Time-wasting clients

I have some clients who are efficient, punctual, and who pay a great deal of attention to detail. They’re always responsive and provide understandable, concise answers to any questions I might have.

I have other clients who are always late, seem to not read their emails. When they respond, they make little sense and raise more questions than they answer. They’re sloppy and waste my time by forcing me to decipher their badly written nonsense and pester them with follow-up messages and questions.

The problem is, my fees are usually set in advance, and I never know who will be the time-wasters. If I did, I’d quote them higher fees to begin with. I’ve found that it does little good to cover efficiency in contracts since the time-wasters seem incapable of managing their time or engaging in efficient conversations. I suspect everything in their lives is a bit chaotic, and expecting them to do otherwise is wishful thinking. They also tend to complain about others who are just like themselves.

I’m really getting tired of them.

Any advice?

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As they say: “You can only con me once.” Put it down as learning.

The trouble is that this sloppy, irresponsible tendency seems to show up in 30 or 40 percent of the clients I work with, and it’s been the case for my entire career.

I don’t like flat rate. It’s like running a buffet line, and some people are going to take advantage of it.

If I can’t bill hourly, then I’ll offer flat rate for up to 3 proofs, then hourly rate thereafter. If you make it sting it sobers people up. They still may not get their act together, but at least you get paid for the nuisance.

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In most cases, I only allow one round of revisions before extra fees are tacked on, but that’s not main the problem.

Instead, it’s the partially answered emails; the promises to get materials to me by certain dates that show up five days late. It’s them disappearing in the middle of projects because they go on vacation without informing me. It’s the deadlines that they impose on the project that require me to carefully schedule my time, only to have them miss their own deadlines. It’s the badly edited stories they give me that they finally decide to edit after I’ve already flowed them into the InDesign file. It’s them whining like it’ll bankrupt their company to pay $50 for stock art, even though they likely paid more than that for their family’s pizza the evening before.

I could go on, but it basically boils down to their flakiness, sloppiness, procrastination, and lack of respect for anyone’s time but their own.

At the agencies where I’ve worked, long, multi-page contracts were usually drawn up by attorneys where everything was pinned down and with fees attached to everything. Clients typically contributed little but their description of the problem they were hiring us to solve, an OK on an idea, and a check each month until it was finished. If they missed a meeting, fine, no problem, we’ll just bill you $5,000 for the time you wasted and reschedule for sometime next week.

This solo stuff is entirely different. I’ve done freelance work and dealt with it for years, so it’s nothing new. But now that I’m dealing with it full-time, it’s getting old.

Perhaps the reason they don’t respect you and your time is that (- and I’m only guessing!) your price-tag doesn’t command the respect?

Have you considered upping your rates to try filter some of the time-wasters out?

I have all the same horror stories. In my world, everything you’ve described is the norm, rather than the exception. Not a problem for me because I’m billing hourly and when people flake it means the project is on its way to hell and I’ll end up with more billable hours.

As far as the partially answered emails… the workaround I started at the beginning of covid, that has worked really well, is to put all the questions on to a page in Dropbox Paper in the form of a checklist. Then I send an email with the subject line: PRODUCTION STOP:RESPONSE REQUIRED, with a link to the document. They add their responses and if they miss answers I send the email to the doc again. Much higher response rate and they tend to not miss as many questions as they do with email. Also, it seems that seeing STOP in all caps sobers them up a bit.

Hmmm, this is the first I’ve heard about Dropbox Paper, even though I’ve used Dropbox for several years. It sounds promising. Thank you.

I turned up for a haircut late, booked it on the app - they couldn’t accommodate me. I had to accept it.

Usually this is covered in the contract, if the material is not supplied on agreed schedules then the work won’t commence until the next available day.

If they say they will have it by 1 pm on Tuesday. I tell them that I will book them in with the studio for 1.30 pm once all files are reviewed and complete - the work commences at 1.30 pm.

If they don’t have it in by 1.30 pm - they missed their slot. So if it comes in at 3 pm - I say I’ll reschedule with the studio but the next available slot will be, say, 2.30 pm on Friday.

This is usually met with disdain - so I can offer to bump them up the schedule if a slot opens.

Same deal - it’s in the contract and agreed schedules. If I send a proof and don’t get a reply within 2 business days, the work is put on hold. Or something like that. They might want 3 days, but no more than 5 days.

So they need to manage the work being sent for review.

After 5 days, it’s on hold and they’ve lost their studio time that was agreed.

Again, in the contract, if you are delivering on deadlines and they are not - they lose the time with the studio. The next studio slot will be allotted to them.

You can tell them the next slot is in 2 days. But then inform them the next day that a slot opened and you were able to squeeze them in.

If they go on, then I’d say that all my deadlines have been met and as per the contract the proofs were not returned on the scheduled time - and the slot was moved to the next available date.

This for me is in the contract that new supplied files are charged at the full rate and separate from the original quote.

I had this with a Doctors office, the secretary wanted 10 x 100 prescription pads. That’s 1000 prescriptions. Typically a prescription refill is about €20 and a new prescription would be €75 visit with the doctor. On average it’s about €40 for a prescription - for example.

1000 prescriptions @€40 is €40,000 approx.

I was charging about €250 in total - admin, typesetting, proofing, printing, QC, cutting, gluing, packing, shipping etc.

I pointed this out to the doctor’s office - they reluctantly paid.

And funny enough - they refilled the order every quarter!!! So that was about €160,000 in prescriptions.


Yes - it’s annoying when someone cries over something so small - when you are already accomodating them at every level.

But i have found that pushing it back on them that they were late, and breaking it down into business sense that it’s good value for money.

They tend to get on board quite quickly.

Put it this way - since I started telling them that if they miss their return proof deadline they may not get another slot in the studio that same week.

It really does light a fire under them.


I would say, I have no issue with a client that contacts to say they need more time to review the proofs.

I appreciate that - and offer to keep a slot free at the same time in a few days to give them more time.

It can be at times with difficult clients to say things like:

Attached is the proof as discussed and delivered as per our agreed schedule. We have scheduled this project with the Studio for the return proof on dd/mm/yyyy - can you please confirm that this date is still suitable.

When I first started out working for myself, I charged a low-ish rates under the misguided idea that it would court new business. After one year, my accountant said, simply, ‘double your rate’. He was bang on. The net result was that I got better clients, better work. They took me more seriously. This continued and as my experience increased and my clients became more high profile, my rate went up accordingly. Worked a treat.

However, although the calibre of work went up and you are trusted more, as are still as. They always exist at every level. No matter what you charge, there will always be a percentage of idiots to deal with. If you are lucky enough to be able to, you just filter those clients out of your client base, but they always exist. I just use them as a touchstone to appreciate the great ones.

My wife manages a hotel, so is directly customer-facing some of the time. I don’t know how she does it. I’d have had so many bad tripadvisor reviews for telling people to go f…

The general public are largely fantastic, but the small percentage of as, really are shockingly aly.

I’m just glad that 99% of my work is B2B,

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Thanks for all the suggestions.

Perhaps part of the problem is where the majority of my work originates. Around 80 percent of my clients are corporations and government entities of one sort or another. I work with very few small businesses.

Most of my clients have internal purchasing rules they’re required to follow. For example, any job with a bespoke contract must be over, say, $10,000 and bid through their purchasing offices. Jobs under those thresholds usually fall into several categories. For example, the client (usually a department or division within the larger agency), is required to obtain several phone or email bids, then choose one based on some procedural combination of price and quality or from a pre=existing approved vendor list. These are the sorts of jobs I usually get.

I haven’t yet gone after the higher-paying five- or six-figure, custom contract jobs because I’d be going head-to-head with established agencies. I’d be at a severe disadvantage as a solo business working from home. I’d need to spend dozens of hours preparing presentations for jobs that I’d be unlikely to get. I’ve been on both sides of these evaluation committees in previous jobs, and I know how they work.

Consequently, most of my work from these corporations and agencies comes from the marketing or outreach people within these organizations who have needs a bit beneath those thresholds that allows them to choose vendors that meet their purchasing requirements. The contracts I use for smaller, private businesses are unacceptable because they don’t fit within their corporate or government purchasing policies. Instead, these jobs are always handled with purchase orders that only list the bare basics of what they’re purchasing from me.

These purchasing orders are binding contracts, but they’re bare-bones sorts of things. A large corporation or a government agency has no incentive to not pay for the work they receive — they always pay, and they pay on time. However, I’m playing by their internal rules, not mine.

In other words, my clients within these organizations are typically bureaucrats and office workers who are governed by their organization’s purchasing rules, not mine. I can push, prod, and persuade with some success and establish working relationships with the people involved, but I need to work within their purchasing rules, which are set up with their concerns in mind, not mine.

The result is good-paying work with regular, repeat clients. However, some of them (the ones I’m complaining about) are not especially incentivized to do much beyond what their employers require them to do. I can avoid taking jobs from the worst of these people once I’ve identified who they are, but that’s typically in the middle of a job that I’m already committed to finishing.

I asterisked the profanities and they got contracted to their first and last letters. That should have read, ‘idiots are still idiots’ (or perhaps slightly more emphatic)

And that should have been, ‘idiots really are shockingly idiotic

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Coyness should not be a designer’s virtue. Drinking and cursing are.

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Hey Guys … I could be mistaken, but as I read some of the comments it appears that some of you may be (for lack of a better phrase) “talking down” to Just-B. Please remember that he is a highly experienced and tenured professional in our craft who deserves our highest respect and should be addressed with the same honor he shows to all of us. It’s just my opinion and if it doesn’t apply, then please disregard.

And, Just-B, I had these same issues even with the highest paying clients, and in all my 50-years in the biz, I never found a decent solution. However, even some of these clients became good friends and that made working with them tolerable.

Duly disregarded.

No, no, no, but thanks. :grinning: I asked for advice and got some. Whether directly applicable or not, all the advice helps put my own situation in perspective, which, in and of itself, I find very helpful.

I’ve spent my entire career working in creative groups where I rarely needed to deal with the more mundane aspects of running a business. I always had my own after-hours clients, but that was always a part-time, here-and-there thing that didn’t cause any worry.

During the previous couple of years (until I finally decide to retire), I’ve worked for myself. I’m not entirely up to the task of handling some things I didn’t previously encounter directly. Reading how other people deal with similar problems helps.

In addition to that, there’s the whole process of working remotely with clients, which I’ll never get used to. I’m much more comfortable figuring out how to work with clients while sitting around a table in a conference room than through awkward Zoom calls and emails.

I guess you can’t be fired when you’re retired. :grin:

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