How To Deal With Nightmare Clients


You want WHAT?

Clients come in all shapes and sizes. Thankfully, the vast majority are decent, honest, hardworking people dedicated to positioning their businesses for success. They have reasonable expectations, give clear instructions, respond to questions, and pay on time.

And then there are the others.

The ones who give a vague assignment devoid of details, disappear on you for a week completely unavailable for clarification, and then accuse you of not completing your task. The ones who call you day and night, frustrated when you do not answer each and every time. The ones who nickel and dime you, bargaining over every invoice, trying to get more than they’re paying for. The ones who refuse to put up a website but are angry that their “marketing strategy” is not working.

Yes, we all have those too.

I have been in the client management business for 15+ years and have learned a thing or two about nightmare clients. Here we go:

The best way to deal with a nightmare client is to avoid them in the first place. Learn to smell them from a mile away, and don’t take them on. I know it’s hard to turn down business – believe me, I have a mortgage and three kids in swimming lessons. I get it. But when their first contact with you feels funky (they call you four times the same day to reiterate what they want, or they ask for a social media strategy but their budget is three hours/week, or they admit that they’ve fired their last four assistants for their “inexplicable inability to follow simple instructions”) that’s funky. Let yourself identify and feel that funk in your gut, and run. How do you run diplomatically and professionally?

Option 1: “I’m so sorry but I’ve just closed two new clients this week (a good problem to have, I know!) and in the interest of giving them personal attention each of my clients both demands and deserves, I won’t be available to take on another client for several months.”

Option 2: “I’m afraid that your assignment falls outside my core competency, but I am dedicated to making sure that everyone I come across leaves me with the right direction and connection to succeed. Therefore, I’d be happy to refer you to an alternate provider like XYZ who may be able to help you. Her contact information is below, and I’ll be happy to send a virtual introduction right away.”

Get documented, firm policies in place which outline boundaries and expectations – for each and every client. Is there work that you will not or cannot perform? I have math phobia. Seriously, you put a spreadsheet full of numbers in front of me and I freeze up, terror-stricken. Basic accounting and reconciliation, payroll or invoicing is probably work I could manage, but I simply don’t want to. My contract makes clear what kind of work I handle, and what kind of work I do not.

What about hours? Do you take phone calls or instant messages on the fly, or do your clients need to book your time in advance? Do you work on Saturdays? How about holidays? Do your clients need to purchase blocks of time in advance? Do you require a certain minimum commitment? Document what you do, what you don’t, and what your clients can expect both in terms of production and availability. When it’s clear (and written) you can always send a friendly reminder clarifying your working terms by attaching the original agreement to a casual email.

Too late – I took the client, it’s in my lap, and it’s awful. Now what?

Everybody makes this mistake at least once. First, recognize that you’re not the first (or the last) VA to manage an impossible client with off the wall expectations. Second, put it into perspective – this is A client. One client. This is not your entire reputation, brand or future. Now, a game plan:

Address the situation via phone. It has become an odious habit of many professionals to be disrespectful, demanding or rude via email in a way they would never communicate in person or via phone. It’s almost as if they feel that by communicating from behind a computer screen, there is some invisible permission in place to act like a child throwing a tantrum. It’s much harder to accuse on the phone.

Apologize. Even if it’s not your fault. Humility (read: kissing the proverbial behind of someone who hasn’t earned it or doesn’t deserve it) and diplomacy (read: telling someone where to go without that person realizing they’ve been told) are two of the most important skills you can master. We are not talking about pride here. Put your pride on a shelf and then pick up the phone. Your goal is for your business to succeed. Now, that may mean ultimately walking away from the client, and we’ll get to that shortly. But even if the relationship needs to end, it needs to end amicably and professionally. When someone is happy with your work, your attitude or your service, they might tell a friend or two if you’re lucky. If they are furious with you, they’ll tell EVERYBODY. This you do not need.

Firing your client – yes, you can. And sometimes it’s your best option. Once you have apologized for whatever misunderstanding or snafu occurred, and clarified expectations (via phone) if you still cannot satisfy your client, no matter what you do, you have to break up. Just like the end of a caustic romance, this band-aid is best ripped off quickly, even though it’s going to hurt. Try this: “I am dedicated to the success of your business, and while I had hoped to be able to support you in the manner you expect, I’m afraid this partnership has not been productive thus far. Therefore, in the interest of your continued success, I believe it’s best that we part ways professionally at this time.” Quick, clear, and final.

Most likely, you will encounter the nightmares from time to time. Don’t despair. You can weed out a large percentage of them by going with your gut, and greater number by clarifying, documenting and communicating your boundaries and services. And when all else fails……after the breakup, you can stand on your porch (thank goodness we work from home) shout “You’re Fired!” and feel a whole lot better.


Guest post written by Hilary Faverman, Director, Marketing and Community Management, Virtual Assistant Israel