Lessons Learned From My First Unhappy Client

I realize it may not be the best business move to talk about a negative client experience, but I have always tried to share all I can about my journey through growth as a freelance designer as part of my own process as well as the hope that others can learn and grow alongside me. This week I ended a project with the first unhappy client I have had in over 15 years in this business, and as it turned somewhat ugly I decided to explore the situation, share it with others, and see what we can learn from it in an effort to keep anything like it from happening again. In this post I will do my best to share the facts of the situation as I understand them, as well as the impact it has had on me as a person and as a freelance web designer. It is not my intent to bash the other parties involved so I will refrain from identifying them, since the point of this writing is to process, learn and grow. Instead of focusing on who did what, I want to look at what happened and discover how to do things differently in the future.

Note: I have tried to condense this as much as possible, sticking only to relevant details. Even so, it is a very long story, but hopefully it will be worth the read.

In The Beginning

May 30 –  I received an email containing a brief introduction and description of what this client was looking for – she needed a custom WordPress theme for her existing blog as part of her business’ rebranding effort. Also a new Twitter profile background. She said I had been highly recommended to her by a mutual friend and client of mine. I called her, we talked about her project, and within the next few days she had sent me details of what she wanted and I had given her a written proposal and contract for the WordPress design.

The client’s $1,000 budget was 2/3 of my starting price for a custom WordPress theme, but due to the mutual friend we have and the relative simplicity of the project, I told her I would stretch my normal pricing to accommodate her budget. I made it clear in the proposal and contract that I would only provide a single mockup with two revisions to help keep the price down, rather than my standard three mockups with two revisions on the chosen mockup. I explained that very seldom do I actually ever have to create more than one mockup anyway because I pride myself in taking extra time in the beginning gathering information toward capturing my client’s vision for their website – most often I get pretty close with the first mockup.

June 3 – She and her husband reviewed the contract and proposal and were excited to get started. They were concerned with delaying the process by having to wait for their 50% deposit check and signed contract to me, so I told them I would trust that it was on the way and go ahead and get started within the next few days. They were ecstatic, and asked if I could possibly make some quick changes to their existing theme to tide them over until the new one was ready. Although this was not in our contract, I was happy to help out and said I would take a look, which I did the next day. Over the next few days we had several emails back and forth regarding their current blog and web hosting setup, in which I explained some of the additional things we would need to do to set up their new design.

June 7 – I received an email from the couple that said, “We love you…you are a hell of a guy, and we can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.” It was on this day that I emailed a response letting them know I would have a mockup for their review within 1-3 days. It was also on this day that we realized they had sent a check made payable to the wrong name, so they paid via Paypal instead.

The next day everything changed.

Warning Signs

June 8 – I sent an email letting them know their mockup was complete and ready for viewing on my server. I explained that they should give me their honest reaction because it’s important that they get the mockup they truly want, since there’s no turning back once it’s approved. I had created the mockup based on our discussions on the phone and via email, which is how I typically work, and I was excited to get their response.

About an hour later I received an email from the client: “I can’t believe how fast you work! Thought it was going to be a couple weeks!” She went on to explain what she liked and disliked. The biggest beef had to do with a misconception I had of a certain style that I thought prevailed in her descriptions of what she wanted. I misinterpreted “deco” as a key ingredient of the look and feel they were going for, when instead they wanted something “more modern and contemporary feeling”. She pointed out some specific elements she liked and said she would go into more detail later.

She ended with, “Just don’t do anything yet, especially if I only have two more chances to get it right! I want to find some examples and take a better look and let you know the things I like! Thank you so much for your quick work and all the help you’ve given so far. I’ll try to send some good examples to better direct you!”

I admit I was disappointed. I thought I had nailed the look but it was obvious I had made a mistake regarding the deco style. I responded explaining my mistake and said I would wait for more examples.

The next email I received later that day said, “The mockup has a definitive vintage slant to it and not the direction I was asking for. Perhaps we could consider this mockup a ‘trial’? I really do want to get it right within 3 tries, but I don’t want to run out of chances because of a miscommunication and something I hadn’t asked for. Even if you just sent me an email with a logo idea before doing an entire mock-up, that would help tremendously.

Honestly, it’s not that far off, mostly just a different font. Loved all the pink highlights, how the categories were placed etc…”

She expressed her concern with my schedule and my efforts to get their site done within the next week. She told me their blog was not an emergency at all, even though they had asked that I make changes to it right away. Still, we still seemed to be heading in the right direction.

June 9 – I responded with a long, detailed email explaining the process up to that point and my thoughts on some of the misunderstandings that were affecting this project. I recapped everything that had happened as I had seen it, and apologized for any miscommunications I may have made. I also made it clear that there is no such thing as a “trial mockup”. The time I had already spent designing their mockup was part of what they had paid for, and to start over would be outside of the scope of our contract, therefore costing extra. I explained next steps that would help keep us within the budget and ended the email with a paragraph that started, “Please let me know if any of this is confusing or if you have any questions.”

It was at this point that everything began heading downhill.

Her response took a different tone. I realize emails are infamous for their potential for misinterpretation, but obviously something went very wrong here.

“To first respond to your email I thought it would be best to forward the original list of requested items. I’d like to start over here. We don’t need any animosity running in either direction and I’m sure you would agree with that. I can assure you that I am not confused and do very clearly understand your process. I can accept the first mock-up as the first as opposed to a trial. I was trying to point out that what was done was something never requested so it really shouldn’t be on my dime. A fair request. But that’s ok, we’ll just move beyond that.”

She went on to reiterate many of the points she had already made previously, and ended with this:

“So, let’s please try to move on. I am an artist too. I understand being sensitive about your work, but really, the sarcasm is not necessary. (Please note the tone in my email compared to the tone I received back.) … I fully understand a first mock-up can be off course and I certainly don’t expect perfection, I just didn’t feel like my ideas had been heard…And please, if you have any questions, feel free to ask me.”

My response contained numerous apologies for any misinterpretations she may have had. I assured her I was not trying to be sarcastic, but that I was reading her email as suddenly defensive and angry. I expressed my confusion as to how we got there, and that I really hoped we could put this behind us and move forward.

Her next email started with, “It was just the constant assumption that I am misunderstanding you and being ‘confused’, I don’t understand the contract, etc. while I felt you hadn’t really heard what I had requested and went off your own feeling of the current blog … I’ve just never asked a client, to let me know if any of this is “confusing” unless I was trying to teach them quantum physics – they would kill me. I’m not confused, I promise and I understand your contract. I explained in my last email that it seemed unfair because the mock-up wasn’t what I asked for. It wasn’t because I didn’t understand the contract. I apologize if I took it the wrong way but I also hope you’ll try to understand why I feel this way.”

And I responded: “There are several things that I disagree with in your email but in the interest of the project I would like to just leave it at that and not try to take a stand for who was right or wrong anymore. Truthfully, unless it affects the final outcome of the project, your satisfaction, or the fulfillment of the contract, it is otherwise irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. I hope you can accept that and we can move on together. If not, I will be happy to refund your full deposit and there will be no hard feelings whatsoever.”

The last email of the day contained a detailed description and examples to better inform me of the client’s vision and desires for the blog. She also included a 9-point list of likes and dislikes of the mockup. “As I mentioned before, I like almost everything about it except for the deco style which includes header, subheaders, date etc. but I appreciate the details you added.”

Moving Things In A Positive Direction?

June 10 – It seemed we had turned a corner and were now moving toward a better understanding. I sent an early morning response with a few questions for clarification. I mentioned, “You asked for my honest feelings. The truth is, I am a bit gun-shy now, especially as I am writing this email. I am trying to be extremely careful with my words and stick to business. I don’t prefer to work that way, but it’s where we are and that’s fine. I’m just letting you know because you asked.”

I gave a proposition for next steps, including creating a header/logo ONLY for approval before constructing an entire mockup, and up to 3 more revisions on an approved mockup (tweaks, not new mockups). I said, “If at any point it seems that we are not connecting and/or the time spent is beginning to exceed or is seen as potentially exceeding the budget, we will communicate and make a decision whether or not to continue and what extra charges may be incurred. In essence, amendments to the original contract will be made and agreed upon, OR we will end the current agreement and, as the contract states, ‘work completed shall be billed at the [discounted] hourly rate of $60.00 an hour or 20% of the signing deposit, whichever is greater.’ Should the contract be terminated now or in the future before completion, I will not charge for the hours worked up to this point (06/10/2010 6:30am) since you feel I never should have done it in the first place.”

I thought I was being beyond fair, and forfeiting payment for the hours worked up to that point was disappointing, but I felt it was necessary because the client was unhappy with the work, regardless of what our contract stated. I finished the email with, “If this sounds fair and you agree, I will get started today. If you would rather not proceed, I will refund your deposit minus %20 and we’ll call it a day.”

A day or two after this, her husband called and we spoke for awhile on the phone. I think we both felt better after the talk and I recall feeling that we both genuinely liked each other. We ironed out the misinterpretations and miscommunications and I think we all felt good about moving forward.

June 13 – I received a very long email from the client with many more details and requirements for the next mockup. She ended with, “If some of the things I requested above are not included, please let me know, and let me know how much extra we’re talking, and I’ll likely decide to proceed with them.”

I sent a detailed response answering questions and explaining what could or could not be done. I said I would also send an itemized addendum to the contract so they could decide what they wanted to do or not do based on cost.

Her husband responded, asking, “What’s the addendum for? Are there some things that may cost extra? If so, which things and about how much, why, etc.? It may be easier for all of us to address it casually before sending us an addendum to the contract. Then you don’t have to go through the trouble of writing one up if we decide to hold off on one or some of them.”

My response the next day included: “The original proposal and contract was based on the original phone conversation and emails I received prior to 6/2/10. Since then we have had numerous email and phone conversations to clarify what is needed for your blog. The scope of the project has changed, and therefore an addendum needs to be agreed upon in order to continue insuring we are all on the same page.”

June 19 – A few days and emails later I explained the few main issues that could potentially add cost above and beyond the original agreement. I told them that I would prefer to just outline some specific conditions and if they agreed we would forego the addendum and just get to working. I didn’t want to go over their budget, even though I had already spent many hours beyond the original scope. At this point I was just trying to get a clear plan for moving forward and give them a design they were happy with, while simultaneously protecting myself from any further losses.

June 23 – In response to some further questions, I sent an email explaining very clearly how I was willing to proceed.

“I am willing to ‘start over’ and create a new mockup with the contingency that if I am ‘way off’ we will end my participation in the project and I will refund your deposit minus the hours worked on the mockup. Just so you know, that is usually anywhere from 4-8 hours, at the rate of $60 per hour.”

“As we agreed, I am forfeiting payment for all work done up to this point, so, all things considered, this plan for moving forward seems more than fair from my perspective. Best case scenario is that the next mockup is close to your vision and all of this is irrelevant anyway.”

Later that day the client responded:

“Just do it. Start. Good luck with it. We want to see beautiful work–that’s all that matters at this point.”

June 25 – I sent a link for the new mockup design to the client. At the same time I was preparing to relocate across the country, from Florida to Northern California. It was a crazy week. We changed our cell phone numbers to our new area code, so I was difficult to reach for a day or two until I had informed everyone. On June 28 the client and I communicated via email and made plans to talk. I didn’t hear from them again for 43 days.

Moving Downhill Again (and Slowly)

August 10 – I received an email from the client:

“Please let us know what’s going on with [our project]. I know [we] would like to discuss toning some things down—a lot has happened here since you [moved], and ideas crystallized more. It’s going to be subtle and a bit pared down, so we’d like to discuss details before you do any more work. We just would like to find out where you are with the whole thing.”

I replied 17 minutes later and suggested we talk on the phone, explaining my availability and times to call. I didn’t hear from them again for 23 days.

September 2 – I received another email requesting options for times to talk on the phone. I replied within 30 minutes and set up a time to talk that afternoon. He called a week later and asked that I resend the link to the latest mockup I had sent back in June. I resent it and he said we’d chat the next week. I didn’t hear from him until the end of the month.

It Hits The Fan

October 1 – We finally talked on the phone and I was informed that the client no longer wanted to move forward with the project. They had decided to have someone else finish it for them and they requested a refund of their deposit. I emailed them the last written agreement we had made on June 23rd, which stated that they would be refunded their deposit minus the hours worked on the most recent mockup. Although I spent well over 20 hours on this project from start to finish, I only spent 7.5 hours from the point of our last agreemen] on creating the newer mockup, so that is all I would be billing them for. That made the total payment $450, and they paid $500 on June 7, so their refund would be $50. The client replied that he would call me in 30-60 minutes. I didn’t hear from him again for over two weeks.

October 17 – I received an email explaining that they were very busy and would need to discuss this as soon as they were available. He continued:

“We really need to discuss this over the phone to iron it out. I understand your time is valuable, and so is ours. I also understand that all of the time and direction given to you yielded nothing resembling what we asked for. This need not be a battle over $500, but let’s discuss the principle of it when I return. You know as well as I do that a $50 refund is insulting and flies in the face of every discussion we had whether or not you choose to remember them.”

I apologized for any unintended insult, and suggested we rerain from any more emails since they seemed to be aggravating the situation. He replied agreeing, then proceeded to explain three points to substantiate why they should only pay me $175 for the time I spent, since they had nothing to show for their money. He said, “Sometimes it’s important to consider the old adage ‘the customer is always right.’  I’m willing to pay you $175 for your time spent, but to receive nothing I return.  It’s hurtful that you don’t see or appreciate the hours of work the two of us put into this project. And I am disappointed that so much time was spent to no avail.  So, if refunding us $325 via Pay Pal works for you, you won’t ever have to receive an email or phone call from me again.”

I suggested he read back through all of our emails (as outlined here) to see what we had agreed in writing. I told him that I completely disagreed with his justification that the customer is always right, because in this case he was blatantly incorrect. The service they paid for was performed, and although the results were now not to their liking, the services were still performed as agreed and therefore should be paid for as agreed. I pointed out, “Had you chosen to complete the project with me, you would have received a completely custom-designed WordPress theme valued at almost twice what you agreed to pay, and yet I never would have come back to you demanding payment above our agreement. I am simply asking that you give me the same respect and professionalism in return.” He didn’t call me again for almost a month.

November 15 – We talked on the phone for 81 minutes. The client offered to split the deposit in half, so that I could keep $250 and refund them $250. He felt that this was more than fair on their part since they had nothing to show for the money they had spent. I disagreed, pointing out that they had two mockups to show for it, one of which was free. I held firm to what we had agreed and offered to send him $50 via Paypal immediately. We went round and round in ccircles and I finally suggested that I would go back through every single email as well as seek the advice of a few outside parties to see if somehow I was in the wrong. I told him it was the best I could offer, and that I would get back to him in two days with either a new arrangement or else a reaffirmation of my standing. He suggested that this could be a stall tactic, but in the end he agreed.

I wrote a recap of our phone conversation in an effort to keep everything documented. I sent it to him via email and asked him to confirm that this is where we stand. He replied with an accusatory and abusive email, trying to convince me yet again that I was mistreating my customer and running my business poorly. He claimed we had several phone conversations where I had overridden our written agreement and offered to create the second mockup for free. I couldn’t believe it! I asked why I would ever consider doing that, since everything had been in writing and this would obviously be a huge risk on my part. He refused to back down and accused me of lying about our conversations. I asked him to please give me the two days I requested to reevaluate and we could talk then. Finally he stopped.

I spent the next two days very distraught. I was trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Why had this turned out this way. What could I learn from it? What would be the right way to bring it to a close? Should I refund only half of their deposit and take an even larger loss, or should I stand firm and do what we agreed upon. I talked to my dad, another freelance web developer, and friends, trying to get other viewpoints on the situation.

Bringing It To Conclusion

November 17 – I reached a decision. Everything I looked at and everyone I talked to supported my stance that I was doing everything within my legal and ethical boundaries by charging for the 7.5 hours I worked. So I sent the clients an email explaining this, apologized for how things had played out, and wished them the best. I also sent a Paypal refund for $50 and I sent them the editable files for both mockups, so they would at least have something to show for their expense, even though they didn’t like them.

Almost immediately I received an angry email:

“These files are worthless as we told you the work was not acceptable. Is this how you make a living by tricking people into believing you are actually listening but throw out the same schlock time after time and then keep their deposit? It is absolutely appalling! You have been nothing but rude since day one except for the first phone call we had.

“You have just pocketed $500 with NO proof whatsoever for your time spent. We have no invoice or breakdown-it is all made up to line your pocket. And everyone we have spoken to has called the work laughable and obvious that very little time has been spent. Obvious! We all know you DID NOT put 8 hrs into that ridiculous example. You may have put in a couple hrs at most. We want a refund for the excess you are trying to charge- it is VERY easy to prove that you did not spend that much time on it. Bad business does not pay off Brian! Cheating people does not either! Deceptive business practices always come back to you like bad karma.”

They then proceeded to express their anger on Twitter, calling me a thief, sexist, a liar, and a laughable designer. They said they would like to see me get beat up. Slowly. On videotape. They said I was a total jerk and could care less. They warned others to stay away from me and that I had pocketed their $500 without doing any work.

I was appalled. I was hurt. I was disappointed. I did my best to refrain from responding publicly and I am now trying to move on. I’m trying to learn from my mistakes and figure out what to do or not do in the future. Here’s some of what I’ve come up with.

Lessons I’ve Learned

Although I try to be flexible when working with restrictive budgets, especially for small businesses and non-profits that can’t typically afford as much, I will think long and hard before working for lower than my standard rates. I am beginning to think it is too risky and that some will see my willingness to discount my services as a devaluing of my work. That will never end well.

I will stick to my contract. Period. It has never failed me before and it is the best way to maintain a legitimate working relationship. I am not a retail store that can accept exchanges and returns without blinking an eye. I am a service business, and must operate as such.

I will not change my approach of believing the best and trusting people until proven otherwise. I just can’t bring myself to do it. I do believe that at the core every human being is a good person, and to operate otherwise would change me as a person in a way I refuse to accept. I will not choose to live my life as a cynic. I may get burned again, but I have far too many more positive experiences to allow one to change who I am.

Your Thoughts

Part of my process in working through difficult situations is to write about it, as I have done here. Another is to ask for the input of others so I can learn from their viewpoints. I would greatly appreciate your insight and experiences that may help me and others who are reading this grow and learn how to do things better. Please share with us in the comments below.

And thank you for taking the time to read this. If you have made it this far I am truly grateful for your time. I realize this is probably one of the longest blog posts in existence, but I didn’t see any way to make it shorter and still maintain the integrity of the story. Thank you for bearing with me and taking your valuable time to share in this with me. I am always honored by anyone who cares enough to join in my experience. I am happy to share this with you. And I hope that somehow my hard time will help you avoid experiencing your own. Thank you.

  • After reading this, I understand that as a freelancer, sticking with the contract is one of the way to prevent incident like this. Sometimes it is hard to communicate the importance of contract to the clients. They don’t understand how the design industry works and yet they assume and believe what other people have said. This is a great post. Pardon for my ability to write in English.

    • Your English was fine, Sayz. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  • The first thing I want to say is thank you for sharing the story. Knowing you, I believe that you are a professional.

    I agree that you should never go down on your rates. In a way it is a filter for people that are going to waste your time.

    They obviously did not appreciate that you were being flexible in the first place. If they had a design they wanted in mind that they were unable to communicate effectively. Sounds like they should have hired a mind reader first then talked to you.

    Their anger is beyond ridiculous. Taking it to a personal level is beyond immature. The time invested to tweet, and create a video is just dumb. They could have been working on their blog and improving their own business not making a fool of themselves.

    You have a strong supportive community that isn’t going to waver for people that wants a mind reader, doesn’t want to pay and takes things so personally.

    The story is painful, and surprising.

    Never the less. I know that life goes on and everything will turn out to be okay.

    • Thank you for your encouragement, Lyndi. It is helpful to be reminded that those who know me know what kind of person and professional I am.

  • Brian,

    That sucks, and I am sorry you had to go through it. Having been on the other side of this, as your client, I can vouch for your clear communication, willingness to listen and overall professional integrity.

    But the truth is that people are damaged goods, and sometimes their junk leaks out and gets all over you. It’s just the way it is. And when that happens there is no use trying to apply reason and clarity to the situation – it won’t help.

    All you can do is walk uprightly, being true to your standards and values. When the crazy comes, which it will occasionally, then you check yourself to see that you acted in the ways you believe to be right and then just move on. You can only be responsible for 1/2 of any relationship, whether business or personal. And yes, the contract is important and this is why.

    I look forward to working with you again in the future – still saving my pennies! 🙂

    • Thank you, Hilary – I appreciate your support and it’s definitely good to hear from a satisfied client at this moment. You bring up good points. Someone else told me this is probably not as much about me as it is about other things they might be going through or baggage they may carry. I want and am trying to believe that. If that is the case, I am sorry for them. I don’t wish unhappiness on anyone.

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  • Susie

    Ahhh, Brian…so sorry you had to walk through this. You have handled the situation admirably, and all I can offer is that sometimes you deal with people who, no matter what you do, you are not going to make them happy. In addition to not being happy, these guys sound just a wee bit unbalanced too. Put this behind you with the lessons learned mentioned above, and DO focus on all of the positive you have received to this point. All of that pretty much negates this one experience. Love you, friend…

    • Thank you, Susie. I’m so grateful for friends like you! 🙂

  • Tracey

    You poor guy. If anything you were too nice and over explained things to the client every step of the way. I agree with you your lessons learned: in the future, never stray from your original contract. Do not make concessions and avoid cheap clients. Only work for what you are worth and what you need to charge.

    In my almost five years as a small design agency owner I have never worked with a cheap client that wasn’t just a total pain in the butt.

    And on a side note, their rants on twitter are considered slander, you could potentially take them to court if it damaged your business.

    Best to you!

    • Thank you. I admit to being too flexible in the past, but this is the first time it has come back to haunt me. Hopefully I will truly learn this lesson. And yes, I have already saved all of their Twitter abuse just in case I need it in the future. Hopefully, though, we can all just move on.

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  • I was shocked by reading your story, Brian. I think it’s a good move to write a post about it, get it out in the open.
    15 years of freelancing, that’s impressive and even more that you only had the one bad client.

    • Thanks Paul. I’m realizing that I have been very lucky to have been going at it this long, especially for this to be the first really bad experience. It also reveals how old I am. 😉

  • Ugh – These kinds of stories are terrifying! Definitely thanks for sharing – what jerks. I’m so thankful that *** so far *** the photo clients attracted to me have been super awesome. Thank you for a concrete example of why we should have standards for clients beyond just someone who is willing to pay for our services. And why we we should never compete on price – I do appreciate hearing these experiences so I can try my best to avoid similar situations.

    • Thank you – I’m glad it is helpful. That’s really what I’m hoping most to come out of this: a learning experience for us all.

  • janice

    Wow just read your story and i had a very similar thing happen.
    The client gave few details for the design and then didn’t respond for weeks at a time. The whole project somehow got turned around to be fault for exceeding the deadline as the client was adamant the project be finished and live for a specific date. That was two years ago and the site still isn’t live, the client has told me twice already this year they will be launching the site ‘soon’:-/
    It’s difficult because you want to provide good customer experience but can end up feeling that you’ve caused the bad situation.
    Well done for sticking to your guns though.

    • Ouch. Sorry to hear about your experience. Thank you for your encouragement.

  • David Young

    I think you did everything that any reasonable business person would do, and that nothing short of refunding their full deposit was going to make them happy. I’m sure, had you agreed to the $250 split, they still would have spread negative comments about you, your work, and their experience. There will always be times where it’s better to just fire the client.

    I think the lessons you’ve learned from this experience are exactly the right ones. Never devalue your work. Be wary of prospective clients seeking your services via a mutual friend. Stick to your contract and written addenda.

    I wish you the best of luck going forward, and were I you, I would walk away from this with a clear conscience, knowing I did everything within my power that was fair and honest. You have no reason to feel you could have done anything different, at least not from what you’ve presented here. 🙂

    • Thank you David. I tried my best to just present the relevant facts by going through everything I have in writing. Some of it still shocks me when I read through it all. Hopefully I have given as objective a presentation as possible.

      • David Young

        I believe it was plenty objective. And, I think we all have those clients that we look back on with shock and amazement at how things went so far south.

        I’ll offer this silver lining for you, though. Whenever you feel shocked, just try to remember it can always be worse…I’m thinking the GAP logo redesign, release and revocation issue of a month or so ago. 🙂

  • Caroline

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m going into freelancing in January and this was exactly was I needed to read. Unfortunately you will encounter people like this from time to time. Just don’t let them get you down, because if you do, they win. Thanks again!

    • Excellent! Hopefully my mistakes can be helpful as you head out into the wonderful world of freelancing. Enjoy it!

  • Whoa…resorting to such hateful words over a website design? C’mon!
    No matter how many analogies I try to come up with it seems impossible to explain to design clients that they are paying for your time and effort–even if they don’t like it in the end, you still did honest work, and they still signed a contract.

    Many clients fail to realize that they say a reference word like “deco” and not even know what it truly means. I think you took the right steps in trying to squash irrelevant ranting matters in order to move forward with their design.

    Sometimes they want to control how everything is handled, what’s considered “pay-worthy” work, but if they don’t like your style then why hire you in the first place?

    • I thought it was really interesting that they seemed to like my work right up until they decided to go elsewhere. All along the way it kept sounding like we were just “a little off” and very close to what they wanted, then suddenly I was told I had ignored everything they said and created a design that was nothing like what they wanted. It was really confusing to me. Ah well. Live and learn, eh? Thanks for your comment, Melody.

  • Barb Morgen

    The issue here is not did you do the legal thing (you did) but did you do the right thing for business. The problem is that unfortunately, arguing over principle has cost you valuable time, emotional toll AND the cost of social media “negative talk,” however wrong or unfair — I think it would have been in your best interest for BUSINESS to have caved to the 50/50 split. I know, I know — they are being bullies and that should not be rewarded — but sometimes you can win the battle and lose the war — losing ground for your business.

    • Thanks for providing an alternative viewpoint! I really did consider doing just what you said, but when I weighed the pros and cons it just didn’t seem to make the most sense. Of course, if they really make an effort to destroy my business then maybe I made a mistake, but I still believe they are good people at the core and trying to do what they believe was right. I would be really surprised if it got to the point of serious attack. But I am grateful for your thoughts about a different solution – thank you!

  • Thanks for sharing your story. Sometimes stupid people don’t realize they are stupid and take out their stupidity on others. Sounds like you were taken for a ride in their stupid-mobile. I doubt these people would be happy with anything anyone did and whoever they hire for anything is almost always glad to get that client out of their hair.

    • You made me laugh with the “stupid-mobile”. 🙂 But I really don’t think they’re stupid. Just maybe had something else happen in the past that this situation brought to the forefront or raised old struggles or frustrations. Whatever the case, I have to admit that I still actually like them as people, and I don’t want to call them names or even call them out. I’m trying my best to be sympathetic and understanding, while finding ways to make it a positive experience and learn.

  • Aleta Richardson

    Wow Brian! I don’t believe you did anything wrong. Documentation is always the best too! Clearly they were upset because they tried to get one over on you! Your poise was perfect and I believe you handled it well. Kudos to you! People will always have something to say and what we do with it will be on us. Like you said, “Lesson learned.”

    • Thank you Aleta. I appreciate your encouragement & support.

  • I have to agree with Sara Thacker:

    “Sometimes stupid people don’t realize they are stupid and take out their stupidity on others. Sounds like you were taken for a ride in their stupid-mobile.”

    I’ve had a similar horrible HORRIBLE experience to yours, Brian, where the client became irrational and unreasonable regardless of the relevant facts presented. I never changed my tone, or became angry. It’s my belief that my remaining calm only exacerbated their anger and irrational behavior and as a result I was perceived as being condescending and shady.

    I concluded by agreeing upon payment, which favored the client. I simply wanted to move on and away from the stupidity and negativity. In the end, I believed I was scammed, and that the client’s behavior was the normal mode of operation.

    The lesson learned:
    You can’t reason with stupid people. Learn the signs and refuse to take them on as clients.

    • I’m hoping I can learn to see the signs. Thank you.

  • Hey Brian,

    This story of yours is sad, but unfortunately it happens to the best of us. I too have had bad experiences with clients that I learned a lot from. Just to let you know, that I think you are a very talented designer, great friend, and extremely professional.

    Now let’s take a look at what went wrong in my eyes. Things that I would never do that you did.

    Fix client’s old site without PAY. I would never do any work that is not being paid for because people take your niceness as something that they can take advantage of.

    Offering discount just because they came through a friend is another thing I would never do. Why? Because often when they come through a friend, they are already expecting 15k quality work for 1500. So by offering to do their site for $1000 is not ideal in my experience.

    Third, I clearly state in my contract the end date unless both parties agrees on the extension. So I would never carry a contract for this many days. Usually my contract states that if the client halt works and let the contract expire, they forfeit the entire deposit. I think you spend more hours answering emails and phone calls rather than designing their site (Correct me if I am wrong on that).

    I learned these lessons the hard way from previous douche bag clients who thought that they could take advantage of me because I was 15 years old at the time.

    Now I make certain, that they sign the contract, so they could not make ridiculous claims.

    • Great points all around, Syed. You are truly amazing to possess such wisdom at such a young age. I am in awe of you.

  • Scott Slater

    What a wild story. Conflict and resolution is part of every business but it is unnecessarily exacerbated when there are unreasonable people involved. It is incredible and to your credit that you stayed as professional as you did. I think you did the right thing legally and I think you did the right thing for your business. At a quick glance, your phone call and email time alone made up more than $250. There are some people that you just cant ever win with. It is not your fault. I am sure it is particularly painful when you are as good at communicating with your clients as you are. Your track record is amazing and your integrity in business is well established. My hat is off to you for being so considerate and contemplative regarding the whole thing and my encouragement would be for you to quickly put it behind you and move on to more great projects.

    • Trying to move on, Scott. Writing this has helped me process and the amazing comments have aided even more. Thanks!

  • Brian,
    Being a real fan of your work and design I was not shocked at all when I read their tweets about you. Because I knew they did not know the real Brian we all know.
    Please just keep this thing in your mind: You are the best!

    You stand as a professional in your behavior with them! you acted as any professional would have. Don’t regret. The only thing that you need to do is to put this far behind you and move on with more beautiful and great projects.

    Smile! Brian. Smile!

    PS: hey I have 50$ would you do some for me? LooooooL j/k

    • LOL! You cracked me up with your PS!!! Thank you for your flattering words – you are very kind.

  • Brian, that is one crazy-ass story and those people are NUTS!
    It sucks that you had to live through this but the truth is that other professionals would never listen to such ludicrous public rants and slanderous accusations.. and yes, I agree that clients who ask you to reduce reasonable rates are sending red flags.
    Good luck and stand strong! you ROCK!

  • Brian, that totally sucks. You were totally in the right and I’m so sorry you had to jump through such hoops to deal with these kind of people. Some people will try to nickel and dime you out of every cent. I’ve been there before, and it’s such a horrible and demoralizing situation to have to deal with. But the lessons you’ve gotten out of it are necessary. Especially the fact that you should never become a cynic! You know that clients come and go and in the grand scheme of things, this is just a small bump in the road 🙂

    • Thank you, Sarah. Now stepping quickly over that bump in the road and moving on to bigger and better things. 😉

  • Keith

    Why does this couple appear to me in my head as the couple that lived next door to the Grizwolds in Christmas Vacation? Kinda making me laugh. Anyway B. My stance has not changed from the other night over cocktails. You did the right thing, you can know in your mind that your ethics, morals and business practices are all sound and solid, and you are probably even better for it. KB.

    • Hehe…great visual, Keith. Thanks – as always – for your support, my friend.

  • Joseph

    I wish the contractors Denise and I have dealt with were as upfront, consistently reachable and communicative as you were with these people. Sounds to me like you did every last thing you could to help them, but something happened on their end that turned them to the dark side somewhere along the way. After the huge chunks of money we’ve lost with contractors, I’m glad you were at least able to walk away with money for some of the work you did. I guess the thing I hope you can improve on by putting this on your blog — especially with the input of folks in your same line of work — is to find ways to minimize all the time and emotionally draining energy that you might spend trying to make things right with folks once they become impossible to please. I’m not in a line of work even remotely like yours and I have no mind for business, so I’m hoping some fellow business folk might have some tried-and-true practices along the lines of maybe something in your contract that says “If A, B and C happen, we will proceed to termination of the contract in this manner . . . ” so you don’t have to decide on whether or not to keep working with a increasingly unhappy client without some already established exit procedure in the contract. Yes. I think you should stick to your contract. Period. Every time. Especially with friends, family, etc. Kevin and Jason have told me that almost every time they help somebody out by giving them a break, their friend/client/charity case ends up getting upset and feeling like he got mediocre work, got cheated or that they didn’t deliver what they had promised. They told me that they’ve found they need to do their work in one of two ways: Full rate with no favors thrown in or absolutely free. Giving some people breaks makes them start trying to take you for all they can.

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  • WOW! That’s all I can say. You’re right in saying that you should never work below what is your normal standard…the client still expects the same work/amount of work for a budget site as they would get for a custom high-end site. Obviously, this client has no clue or respect for how much time it takes to provide a professional mockup. I can understand how you still wanted to deliver a site they would love even after the rough start…but honestly, you should count yourself lucky to not to have had to endure the full project with them. It totally sucks that you had to constantly defend yourself to get paid for at least some of the work you did just to save face. You deserve at LEAST the full $500 deposit for what you had to deal with. The way they handled themselves on Twitter by public ally bashing you just shows how unprofessional and wrong they are. Thank you, Brian, for sharing your story with us!

    • Thanks for your comment, Kim. Part of the reason I try so hard to explain the process along the way is because I realize most people/businesses don’t know what the process entails. I think that’s where a lot of disconnect happens, and this case was no exception. Unfortunately my explaining hit a nerve somehow and came across as condescending. That probably should have been my first clue…

  • Thanks sharing this really long post.

    I can totally relate with it. As a matter of fact as I read this I had nightmarish flashbacks ok a client like this.

    I also have changed my rates and seeded throughout proposals now because of these kinds of clients. They always think a website is easy and can be done in two hours or
    $100 at best. “my cousins beat friend can”.

    Again, thanks.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. 🙂

  • Very well written article. I recently had a similar situation, which worked out much better, fortunately, but I can certainly relate. It’s always hard when you’re working with someone who doesn’t understand what you do. I would like to see them have someone tell them the light they made didn’t meet their needs and they don’t want to pay for it, but would like to keep it. I think they would see things in a different light (ha).

    Also, you never billed for the vast amount of time you spent dealing with them. That time is valuable too, and time you could have used to work.

    • I think the part that’s hard about your suggestion of their response to someone telling them the light they made didn’t meet their needs is that it’s a product and there is a difference between a retail transaction and a service. That seemed to be a hard concept for them to grasp in this and is part of the root of the issue. Thanks for your insight though! 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing. I don’t have many projects under my belt yet so I’ll remember this when my first bad client comes around. Seems like you did everything in your power to communicate effectively. I like Google’s mantra, “Don’t be evil.” These people clearly are. Spewing all that hate over, ultimately, 200 bucks. She’s no kind of artist if she wasn’t able to see the value in the time you spent. Sorry you had to go through it but I guess it’s a helpful lesson in the end. For all of us that read the world’s longest blog post. =P

    • Hehe…I admit I am pleasantly surprised that so many took the time to read this “world’s longest blog post” but I am grateful you and they have. It has been helpful to hear about and learn from others in this process! Thank you!

  • Amber

    I understand exactly what you went through. I had a similar issue myself. Though I’m not a full-time freelancer (have a full-time job), my client wanted to bad mouth me to my owners of the company I worked for. He wanted to seek legal action against me. Definitely a bad situation that I learned a lot from.

    • I guess that’s how we learn the most, huh? Through hard situations. Not what I would choose, but choosing to find what we can learn from it is, I think, the best first step.

  • Thanks for sharing, Brian.

    I’m in the process of writing about my own unhappy client experience and resigning the project. (Though my client is not nearly so disagreeable as your fab couple!) Both our projects share these similarities:

    • we both offered a scaled down project model to be budget-friendly. Sure, this is recommended—don’t lower your rates, trim services—but, apparently it created an anxiety in our clients about fewer iterations or ‘chances’ to get it right.

    • both clients offered us examples, and verbal descriptions, etc. We thought these were good signs. But maybe not. Perhaps as designers, the things we’re trained to understand/know about (fonts, stylistic periods, color theory, etc.) simply aren’t interpreted the same way without such a background? Maybe having less specific style information from clients is better? For instance, less about ‘deco’, ‘retro’, ‘grunge’ and more input along the lines of ‘elegant’, ‘offbeat’, ‘urban’?

    Don’t know. I’m just thinking out loud. Like you, I’m stunned. And also—using my contract. You just never know when that contract is going to be your best friend. 😉

    Keep up the good work, Brian!

    • Thank you, Catherine. I think looking for ways to improve our communication with clients and find a common vocabulary, as well as recognizing and addressing when we are speaking “different languages” is a great goal to strive for. It seems the disconnect happens often and creates potential for all sorts of problems.

  • ben

    Thats a bomber. I try not to work with clients that micromanage the project for you, because those sort of clients dont really want you to think up the ideas, they want you to inact their ideas.

  • Brian,

    sorry to hear this has happened to you. I read your blog regularly and everything I read indicates to me that you are a stand up person. I’ve gone through a couple bad client experiences and each time its occurred, I’ve noticed they’ve tried to bargain me down from my price, they’ve complained and have been hard to reach.

    Moral of the story: Don’t work with people who aren’t willing to pay you what you’re worth and aren’t willing to communicate.


    • Great points, Taylor, and I am honored that you read my ramblings regularly. 🙂 It means a lot!

  • Brian thank you for this. This is a inspiration to all creatives alike. We are service people, and we have a heart as artist, developers, etc. And some people think we are a mere fast food franchise or something. We take our work serious, and put all our heart into it. And even discounting or doing pro-bono work is a mere expression of consideration, some clients see that as an advantage. It’s almost like they abuse the nice people? But as you said, we can’t let it change us. And we also can’t stop being nice either. Thanks again Brian.


    • Thanks Aman – I appreciate your positive spirit and input. This has been one of the hardest things for me, because I really want to believe the best of people and things like this can make us bitter. So far, though, I am going to continue to strive for optimism and trust.

  • Wow!! That’s so awful that you had endure that! And over a span of 5 mos.?!?

    However, I think you were more than fair and reasonable with them. From the sound of things, they had no clue of what they wanted and were taking advantage of you.

    Have you thought of going after them with slander and libel for posting/tweeting/blogging about your business?

    One of the things I’ve learned is to ask a client if they’ve worked with any other freelancers prior to potentially working with you. I think it gives a good sense on how to handle a client knowing a little bit of their background in this aspect 🙂

    I feel sorry for the designer after you…:P

    On a lighter note, I believe in a “rational and sane customer is always right!”

    Keep up the great work!!

    • Thank you. I am not one to get involved in suing people or attacking them, regardless of what they say about or do to me. I don’t see anyone winning from that. That’s why I refrained from following their lead and trying to publicly discredit them. I think it’s a better path to try to learn what we can from difficult situations and leave the attacking to those who choose to take that path.

      I like your clarification of “rational and sane” customers being always right. Very funny – but true! 😉

      • A good man takes the high road!!

        I wish some clients(in general) would 🙂
        They just don’t know the benefits they could get!

  • Thank you for sharing the story. I’m just starting working as a freelancer and your story will help me to be alert. I think you deserved to get pay for your work.

    Good luck.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing, Rene.

  • Tom

    Hi Brian,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story. Myself, as a starting freelance designer, often struggle with agreements, contracts and doing more work than initially requested, just to keep the client happy. this often results in way more hours of labour than I charge the client for. Your story has been very helpful for me in order to avoid such a situation in the future. Now I see that a solid contract is indeed important and that (spoken) agreements based on trust will get you into trouble. thanks again for sharing.

    Best regards, Tom (@TomInc)

  • Denise

    Brian, thanks very much for sharing this story. Those people were way out of line and I’m sorry you had to go through all of that. Kudos to you for standing up for yourself!

  • Wow. This makes me weary. The whole time I was reading I was thinking, “Danger, Will Rogers, Danger!”. I have to agree with the guy that suggested you should have refunded the $250 and gotten the f out. Hard lesson to learn and harder even to put in practice, but no one deserves to be treated in the way that you were. Lesson: Don’t give the mouse a cookie, no matter how cute it is.

  • Brian,

    Thank you for sharing this unfortunate story. As a student graphic designer soon to be entering the work force this is a real eye opener! Reading this has made me realize how important it is to have solid contracts and to notice warning signs before it’s too late. I know this was unpleasant situation but I just wanted to say that your post has influenced my future design business in a positive way.

    Thank you.

  • Really sorry you’ve had to go through all that Brian. Thanks for sharing. I’ve had a couple of bad experiences as well since starting freelancing. One when I first started working for myself and another fairly recently (approx 6 mths ago). It’s quite a distressing experience when you know that you’re genuinely trying to do the right thing and what’s best by the client. Although we’ve never met in person, I can tell that you are a genuinely nice person who would go that extra mile to help people. It’s disappointing to hear how that gets “rewarded”. In my case (the latter), I was called numerous things as well as the criticism on my work, even though I could produce emails showing where they “loved” what I’d done and thought it was “fantastic”. Apparently they liked everything until up to the point they received the final invoice. *sigh* Good luck with moving forward. Hopefully you can put this all behind you quickly and get back into doing the awesome work that you do so well.

  • Jackie

    Compromise in one area and they try to get you to do it in other areas. Reducing your fee was my yellow light. I saw flashing red lights when there was a problem with the payment even if it was corrected.

    I’m shocked they are publicly abusive but this is a reflection of their bad characters. You did the right thing. This makes bad people angry and very bad people abusive.

    Take their threats and harassment seriously. If it continues call law enforcement.

    I admire you for sharing your story.

  • think!!

    It took you 15 years to meet such a client. Respect! :D, but still it would be nice to have a blog post by the other party.

  • Thanks for sharing. To make it this far and final do some off-roading is sainthood material.

    It might be interesting to “interview” the client so we can all get the perspective of the other side.

    • It would definitely be interesting for the readers to hear from the client, but it’s not really the point of this post to present a ‘side’. Instead, I was trying to share the story to look at transferable principles that might help myself and others learn from it. As far as I’m concerned, the story has ended and there is no need to try to prolong it any further. Instead I hope we’re all learning, growing and moving on. 🙂

  • This was a real Eye opener Brian! I’m a new designer I’m not on a large scale as of yet so i cut corners with a lot of “look outs”, but now I’m feeling it because some clients misuse you. Hope the best for you and thanks a lot for sharing this it takes a lot to do this but its so helpful for us desgners! Thanks again!

  • Hi Brian. What an experience! I have to say I feel similarly to Barb Morgen on this. I think your responsible and mature approach to self-assessment is admirable and the world would be a better place if more of us worked on our own personal growth and development as actively as you do.

    I guess the one thing that may not have been noted that I observed while reading your experience was the murking of professional focus with more emotional aspects that may have led to clouded, though altruistic, judgment.

    The fact that these people had been referred by a friend/client (who wouldn’t want to ensure they satisfy a word-of-mouth customer to protect the integrity of the recommender?), the jumping through hoops to ensure their experience remained void of negative residue (we only have so much control over that anyway) – and the underlying fact that you are a man of Integrity and also Compassion who will not ignore intuitive warnings and alarm bells ever again.

    Episodes like this can be honourably filed as Tuition for valuable learning experiences. At the end of the day, their response to you has not defined you in any way — and you are clearer than ever on Who You Really Are.

    Thank you for sharing your lesson.

  • Taqiyyah


    Incredible. You spoke quite a bit on the phone so there couldn’t be that much room for so much misinterpretation.

    I wonder how they expect their business to succeed after such infantile slander. Right-thinking potential customers of theirs who saw that would probably take the hint and run the other way.

  • Sophia

    What you experienced is the “Bitching for Dollars” technique. It’s a game less than civilized people play to take advantage of reasonable professionals. If they continue to pretend they are dissatisfied, they get more for free because they know you want to please them. I can’t believe that they questioned the amount of time you spent as it clearly was more than 2 hours of your time with phone calls and emails going back and forth. When something like this happens… it’s confusing because you assume that these are reasonable people. Well, they aren’t and never will be. They have been rewarded in the past by throwing tantrums and being rude… so they will continue to do this to their advantage. Reading through your article is a tribute to your professionalism and patience. You are like most designers… you want to satisfy your clients. Unfortunately, there are humans in this world that behave badly and will try to take advantage of anyone they can. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • I was reading your article on “how to keep your business intact during relocation” and decide to visit your website and blog. I was engulfed in your first bad client story and can soooo relate. I know how difficult it is with certain personalities and it seems for me when your client is a designers/artists that I have the most trouble with aside from designing for regular people. Sometimes the interpretation of the artist may be different from another designers perspective which makes it difficult to work with. The client you had to work with seem to either not understand your work ethics or wanted to get over on how many redesign overhauls she could get away with.
    I think you were correct because your time is money and maybe they didn’t get it which should be clarified specifically from the beginning. When working hourly vs. by project the client should be aware by contract, outlined in email and on the phone so there is no confusion, which I’m sure you did. The fact that they wasted so many months would have been a clue that a refund should have been issued but you live and learn. When they blasted you with childish bashing that was just ridiculous. Gotta look out for the crazies of the world and always have support from fellow designers and friends for perspective.

  • Sophia, I wondered if this was a deliberate strategy to get out of paying. Brian, since you’d protected yourself with an upfront deposit, and they’d already managed to get you to start working before the deposit check arrived, they knew they could manipulate you more than you realized. Then, the more reasonable and accommodating you were, the more they figured they could steal with their behavior.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, now that you’ve sent them your working files, they aren’t actually using a version of them on their site, slightly modified so they can say the designer they hired to ‘clean up your mess’ – that’s how they’ll put it – was aboe to make them work. Bang! they have a site by you at 1/4 the price, and you’ll never sue them for the theft of your intellectual property.

  • Anne

    It does sound like a case of throwing tantrums to get what you want. You did us all a favor by being strong and sticking to the $50 refund (they don’t deserve). They are nothing but bullies!!! Thanks for sharing your experience and we’ll be on the lookout for people like them!

  • Hi,
    I read your blog now and then and always learn a lot from your posts.

    This one in particular was really interesting, I always wonder how others manage to keep their calm and their ethics when they face someone agressive and irrespectful towardso their work. It happened to me and I had a really hard time getting over it…

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this story, Have a nice day

  • Danae

    Thankyou for sharing, it is truly a chilling tale. I feel I have learned a lot from reading your post, and since I am just starting out in the web industry, I feel more prepared to avoid situations like this.

  • D

    Dude….tragic. I’m sorry I had to read that, but it was helpful to me. I’ve come to so many points within this story and had it work out for me. Making me wonder if I was just lucky.

    Anyone else REALLY want to go after them on Twitter? You seem too ethical to give us their names…good on ya.

  • I’ve been freelancing for 13 years now and I’ve had just 3 clients who were like yours.

    I had one recently and alarm bells should have been ringing from the get-go. They wanted a minimalist, simple site but their wireframes contained over a dozen blocks. I tried 3 times but each time I was told it was too much content (their content, not mine). It was impossible to create what they wanted when they had so much content to go on.

    I walked away because I’ve learnt there is no point carrying on without it costing an awful lot of my time and money.

    Spotting the signs and walking way as early as possible is the only way to stop spending dozens of wasted hours on a project that will never get the green light.

  • I just wanted to send you a little attaboy for your post! You sound like me in that you really do walk a fine line between making others happy and not letting yourself be taken. I fear that I err on the side of NOT helping myself at all and I do aide others in devaluing the work that I do…but good for you for trying hard but taking a stand at the point where you did! You still did a lot of free work to make someone else happy, but I suspect that having done that makes you feel that much more sure that you did all that you could to please your client.

    Likewise, thanks soooooo much for detailing your experience for the benefit of others. It’s certainly helped me as I happened upon this article while kind of thinking about what to do about a troublesome client of my own. It wasn’t overkill! You can’t learn from a situation when you don’t get a good idea of what the situation actually was….so I, for one, appreciate it.


  • Thank you for sharing this experience. In reading about what happened to you has brought to light what can happen to anyone in the freelance world.

    I too have gone back and forth with the idea of seeing the good of all people. In the end, I find that by honoring a contract doesn’t just protect the client but the freelancer as well.

    Thanks for sharing your lesson,


  • Hey BK… your story was amazingly detailed. It sounds somehow similar to something that happened to me. The scalation of misunderstandings, the effort to keep happy a client that you really can´t reach with your work (maybe because in the first place you/them didn´t really connect)… The point is that there is no measure to the pain you have taken, and as others said, the huge amount of time and stress taken in the process is not worth at all. Not even at 250, 500, 1000 bucks. Well the story ended well cause you have got rid of them, haven´t you?
    Good luck my friend,and greetings from someone that -also- has been in your shoes, for a year or so, to end up with nothing but a lot of deception.
    Pardon my english, please. 🙂

  • BK, I thought i was alone in this world man. I have dealt with a situation like this more than once and that is my fault for being way to flexible with my clients. You should be paid for time spent, you were hired for a reason.

    I almost turned green when a client gave me the “it’s now how i want it to be so why does it count as a mockup”

    Stay stern, I believe it’s best to always keep some portion of the deposit as a non-refundable incase they make you wait more than you have to for payment, and then waste your time turning it into the next project from hell.

  • Loma

    Thanks for sharing! I am a 3-month old freelancer (I went freelance after a redundancy) and have just dealt with a client like this – worked really closely with the client to come up with a web design she wanted, only to have her friends (especially one self-proclaimed web guru who sent bitchy emails to me about the client, then stabbed me in the back) dislike it, so they hired another designer who came up with a (beautiful) design, using the web brief I’D managed to come up with in conjunction with the client. The kicker? The accepted design was the exact opposite of what the client wanted originally (using the one colour she’d told me not to use, textureless, full of stock photography rather than the organic texture filled design she wanted and I came up with) , – the project is aimed at “all women, everywhere” – the accepted design looks like it’s aimed at kids, seriously – and I spent the last two days doubting myself heavily, until I realised this has happened to the best of us. I have learned a lot from this client so I can’t complain – but the best thing I’ve learned is never take on a client who starts a meeting with “This idea came to me during mediation…” – she has been swayed by the too-many-cooks and I can’t see the project working in the long run.

  • Fred98

    “They then proceeded to express their anger on Twitter, calling me a thief, sexist, a liar, and a laughable designer. They said they would like to see me get beat up. Slowly. On videotape. They said I was a total jerk and could care less. They warned others to stay away from me and that I had pocketed their $500 without doing any work.”
    Their characters are pretty evident from their behavior.

    Best of luck to you Brian! Love your work! 🙂


  • Wow, they did take you through the wringer. Then vilifying, threatening you via the social networks is total delirium. Of course, they make a social media trail too so the true worth of their remarks will be told in the end.

    Thank you for sharing. I find that low-ball clients, one that haggle turn out to be the most conflictual and not worth gaining in the first place.

    Sticking to contract and prices makes it clear who is in charge, who is the Alfa dog. If you show flexibility, willingness to compromise price or contract conditions, such potential clients then assume they are king deciding who what when gets paid, that they run the project, as witnessed in your own experience  when they refer to ” how much time the two of us spent on this project”.

    Best of luck!

  • Rico8541

    Hi Brian!!! Learnt from your experience coz m goin thru the same right now. I’m glad i chanced upon your write-up. 🙂 Thanks for sharing it!!

  • Gsrprops

    As a freelance prop maker for theatre I have had very similar dealings. Never lower your rate, stick to your work ethic and you get more respect….most of the time. I find those who are not very creative often have the biggest problem understand what we all charge, why we charge it and the amount of time things take to produce. Very interesting to read (I was angry just reading their emails) and I am amazed you kept so calm dealing with these idiots. Well done and good luck in the future.

  • Tamara

    Thank you so much for writing this blog. Today I have been distraught from a disgruntled client situation somewhat similar to yours, so turned to Google to find someone else’s story.

    For what it’s worth, this post made me feel much better. I was very clear with my client, as it sounds you were. A common thread I think warrants underlining is that with this particular client I made a concession, discounting my standard rate as you had. I will not do that again. Discounts in the wrong hands (unappreciative clients) makes them grab for more. Although I fulfilled my obligation, I offered to fully refund my client because I wanted him to leave me alone. He refused; I suppose because he wanted to feel justified in leaving negative comments/reviews in social media. The instant I met this client I knew he was not the kind of person I wanted to work with, but ignored my instincts. Never again.

    Anyhow, again, thank you for writing this. And, thank you for letting me process my experience in your comments. 🙂

  • hank you for sharing with us, I think I learned a lot

  • S-foster1976

    I know how you feel. I am a current situation myself and I dont know what to do. I am a freelance graphic designer that dabbles in web design. I have created a website for this client last time and she was happy with it. Well new year and new look I had her sign a new contract and we both decided to go with a new server which was volusion. After starting to build the site I realized the site was constricting what she was looking for and beyond my understanding. I explained this too her but she did not want to loose the money she already invested in volusion so she wanted me to finish. I got 90% of it finished and she is still not happy with the results. She is one of my best clients and I dont want her to walk away unhappy. I have never offered to refund money back to anyone nor can I afford to. Should I offer her I refund and explain to her as soon as I get the money saved up which she paid me $300 send it back to her or offer a 50% refund which would be $150? Help please.

  • I suppose because he wanted to feel justified in leaving negative comments/reviews in social media.

  • Y8

    I haven’t been this interested in article content like this in a long time.

  • Bradley Michael

    Sorry, man. My first client, as a college student, asked for a nice website with a portfolio that would be easily integrated with social media. I gave her a beautiful website. Simple, clean, effective. It exuded the classy, fun style her brand was attempting to create. I had gotten many positive – superb reviews. Then I sent her my work… She responded abruptly, telling me that I “completely missed the mark.” She said my work look like a template, and she went on to critique my style and work. I was upset. She was a family friend. My family is not so friendly anymore. Moral; Don’t settle, don’t work with people you know, and always take pride in your work.

  • Freelancer Web Designer

    Thanks,nice information……………………………………………..,

    freelance web designer in hyderabad,Worldwide Webdesigner

  • altamber

    You have my sympathy. I am a freelance graphic designer that has found myself in exactly the same type of senario for work done for a client (that I was referred to by my best friend no less) and they became difficult immediately as well. I think the lesson I have learned from this is to politely cut my losses sooner…if the client believes they can do better elsewhere than it’s in my best interest to cut them loose so they may try and I can spare myself the frustration and hours of work wasted.

  • Ellen Wiström

    I am in a similar situation. My client is going over my work with a fine tooth comb to find more things that have “ruined” her commission… I offer unlimited tweaking, a partial refund but she just keeps finding more problems. I know I did good work, I worked overtime (more than ususal) to ensure that. Now she starting to talk about “unreplacable emotional value” that I havew ruined… That her things can´t be fixed… They can, I made sure of it, but I´m not sure she will let me. This project, unless I stand my ground, is going to cost me…