with him now.
    how did this happen?
    once i sent him this email, he asked me to reconsider and to give him one more chance, i explained in full exactly what would be required from him before each project and got a signed contract back from him.

    but as i am finding there are plenty more nightmare customers out there! to avoid time/ money wasters i really lay down the law about how projects are managed and take 50% deposit upfront.

    but i have picked up some great new tricks from this blog post which i will be implementing :)

    • says

      Thanks for your input on this important subject, Scott. It seems that sometimes if you take time to prepare clearly worded emails to people who’ve been messing you around it can force them to see the error of their ways and allow you to carry on doing business with them.

      Unfortunately, I had a similar situation when I tried to sack a client and he asked me to reconsider and said he would change his ways but the problems persisted. In the end experience teaches you who to sack and who to keep.

  3. says

    Rob, great article! You could write endless articles about this topic couldn’t you? 😉

    One of the best pieces of advice I got from my mentor was to “get paid first”. This way you eliminate having to chase money. One way of doing this is to sell services as products.

    So for web design, you would have an ‘order’ button where the prospect ‘buys’ your service – THEN you get started.

    Removes contracts, chasing money and annoying clients.

    Take care mate.

    • says

      Hi, John. I’ve thought about a buy button for a while, but only for 30 minute or an hour consultations. My website design is so tailored to the individual client that I couldn’t condense the jobs down to a series of prices. I’ve thought about it though and maybe one day.

      Excellent input, John, thank you.

      • says

        Yeah agreed Rob, especially if you’re doing custom stuff. I’ve tried to move away from doing custom designs and focused more-so on packages. For a number of reasons, but mostly because a) its much easier b) a lot of clients needs are very similar.

        There’s always enough work for both business models :)

        Hope all is well mate.

  4. says

    Although I agree with the intent of your proposed responses to nightmare clients, I think they all sound rather harsh. If the client is merely difficult and you speak to them in such a brash way, they will definitely turn into nightmare clients very quickly.

    When I have a difficult client, I pull out the contract and politely go over the project and terms we both agreed to. Often, a reminder is all they need to get back on their best behavior.

    I rarely get nightmare clients. I’ve discovered over the years that a prospective client is on his best behavior when we first meet. If that meeting is uncomfortable in any way, or they seem a little “off,” I know it’s not going to get better than it is then. It has the potential to go downhill drastically from there. I just tell those folks it’s not a good fit and go on to the next one.

    • says

      Hi Barbara, I do say, “99 clients out of 100 are fantastic.” and “if you think your client is a nightmare, you are probably wrong. Try to put yourself in your client’s shoes. See things from their point of view.”

      I’ve been working for over 6 years on my own business with over 200 clients and, believe me, one or two of them have been nightmares and have taken up a lot of time as a result. So, I’ve had to be harsh in order to enjoy my excellent working relationship with the “filtered-out” clients I have and my business has improved as a result.

  5. says

    Great stuff Rob. My experience as a non professional:

    “What is the purpose of the project?”

    A. It’s about time I had a website. Lots of people have said it been good for them.

    “What is your target market?”

    A. People who will pay for what we do (client looks incredulous). I’m really busy. You’re the web guy I’ll leave it with you. I don’t really use the internet much. One of my kids makes websites.

    I gracefully bale out and the client goes on to pay a series of guys who are “good with computers” and then some companies who do templates for a few hundred quid. Years later – no website, but they did get their “kid” to set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account. That didn’t work either.

    Is this why up to 50% of small business are not online?

    • says

      I hear you, David. But the secret is to get small business clients that have a brain, a budget and some sort of idea of what they are doing. The bigger the business, generally, the better the client. Unfortunately, if you’re just starting out in web design you’re more likely to get a small, nightmare client. Also, it’s always better to be able to do print design and other work as you’re more likely to get better clients this way as well.

      • says

        Thanks Rob, good tip about doing the printed work as well.

        Your blog has increasingly made me feel much more positive about getting out there and doing client work (rather than sites I have an vested interest in). Like John (above) though I’m more keen on the idea of packages specific to a type of client who I understand better.

        On the other side of the fence:- I attended a couple of small business courses. They were government funded to tackle the issue of why so few small businesses were on the web. There were lots of unhappy business customers moaning about web designers there. There were two common themes:

        1. Those who did not have site but were looking, did not know if their designer really knew what they were doing. All they had was their jargon.

        2.Those who had sites liked the designs they got, but not the level of customers it brought. (this particularly came out on a SEO course where it was clear some had sites that were not made search engine friendly)

        The web design industry lacks a regulatory body which is slightly problematic, although I would dread to think what would happen if civil servants took on that task.

        • says

          Hello David. Well, it is an industry that grew up without a plan. But, for me, it’s all about picking the right clients. If you meet a small business owner that wants a website for 700$ that will bring in business and isn’t prepared to put anything into it themselves run a mile! But, I have managed to get some great clients building websites. They tend to be in larger companies (not just one man bands but those who employ people).

          It is difficult but it’s doable.

  6. Renee says

    I have a nightmare client right now. I have sent invoice’s, emails, and I have left messages on the phone. I get no response….nothing. The client is a prominent business man and successful. I have thought about taking my work back, but I don’t want to give my own start up business a bad name.

    • says

      Hello Renee, first of all, let me give you a blast of sympathy :) Secondly, these nightmare coward clients nearly always respond to a personalized contact. So, either talk to him in person on the phone. Or, if possible, try to meet him in person. If you calmly explain to him that he owes you money, he will pay I assure you. You just need to get to the little runt personally.

      Don’t, as yet, take your work back. But don’t, of course, do any more work.

      Where are you based?

  7. says

    Thank you . Thank you. Thanky you. I am new to web designing and I have had 2 clients who have been as you decribed a perfect nightmare client. They had me convinced that all the mistakes (their 8 requested changes) were my fault even when I sent flow charts outlining what they had requested. It was such a terrible experience I stop designing sites.
    Now with your suggestions I have the courage to get back to designing. Now I know that I am not the only one who has bad clients.

    • says

      Hello, Gloria, I’m glad you liked it. Sending out a contract which specifies a number of changes is something I wish I’d learned earlier. You’re not the only one who’s had clients like that. In fact, those that haven’t are probably in the minority! (Although, as I say, 99% of clients are great!)

  8. Adam says

    Great article….. Nightmare clients do really exist and i’m actually dealing with one and my mistake was, i didn’t give him a contact to sign.

  9. Cay Arcena says

    I can’t believe my Mom is one of those ‘ex-clients’. She likes her design to be followed more and her (some) of her designs leads to design disaster! xD Thank you sooo much for this article. Very helpful.. :))

  10. says

    Hi Rob,

    I just started my online design business since January 2013. I have only designed headers online but have not created websites for others just yet. In the past when I was designing magazines and newspapers I have a contract that I give to clients to sign. Now I don’t even know where that contract is in my file (long story). I have said all about this in my About Me page.

    Anyway, I agree with you. Many designers ask 50% before they start a job. And paid in full on the final delivery of the project. You mentioned to make 3-4 revisions if they ask. However in my case, I’ve not encounter too many people doing this. At least not just yet online. So my question is, do you have a sample written contract that you can show me? How would you write this contract? If not do you have a book I can buy to give me a guideline how to write a contract and how can these clients sign their signature online?


    • says

      Hi Angela. You just need to find a contract online, re-write it to suit the job and substitute your name and your client’s name.

      To be honest, I never insist on the signing of a contract. I’ve done it via snail mail. But if you digitally accept a contract, ie in an email you say “I accept this contract”, in the UK that is legally binding. Now, I’m no legal expert but I 100% go along with this. Also once you’ve both put the time and energy into producing this document it’s gonna work!

      I will email you the contract I’ve been using successfully as I’ve no idea where I originally got it from.