5 Ways Toxic Clients Kill Productivity and Steal Your Time

Last Updated on September 19, 2022 by 13 Comments

5 Ways Toxic Clients Kill Productivity and Steal Your Time
Blog / Business / 5 Ways Toxic Clients Kill Productivity and Steal Your Time

As business owners, three of the most important things we need to master early on are getting clients, productivity, and protecting our time. But what happens to our time and productivity when we get a client who turns out to be toxic?

Toxic client relationships are more than an annoyance. They can seriously impact your quality of work, lower your overall pay rate, impede your ability to meet deadlines, and can even keep you from securing new clients. In this article we’ll take a look at a few ways toxic clients siphon your time and decimate your ability to be productive–as well as what you can do about it.

1. Making communication unnecessarily difficult.

Communicating with a client should be pretty straightforward, right? But that’s not always the case. Problematic communication issues can run the gamut:

  • Demanding an unreasonable amount of time for unpaid calls and meetings
  • Expecting you to be on call for them 24/7 and pressuring you when you don’t answer right away
  • Not providing you with adequate information to get a project started, which forces you to chase basic project details and scope of work
  • Failing to respond to you within the appropriate amount of time to meet your deadlines

Too much, too little, or just downright difficult client communication can knock a major dent in your earning potential. You might end up losing time on unnecessary calls or micromanaging your client’s ability to provide you all the materials you need to complete your projects well, and on time.

What to do: If you included your availability in a contract, remind your client about your policy and stick to it. Alternatively, if your availability policy isn’t a part of your contract, kindly remind your client of the timeline they’ve requested on the project. Too much or too little communication from them could impact your ability to complete their requested deliverables on time.

2. Sucking you into a revision loop.

A client can get you stuck in a revision loop for a number of reasons. Sometimes, they want to feel like they’re getting the biggest bang for their buck. Other times, they may be having a hard time letting go of the work they’ve assigned to you.

Whatever the case, it’s important to try to stay out of revision purgatory. Once you’ve surpassed the number of edits you allow for in your agreement, the value of your project is going to start dropping.

What to do: Use positioning language around your revision rounds to establish where you are with your client in the process.

For example:

  • “For this first round of revisions, I have incorporated all your suggested edits and left a few additional comments. Would you like to take a look before the final round?”
  • “I’ve completed my final round of revisions for this article! Looking forward to working on the next project with you.”

If you haven’t yet included revisions in your client contracts, now is a great time to implement them. Policies vary, but many business owners choose to include one or two revisions in their overall project rate and charge an additional fee for revisions beyond the agreed-upon scope.

3. Cranking your scope of work (but not your pay) up to 11.

Scope creep is a common client issue among self-employed business owners. Here are two common ways I’ve seen it manifest:

  • You and the client agree to a scope, then the client tries to slip in more work than you agreed on
  • The client doesn’t have an adequate understanding of the work involved in their ask, and your workload explodes as a result

Unfortunately, scope creep results in you doing a lot of work that you may not get paid for–either at your going rate, or at all.

What to do: If you notice an assignment veering sharply outside your agreed-upon scope, don’t work on anything extra before you discuss it with the client. It’s ridiculously difficult to complete client work when you know you’re being screwed on time or money, so make sure you don’t screw yourself out of either!

If your client is constrained to your asking price as their budget, they may want to adjust the project down to fit what they’ve agreed to pay you. In some cases, bringing scope creep to the client’s attention could mean you’ll get paid more for the extra work; win-win!

If the client insists on your completing the work without extra pay, it’s time to form an exit strategy. The longer you work for someone who’s taking advantage of you, the more you’ll resent the work. Resentment slows your progress in all areas and ultimately results in lost time and money. (Learn from me, my Padawans: I’m forming an exit strategy from a client like this right now, and 10/10 do not recommend.)

4. Keeping you in a reactive mode.

Some clients keep you in a reactive, fight-or-flight state, which impacts your ability to plan for their work and stay on track with your other clients’ assignments. This state of disorganization can be caused by:

  • An overwhelmed client
  • The client’s inability (for whatever reason) to strategize and plan ahead
  • Corporate or bureaucratic red tape
  • A team that’s too lean to handle the number of requests coming in

I had a recent client that functioned this way. There were top-down issues with the company culture, which resulted in constant, panicked requests for assignments no one knew about until the last minute. Additionally, we were regularly impeded from preparing adequately for major events like product launches because of the last-minute requests. It wasn’t pretty, and it caused me massive anxiety–which impacted every area of my life, especially work.

What to do: Unfortunately, this issue can be particularly difficult to navigate. It’s likely the client’s patterns were well established before you began working for them, and a contractor isn’t likely to come in and change that culture for the better (unless, of course, you’ve been hired specifically to help them improve the company culture).

You can work on setting boundaries and establishing the amount of lead time you need before you take on a project. But, working with a client that keeps you reactive will negatively impact not only your work for them but for your other clients as well.

5. Failing to pay invoices on time or as agreed.

The nail-biting dread that comes with micromanaging your client’s invoice payments is, hands-down, one of the worst feelings in business. When you’re chasing down paychecks and worrying about whether you’re going to get paid for the work you’ve done, you lose ground in both productivity and time management.

What to do: Communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s important to follow up on invoices, and remind your client what they agreed to when you began working together. If necessary, implement a late fee for unpaid invoices that rock around for too long (that time frame will depend on your invoicing policy).

You may also need to advise the client that you’ll be halting work until outstanding invoices are paid. If this is an ongoing problem, it’s time to find a replacement client and move on.

Wrapping Up

Spending too much time working for toxic clients won’t just hurt your productivity and time management; it will eventually damage your self-esteem. And, if your self-esteem is in the gutter, that’s going to negatively impact your quality of work.

If you’re a freelancer like me, you’ve probably run into problematic clients from time to time. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether a client is toxic before you begin working together.

To get a better idea of whether a new client is going to cause problems down the road, propose a paid trial project to kick things off on the right foot. It will give you a chance to get a feel for each other before anyone locks in a long-term commitment.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to protect the money-maker: yourself!

Featured image via VectorMine / shutterstock.com


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  1. hey Haley Walden,
    Its true ” Toxic Clients” very danger clients for every business.” Failing to pay invoices on time or as agreed” this topics most important for my business.This topic helped me so much.

    Thanks for such a contents………..

  2. Totally agree with that. Unfortunately, toxic clients happen to anyone at some point.

    • Yes, so true. I don’t think anyone ever truly gets to a point where they don’t have the occasional problematic client. It’s a learning process that helps us weed out more of the problems as we grow, though, which is great. Thanks for reading!

  3. Hehehe… Nice article…

    I’m sure all web designers must have the experience written here.

    for me the client is the boss, and if I already have hundreds of clients who subscribe to hosting every year, maybe the principles of this article will be applied in the future.

    Sometimes I get new clients who insist on demanding more than what has been agreed. Due to the financial economic pressure on my family, I accepted the project even though it took up time with my family…

    Greetz from Indonesia

    • Thanks Fratelli! I can totally relate. We have to pay the bills, and sometimes we have to take on work with less-than-ideal clients in order to meet our families’ needs. Best of luck moving forward!

  4. I wish I had read this a year ago. Toxic clients are crushing and all the signs are always there. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. =) Thank you for this article, such a big problem for many.

    • Oh man, hindsight is definitely 20/20. And unfortunately, we can’t always spot toxic client relationships until we’re in them. It really depends on how many red flags they throw out before the work begins. Sometimes thing seem fine until they’re not. And even though I’ve learned a lot and learned how to spot red flags, I still occasionally take on clients who turn out to be really difficult. It happens!

  5. Very helpful, thanks for the great insights

    • Thank you so much! 🙂 Thanks for reading.

  6. Awesome points you make here. You know I’ve seen my share of this!

    • Thank you Julienne!! It’s a Real Thing for sure. 😉 Thanks for dropping in to read & comment!!

  7. Great post! I have to say that in the last 2 years I got rid of 2 clients that where demanding unreasonable time from me as a webdesigner. I cancelled the pending maintenance contracts. It gave me peace of mind and no more stress.

    • Thank you! That’s great–I’m glad you were able to exit those toxic relationships. There are plenty of great clients out there, and even though the process of replacing the work can be stressful, it’s worth it in the end.

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