How I Survived the Client from Hell (And how you can stay clear of him too)

I love my work. Graphic design is my passion, my inspiration and my life. I’m constantly inspired by what I see other designers doing and hold my own work to equally high levels of standard and innovation. I value my clients and ensure that the professional relationship I cultivate with each one is at the highest level of trust and honesty.  I take pride in knowing that my clients are happy and often return with added projects.

[Update!] I got a phone call from a local business on Sept 14, 2015, informing me that we share the same client from hell.  He’s going around handing out my name and phone number, and a print-out of the complaint he filed against me to businesses who don’t give him what he wants. He’s telling people he ruined me. He’s aggressive, unreasonable and scary. If this behavour sounds familiar to you, please contact me so I can give you his name.  And contact the police. [/Update]

I am not a vindictive person and previously could not have imagined writing about an experience with a client, but there’s a need and responsibility to sound the alert when you’ve had the misfortune of working with someone who most people would want to stay away from in business. In the beginning there was no way of knowing that my client was a person of questionable scruples; if I’d had an inkling I would have run at top speed in the other direction. Nothing gave him away initially: He was charming of course, and even paid for coffee.

This is my account of how it all happened; names have been removed for obvious reasons.

The initial inquiry was short and to the point. He needed some prototype drawings. While I didn’t have much experience in that specific task, I’ve created technical drawings and understand what’s involved in that process. I agreed to meet him for coffee and review his proposal. He called himself an inventor and had an idea for a product that he planned to eventually sell through hardware stores.

The design work he wanted seemed easy enough. I saw the project as an opportunity to add to my skills base and knew that I was capable of meeting the challenge. Success in graphic design demands continual learning, a requirement that invigorates me and helps keep my work current. I understood what he wanted and knew where to find the tools I would need. And so I delved into the project with confidence and enthusiasm.

At our initial meeting, I informed him of my hourly rate and gave him an estimated number of hours for the task.  He okayed both. In reality the project would take me longer but I wanted the experience and was prepared to spend unpaid time doing the extra research.  I asked him what his time-frame was.  He didn’t have one.  Great, I thought.  I can work this around other projects.  I told him I had commitments that wouldn’t allow me to begin until the following week but I’d let him know when I started.  “It’s ok!” he said, “Don’t bother with that.”  Fine, I thought.  Easy-going guy, seems nice, perfect!

He gave me the measurements on a piece of paper as well as two very roughly-created prototypes.

And here is where I made a huge mistake.  The job seemed so straight-forward that I didn’t draw up a contract iterating the conditions we’d discussed.  I didn’t even email him a review of our conversation.  And I take full responsibility for that.  Dear freelance friends!  Please don’t ever forget to draw up a contract!

The project went smoothly. Because he had no time-frame I felt no pressure to rush, and instead took the time I needed to make sure the work was done correctly. His communication wasn’t great, but I got the information I needed and was able to deliver a product that met the specs he had asked for.

Within a couple of days I got a phone call from him. My renderings looked good, but now he needed a 3D designer, since his manufacturers had informed him that my 2D drawings weren’t what they required. 2D was what he’d initially asked for, and in any event, I don’t do 3D and had made that clear upfront.  As a newcomer to the city with few contacts of his own at that point, he asked me if I could recommend someone.

I have a very capable friend who I was happy to recommend. Meanwhile, my work had been completed so I prepared my invoice, for slightly more than the quoted amount due to some extra back-and-forth clarification on a number of details, including measurement changes he had made part-way through the project.

This is where the real trouble began.

I met with him so he could pay his invoice, and suddenly he had a string of problems.  Apparently I had taken too long, and was charging too much.  Apparently I had wasted weeks of his time.  Apparently I had told him it would take me only half as many hours as I very clearly remember quoting him originally.  Apparently I sent him too many emails, asking for redundant information. Apparently I didn’t know what I was doing.  And of course, I had no contract to back me up.

He wanted to pay me only 2/3 of the amount on my submitted invoice, claiming I was not worth my (reasonable and competitive) hourly rate. I’ll be honest–he caught me totally off guard. In the absence of a written contract, and wanting to smooth the situation over as quickly and cordially as possible, I agreed. In fact, I told him that if he felt unfairly dealt with he didn’t have to pay me at all. It was a small invoice to begin with, and wasn’t worth clashing over.

He opted to pay me the 2/3 and thanked me for the work. Still reeling from this sudden turn of events, I felt compelled to offer an apology for having failed to provide him with what he was looking for in a timely manner, and followed that with a promise to be available if he needed any changes made. Then we parted ways on civil terms. My heart was racing and my ego a bit dented, but I knew I would get over this in a day or two. I chalked the whole thing up to a valuable learning experience.

All still sounds manageable, right?

Two months went by.  In the meantime I’d been in contact with my friend to see how things were going and to warn him about my invoicing experience.  “Make sure you get paid.” I said.  He said the client was being demanding and a little hot-headed, but other than that, nothing unusual.

Then without warning I received the following erratic email from my client. (The spelling and grammatical errors are all attributable to him.)

Title: Scammed by —-

I am very mad, since I paid —- he is MIA. I know he is working on —– Island, if I knew his employer I would contact them. I don’t know if you were part of this scam and I can’t proof it but you are liable because you referred —- to me. He supposedly sent iges files to the manufactures but none of them could open the file. I can only assume he sent them blank files or files he knew they couldn’t open.

I paid him $300.00; he wasted my time and delayed my project by a month. If I don’t get back my $300.00 within 48 hrs I will be contacting your employer. If I have to I will go to the police.

I stared at my computer for a long moment, pondering what I’d gotten myself into. Alright, so I was being accused of scam involvement by a person who had actually scammed me by withholding money he owed to me.  How do I respond to this?  What an inflammatory, accusatory and menacing email.  I texted my friend, asking him to call me.  Turns out he was stunned by the accusation that he was ‘missing in action’. He said that, on the contrary, he’d notified the client beforehand that he would be offline for a couple of days while moving to his new home.

I squared my shoulders and responded to my disgruntled client:

Hi —-,

Wow, I had no idea you were having problems with —-. I recommended him because you needed a 3D designer in a pinch and he was the only person I know who does that sort of work.

I’m sure there has been a misunderstanding and I’m in the process of getting in touch with —- now to see what’s going on.

That being said, I’m extremely insulted that you think I’d have any involvement in a scam. Are you serious?

Caroline

Of course, I knew I wasn’t responsible for any work a recommendation doesn’t complete, and I also knew that my friend was not scamming him in any way.  File types are file types and they don’t open without the correct software.  Sometimes they don’t even open WITH the correct software. Design programs can be notoriously finicky.

What I was also beginning to realize was that I had an incredibly volatile guy on my hands and he was flying off the handle.

Ignoring my response completely, the client sent me another email the following day.

Hi Caroline, what is —-‘s cell phone number

I ignored it.

That afternoon my friend informed the client that he was cutting all ties and CC’d me on the email:

Hello —-,

I am disappointed and hurt to find out your thoughts towards both Caroline and myself in terms of work ethics. I would recommend that you do your research first and know that 2D and 3D modelling jobs do in fact take time. On top of this I did communicate with you that I am between houses and that internet was an issue. Please remember I was going above your original scope of the contract to try and get you a working format of an .IGES but in previous discussions mentioned that I was very limited in success. What you need to research is converting your *3D polygon models* into a *3D solids model*. This is not an impossible task to accomplish given time and patience as there is much troubleshooting required between two entirely different 3D programs. I am sorry if you feel that I have wasted your time but any other 3D modeler would be having the same issues.

I have attached several different formats of both the ——- and the ——- in the open and closed position with the addition of screenshots to show you that I am indeed holding my part of the bargain. There are many 3D programs that can open the .OBJ and .STL format which would include mainstream programs like Autodesk Maya, AutoCAD, Rhino 3D and 3DS max. I regret to inform you that I will not longer be of service to you as this abuse is something I do not need or care for. I hope you find what you are looking for in the 3D industry.

—- ——

I was also CC’d on the less than civil email my friend received from him:

So I had to get Caroline involved for you to get in touch with me, after all the emails I sent you.(low life) This shit is not 3D as I asked for. None of the manufacturers could open your file and if they could they would not be able to work with it. Actually it was one of the manufactures

that told me that I may be getting scammed. I couldn’t open the files to see for myself the drawing and if I could I would of told you strait up you don’t know what the fuck your doing bro.

I gave you 300.00, 75.00 of that was to make changes to Caroline drawings, did you do it accourse not. I am really mad and pissed off, you delayed my project by a month. You have 24hrs to make a email transfer to me in the amount of 300.00, If I don’t receive it, I will contact the police on ———– island and they will charge you and I will get my money back The police shouldn’t have a problem finding you, there is only three —-’s on the island

Wow.  At this point in the game I was getting concerned that my client was not entirely stable and knew where I lived (it’s also where I do freelance), and I was glad that my friend was tucked away on a nearby island.  Especially since my client had looked up how many people with the same name lived on said island. What else was this unbalanced person ‘investigating?’

While I was pondering how to respond to this without further fuelling an already menacing fire, I received this email from the client in reference to my friend.  This isn’t a snippet of the email, it’s the whole thing.  So professional!

don’t refer anyone else to this looser. He doesn’t even have the programs needed to make 3D drawing. I retained a company and they had the drawings done in 2 days cost 300.00

I turned to one of my co-workers who I know to be particularity diplomatic and asked him how to respond.  This is what I sent:

—-,

I don’t believe there is anything to be gained by further correspondence between us. Please refrain from contacting me in the future.

Caroline

And his response:

I am in this situation because of YOU and you should be proactive in getting my money back instead of running off and washing your hands of everything. You very well know that the so called 3D drawing —- did for me are incomprehensible. There are still issues with the drawing you did for me and I had paid —- in advance to fix them. He was supposed to get the files from you in order to make the changes but he decided to scam me again. Your attitude discusses me and for that reason I will be posting my experience I had with you with respect to the project on the internet.

At that point I took my collection of emails to the police and told them what was going on.  After examining the information they assured me that my client had no grounds to come after me for money he believed he was owed. I knew that already, but it was reassuring to have it confirmed.

I decided that I would not respond to any further communication.

He followed through with his threat.  I got an email less than a week later from a website dedicated to complaints, informing me that my client had written one about me.  I clicked the link, and read the complaint.  For $5 I was offered the option of responding.  With a little investigation I realized that he had spent $5 to post the original complaint.  I declined. The website boasted a “we get refunds” tagline, and looked like it had last been updated in 1994. It continued to threaten me with emails claiming that my potential clients were reading my bad review, so I unsubscribed from updates.

The following morning I woke up to an email from someone I did not recognize, referencing the complaint.  It accused me of “obnoxious behavior” and “Treating business owner like $#it” during my time in Cambodia. So the author of this email had done enough research on me to learn I’d worked in Phnom Penh (it’s written all over my website).  It was written in the same broken English you find in correspondences from Nigerian princes, and didn’t give me any specifics or details about our supposed working relationship.  And for someone who’s possession of the English language is so rudimentary, the writer sure had a grasp on swear words.  Who would do that without getting paid? Spam.

I laughed a little.  It seems my client had haplessly paid a spam site to list a complaint about me and get spammers to email me threats.  I’ve noticed my junk mail filter has been working overtime since the complaint, and I’m guessing my email has likely been sold to spamsters. Perhaps its the reason it got hacked last week?

So, he got scammed after all.

And I have learned a valuable lesson about working with people, dealing with confrontation, staying calm and cordial in uncomfortable situations, and all the while sticking to my principles. I managed to do all of that with increasing ease as my own resolve grew while dealing with this erratic client. In the end I did not give in to being provoked, verbally assaulted or threatened. I refuse to be intimidated by people like this, and no amount of bullying will make me cower. I love what I do and will continue to do it, (though never again without a written contract up front.) My skin is just a little bit thicker now.

Oh, and he still owes me $143.

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8 Comments

  1. Jenn Malone September 14, 2015 at 8:42 pm - Reply

    This is my literal nightmare. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that! You did the right thing.

  2. Marijn July 29, 2015 at 6:03 pm - Reply

    Oh man. Any client claiming to be in a “hopeless situation” due to a $300 deal that didn’t work is just… Bad news. Sorry man, good luck, bye bye. If you have a serious business idea you’re going to need proper funding, which obviously depends on the idea but a few hundreds bucks will basically buy you “ok i’ll boot my pc. What’s the budget for the next step?”

  3. Tari Donohue July 16, 2015 at 1:48 am - Reply

    Whoa – Sounds like someone who survives on drama – if he doesn’t have any trouble, he’ll make some. It’s always hurtful when a project goes sideways. I’m actually kind of gun-shy now and really internally vet my potential clients, because I want to continue to love my work. In fact, I’ve just quit communicating with someone who claims he ‘gets it’ but doesn’t practice anything he preaches. I’m inclined also to think there’s an emotional defect – or extreme AD&D – that keeps him from actually starting his business.

    There’s nothing to be regretted by moving on, if you do it in time. J

    tari

  4. Mike Killen July 15, 2015 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    Holy cow!

    That is absolutely mind-blowing. I myself had a rather close call resulting with a court case with a customer similar to yours. Maybe they’re related.

    I particularly like the customer’s bad grammar, spelling and over all ‘crazy-man’ vibe.

    If you’re interested, my post has similar emails

    http://sellyourservice.co.uk/how-to-teach-your-customers-how-to-write-blog-posts/?preview-replay

  5. Ray John Agregado July 15, 2015 at 5:40 pm - Reply

    I know what you’ve been through (cause we also had clients) like that. Main thing is that we just need to learn from these kinds of situation and avoid doing it again. Keep on moving forward 🙂

  6. raincoaster July 15, 2015 at 10:20 am - Reply

    You COULD, if you were being evil, reply to the spammer saying “I’ve changed my email to ClientEmail@whatever.com, please communicate with me there” and after sending it, mark the original as spam so you don’t get any more from that spammer…but the ex-client DOES.

  7. Christine July 15, 2015 at 5:30 am - Reply

    This is easily the worst nightmare client story I’ve ever heard of, at all, ever. I’d like to know what this guy’s product is so I don’t accidentally buy it one day. Sure puts every one of my freelance and full-time experiences of mild to extreme professional friction into proper perspective. Thanks for sharing; it’s not at all vindictive to do so. Catharsis is positive!

  8. M July 7, 2015 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    You are lucky to get away only being short by $143. In my own ‘nightmare-client’ experience I was hired away from well paid work with promise of more technically current and interesting work at a decent rate. As it turned out the company’s bank accounts were empty and I was left with $16,000 of unpaid invoices and looking for work.
    The best we can do is learn from our mistakes and move on.

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