Let's be honest. Clients can be a real pain. If you own a service business, you'll probably find that 99% of your clients are perfect. They don't ask for too much. You do the work asked of you, they pay their invoices and everyone is happy. For those people running product-based businesses, who don't need to interact with your customers very much - they buy your product, you send it to them and that's it - may have moved into a product-based business because you were fed up dealing with customers in your original business.

I work with hundreds of customers across various industries and the vast majority are lovely people who I am happy to speak to and help out where I can. There are the odd few that are difficult and when they crop up, I really do try and ditch them as fast as I can. The time, mental energy and shear frustration of having to deal with these people isn't worth it. I am a good few years into my business now and the income is steady so I can afford to ditch customers however if you're in the first few years, this may not be an option at the moment - paying the bills and keeping the lights on is probably your first priority and I understand that. I was there too a few years ago, hustling to bring in enough money to keep things going and build the business to a stage where I was able to generate a steady income and then, only then, was I able to be a bit more selective with who I worked with.

Three recent incidents with 'difficult' customers have been on my mind and I thought I would share the three short stories.

Client number one - the submarine

Lucy came to me in 2015 after a bad experience with her original web site designer. She wanted to move her existing site over to me to manage. We took on the hosting of the site with the long-term aim of building her a new one. The rebuild never took place but we've been happily keeping in contact and keeping the site up-to-date for her ever since. All was working fine and there was barely any communication - we were doing what we needed to and she was paying the invoices.

October 2019 rolls around and all of a sudden, Lucy stops paying her monthly invoice. No problem, these things happen and we sent a few friendly reminders. We received the odd response and phone message from a colleague apologising but saying that Lucy would get the payment to us soon. Five months later, still no payment and no responses to our reminders - Lucy had gone into stealth mode and disappeared.

I'd assumed that we had lost Lucy as a customer at this point and really (really!) wanted to send a direct, rude e-mail to her. I also considered getting a debt collection agency involved to recoup the outstanding payments but instead, I decided that I should write something a bit more professional. Here's what I wrote:

Hi Lucy,

How are you?

Unfortunately I still haven't heard back from you so we've had to shut down the site and hosting.

I'm going to close the other job relating to building the new site as well I'm afraid as we don't seem to be able to get a response from you and I don't want us to waste any more time on the project.

I hope you understand.

Kind regards

 

James

 

I left work, a bit annoyed and went home. That evening, I receive a response. Lucy's son has been ill so she's been off work for quite some time. She apologised, offeed to pay immediately and wanted to carry on with the new web site build.

Fortunately for me, I bit my tongue and didn't send the angry e-mail that I had wanted to. I took a breath, sent a polite message and managed to retain a good customer along with getting our outstanding invoices paid!

Client number two - the boomerang

Henry runs a small finance business and originally had an on-going monthly contract with me to build / maintain a web site for him, starting in 2014. In 2017, Henry had received a marketing call from Yell.com offering to build him a new web site. Henry called and asked for his web site, with me, to be cancelled. I was a bit annoyed that Henry wanted to leave as I knew how terrible the service with Yell could be. I've 'stolen' lots of their customers over the years who were fed up paying a lot of money and not receiving the service that they had expected or been promised.

Rather than showing my frustration to Henry, I said that it wasn't a problem and of course he's free to cancel at any time. I wished him luck but did say 'I don't want you to feel that I'm trying to hold on to you and of course there's no pressure to stay. If you want to get a web site with someone else I'll help you move everything over but I just feel that I should warn you about Yell. They are very expensive and their service is terrible. We've had lots of customers move over to us over the years because of this so please be careful'.

Henry understood and we parted ways amicably. I lost a customer but no big deal.

Fast forward to 2019. Henry is back on the phone. After two years with Yell, he wants out! He started the phone call a little sheepishly and reminded me of what I had said to him a few years ago. 'You told me that they were bad and expensive, and you were right. I should have listened to you. I'd like to move back to you.'

Please note, I'm not bragging here. Rather my point is that had I shouted down the phone to him or made moving away from me difficult, like lots of web designers do, I would have lost Henry (which I was going to do anyway) but in that scenario, there is no way he would have come back to me two years later. Now that Henry has 'seen the light', I imagine he will keep his web site with me forever. Being fair, being honest ensured that when Henry did have a bad experience, he came back to me and I retained a customer.
 

Client number three - the 'got caught with his pants down'

At the beginning of last year, I took over another web site design / hosting business from a guy looking to sell up and do something different. One customer, Brian, was just in the process of moving their existing site over to the company so the original owner of the hosting company, Steve, liaised with Brian to ensure a smooth move.

Shortly after the move of the site, Brian got in touch to request a quote for a new web site. We provided this, Brian agreed and I started building the site. As usual, I let Brian know my terms and conditions including, crucially that I ask for 50% deposit upfront with the final 50% being paid once the site is complete. If I can't come up with a draft design that he likes, he would receive a full refund. 

As normal, I put a draft design together, sent it to Brian and asked what he thought. He liked the design and agreed that he was happy to go ahead with the build of the site, based on that design.

Things were progressing well. I built the site, sent the link to Brian and he asked for a few minor changes. I adjusted the site, resent the link, Brian replied asking for a few more minor tweaks... this went on for a few weeks but all was going well and as I always want to make sure my customers end up with a site that they are really proud of, I'm happy to adhere to the requests.

After a few more adjustments, Brian said that he was going to take the site to a committee meeting to gather their thoughts and then would let me know if anything else needed changing. Excellent, I'm thinking, we're almost ready to go live and replace their current, non-mobile-friendly, odd, slow web site with something much more up-to-date!

A few weeks past and no message from Brian. I called or e-mailed every few weeks. Then every couple of months until after five months, I hadn't received a single reply so I stopped messaging and just let the new site where it was.

Five months after that, I finally get a response. It's not good news. Brian wrote that the committee were not happy with the site and have decided to start working with another design team.

Fury!

Brian clearly was happy with the design as he had approved it. He'd also asked for some minor adjustments here and there. The problem only seems to have occurred once the new site was shown to the committee. Somebody didn't like it and that's when things fell apart.

As you can imagine, contact with Brian is pretty non-existent so I can't be sure of the circumstance but I suspect that he did not have final say on the web site. I suspect the committee had the final say but Brian had gone ahead, without their permission, to proceed and then got himself into a bit of a hole.

As usual, I wanted to send an angry e-mail but calmer heads prevailed and I wrote an e-mail back saying that I was happy to adjust the web site (as I have been already), just let me know what they would like changing.

Again, no response.

Eventually I received an e-mail asking for their domain name to be released to them, presumably so that they could get this new web site online. 'Of course', I wrote. 'As soon as the final payment for the web site has been received, I'll release the domain to you.'

Brian wrote back essentially saying that they don't want the site any more so won't be paying the outstanding amount but they would like the domain. I replied, reminding Brian that as clearly stated in our initial e-mails which you had agreed to, final payment was due once the web site was built. As no other changes have been requested, I consider the site finished.

Further messages bounced back and forth until I had to take things to the next level.

First, I contacted Steve, the original owner of the web design business which I had bought earlier in the year. I explained the situation and said, to be honest, I wasn't worried about the money. If Brian is a friend of yours or this is going to cause you problems with your relationship with him, I'll drop it. It's not the money as such, rather it's the principal of the matter. He asked for a service, which I provided and well into the project and after months of not responding to me, he has changed him mind.

Steve agreed with me and so I said that I was going to contact a debt collection agency to try and retrieve the money owed.

Before doing so, I e-mailed Brian again and let him know what I was intending to do. If I hadn't received full payment within seven days, I'd contact a debt collection agency.

Seven days later, I receive a partial payment but we're still not quite there and I'm still chasing the remainder of the payment. I'll update you as things progress.

Out of the three clients I've mentioned above, the third one is the one that has annoyed me the most. With the first two, I was restrained and replied with fair, honest and polite messages. Both of which worked in my favour and I have retained two customers because of it. The third customer is lost no matter what and I've definitely burned bridges by going down the debt collection route however I think that it's the right thing to do. The customer is lost anyway and they will never recommend me to other people however none of that is because of my behaviour. They are just difficult people and I think my pursuing them, hopefully it will prevent other businesses that they deal with in the future ending up in a similar position. What do you think, am I doing the right thing?