Do you have tough clients?


There’s nothing that can take the wind out of your sails quite like toxic clients. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they all do one thing; make your blood pressure spike when they show up on caller ID. We touched on this in part five of our Relationship Marketing series.

Depending on what stage your business in, you may be thinking “ANY client is a good client if they are handing me a paycheck!” I understand this feeling. It takes courage and drive to start a business (good for you! You’re doing it! Look at you go!) and it can feel scary to turn down any work, even if it isn’t the right fit.

This is what I want to convince you of: Toxic Clients exist and can be more detrimental to your business than NOT having the client at all. Breathe out with me and let’s go on this journey together. 


1) They monopolize your time.
2)They put you in a position of subservience, making you an Order-Taker instead of the Expert.
3)They treat you with disrespect.

In order to understand and identify the toxic client, let’s take a moment to examine who is NOT a toxic client, and some helpful tips for choosing the right clients to work with. At Bema Creative, we have a variety of clients we work for. Budgets and scope of work range all over the board. But, they all have one thing in common: we love when they call. 


Our philosophy at Bema Creative is to always allow ourselves margin to support clients we believe in, even if they don’t have any budget at all. This includes non-profits, super cool ideas, churches, etc. If we have the resources and our values align, then we will take them on. A good baseline tool we use when deciding whether to onboard a project is making sure it hits two of these three requirements.

Is it fun?

Does it pay?

Is it good for our portfolio?

The goal is always building relationships and serving our clients in a way that aligns with our values and meets the true needs of our clients. 

The best way to do this is to avoid getting into business relationships with clients that hinder our ability to do this. Let’s circle back to characteristics of the Toxic Client.

1) They monopolize your time. Many clients can be Information Needy and feel like they take more of your time than they should. These folks are well-meaning and simply need some extra time to be educated and informed so they feel comfortable moving forward. If they also hit other TC (Toxic Client) qualifiers, you have a TC on your hands. But if they are generally well-meaning, respectful and sincere, simply take a deep breath, hold their hand a little and help provide the information they need to feel confident moving forward. 

Because your goal is to build long term relationships, the way you treat your clients now is the foundation of what you hope to be a long and happy business relationship. Be grateful that these folks are trusting you. The flipside of this is the Time Monopolizer: they think they are your only client and they make demands on you in a way that is disrespectful. If you let them, they will take the steering wheel and waste your time.

2) The next feature of a Toxic Client is this: they make you an Order-Taker. The goal of client relationships is for you to become the Strategic Partner. You are the expert, they trust you. They showed their genius in hiring you to do what you do best. It is from this position that the relationship thrives and work gets done. If a client is not willing to allow you to be onboarded as the Strategic Partner in the relationship then you will forever be an Order Taker. As Blair Enns says in his absolutely golden book The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, if this isn’t established in the beginning it probably won’t ever be established.

This isn’t about ego – it’s about having defined roles and functioning within them. The client must remain in control, to some degree, to ensure that the vision and needs of their company are validated in the project you’re delivering to them. They have a whole chain of bosses breathing down their neck back at HQ, or they are the boss and if it fails they feel the direct repercussions.

You need to remain in control of what you bring to the table in order to exercise your expertise and deliver the best service you can offer. This means having the boldness to push back on ideas that are bad, or not as effective as this other solution that’s in their blind spot. The bottom line is if you’re dedicated to delivering the best for your client, you have to maintain the position of Strategic Partner. 

If things go off the rails, even if you told your client 100 times why what they wanted wasn’t the right solution, but they insisted, the chance of it coming back to haunt you is pretty good. So not only did you lose control and not deliver the very best service, you risk burning the bridge with the client. On top of that, if they feel scorned, your reputation can be in danger. Functioning within your roles will ensure this doesn’t happen.

3) They treat you with disrespect. This one is easy to understand. They don’t allow you to do your job, they don’t value your time and they expect you to bend to their will. A respectful partnership is one where both people are treated with courtesy and allowed to function within their roles, as we discussed above. Being disrespected is easy to spot: it makes you feel small and it makes you resentful. Don’t let yourself be brought to their level by allowing this behavior to infect your business.

Now that we have defined a Toxic Client, you will be a pro at spotting them. The question now is: how do I avoid getting these types of clients and what do I do if I have them? Well, I’m glad you asked. 


1) Try to kill the deal early.

There is no point in wasting your time or theirs if your toxic radar is going off. We never want to treat anyone with disrespect or rudeness, so these tactics will help you both identify that it isn’t a right fit. Our goal, and I’ve said this to a room full of people, and one on one clients, is to kill the deal early. We don’t want any client we work with to feel tricked or strong-armed into working with us. We want to provide every opportunity to let them walk away with no guilt.

We do this a few ways. We ask lots of questions. If they bring a solution to us, say a website, we investigate and scrutinize why they think that’s the right solution. We do this respectfully, of course. We also ask them why they chose us; why not go with a free or cheaper option? It’s important for everyone to acknowledge exactly what cards are on the table. Johnathan Stark has an excellent approach to handling these kinds of conversations and I highly recommend reading his work.

2) Establish your intentions and procedures.

Then we want to let them know how we work and what they can expect. We explain each step in order to ensure the client understands the value of the process we follow and what it means in solving their problems. This way if there are ever any issues in the future, we can bring the conversation back to the processes we outlined with them. It also gives us the opportunity to make our intentions clear and introduce the Strategic Partnership dynamic. 

Make sure you check in with them as you go. Ask them, is a Strategic Partner something that can be supported with their existing infrastructure? A client who wants an order-taker will bristle when they realize they aren’t going to be able to simply tell you what to do and have you execute their demands.

3) Discuss price early.

Finally, talk about the dolla dolla bills early on. It’s unprofessional not to discuss this at the beginning and it can waste everyone’s time and energy. Ambiguity is a death rattle for business deals. It allows too much margin for misunderstandings and confusion to poison the relationship. That kind of margin will almost always be capitalized on by Toxic Clients. Now it shouldn’t be the first thing you discuss as soon as your cups of coffee hit the table, but the budget shouldn’t be omitted from the initial meeting or phone call. You value their time and their budget, so determining early on if you are a good match is best practice for everyone.

These three steps are initial checkpoints the prospective client is required to navigate in order to be onboarded. It might sound crazy to you to put any kind of barrier between the client and you. But taking these steps can identify and defer a Toxic Client from becoming a much larger problem for you and your team.

“But we need money!” you may be thinking. “We will do any crazy job to get it!” Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. But onboarding every person who walks through your door is not sustainable or safe for the long term health of your company. To function well, you need resources: time, energy and money. If you sacrifice the first two in order to get the third, you will stall out and waste your time chasing a paycheck while sacrificing your happiness and efficiency. It may even keep you from fulfilling the work you actually WANT to do.

Thanks for sticking with me as we explore this topic. For more helpful resources, Check out Chris Do with The Futur and Gary Vaynerchuk and their talks about business and entrepreneurship. These guys are gold.

There’s nothing like having your business, team, and good clients impacted by one Toxic Client.

Set boundaries.

Say no.

Give yourself and your business room to do the work you were meant to do with the clients that enable you to do it.