Homer Simpson’s Guide to Dealing With Difficult Clients


Experience is needed to avoid dealing with difficult clients, something that not many freelancers have. How would you deal with impossible clients, or con artists or scammers?

What would Homer do?

For every article about how fun it would be to be a freelance web designer or developer, there is about ten more articles saying the exact same thing. This creates a bubble that easily attracts new freelancers, and will have them crying in despair after realizing how much they let the ideas inside the bubble control their outlook on the industry. It’s time to break that!

So in this article we’re going to go over some of the things the less friendly side of freelancing has to offer newcomers.

Client Fishers

Homer Simpson's Guide on Dealing With Difficult Clients

Image Credit: padraicwoods

After spending some well spent hours in the comments of my articles, I find that a lot of our readers here view sites like Elance and Odesk as good client sources. That leaves me with one question, what are you guys thinking? For you to understand why I’m discrediting sites like these two, I’m going to use a term I like to use to describe the types of difficult clients on these site. This term being the Client Fisher.

A Client Fisher is a person who has a project and could care less about building a lasting relationship. In their minds it’s better to blast out to the web that they are looking for someone to work on their project, but will only choose the least expensive options that come their way.

Recognizing a Client Fisher

This is actually quite easy. To recognize a Client Fisher all you have to do is study how they approach you with their project. In my experience, the clients that actually want to work with me send me a message asking if I’m available to work on their project and if we could set some time to talk about this in further detail. Now a Client Fisher would ask for all the necessary information they need to make a decision on you within the first contact. This includes a projects background, asking for a quote, estimation of how long and when the project can be completed, and on average won’t reply back to you.

Non-paying Clients

Homer Simpson's Guide on Dealing With Difficult Clients

Image Credit: U.S. Army Korea

I’m going to get straight to the point here, a lot of clients don’t like paying. There are a lot of reasons that could be brought up as to why some are like this, perhaps prior bad experiences with freelancers, but all that matters is they don’t want to pay and will try every seemingly way possible to avoid it.

How to Ensure All Clients Pay

It’s easy for new freelancers to not get paid fully for their work because the agreement between them and the client is a verbal/email agreement. Agreements like this are built on trust, rather than any real binding documentation on terms and conditions for the collaboration on the project.

So with that being said, make sure EVERY project you take on has terms and conditions to it that are stated in a document and agreed upon by all parties involved. Here are a few things to make sure you always include:

  • upfront payment of a percentage of the quoted price, typically no more than 50%, used as a retainer
  • don’t turn over the project until final payment is made
  • a section going over consequences and possible legal actions that will be taken if payment is not received

A great online tool to handle these is Echosign, I’ve had my best experience with online signature tools with Echosign.

Introducing the Difficult Client, or Flaky Client

On the heels of going over a type of client that should make the use of legal documents with your clients a de facto move, let me introduce you to the flaky client. As you’ve probably from the many bad experiences from other freelancers on Twitter, FaceBook, or blog articles, there are clients out there that don’t know what they want. Can you guess what the real kicker is with them not knowing what they want? It’s that they expect you to know for them. Amazing right!?!

There isn’t a freelancer around that couldn’t tell you about a client that asked for a revision or restart in the middle of a project, complained about the final result even though it complies with everything they asked for and agreed upon during the process, blame you for their SEO ranking and traffic being low, and a whole lot of other similar things.

Dealing with Difficult Clients that are Flakes

Just like with the client that will try to weasel their way out of paying, the best way to handle flaky clients is with legal documents for the project. Here are some quick tips of things to make sure to include in your legal documents.

  • set the number of revisions and/or complete project changes
  • set a point in the project, ideally after the initial go ahead, where revisions or major code edits will not be done
  • make sure all agreed upon desired goals for project are listed

Con Artists

Homer Simpson's Guide on Dealing With Difficult Clients

Image Credit: Anders Adermark

Doesn’t it seem like everyone in the web industry is so nice and friendly? Everyone is eager to lend a helping hand with an issue when you ask, when someone goes through a tough project they share it in a blog post, and if someone created something cool for a project they turn it into a plugin. Sadly, though, because of the friendly nature of the web industry, it makes it a perfect target for Con Artists.

Why you ask? Well, Con Artists are people who prey on the false sense of security that people blindly have in others. Now what could be a better industry to take advantage of than one where people do business with others millions of miles away all the time? I honestly can’t think of one.

How to Spot a Con Artist

Con artists are very smart and tricky people, they’re impossible clients — and they only think of themselves. It can be very hard to figure out exactly if someone is a Con Artist if they are good. However, there are always tells that can show a person’s hand. Here are a few ways to tell if someone who comes to you may actually be trying to con you.

  • Their names don’t match up through different contact platforms (Skype, email, etc.).
  • They ask for your personal info by offering you gifts or trips.
  • They are moving with their project introduction to you too fast.
  • They use terms like “once in a lifetime”, “game changing opportunity”, and anything else to get you feeling like their project is going to change your life.

How I Almost Got Conned

Homer Simpson's Guide on Dealing With Difficult Clients

Image Credit: Capture Queen

Awhile back I got an email about a project, it was to build the front-end of the web interface of an app. Everything seemed pretty legit. The guy had the standard coming soon page, mockups of how everything should look and function and was a nice person to talk to. I started to think that he’s not a difficult client to deal with. Then things started becoming questionable, when he said he would fly me out to the conference that would be used to showcase their product. Hmmmmm…

So the project was on a tight deadline, and needed me to be done with my share in about a week or two. The conference was like a few days before his desired deadline, and this just didn’t sit right with me. I mean, yeah, rush projects happen all the time, but how often do you get a rush project from a guy who is willing to fly you out at the end of it to the conference?

My odd feelings about this made me question who this person said they were, and prompted me to do a background check on him. So I headed to Google and started searching around, nothing was found. It didn’t help either that his Skype name was completely different from the name he gave me.

Long story short, I turned down the project. Now I never made the decision to remove him from my Skype contacts, honestly I’m just too lazy to do it. So not too long after that, a year or so, he contacts me on Skype. In his IM he comes clean about being a con man whose only objective was to swindle me out of my money, and possibly steal my identity. WOW right?

So whatever you do, make sure that every project you take on is on the up and up, even though we are really nice in the industry, it doesn’t mean that person you think is nice isn’t just plotting to take advantage of you.

Well, it’s been a rough road and I’m pretty sure that many of you will experience the same thing every once in a while, this is why you need to be picky in order to find the best client.

What about you? What are your tips on dealing with a difficult client?

So, what would Homer do? Of course, Homer being Homer, he’ll work harder!

Son, if you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Now quiet! They’re about to announce the lottery numbers.



  1. There are always going to be awkward situations and identifying those that are not being totally honest is really important. As you said, sometimes they rush in with the project details, other times they might not give you enough and you end up doing far more than is required of you. The spec / scope of a project is like the foundations of a house, if you get them wrong it will crack in the end…

  2. Communication, communication, and more communication! From our experience, clients need to be taken by the hand and led through the creative process. Keep your projects on scope, don’t let the client push you around, and if deadlines aren’t going to be met then 99% of the time if the client is communicated with then they wont be let down. Keep it positive. Awesome article though, there are some good tips here!

    Or you can just do this ! = http://envokedesign.com/case-of-the-mondays/

  3. Nice article and very useful information. A good read indeed. I’ll be sure to watch out for these types of clients in the future. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Awais Raza

    I have experienced most of these things in my recent projects, while I am just starting freelancing. This article seems to be very helpful for my upcoming clients :) Again a good piece.

  5. Randy

    Sometimes difficult clients are those closest to you; perhaps a long-term relationship kind of client. I have one that has “squirrel” syndrome (ref: the movie “Up!”), so I never do fixed-price work for him. It’s always on the clock and heavily detailed. He can see how his chasing shiny objects impacts his cost. Over the years, it has reined it in some.

    • That’s very true Randy. It is very easy for our worst clients to be the people we enjoy the most. I guess that’s where the phrase don’t mix business and pleasure comes into mind.

  6. simon

    Great article mate.

    Overall I agree with most of what you have outlined. Dealing with difficult clients can be soul crushing and most simply dont understand what they want or need. I have to constantly justify the reasoning behind basic ideas such as contact forms, landing pages and overall useability elements.

    Overall irs good to haveca solid understanding of what your clients need abd expect and to talk often to ensure that the website comes out as expected.

    In regards to Elance and oDesk, I have gained multiple good clients from there and only bid what I think is s fair rate for a job. If they want to use the cheapest indian developer thats fine, they miss out on ny skills and dedication for the sake of a few dollars.

    Curious though as to what you would be using to get yoir clients if its not via freelance sites? Mainly word of mouth?

    • Simon I’m happy to hear that you were able to get quality clients from oDesk and Elance. Its just sad that I don’t hear that same testament from the freelancers I’ve come across. I also wanted to make sure that you don’t misinterpret what I’m trying to say here. There are great job boards out there with amazing posting like AuthenticJobs and Smashing Jobs, my point is that there just aren’t that many out there. Also its almost like a 1 in a few thousand chance of getting a reply, it really starts to boil down to who can reach the potential client first.

      I’m glad you asked what I do to get clients in your comment, you’re the first person to do that yet in my blogging career. Well for me since I’m a full time freelancer and college student, I don’t have the time to market myself the way I should. So in lue of that, I take on a 6-10 month contract at a major company or agency here in Atlanta. While I’m doing this it gives me more opportunity to pick and choose between the word of mouth, those finding me through my articles, and referrals for what I would enjoy working on.

  7. Agota Bialobzeskyte

    I’m glad you made a point about freelance job boards, Jamal.

    It’s generally not a good idea to try to get jobs this way. Sure, you can submit couple of bids here and there, but don’t rely on. I’m surprised that so many people think that’s all there is.

    It’s much smarter to decide what websites you want to target, do your research, and then send out the proposals to the editors (even better if someone can introduce you to the editor before that).

    In general, people who look for freelancers on job boards are those with low budget, so they are not your ideal clients anyway.

    Have you ever seen New York Times advertising on a job board saying that they need a freelance writer? No. Why? Serious companies don’t look for freelancers this way.

    One way freelance job boards can be useful, though, is when you want to protect yourself from clients that don’t want to pay up.

    I always ask new clients to go to PeoplePerHour, create a job ad there, invite me, accept my bid, and put down the deposit. Then, I only communicate with them via PPH system which keeps the records of client-freelancer communication. This way, if they give me trouble when it’s time to pay, I can ask PPH to help me sort it out. I made an exception to this rule once and didn’t get my money. I learned that lesson damn well.

    Obviously, that doesn’t apply when your clients are established companies that have a reputation to protect, since they are not likely to try to mess with you.

    • Yeah, job boards have gotten such a misconception for our side of the industry. They really only benefit the employer who only cares for the lowest cost worker. Its okay if you do it on boards where the average poster is only looking for quality like AuthenticJobs, or just for sharping your pitch skills, but it should never be your main client source.

      That’s a nice policy to have them go through PeoplePerHour. A third party involvement in this form is always a great regulator for a freelancer to be protected from a faulty client. Sorry the one time you trusted a client it gave you more reason to be cautions when taking on new business, but at least it was a good learning experience right? :)

  8. Thanks for a great article and the good advice Jamal.

    I actually received an email from a prospective client on Wednesday and something didn’t sit right with the email and his reply too. Now thanks to your article I am able to back up my ‘gut feeling’.

    • No problem Mike, happy to be of services. Since you can never meet a person in our industry and still be very successful, it makes it very dangerous. My experience tells me that situations like these always call for a following of your gut feeling.

  9. Glo

    Great post! I have learned some of these the hard way. : )

    A very thoroughly written and outlined contract will stop a lot of scammers cause they know they can’t wiggle around the details. I just had one yesterday, where the guy was in “such a hurry” and then after I sent the contract, I did not hear back from him.

    One thing that helps me sometimes, especially if I have a lot of ideas is to create screenshots of font choices, graphics or textures/patterns for backgrounds to get an idea of what the client’s preference might be. Then I send those in an email and ask for feedback on the proposed parts. This saves time from switching the elements right on the site or design template/CSS.

    • Glo I appreciate you sharing your screenshot approach. It is a very smart idea indeed, and saves a lot of time in the long run.

      I’m happy to hear that you can scare away all your scammers with contracts.

  10. Totally agree with you!

    I’ve ran into projects were the clients doesn’t even know how to start or what they want. I’ve usually managed to guide them and offer them what they really need. At the end of the day, we are the experts in terms of providing a solution that fits them.
    Regarding the paying issue, its always a good thing to have 100% control over the final porject, so No pay, No final product…

    • Yeah Malachi, it was a really weird moment for me reading that Skype message. I was mad that he thought I didn’t know, but kinda thrown off by the fact he did that. Just weird time man.

  11. Great article. Very true and useful. Keep up the good work. I’m sure that all have meet one of the client profile.