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Client Horror Stories

Sometimes, it’s okay to let go of a client: A story of how experience saved a businessman from a potential career disaster.

Sometimes, it’s okay to let go of a client: A story of how experience saved a businessman from a potential career disaster.

This article was based upon Episode #10: Paul Stephenson’s lesson about the importance of learning to let go before it’s too late, brought to you by Our Beloved Host, Morgan Friedman. Please watch the complete episode here!


“Now it seems that you suddenly have some really strong opinions on what we should do. So what’s changed?” – Paul Stephenson

If you’ve already worked in the business world for a while, you’ve probably encountered several different clients. These clients have distinct personalities, styles, and attitudes, which is why you can tell whether they are good or terrible clients from the first contact. 

With the possibility of everyone having to experience their worst client throughout their entire career. Maybe your worst clients have egoistic, prideful, or arrogant clients. Who would want to deal with self-centered clients who don’t listen to your expert advice right? Arrogance is even worse because they are all right all the time and don’t have a filter in their minds. 

Unfortunately for Paul Stephenson, he encountered a prideful and arrogant company that asked for his help. What’s worse is that this company was still new, and they had a huge ambition that seemed impossible to achieve at the pace they wanted. 

Here is the story of how Paul managed to handle his client, who was arrogant, ambitious, and always in a rush to achieve their goals without considering the process of how long it should take. Make sure to grab your pen and take down some notes, for there are a series of lessons on how Paul handled the situation and a bunch of red flags that you must take note of to avoid what Paul experienced.

To start the story, Paul has been running a consultancy company on the West Coast of Canada. His company is working primarily with software companies, helping them with digital marketing. Paul specializes in making paid advertising, SEO, blog posting, and other digital marketing strategies. 

Prior to that, Paul also has a designing and marketing agency in the UK, which he founded and ran for almost 13 years before selling it to his team back in 2016. Based on his background, Paul is already an experienced businessman, and he has been in the industry long enough to understand how it works. 

But, unlike his previous design and marketing agency, this consultancy company is not that busy. He only has two clients per year, and he was just working slowly at his own pace. However, even though he only has fewer clients than his other agency, Paul had a long-term relationship with these clients, and they already built a bond with them. 

Paul’s business was all about working and building long-term relationships with his clients. He dislikes short-term relationships because he believes that it takes more than a year to know someone completely. Most of his previous jobs took almost three to five years, and the longest one he had was nearly 13 years. So a long-term relationship suits his style, but little did he know that it was the reason for his client-horror story.

Because of his many long-term clients, he was so used to having excellent and respectful clients that the alarm bells for red flags had already turned off. Paul forgot the feeling of having a bad client until the day he met this client that we will feature in his story.

Paul recalled his past experiences dealing with terrible clients and categorized them into four groups: time, project scope, project management, and attitude. These were the issues that he mostly encountered with all the previous bad clients he had, but this new client is so special that Paul had to deal with all of these problems together. 

One day, Paul was referred by his friend to a small company that was still new to the business industry. The company is a software business less than 12 months old, and they were hoping that Paul could help them market their business. Paul was glad to help the company because he really liked working with small businesses. 

For him, helping a small company is not difficult since you directly work with the founder or CTO. Paul also loves the idea of creating a big impact on smaller businesses. Large companies make him feel like he is just a fraction of their success. Like he is only used, and after he’s done with work, he can freely leave. So he was really thrilled when a small company asked for his help. 

Paul and the small company started talking, but there was a communication barrier since they live in different time zones. This isn’t a big red flag or even a yellow flag because having a time difference has plenty of solutions, so Paul made some efforts to communicate with his client properly. 

Yellow Flag #1

The time difference wasn’t an issue. The main problem was how the small company talks to Paul. During their first conversation, the small company was in a hurry. This is the first yellow flag because if you genuinely need the person’s help, you should give your time and effort for your first meeting. 

In every meeting, you should be formal and show your respect because you were the one asking for help. You should be the one who is considerate because you are asking for their time, so the least you can do is to set a formal meeting. 

However, in Paul’s case, the client was rushing, and they only summarized what they wanted from Paul. Paul’s client told him that they are a small company composed of a small team from remote areas. 

“We have a big ambition of getting 7 figures within the first 12 months of our business and you are going to help us achieve it.” Paul immediately noticed that it was a yellow flag. Telling that to someone, specifically to the person that you asked help from, is like frankly telling them to work hard because you have high expectations. Now right after that yellow flag, the next that followed immediately turned into a red flag.

Red Flag # 1

Paul simply agreed to what the small company told him and asked their plan to achieve it. The small company replied, “We’re in a hurry, you can spell out your process.” All the small company cares about is getting many leads and customers to achieve 7 digits quickly. 

This is a red flag because, first of all, saying you’re in a hurry to someone means that you’re not interested in what they are going to say. Paul asked a crucial question on their ideas and plans to achieve their goals because he would need to know and understand these to fulfill such goals. But the small company merely told Paul that they were in a hurry. 

Because of that, Paul concluded that his client was still inexperienced and had unrealistic expectations. For business people, running in the industry for years, know that ups and downs exist when handling a business. There are always mistakes and learnings in your journey, and you can’t always expect to be successful. The small company also has unrealistic expectations because they don’t want to undergo the process but expect instant results.

Paul didn’t give his opinions yet. He simply agreed to the outcome of their meeting. But when Paul thought their first meeting was terrible enough, he was shocked by what happened next. The small company told Paul that they were having problems looking and retaining other digital marketers and contractors because all of the digital marketers they previously worked with gave them PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. 

They added that they want to look for a marketer who doesn’t suck and doesn’t stress them out. So basically, they wanted Paul to work hard for their high expectations. They needed Paul to follow everything they say so they won’t experience another trauma. This was basically their way of pressuring someone to work hard, which is not good. But Paul didn’t make a big deal out of it because he was willing to understand the small company. He laughed it out and continued listening to their terms.

They finished their first call, and Paul started working on the task that they gave. After a couple of days, Paul emailed the small company, requesting a second meeting to clear things out. Paul stated the date and time for their second meeting in his email, but Paul didn’t expect their reply. Paul received a response email saying they can’t schedule a time for him that week because they were too busy, but they’re free tonight, and Paul should immediately call them.

Red Flag # 2

If this ever happens to you, end your relationship with that client immediately. Saying that they are too busy for your concerns means they’re not cooperative and don’t respect you. Paul also has his own schedule, and he is also busy doing something else, he sacrificed some of his time so that they can talk, but the client told him that they were too busy. They even told Paul to call them right away because they aren’t busy during that time. 

That time, Paul felt like he was the one who was asking for help from the small company and not the other way around. He felt like he should be the one who will adjust to them when it was supposed to be the opposite. The small company hired Paul, so they were supposed to follow Paul’s process and schedule. 

Always work at your pace.

If someone tries to ask for your help, make sure to follow the process you’re used to. Don’t get me wrong, following what your client wants is still a priority. However, if it comes to a point where they are controlling, including your schedule, then that is a serious red flag. Your client should understand that you also have your things to do, and he is not your only client. If your client doesn’t respect boundaries, leave immediately. 

Paul had no choice but to continue his work. There was this one time where Paul shared a Trello board with his client to the small company. Listed on the boards were their project plan, the breakdown of what they will do, and the process for the next three months. The Trello was already in place, and all they had to do was open and read the board. 

But they told Paul to transfer all of the things he placed on Trello to their Monday project management software. Paul replied that it’s not necessary to move everything because everything is already in place in Trello. Still, the small company insisted on placing it on their project management software so that everyone on their team can view it.

Paul logged in to their Monday, but it took him almost 2 hours to figure out how the software works. The small company didn’t adjust to Paul even if the Trello that Paul created was already complete. They still wanted to place it on their software and let Paul figure out how their software works. 

Paul let it slip and continued working on the project. He already told the small company his schedule and what days he will work on the task. Paul told the small company that they could contact him for the rest of the week but can’t promise to give an instant reply to their emails because he has something else to do. Paul also has multiple clients, so he can’t be able to respond to an email. Paul thought they agreed to his terms and boundaries already, but every time Paul tells the small company about the engagements he has been working on, they give him feedback, saying they don’t like it and have already thought of something else. 

Paul felt like the small company was indirectly trying to say that if Paul had replied to the emails sooner, he would have known that they didn’t like it and already thought of other ways. 

There was this one time where Paul needed to finish a particular ad campaign setup, and he didn’t hear any comment or feedback coming from the client. Paul thought they liked the ad campaign he’s been working on because it was already the 9th day, and there was still no comment. But on the 10th day, the small company told Paul that they don’t want him to do that now because they already thought of something else. 

By the way, for those unfamiliar with the term “goal post,” it is a form of public relations and social media planning that is an effective way to organize your thoughts and prevent making simple errors. It’s also something you can finish in an hour or two, and it’ll save you time once you start putting the plan into action. 

Now, the small company wants to reposition the goalposts. When Paul and the small business discussed a specific channel to use for their market, the small company consented to the channels Paul requested. But after a week, they informed Paul that they would test this other channel instead. 

For instance, Paul recommended that they use Google search, LinkedIn, and Twitter for their channels. The small company told him they wanted to try Facebook and Instagram because they think there are more sales in those channels. Paul put effort into researching the channels and explained the pros and cons of the different platforms to the small company. 

Then all of a sudden, the small company wants to try other channels that are not on the list. Paul was a bit annoyed and told them that Facebook and Instagram are not ideal for small companies because it costs more money and time. Fortunately, the small company believed Paul and told him to disregard what they suggested and just push through with the channels that Paul researched. 

Learn how to voice out

Paul continued working on the channels, and yet again, Paul had enough of the client because they don’t follow Paul’s process. So he voiced out and said to the small company, “Do you remember the first conversation we had where you said that you know you admitted that you had complete ignorance of digital advertising and that you’d rely on my expertise. Now it seems that you suddenly have some really strong opinions on what we should do. So what’s changed?” Paul was curious why the small company is now acting like they know digital marketing and digital advertising, so he asked them upfront.

The small company replied that they had spoken to a friend who was also an entrepreneur in business and was selling a product completely different from what the small company is selling. Their friend is selling business-to-consumer products and what the small company is selling is business-to-business software, which is an entirely different thing. 

The small company told Paul that their friend is killing it on Facebook and Instagram, and his products have become famous on those channels. Paul was triggered when the small company told him that because Paul felt like he was being told, “We told you so!” The small company wanted to use Instagram and Facebook, and if only Paul listened to them, they would have succeeded like their friend. 

Another message that they indirectly want to tell Paul is to work harder. His friend’s digital marketer was successful in advertising their friend’s products. Why can’t Paul do the same? Paul replied calmly and asked them, “Do you sell the same products as your friend? Do you aim for the same set of customers?” 

Paul was trying to imply that the small company can’t compare their business from their friend’s because they sell software services to businesses, while their friend is selling business-customers products. How can they expect to become successful if they used Facebook and Instagram as their channel for selling their software services? Don’t you think that many people on Facebook or Instagram are interested in software?

The small company replied that if Paul still thinks that Facebook and Instagram aren’t a good channel for them, they will just hire their friend’s digital marketer because it seems like “he is better than you, and he is also way cheaper than your price.”

Paul was flabbergasted and didn’t say anything else besides “Yeah, go on then. Go ahead and fill your boots.” Paul ended the engagement with them, and it was the wisest thing to do.

It’s okay to let go of a project.

Even if Paul wanted to help this small company, their bad attitude greatly influenced ending their relationship. They were arrogant and ambitious, and it would have gotten worse for Paul if he continued working for them. It is okay to let go of a project, especially when you meet toxic clients who don’t respect your time, process, schedule, judgments, and boundaries. That just means that they don’t acknowledge your value, but instead, they see you as a worker who must do what they say.

Assess your client’s attitude.

Remember that bad behavior is linked to other bad behavior. If you can already see that they have a terrible or controlling attitude in your first meeting, then set your terms immediately or, if possible, decline your client. Some people do bad things because of certain situations, but you can clearly determine if they really have a bad attitude or just a bad day. Some even wear masks to hide their true colors, but if you are observant enough, you will know at first glance if that person is good or not.

This brings us to the end of our tale for this article. Paul’s decision to end the engagement was the best one he could have made since it allowed him to avoid a potential professional disaster. He would have lost control of his career and would try to make up for the faults he didn’t make. 

He’d be pushed to focus solely on that little business and ignore his other duties. Paul is fortunate in that he has prior business expertise. Even if they were indirectly sending him messages, he quickly pointed out his client’s attitude. This is great advice for aspiring and new professionals in the industry that they could use in the future. A successful career isn’t made with just a snap of a finger, so take these lessons to heart. They will surely come in handy when the time comes.


This article was based upon episode #10, please watch the complete episode here.