Today I’m talking about one of the topics that I am most passionate about…toxic freelance clients. Why am I so passionate about this topic? This really matters because not only have I worked with toxic clients personally, but I have also privately coached other freelancers who have dealt with toxic clients. That become a key component of what we work on together. I have helped them to even identify the underlying patterns that can cause you to end up with toxic clients again and again.
A toxic client is someone who drains all the energy and life force out of you. They are overbearing, overwhelming, and have lots of extra requests from you usually without more pay. They tend to produce emotional responses in the freelancers that they work with. This means they produce emotions like frustration and anger. They can even cause you to feel burnout because toxic clients bring out the worst in you.
If you work with clients that you generally love working for it will be easy to spot toxic clients because of how they make you feel. If you have only worked with toxic freelance clients it may take you longer to realize that client is indeed toxic because you don’t know what patterns to look for. Recognizing the toxic client is the first step. A few questions to ask to identify toxic freelance clients are:
● Does this person treat you poorly?
● Does this person not pay you well?
● Does this person always ask for discounts or reduction in price?
● Does this person make you feel like you don’t quite deserve to work with them even though you are giving it your all?
Anyone in the freelance world can be subject to working with toxic clients. But I find the freelancers that most often deal with toxic clients are writers and virtual assistants. Virtual assistant especially tend to get taken advantage of by clients because the clients essentially wants to dump everything on this one person. They want them to become the go-to in their business.
Usually, a VA isn’t paid as much as other freelancers and are paid by the hour. A toxic client might act like you could have done the work so much faster but you didn’t. They don’t understand why you can’t just get it with their instructions even though it’s probably that their instructions aren’t good instructions.
A lot of times a toxic client will set up an agreement with a VA and put them on a retainer and then ask for WAY MORE of the VA than what is in that agreement. The tasks they are asking of the VA are more than they are willing or capable of doing. If you are hiring as a VA to work 10 hours a week and the client keeps dumping more and more on you and making you log 15-20 hours a week and you aren’t being compensated for it then that is a toxic client.
So let’s talk about what you can do to try to flag these types of clients before you begin working with them. It’s important to know that you can’t always identify a toxic client. Some of these people can sneak up on you. They can put forward a good face and you have no idea they are toxic. Or it might be that there have been changes and the person you are reporting too has changed and THEY are the toxic person, not the person you were working with before. It’s important to know ways to identify a toxic client. But don’t beat yourself up if one slips through the cracks because they may not become or show their toxic client side until a few weeks after you start working together.
Let’s go over some tips to identify a toxic client. Red flags include:
● How do they talk about their past freelancers? For example, they tell you they have worked with 15 other graphic designers and they were all horrible and they had to fire them all. The odds of ALL 15 of them being awful and unprofessional are very low. This means it’s actually something wrong with the client and not the freelancers. A few bad freelancers is okay, but large numbers of freelancers being considered awful is a red flag you are dealing with a toxic client. You can ask them to tell you about their experience with working with freelancers in the past. If their answer is that they have yet to work with a freelancer before this could be your chance to shape them in how they should act, work with, and communicate with a freelancer. What you are looking for with their response is how they talk about freelancers from their past.
● Look at their expectations. Are they pushing you to be available 24/7? These might be communication issues that brush up against your boundaries. A lot of times toxic clients will bring this up themselves and say it’s important for you to be available 24/7.
● Proving your worth. A toxic client might be pushing you to prove your worth even on the initial phone call. They might constantly be talking about ROI. They may not be willing to sign a contract for more than a month because they just don’t trust you. They might pay you 10% upfront and then the rest when they are satisfied with the completed product. This is a red flag.
● Communication preferences. This is a huge issue. It’s important to set forth what are your preferred communication is. As a freelancer, you have to set boundaries with clients on how you can/will communicate with you. With toxic clients, always get everything in writing possible. Communication choices for this include email, documents in an email, in your communication software, etc.
So let’s talk about when you think someone might be toxic. How do you address it before you decide to fire them? I try to give people the benefit of the doubt before firing them. Here are a few tips:
● Call the situation out early on when it happens. For example, you do a call with some so they have your number and the client starts texting you at 10 pm, First, you ignore the text. Next, you wait until business hours and you send them an email letting them know you business phone is turned off and you will not respond to texts because it’s too difficult to keep track of. Encourage them to reply to the email with any concerns. Even with emails, wait and don’t respond until you are in your business hours.
● If the client speaks to you unprofessionally, call it out in the moment as nicely as possible. A great example is working with people who grew up in NY or NJ. Sometimes their tone and accent can come across as snippy or rude even if they aren’t intentionally being that way. So you can call it out and say, “I don’t know if you mean for this to be coming across this way, but…”. Sometimes when the client didn’t mean it they will say they didn’t mean it that way. Sometimes this is when you have to make a judgement call. If someone is openly rude or cussing at you, don’t even engage any further with this person.
● If you are in a relationship with a toxic client, I don’t care how much money it is, you can’t afford to keep working with them. First of all, if you calculate the actual amount of time you are working for them you probably aren’t getting what you are worth. Plus if you add in the emotional, mental and physical toll they are causing you, IT’S NOT WORTH IT! They will push you to burnout. They will make you question your capabilities and so much more. One really negative aspect of working with a toxic client is that not only is it affecting the work you are doing with them, but it could bleed over into your other clients. It’s just not worth it. Navigating out of this type of relationship is tricky. First try to let them correct their behavior. If they can’t do that, then keep it professional and let it go.
Have you ever had to work with a toxic client before? If you have I’d love to hear how you navigated out of it. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.