Web Designers: 21 Ways to Deal With Toxic Clients

Are you a web designer that’s not designing? If you are, the chances are it’s a toxic client that’s drained all your creativity. Whilst it’s not practical to ‘fire’ every single client who causes you grief: Especially if the problem is your own lack of assertiveness and unwillingness to protect your boundaries. Sometimes you want to say no, sometimes you want to say ‘go’ – but what you end up doing (much to your frustration – after all, you’re a web designer) is putting up with it.

Web Designers: 21 Ways to Deal With Toxic Clients 1

Here are twenty-one ways to help you take control and create the outcomes you want when dealing with negative or toxic clients so that you have more time to design gorgeous websites. At the end of the post is a free checklist to help you manage toxix clients.

  1. Taming Time Suckers

This type of client often pays big but expects an exclusive on your time. She calls, emails, wants your advice on stuff outside of your area of focus, and expects you to fit in unscheduled sessions at the drop of a hat. (You may especially notice that he always wants you to see him or Skype him during hours you have explained are not available – like your evenings and weekends!). You can’t design anything as the brief changes on an hourly basis – she’ll even phone you or email fifty times overnight, after you’ve closed for the day.

If a web design client is losing you money by sapping time you aren’t offering and cutting into your personal life, it’s time to either renegotiate your contract and set new boundaries, charge more money, do both of these things … or set her free.

  1. Set Your Zero-Tolerance Boundaries

Decide before you ever get a toxic web design client what you will absolutely not put up with – and be sure clients know this right at the contract stage. For example, you will not endure being sworn at or shouted at – even when they’re “not really shouting at you”.

Are you going to have zero tolerance for missed appointments? Late payments? Whatever it is, make sure you set out your policy, communicate it – and stick to it.

  1. Don’t Waste Good Energy on Toxic Clients

When you suffer from a toxic client, they can easily become a source of focus and frustration. Do your design work and then let them go with love. Focus on more of what you want – and the type of web design clients you want.

  1. Look for the Payoff and Challenge it

There’s a theory in practical psychology that states if you put up with a bad situation indefinitely, there has to be some sort of payoff in the relationship for you. So, the next time you find yourself suffering long-term with a toxic web design client, ask yourself, “What’s my payoff for putting up with this?”

Is it ‘financial security’? Is it a source of pride or anxiety (“I’m going to turn this around, no matter what!”) Is it that you don’t have to face other things if you’re constantly focused on that client?

Deep down, only you know the answer.

Once you’ve asked yourself the question and determined your own personal payoff, challenge it! Are you really so helpless? Is this really the only client you will ever get? Are you really making as much money as you think you are when you factor in all that unscheduled overtime?

When you can clearly identify your payoff and see the real consequences, it rapidly becomes much easier to cut the client loose.

  1. Don’t be a Toxic Web Designer

If a client is having a problem with you, ask yourself if it’s possible that you are, in fact, a toxic web designer. When you’ve been designing for a long time it can be easy to forget that the client has a say in how their website design will look and feel. Sure the client might love the Comic Sans font, but threatening to tank the whole project because of this?

It’s time to take a deep breath and remember the client in the design process.

6.  It would be fantasy to think that no negative or energy draining clients exist. They do. Protect yourself from negativity by practicing diligent self-care, so that you are emotionally, and physically well-fortified against it.

Positive habits create well-being and boost your energy so that you’re better able to meet negativity without letting it burn you out.

  1. Never Let your Explanation Descend into Justification or Excuses

As far as explanations for a refusal go, it’s fine to say things like, “What you’re asking me to provide is outside my area of expertise”. That sort of explanation is short, sweet, relevant and logical. But don’t feel you have to justify or excuse your decisions.

If a client challenges an absolute statement like the one above, simply repeat it (and keep doing so until they’ve got the point).

  1. When You Terminate or Complete, Suggest What to Do Next

A huge part of the anger or hurt that can come from a client who has been terminated is the feeling they’ve been ‘dumped’. A bit like ending a relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend, there’s going to be some hurt. If you offer next steps they can take, what you’ve actually done is turn it from a dumping to a completion—much easier on a client’s pride (and in some cases, emotions). Do it right, and they’ll leave you with a better experience than what you’ve had. You’ll even get a testimonial.

  1. Hold on to Your Joy

Don’t let negative nellies suck the joy out of your day. If you’ve had a particularly draining session, take fifteen minutes to recharge. Think of the things you are grateful for, things that make your life worthwhile. Think of what or who brightens your days.

Last but not least, smile while you’re doing this (even if you don’t feel like it. Smiling is a great mood booster.)

  1. Use Motivational Objects

Another way to keep anger or stress at bay: Have something within your field of vision that reminds you of wonderful things, or brings you joy in itself. A bunch of fresh flowers, a photo of your daughter laughing in the rain, a favorite saying, a beautiful painting.

Looking at this while you’re dealing with difficult clients (or afterward, when you’ve finally got them off the line) can be a strong visual ‘cue’ that helps you quickly rebalance.

  1. Remember to Breathe

Your breathing affects your body and your mind in both positive and negative ways. Breathe slowly and deeply, relaxing each muscle group from the head down before engaging with chronically stressful clients. Remember to breathe slowly and deeply during the call.

You’ll not only dial back your own stress, but it will also help calm your client too.

  1. When to KEEP a Toxic Client

Of course, you shouldn’t keep a client who is truly abusive or bullying. But there are times when you may decide to keep a negative or difficult client – and that’s okay.

For example, if you’re a Life Coach and you are used to dealing with mindset problems like confidence or faulty thinking. But your big criteria for keeping a tricky client should be:

  • Is she making progress?

If the answer is ‘yes’ – if you can see the light at the end of the tunnel for her (even while she’s complaining about the darkness) – then you may wish to persevere: Sometimes this type of client can turn out to be the most rewarding (and spectacularly successful) of all.

  1. Ask for Payment in Full – in Advance

Toxic clients will always dispute this – usually with annoyance. That’s a big red flag. Don’t give in (raise your price even more—talk about the scope and time commitment).

But what do you do if a toxic client DOES pay—then acts as if she owns you?

The same as you would with any other toxic client: Set her straight about your boundaries (and make sure your contract or terms state these clearly).

  1. Negotiate on Your Home Turf

When you have to set a difficult client straight or turn down a toxic one, do it on your home turf – the place where you feel most relaxed and powerful.

That goes for your online turf: If you’re most comfortable having difficult conversations face-to-face, do it via Skype. (Seeing your expression can often reassure an upset client). If you’re more comfortable with your mobile in the garden, then sit in the garden and phone them.

Having that conversation where you feel most comfortable will help with negotiations, in nine cases out of ten.

  1. Just Say ‘No’

Sometimes even the best clients will put us on the spot. The natural instinct is to be obliging. But stop to think: In addition to putting yourself out if you agree to their request, will it affect other people? Will it affect your income? (Example: A client wants to go on hiatus but wants you to “hold” her spot for six months.)

If it’s not viable, say so, clearly and up-front.

  1. Clients Who Tell You They Are ‘Easy to Work With’

Most clients wouldn’t even think of this. If you get a prospective client on a discovery call who volunteers that information, make sure she qualifies it. WHY is she easy to work with? (The only acceptable answer should be, “Because I do the work and don’t cancel appointments”.)

If she can’t instantly supply you with a valid answer, be very wary. It usually means she knows she is not.

  1. Find Out the Real Problem

Just as procrastination is often a symptom of something that can easily be dealt with, (for example, you haven’t given a contractor clear guidelines for a project and she feels at sea), so too can chronic appointment-canceling be a symptom, rather than a sign of client abusiveness.

Find out what the problem is and be prepared to state whether or not you can help her overcome it if it’s within your purvue.

  1. Have a Client Early Exit Strategy in Place

You probably are well aware of your client’s ‘life cycle’ within your design sphere – but do you have an exit strategy in place for clients you have to let go early?

For example, if a client is constantly having trouble paying, or complains that the pace is too fast, suggest she might be happier with your self-serve course, or in your drip-release-content-based membership group.

Having the right early-exit strategy can help terminated relationships end on a positive note.

  1. Beware the Serial Clients

There’s a simple way to make sure you don’t end up with this type of client – the one who runs through web designers like this month’s ice cream flavor.


After, “Have you worked with a web designer before?”, if the answer is ‘yes’, follow up with, “How many web designers have you worked with, and how did that go for you?”

If you are met with a bombardment of complaints about each one, run for the hills. (Translation: Turn down that client!) It’s a sure sign she’ll be impossible to design a website for.

  1. Take a Break

Even the happiest web designers burn out, if they work for multiple clients week in, week out. Book yourself a holiday – your clients will get along fine without you. (If you’re really worried, do what doctors do and appoint a “locum” – another web designer or Virtual Assistant who will fill in for you, if the break is a long one). Remember to check out our Associate Contracts.

  1. Get Contracts

Seriously. A handshake and a promise of good behaviour are not enough. Get a good contract drawn up so that a toxic client knows what will happen if they behave badly.

It all boils down to maintaining your own self-respect and joy. Investing time in learning the most effective ways to deal with – or downright avoid – toxic clients is always time well spent because it means you can focus on working with amazing clients that value your work as a web designer.


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