I work in an agency setting, which means I deal with multiple clients every day. At any given time, my company will work with 30+ businesses. I’ve also done a fair amount of freelance writing, design and development work, so I have extensive experience dealing with clients.

A relationship with a client is an interesting dynamic. On one hand, they’re somewhat like an employer. On the other, I have responsibilities to my company and myself.

So the client-contractor relationship is more like a partnership. In marketing, the growth of their business indirectly means the growth of ours, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to foster a healthy and productive relationship.

Sadly, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes dealing with clients can be a pain in the ass. Here are some ways you can make the arrangement healthier, or in the very least, protect yourself.

 (Note: negotiating payment and collecting invoices is an extensive topic, so I’ve decided to leave it for another post.)

1. The customer is NOT always right

“The customer is always right” is a slogan used by uninformed managers and arrogant customers to impose a higher standard of customer service. The idea is that a customer complaint should be taken extremely seriously and errors should be corrected without delay.

But that isn’t the original meaning of the phrase. When it became popular around 1915, it referred to markets, not individual customer interactions.

For example, let’s say you sold hot dogs in the park. One day a hamburger salesmen showed up and everyone switched to burgers. Should you spend time, energy and money trying to convince people to buy your hot dogs, or should you just sell burgers too?

In this case, the customer is right in that hamburgers are the best item to sell in the park. The market has spoken, regardless of how you feel. It makes more sense to go to the money.

Even if today’s meaning were correct, it still wouldn’t be right. There are plenty of reasons that customers are often wrong.

customer isn't always right
The second part doesn’t have nice rhythm, but it’s still true.

2. Be mindful of the 80/20 rule

The 80/20 rule relates to your customer base. 80% of the people you work with will support your business by trading your service or goods for money without complication. The other 20% will be headaches that aren’t worth your time.

The 20% are the customers who need special orders, special accommodations (like odd delivery rules, payment terms, file specifications, or order sizing), ask a million questions, and take up too much time.

I understand that you don’t want to turn away a single dollar in revenue, but you must focus on the 80%. They are keeping your business afloat while you deal with the 20%.

If you took careful stock of the time and extra work you did to appease the 20%, you’ll probably find that you aren’t making much money off them after all.

(The 80/20 rule also applies to a lot of other things.)

3. Take responsibility for mistakes right away

“Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment, and learn again to exercise his will – his personal responsibility.” – Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein quote
This man was a head of his time in many ways.

When you make a mistake (and I say “when” because they are inevitable), be the first person to mention it. Don’t avoid it in hopes that the client never noticed, because if they do notice and think you’re covering it up, the situation will just get worse.

In a world where people are quick to point the finger at someone else, taking immediate responsibility is actually disarming. No one expects it. No one anticipates a quick and humble apology.

Once you’ve apologized, move the conversation forward to solutions. Explain how you’ll fix the blunder and how you’ll ensure it doesn’t happen again. Once you’ve done those things, you’ll have taken the anger-wind right out of your client’s sails.

4. Contact twice, then drop it

There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to get some information or materials from a client who won’t respond. You’re working for them, but they can’t be bothered.

Don’t spend your life chasing your clients around. Don’t track them down on Facebook or Snapchat. Don’t Google-Fu their home phone number.

Stick to whatever form of communication they gave you. Contact them once and follow up once. If they don’t return either messages, drop the issue. If they never get back to you, obviously it wasn’t important.

(This does not apply to collecting payment. If someone owes you money, don’t be afraid to show up at their door.)

5. Keep all communication

Wherever possible, insist on written communication. For one, it lets you communicate on your own time (like late at night or while you’re on a busy train). Two, it’s your record of everything said.

If the client complains that you haven’t completed a project on time, insists you did it incorrectly, or argues about the agreed payment terms, you need a record as proof.

It’s best to have a lawyer-prepared contract for the big stuff, but keep everything so you can refer to even the smallest details.

That said…

6. Don’t work without a contract

I don’t care how well you know your client or how long you have been working together. You always need a contract.

[Tweet “I don’t care how well you know your client. You always need a contract.”]

It’s funny when people say, “I couldn’t believe my client refused to pay” or “I’m surprised my client just disappeared without paying their bill.” Of course they’re surprised. If they had reason to think the client wouldn’t come up with the cash, they wouldn’t have taken the work in the first place. So every payment refusal, disputed bill, and unanswered email is a surprise.

If using a contract means paying a lawyer for every new client, so be it. Bundle the cost into your service. The attorney will more than pay for himself. Even if they do flake on you, a sternly worded letter from your lawyer reminding them of the contract will persuade them to send a check.

Don't work without a contract
“I didn’t realize the contract was binding.” What?

Contracts also keep people honest. If your client has a sliver of willingness to change the deal after the fact, a contract will convince him to keep things legitimate. Contracts also hold you accountable for your own work. Instead of giving up, you’ll find ways to meet your end of the bargain because you’ll know that you’re legally beholden.

7. Be clear about scope

Scope is the plan that determines the boundaries of a project. It includes your goals, deliverables, tasks, deadlines, and, most importantly, the cost.

You must be absolutely clear about the scope and write everything down. If it’s not written into the agreement, it’s not in the project’s scope. If any of the project’s details change, the scope has changed and an amended contract is needed.

You can make minor changes without affecting the scope. If the client wants a different background color on his website, you don’t need to bring the lawyers back. But if they want to add new features to their product, increase the size of the project, change the deadlines, or renegotiate the cost, your scope has changed.

Be absolutely clear when a request changes the scope. If they want you to add a forum to their website, explain that that will require extensive development. If they change their article topic, explain that you have to restart your research.

Never forget that you deserve to be paid for your labor.

8. Never trust a subcontractor

It makes the most sense to be a provider for your client, so subcontracting is an inevitable part of most creative projects.

If they want a website, they want to buy a complete website from you. They don’t want to juggle a designer, developer, content creator, video maker, SEO, etc. They just want a damn website.

Working with subcontractors to make sure each component is quality is a smart maneuver, but you should never trust them. Don’t put your reputation on the line if someone else is doing the work.

Never trust a subcontractor
Look at that face. This guy doesn’t care about your reputation.

If the subcontractor says a project will take two weeks, tell the client it will take four. This gives you time to evaluate the subcontractor’s work and request any changes. It also insulates you from their mistakes (maybe they misjudged a project’s requirements or ran into obstacles).

It also gives you the opportunity to over-deliver for the client. If you tell them four weeks, but get back to them in two, you’ve added more value.

9. Fire bad clients

There’s a pervasive sentiment in agency work that you have to do everything you can to appease a client.

That’s bulls***.

Some clients are just bad. Some demand free work outside a project’s scope. Some are unwilling to make contractual commitments. Some require you to change your process to fit theirs. Others are just dicks.

Firing a client is not a negative. If the relationship has become disadvantageous for either party, you both will be happier if the client goes somewhere else.

If you fire a client, do it gently. Tell them that you aren’t able to help them achieve their goals, so you’ll refer them to someone else. Send them to someone who genuinely can help.

10. Quote high to dissuade

Sometimes you come across that client who’s just a pain in the ass. Maybe they request frequent changes or switch directions often. Maybe they demand instant turnarounds on work. You know working will them will be challenging.

If you know a client will be tough, charge for the aggravation. Give them a high number that compensates you for the frustration and loss of time. If they pay it, great, you have a reasonable job. If they refuse, well, you didn’t want to work with them anyway.

11. Don’t be a pencil-pusher

My agency once had a client that was extremely involved in every creative process. We’d send a draft and they would return with a hundred changes. Most of the changes were irrelevant. Some were bad ideas that ruined our good work. They would make ridiculous requests, like demanding we move an element three pixels out of alignment to make it “stand out.” Three pixels!

Don't be a pencil pusher
You want this done by tomorrow? That’s a big N-O.

Eventually, we relented to their constant insistence and quickly made their changes just to move tasks off our plate, even when we knew we were producing less than quality.

We were so concerned with appeasing the client that we forgot to mind the value of our own work. We should have refused the superficial changes and educated them about the bad ones. We should have fought.

It’s OK to tell a client that their ideas are bad. It’s OK to assert that you know what you’re doing and remind them that they aren’t paying you just to click keys. Obviously, be polite. Don’t belittle their ideas, but stand up for yourself and your work. If the client’s demands are truly bad, don’t be afraid to end the relationship on the grounds that you don’t want to be associated with that work.

Of course, this means your work has to be effective. If you say that your method will grow their Facebook page, but it doesn’t, you’ll probably get fired.

12. Don’t work for exposure

One of the most insulting things you can ask a creative professional is for free work in exchange for exposure.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked this. People have asked me for free written content, free design work, and even entire free websites. I’ve been asked to freely evaluate their online presence and marketing strategy.

Further, “exposure” is the biggest racket because it rarely means anything. They tell you they “know a lot of people who need work,” or “can introduce you to the right circles,” but it never happens and they’re conveniently unwilling to contractually commit to future deals.

Don't work for exposure

Why this is so prevalent in creative industries (writing in particular) is the subject of another article, but it’s everywhere.

I don’t work for free because I value my work. It’s better than free. I don’t recommend you do either.

13. Demand feedback

Growing your business and becoming better at what you do requires constant improvement. You can’t stand still for even a second, because your competition won’t.

Periodically, you should audit your relationship with your client. Ask them what they’ve liked so far. Ask them what they haven’t liked. Don’t settle for “everything’s fine” because no one feels that way. Ask for the nitty-gritty negative stuff. If they are unwilling to give raw information, press harder.

You can learn something from your interact with every client, even if you only learn what not to do next time.

14. Create realistic goals

Your client will take anything they can get. If you promise a completed article in two hours, they won’t come back with, “Slow your roll, chief, that’s too fast.”

It’s important to set goals. It gives you and the client a concrete point to judge the work. Well-formed goals take all the subjectivity out of the project. If the standard is met, the payment needs to come through.

But people make two common mistakes when they set goals:

  1. They set goals for things they can’t control. No matter how good you are with Twitter, you can’t guarantee 2,000 natural followers in a month. Your content and voice may be on point, but you just can’t force the behavior of other people. Set goals for what you’ll do where you can control the results.
  2. They set outlandish goals. A goal isn’t your pie-in-the-sky wish-upon-a-star outcome. It should be something tangible and reachable. It’s OK to start with a small goal, achieve it, and then make a bigger one.

15. Take the client seriously

Your client has come to you to solve their problems. Whatever those problem may be, take them seriously. You have to make your clients’ problems your problems.

The best way to do this is to keep them informed. Come up with a regular reporting system that presents all the relevant data. Use specific measurements: “Our goal was X and we achieved Y.”

If you couldn’t meet a goal, give a simple explanation as to why. Own your failures, but move the discussion toward solutions: “Our partnership with the Local Foundation fell through because they wanted payment at the last minute that wasn’t within your budget. We’ve targeted our research to only free opportunities going forward and we’ll make sure they don’t expect payment right away.”

Presentation is always important. Make a professional template for your reporting so your client feels like you took some time for them.

In any of your correspondence, don’t use jargon or industry terms the client wouldn’t know. That can be insulting. Your process may vary, but I wouldn’t go more than a month without checking in with a client in some way.


Don’t let my tips scare you. A majority of your clients will understand the process and make your creative work quality and meaningful. The proverbial difficult client is, honestly, quite rare, but they can ruin your month if you don’t handle them properly.

If you like client humor, check out Clients From Hell.

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