WordPress Developers: How To Identify and Avoid Problem Clients

Last Updated on January 7, 2023 by 21 Comments

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WordPress Developers: How To Identify and Avoid Problem Clients
Blog / Tips & Tricks / WordPress Developers: How To Identify and Avoid Problem Clients

It’s impossible to be in business for any length of time without coming across the occasional problem client – it’s just part of the process. And if we’re being truthful with ourselves, it’s not always the client’s fault, is it? Sometimes it comes down to a simple personality clash. The idea that we’re capable of working well with every client simply isn’t realistic.

We’ve all had those days when we secretly wish we could do our work without relying on clients. On the other side of the coin, there are probably days when our clients wish they could get the job done themselves without having to worry about managing or dealing with a freelance developer. Which is fair enough.

But strained relationships, discontented clients and heavy-handed bill collecting don’t need to be part of your day-to-day routine. With a little planning, filtering and improved communication, working with clients can become more calm and less calamity. And that’s exactly what we’re going to discuss in this post.

The Warning Signs of a Problem Client

What is a problem client to you?

We all know the definition of a problem client can change from day-to-day. It varies with our moods and the types of issues we are dealing with on a particular day. For this reason it’s a good idea to create a written definition of a problem client. Have a crystal clear picture of what you won’t accept. For example:

A problem client for my business is one who consistently contributes negative energy and prevents me from maintaining a work environment that is productive, profitable, client centered and mentally satisfying.

Spend some time identifying specific actions or traits that in the past have been the key indicators of a future problem client. Here are some common ones:

Decision by Committee

Projects by committee can be a disaster waiting to happen and thus, should be approached with great caution. I’m not suggesting that committees are a bad thing, simply that they take each one of the potential problems listed below and increase it exponentially based upon the size of the committee.

However, large projects that pay well often have committees attached to them. The promise of great cash flow for the next six months can be pretty darn appealing. Any time you are working with a group of people, it’s a good idea to require that they make someone captain of the ship – one individual who can make decisions without having to ask for a show of hands.

Failure To Return Calls or Emails

Few things can sideline a project like poor communication. You know the ones I’m referring to, right?

It goes like this: a new client tells you that they are in a rush to get their website up and running. Being someone who loves to provide great customer service, you agree to fast track their website development. Putting personal projects on hold, you move them to the top of your priority list.

The day arrives when you need some feedback on design ideas. You send them an email with some files attached. Nothing. No acknowledgement, no feedback, it doesn’t even look like they’ve opened their email. Ten days and three emails later you get your first reply. It’s full of apologies and excuses about how busy they have been. It quickly becomes apparent that the only person who will be rushing to complete this project is you. To the back of the line you go!

They Don’t Pay On Time

Payment for services is always a tricky subject. You don’t want to commit time without being paid and your client doesn’t want to pay for something up front and risk having their developer disappear with cash in hand.

You need to find a balance that is fair to both parties, and at the same time quickly identifies clients who are a payment risk. One simple solution is to invoice based upon certain milestones, often with the first invoice going out the day you begin work.

Outline your payment expectations in the interview process and make it clear that prompt payment is required for you to continue working on their project.

The Indecisive Client

Almost as bad as clients who don’t communicate are the ones who can’t make a decision in a timely manner. As a small or independent developer/designer, your capacity to manage multiple projects is limited. That means you need to keep things progressing at a reasonable speed.

When a client can’t make up their mind about each small step along the way, it becomes very easy to double the time to completion for a project. Along with your milestones, it’s a good idea to set a time for completion of each phase. If a client is struggling with a particular decision, encourage them to defer to your judgement and experience.

The Do It Yourselfer

Also referred to as ‘bite-your-tongue clients’. These are the clients who critique every aspect of your work – from letter spacing, to color selection, to the poor resolution photo they sent you two days ago. Although they are a lawyer by profession (or any other profession for that matter), unbeknownst to you they also have design and development skills worthy of their peers’ admiration. Who knew?

Cleaning House

Once you’ve identified the qualities that signify a problem client, it’s time to go through your roster and make some adjustments where required. Keep the following two guidelines in mind:

  1. There is no such thing as a perfect client. You’ve got to find the balance between good qualities and bad ones. If you finish refining your list and have zero clients left, it might be time to look internally.
  2. For clients where you feel like a solid case for severing ties exists, do it gently and on good terms. You never know what might happen next week or next year. Provide them with some suggestions that will help them keep their project moving forward.

How to Attract the Clients You Want

Avoiding problem clients is more about discovering what you do want than what you don’t. If you start from a solid foundation and a well thought-out plan, the end result is a business that’s more satisfying.

If you plant weeds in your garden, no matter how much you cultivate it, you’ll still have a garden full of weeds. On the other hand if you plant a garden full of roses, you’ll still have to pull out a few weeds, but the end result will be a beautiful garden.

There are three relatively simple steps to filling your sales funnel and client roster with awesome long-term clients:

Step 1: Define What’s Important to You

In any service business, we must learn to accept the good with the bad. That means a client might have five great qualities and two bad ones. If you can live with that, you’ve got yourself the basis for a long-term relationship.

Refer to the indicators above that cover the major types of problem clients. It’ll be rare for any client to escape all of these qualities, so you’ll need to figure out which ones you can live with and which ones you can’t.

A client who always pays late but is also low maintenance may be an acceptable balance. As long as they pay eventually, is this something you can live with? A client who is high-maintenance and pays late might prove to be entirely unacceptable and not worth the effort. Would you agree? There is no ideal answer here, it’s up to you to decide what works for your business.

Step 2: Create a Client Persona

We often hear the word ‘persona’ used in content marketing circles. While the goal here is not to delve into the creation of the ultimate client persona, it’s worth exploring this concept for the simple fact that most businesses have no idea where to start.

Your objective in creating a persona is to identify the common traits of your ideal client:

  • How old are they?
  • Are they male or female?
  • Where do they live?
  • Do they have children?
  • Do they have pets?
  • What activities do they participate in outside of work?
  • What is their income?
  • What are their core values?
  • What are their motivations?
  • What problems are they facing at work?
  • Do they prefer Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter?

This list is only a start, but you get the idea. Don’t be cheap on the details! How can you target your ideal client if you have no idea who they are or where you can find them? And if you do find them, how can you sell them on something if you don’t know what they need? By creating a clear and concise vision of your ideal client, the whole process will become much easier.

Step 3: Speak to Your Prospects in Their Language

No, I’m not suggesting you learn another language! Lets imagine you go through step one as described above and discover several common threads across your target audience:

  • The average age is 48
  • They’re split 50% between male/female
  • They are entrepreneurs earning in excess of $250k per year
  • They have 2-3 employees
  • They are married with 2 children
  • They spend in excess of 70 hours working each week
  • They dislike technology
  • Their digital presence is self-managed (poorly)
  • They are in search of a better work/life balance

Through this discovery process, you’ve identified 2–3 pain points which you are capable of resolving for your clients. Does your marketing campaign speak to their needs? Often it doesn’t, which is why you may find yourself attracting clients who make you want to pull out your hair.

If your marketing efforts speak to low prices and high client participation, you’re going to have a hard time attracting clients who want high value and a hands-off experience. Looking at it another way, if you want high-end, low maintenance clients, but your marketing speaks to the discount-seekers of the world, you’re not going to be happy with the leads you are generating!


Building a healthy client roster happens largely through trial and error. You have to get burned once in order to learn the warning signs and you need one high-maintenance client in order to avoid the second.

An ideal client to one developer might represent a nightmare to another. Figure out what attributes are important to your business and create a marketing message that attracts what you’re looking for. For the occasional weed that pops up, create policies that tell you when it’s time to cut your losses and move on.

Have you ever experienced a problem client and how did you deal with them? Did the relationship end on a positive note? Please share in the comments below!


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  1. It sounds as though clients are the same around the entire world – even in dark africa!

    Committee’s are the pits and can drag things out for months. I refuse to make a pitch until the committee has a quorum of decision making members present.

    The worst is an association where the entire executive changes ever year!

  2. It’s true. But being able to identify them prior to taking up a project makes our lives easier. I guess through experience, we learn to deal better and identify bad clients.

  3. My opinion is — if you ask the clients these three questions and one is a no then leave them alone and move on, its worked so far for me.

    Do you have a concept and references.

    Do you have design aspect and some technical knowledge of imagery.

    Do you trust that I will endeavor to make this great because its also for my portfolio.

    , problem is with clientele that seems to not want me to post about what I am doing and for whom afterwards.

    Other issues can be questioned and a no could be positive ofcourse, but generally you want to work with people that have atleast some future sense.

    I have had this type of client many times over and 100% success rate on return and happyness because they answered yes to all three everytime.

    There are hypotheticals, negatives and positives in each Q&A but a client that has a negative interaction ratio to what they are trying to buy, should not be buying that which they cannot grasp.

    Opinion here only, tho..

  4. “Ten days and three emails later you get your first reply. It’s full of apologies and excuses about how busy they have been.”

    More like, “Ten days and three emails later they are asking you for updates.” I don’t know how many “please check the last billion emails I sent you” replies I’ve sent!!!

  5. Bad clients will come but we have to have strength to let them go. 10/90 law is applicable to website development as it is to every kind of human activity.

  6. After 16 years freelancing and some 150 website clients, I’ve learned to protect myself from being manipulated by clients via smart, clear, firm business policies.

    Bad clients will come, but they don’t get to abuse me.

  7. Great article. I think making business with “do-it-yourselfers” clients (the ones who constantly think they could have done the job by their selves) is very risky. This way of thinking lead their minds to the idea that they’re wasting money… So they put you in an akward (and unreal) situation where you’re kind of giving them nothing and charging them for that…. I try to avoid clients who can’t recognize a good service quality.

  8. I like the article and also some of the comments. We have all been stung by the bad client, and no matter what protocol you use you will never really know a client until they work with you.

    Its like saying your going to choose the perfect partner to avoid divorce, yet it happens everyday.

    In my experience much of it comes to intuition and learning from your bad experiences and looking for signs even at the initial communication phase before anything is done.

    If you have specific processes in place, with client signoff forms, milestone payments, clean and concise communication between you and the client then most of the problems wont occur in the first place.

    Most problems tend to happen when there is some type of a lack of communication or assumptions, remove those and your on your way to a good experience.

  9. Years ago a friend and owner of a greenhouse told me to avoid clients that complained about their last provider. He said, if they complained about them they will probably complain about you.

    At first I thought that was good advice. However, over the years I have dealt with damaged clients that worked out. They were totally screwed over by their previous web developer.

    Since 99% of all work we do is redesigning and modernizing sites there is usually a history to deal with.

    The key here is to do your homework. Find out the exact circumstances that made the potential client dissatisfied with their previous developer. Was the issue design, web traffic, the timeliness of updates or something else like an email issue?

    Double check the client complaints. See if the developer has had others complaining about the same thing. Once you know who the web developer was you can usually find things out using the web.

    Sometimes you will find the client is only giving one side of the story. Other times you will find they are telling the truth. This can be hard work.

    If you cannot get to the bottom of it use these rules:

    1. Outline everything in writing. Create a rock solid contract that deals with the complaints the prospective client experienced in the past. Don’t make it complicated. Plain English is best, although you do need some legal disclaimers. I’m sure you can find some good advice about contracts here on ElegantThemes.

    2. Explain that you understand they felt taken advantage of. However, this does not mean you are going to reduce your price. Use analogies if you think it helps. Try to relate something to their business. If you cannot do that a simple analogy often works best. “If you get a bad meal at one restaurant you cannot expect a reduction in price from another restaurant.”

    3. Look for the “champagne taste and beer money” problem. We often ask clients to show us examples of other sites they like. We then ask what functionality and how much content they are looking for. A real estate brokerage (14 agents and a few secretaries) once showed us Remax.com. I laughed and asked if he had a million to put down as first payment. They settled for a simple clean site with MLS coded in.

    The bottom line is you often cannot know about the problems you will face till you get into the project. That is why a good contract is a MUST. Create a standard and then add the particulars to make it easy on yourself.

  10. I had a client who wanted me to develop an online school with moodle, this being my first time I asked a local certified moodle developer for the price estimate, he gave me a price of around $100k. When I took this price to the client after consulting with him for weeks he asked me to do it for less than $2000!!! I had another company ask me to develop a custom online database app, after finding out the price from a local developer which was around $10,000 the guy told me why the hell would he pay so much when he is able to use microsoft exel for free! Saudi arabia is the worst place to be in the IT and software business, everyone assumes that every software is priced like microsoft office.

    • Oh wow!

      Simply tell him that there’s a huge difference between programming software as a market commodity for a broad target audience, and creating a personalized and very specific software/web app/website for just one customer.

      You can’t resell the work you do for him to other customers, so off course he will have to pay much more than he would have to pay for Microsoft Office.

      Dear Lord… People who expect hundreds or thousands of hours and then want to pay next to nothing are the worst. 🙁

  11. The poor communication and apologies can happen in both sides. It is a first sign of problematic client or worker. It happened with me too . That’s the reason I wish clients also must have a rating system so that developers can decide whom they can work with.

  12. YES!!!!

  13. I’ve been in business for a while and vetted prospective clients well. I’ve refered clients to other developers when I saw potential problems such as a personality clash.

    Lately I’ve had two semi-famous clients who’s total intention from the beginning I feel was to rip me off. Everything goes well right from the beginning and they are happy with the work. Then at the end they create this urgent deadline wanting to go live with the website immediately. I believe with the intention of using the website without making final payment.

    As soon as the website goes live they turn into a monster trying to scare me away. Telling me I completed a less than professional project and that I over charged them. However, they signed the agreement, agreeing to the price/terms and if it was so bad then why did they want it to go live and why are they now using the website. They saw my previous work with satisfied client recommendations.

    I knew better then to go live without payment first. But fell prey because they were so nice an amiable throuout the process. These types of clients must be sociopaths and will blind side you. What’s needed is to stick to the guidelines regardless of the urgency. Beware of overly nice clients who get too friendly.

    Clients must pay before a website goes live, no matter how much you think you trust them. Sometimes I wish developers could rate clients like our work is rated. Then we could check to see who’s a crook before working with them. I have a feeling these two clients have ripped off other developers as well.

    • This is a very useful article, and not only for website developers. There are also some very interesting stories in the comments, this page should last forever as we’ll learn from all your experiences and advices.

  14. “Can’t you make it look just like our leading competitor’s ten-year old website? But make it ‘pop?’ I don’t want to be any trouble, so just do all that really fast.”

  15. With some careful pre-screening, you can quote these “rock stars” a “rock star price.” In other words, add the extra hours and aggravation you expect them to require to your quote–you can always give them a surprise partial refund or add features if they behave.

    I can almost always spot a difficult client; they’re the ones who won’t take the time to review and sign the project agreement, and then they expect me to begin work without that. Nope. Either we review the agreement by phone or Skype and it gets signed and returned to me, or we can’t move forward. Reviewing the agreement in advance with the client prevents SO many problems.

  16. The dreaded committee, I deal with these a lot, even with an assigned captain it can still get out of hand. Sometimes it feels like being gang raped. Really working on moving away from designing for clients all together and creating online products or services. After 10 years of this I’m starting to get a tad bit tired, I spend more time managing people than working.

    • Mario, I am right there with you. When project management hours begin to exceed design and development it is drudgery and often a loss of profit. I’ve started selling stock, but the margins are very slim and payouts are slow. Let us know if you have success on a marketplace like Envato or Creative Market. I wish you the best.

  17. I deal with problem clients all the time. We first build a rapport with these individuals letting them see our grade of professionalism. They know the no matter how nasty they can be the only problem that can’t be remedied is a non payment. Lol

  18. The customers that do not respond in a timely matter or do not pay are “the best out of the worst”. The ones that contribute with pure negative energy – demanding work for free, threatening you and making everything to squeeze the last bit of your productivity… or else “we will send lawyers”. Avoid them like the plague. If you cannot get the chemistry up and running on a meeting – run away. If it’s a big-buck contract and you have a team of lawyers – different story – but if you are a dedicated 1-5 person shop, that really values their customers… RUN AWAY!

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