Help! My Client is Toxic: A Guide for the Creative Freelancer

While most clients we encounter are pleasant, productive partners, there is a chance you will work with an individual or company without the slightest idea of how to treat other people or manage a creative, professional relationship.

Despite our best efforts (or intuition), we may take on a shiny, new account, only to kick ourselves later for agreeing to provide service. Some of us may ignore our feelings because we are excited about the project or subject matter. Others resist just saying no because they received the account as a referral.

One of the most important things for young freelancers to learn is to listen to their gut when a new potential client enters his or her world. If signing a contract proves difficult, they don’t return phone calls, cancel meetings, or talk badly about past contractors, you may want to exit before you enter.

However, if you currently have a client on board that you think is doing more harm than good for you and your business, it’s time to get real and decide if the partnership is still worth it. While a good client relationship can last for years and forge new trails in your business, a toxic one can hamper productivity, lower morale, and make projects a chore. This is not why you entered business on your own, creative aficionado, and you know it.

How do you know for sure that your client is detrimental to your freelance business – and what can you do about it? The Social Campfire explains how to evaluate the situation and improve your day to day business.

Defining a Toxic Client & Evaluating the Situation

  • First, understand the definition of a toxic client. If your problem customer fits any of the profiles outlined in this list from Hubspot, it’s time to move a step further and think about how they are affecting your business. YourStory also has a valuable list of poisonous traits to explore.
  • Face the facts. How much time are you spending each week on this client? How much do they pay you? Is there an account in the pipeline that could potentially replace them? In essence – is your relationship worth it?
  • Check in with yourself and/or your team. If your client refuses to listen, backs down on promises, won’t deliver their end of the bargain, or is repeatedly passive aggressive or disrespectful, you risk affecting morale and productivity.
  • Review your paper trail. Have you addressed problems with your client more than once? Are they all talk and no action? If you have repeatedly tried to solve challenges without their buy-in, you’re simply treading water with this client.

If you’ve decided your client is toxic, it’s time to improve your business and daily life by moving on to step two. Decide which of the following tactics will fit your situation best:

How to Handle Your Toxic Client

  1. Raise Your Rates. If you’re working on sourcing a new client or attempting to finish a project, raising your rates may be the best way to level the playing field for now. See how your client responds to the request and act accordingly. If they go for it, you have more money in your pocket and can spend more time evaluating the situation before moving to the next step.
  2. Redefine Scope. Have a candid conversation with your client and tell them that things must change. Limit your scope, redefine it, or design a new one that works for you. If they don’t follow through with the new plan or continue with scope creep, it’s time to say goodbye.
  3. Say Goodbye. If you’ve tried to improve the relationship to no avail, says, it’s time to cut the cord. Prepare your exit strategy in a way that fits you and your business, refer them out if you can, say thank you, and enjoy your newfound freedom to take on better projects and enjoy your work again.

Remember, the most important thing is your business, productivity, and happiness. If your client is doing more harm than good, move on and find something better.

Have you ever had a toxic client? How did you handle it – and what is your advice for young freelancers entering the workforce? Comment below!


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