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Unfortunately, I am currently in the midst of “separating” myself from a toxic client. And while this blog post is not about design, it is about being a small business owner, and I had to write it.

First of all, what makes a toxic client? There can be many variations and each is unique but there are usually early red flag warnings, followed by one or more of the following:

  • Disrespectful behavior. Any client relationship should be a partnership, not a stomping ground.
  • Pays late, disputes bills. If you are providing a professional service you should be paid. Someone who constantly questions your bills are questioning the quality of your work or your honesty in billing them.
  • Questions your skills and expertise. If you are providing a service you are getting paid to help someone using your specialized experience. If a client continually questions your decisions, they don’t feel comfortable about your level of expertise.
  • Undermines projects. When working with a  client, there should be a mutual goal of creating something together. For us, that means a web site, a logo, an ad, etc. We should be helping each other. When a client becomes an obstacle rather than a resource, there is a problem.

Many times relationships start out OK, but then sour. Sometimes it’s easiest to just keep trudging along. If a profitable client is hard to work with it can be tough to say good bye to their revenues. But let me share why I think it’s good riddance:

  1. They drain you emotionally. People who are mean, disrespectful, full of negative energy, etc. just eat away at our own personal happiness. Even if you like the work, or like the money, don’t overlook the drain of positive energy from your own heart and soul.
  2. They are NOT generating as much revenue as you think. You may assume it’s clear, you worked 10 hours and got paid for 10 hours. But because of the emotional drain, you generally spend a lot of unbillable time doing things like: bitching about them, questioning your own skills, protecting yourself with excessive papertrails and backups, defending invoices, etc. All of this is taking you away from revenue earning projects.
  3. They can ruin your confidence. For the most part, I’ve been praised by my clients for: the creativity of my design solution; being easy to work with; paying attention to detail; having honesty and integrity; charging fair prices. But a toxic client can question your actions and tear down your self-esteem. You can start to question the quality of your work, your pricing, your behaviors. An entrepreneur, freelancer or business owner cannot spend time at this pity party.
  4. They hurt morale. Even if you are a one-person shop, you get the feeling of being beat up when dealing with negative clients. If you have employees it can be worse. These toxic clients may actually berate employees, or may put a sense of fear and insecurity in them that is hard to rebuild.
  5. They hurt your reputation. The problem with difficult clients is that they are never satisfied. Therefore, even when you are producing stellar work, they are not happy. If they share this unhappiness with others, potential referrals may question your work, not the toxic client’s word.
  6. You’ll be more productive without them. This is real reason to let them go. Spend the time finding better clients to work with. Clients and customers who respect you.

The bottom line is that I should not be writing a blog post about this. But I’m angry and stressed and hurt by the situation. Which just proves my point. If it weren’t for this toxic client, I would writing a blog post about something of more interest to my readers. Or, I could be working on billable design work. Or, I could be working on finding better clients to work with.

If you have a story to share on this topic, please add it in the comments.


  1. Mike Maddaloni - @thehotiron | July 20, 2010 at 11:29 am

    If there’s any consolation Emily, you are in good company! Any entrepreneur or small business person reading this would agree.

    The first time I heard about the concept of “firing a client” I was almost shocked – why would you do such a thing? Fire clients? Fire a source of business or revenue? But as you have detailed well here, the reasons are pretty obvious.

    Good luck with this…


  2. DeAnne | July 21, 2010 at 8:21 am

    The only plus side I can possibly think of in a situation like this is, one bad client can really make a designer appreciate what a breeze all their other clients are to work with.

  3. Sunny | August 4, 2010 at 6:23 am

    Oh… I so total agree. I am in the midst of firing one right now. Can you imagine, client request for more stuff , but dun even want to pay a single cent….I have been neglecting my more profitable clients…NO MORE OF THIS…Tomorrow is so going to be a great and fantastic day.

  4. Emily Brackett | August 4, 2010 at 8:22 am

    Sunny, welcome to the blog. You mention a very important point: ignoring the profitable clients to service the bad ones. Now go fire ’em!

  5. Deborah | August 27, 2010 at 7:17 am

    Yikes! As I read this blog, I felt two things:
    1. I’ve been in that situation where the “client” was a boss. I should have brought all of this to his attention and then moved on. (Lack of support, refusal to return calls/emails, inability to establish priorities, etc.)
    2. I worry that I’ve been this client! (Not with you, Emily. And not as bad as you describe.) I’ve been a PITA client sometimes when I’ve made assumptions that my designer knew what I was trying to accomplish as a business, and had thought through everything on the same obsessive level. So I’ve been “disappointed” when our stars didn’t align and they miss an obvious point. Communication is a lesson that is presented until it is learned!

  6. Emily Brackett | August 27, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Deborah, Thanks for weighing in. Good point about communication. It can be a fine line between someone giving me lots of great, useful info and then that overstepping into them just trying to make all the decisions. I think if you have good communication and a professional designer you’ll get the best results once you step away a bit.

  7. jane k | August 11, 2011 at 5:41 am

    Thanks for the writeup. I’m so sick to my stomach with a client, which nearly resulted in me losing my house (late payment, really late). While I’m partly to blame for concentrating on a project instead of spreading out, I was hoping that my work is paid on time, turned out the 2 months I spent on their project stretched to 4. I drained out all my savings on clearing up the mess and thank god I managed to stay on my two feet. The good thing is, I learnt to pick and choose my clients and soon, I’ll move up to a rented place with extra after selling my house. No more mortgage in the meantime until I make enough to pay cash.

  8. Emily Brackett | August 11, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Jane, sorry to hear about the situation. Hope you’ve learned and can move forward.

    When I hear these stories I can also see the far reaching ramifications of toxic clients. In your case you nearly lost your house. Think of how many more problems that would have caused you and others around you.

  9. Mike H | September 26, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    We are in the process of dealing with a toxic (or as we had labelled them “Rogue”) client. This client has been with us for over 5 years and previously we have not experienced any payment issues. For some unknown reason suddenly the cost of the latest piece of work is in dispute. Lets not mention the fact that the client failed to deliver required material by an agreed date, gave us a required completion date, then mysteriously the need to have completed by that date changed after they decided to add multiple requests for additional work. Scope creep is what I call it. Phone calls go unanswered, e-mails are ignored. We all need to learn how to deal with these types of clients – guess the best way is to avoid them in the first place. Unfortunately the signs are not always obvious. The worst thing is that our graphic designer’s confidence has taken a serious hit and she is somewhat despondent about the whole situation. Sorry to vent my frustration but knowing others are having similar issues and their responses to their situation does help. Still the sun will shine again tomorrow and we will be able to see what a beautiful world we live in.

  10. Emily Brackett | September 27, 2012 at 7:17 am

    @Mike H Thanks for stopping by and you are welcome to vent. I agree, it’s best to avoid toxic clients, but we sometimes the signs are not clear. However, once you do recognize them as a poor client, it is best to avoid doing anything further with them.

  11. Keith | November 16, 2013 at 3:14 am

    I know this is an old blog post but Thank you for writing this. I am a counselor and believe it or not we have toxic clients also. Many of them are awesome, respect your time and skills. Then there are the ones that question a $5 raise in fees as if you just killed their first born. No more! I just fired a client. Happy for it!

  12. Emily Brackett | November 20, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Keith, I’m glad this helped. It is a BIG relief when these clients are out of our lives. If you haven’t yet, you will look back and realize it was the best decision!

  13. April M. | March 19, 2014 at 5:56 am

    TOP 10 CLIENT NO-NO’s:
    1. Taking personal credit for or devaluing designer’s ideas that you gleefully accept and use. Nothing is more infuriating than this one!!!
    2. Calling looking for free advice or calling for price on product and then not answering or returning calls after designer prepares quote.
    3. Sexism – it doesn’t matter how much money the designer’s spouse makes, you still need to pay the designer and respect her/his time.
    4. Taking favors from the designer and never referring her/him or even bothering to write a nice online review.
    5. Disrespect of the degree – a designer is not a “decorator” and she/he is not interested in your jealous neighbor’s “critique”, especially when she has a large ceramic pig in her front yard.
    6. Cheapskates who demand miracles
    7. Micromanaging
    8. Compiling a list of the designer’s installers and fabricators in an attempt to bypass her/him next time.
    9. Dragging the designer into personal drama constantly.
    10. Slow or no pay until threatened with collections – you can always come and pull weeds in my yard if you find you cannot pay for my hours of hard work.

  14. Emily Brackett | March 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    April, I love it!

  15. Glo Gianos | September 16, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    Oh you should definitely be writing a blog post about this and we all thank you so much! It happens to be part of this business and even though there are a scant few who pull this on us, they need to be talked about.

    First of all, you really covered it, man. Every single point is there, concise, and true. It should never be “us against them” and I am getting a little tired of people I do not even know trying to make up rules and policies for my business.

    I like all the comments. One thing that is the worst though is to contemplate a charge back. This is what some clients will do and claim all sorts of things is “wrong” with the site. I won’t get into what happened to me but suffice to say, once I tried to “kick this client out of the nest” and start to do his own work which I stated in the contract I was not responsible for, he did it and stole my fee out of my account. I am now creating an alliance and going to the highest order to change charge back codes for electronic files so we all get better protected.

    While I never like to hear anyone’s misfortune, just because they choose to be an online worker, I sympathize and appreciate knowing that I am not alone in this sad feeling of being disrespected.

    I have one now who simply will not commit to anything. Everything is poo-pooed. I been at this 7 years I think I know what I am doing. Anyway she wants me to “deliver as is” as if she is rescuing me or something. So what is going to be next for her? She gets the site, (which of course once it is delivered cannot just be sent back for a refund) and then complains with some nonsense and does a charge back . . . so she gets to have the site and the money? I am thinking of just firing her; giving back all her money and keeping the site to resell to someone who appreciates it.

  16. TheEventfulAffair | January 22, 2016 at 2:25 am

    @MikeH you’re right, the signs are not always obvious. Sometimes the person starts off sweet, then they seem to ‘trip’. This happened to me a few months ago, and I was shocked at the turnabout, but had to keep silent and composed in front of my staff and others.
    And of course, you get worried about your reputation.


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