Can the Bad Attitude of a Few Bad Apples Hurt Your Business?

bad-applesIt’s time to get serious about freelancing!

A few freelancers don’t take their business seriously enough, and quite frankly their unprofessionalism is hurting the rest of us who want to make a career out of freelancing.

So, if you’ve been merely dabbling in freelancing, if you’ve been inconsistent with the quality you provide, or if your attitude towards clients needs a little bit of adjustment, I have just two words for you:


To all the bad apples out there–Quit having a bad attitude towards clients. Quit producing low quality work. Quit playing at freelancing and get serious. The rest of us would really appreciate it.

If you’ve ever had to clean up after an unprofessional freelancer, you’ll probably relate to this post (you might even want to add your own thoughts about unprofessionalism in the comments).

Can Someone Else’s Bad Attitude Hurt My Business?

There’s been an ongoing debate about whether unprofessional freelancers hurt the rest of us. I’ve heard a lot of folks on social media say that it doesn’t make any difference what others do, so just “shut up and mind your own business.”

I’m normally a pretty meek person, and in many cases I do have a “live and let live” philosophy, but in this case, I think it’s important for us to speak out. It’s important because, in my experience, sometimes unprofessional freelancers do hurt the reputation of the dedicated freelancer. Unprofessional freelancers can hurt the rest of us by:

  • Providing misinformation
  • Providing poor service

Sadly, in the minds of some clients, we are all lumped together. If they have one bad experience with a freelancer that client assumes they’ll have a bad experience with every freelancer. To them, one freelancer is as good as the next.

Believe me, it’s not fun to hear your client insist, “but the last freelancer told me…“–especially when you know that what the last freelancer told them was very wrong.

Would You Use an Unprofessional Professional?

We’ve all dealt with professionals before. At some point in your life, you’ve probably also been in contact with a professional as a consumer. Draw on your own life experiences.

Consider the times that you’ve been to the doctor, or dentist. If you’ve used the services of an attorney or an accountant, then you’ve also used a professional.

While there are bad doctors, dentists, attorneys, and accountants out there–most of the ones who stay in business have fairly decent professional skills.

As you think about your last experience with a professional ask yourself these questions:

  • Did they give you inaccurate information?
  • Did they belittle you?
  • Were they rude or confrontational to you?
  • Did they talk about you behind your back or divulge your personal information publicly?
  • Did they waffle on their price and apologize for costing so much?

If you were dealing with a true professional, most likely your answer to all of the questions above is: “No, of course not.” (If you answered “yes,” I would expect that you would never go back to that individual. You might even report them to the Better Business Bureau, or some other consumer watchdog group.)

Yet, a few freelancers do exactly the things to their clients that they wouldn’t ever dream of accepting from another type of professional.

I’m telling you right now, that’s not cool at all.

Learn More About Professionalism

We’ve written quite a bit about professionalism here on Freelance Folder. That’s because it’s so important.

  • It’s important to your individual success as a freelancer
  • It’s important to the overall reputation of freelancers everywhere

Professionalism can get clients to take you more seriously. It can help you develop a business mindset.

Even though we balance our materials here at Freelance Folder between writing for those freelancers who are just starting out and writing for those freelancers who have years of experience, in general the posts here have one thing in common–they are for freelancers who want to improve themselves.

Fortunately, that’s most of us. I’m confident that most of us are not the “bad apples” I’m referring to in this post.

What Do You Think?

Have you ever had to clean up after a “bad apple” freelancer who did a less than professional job? Do you think unprofessional freelancers make it harder for the rest of us?

Without leaving any specific names, share your experiences in the comments.

Image by ragesoss


  1. says

    The freelancer that beleaguers a client with their negative attitude, should no longer be a freelancer I agree. In my very humble opinion, the person who uses Dreamweaver and markets themselves as a web developer / designer is committing the same felony.

    In the few months that I have been following these articles, this is the first from you Laura that has a harsh connotation. What gives?

  2. says

    I think this article tries generalizes a problem that is not specific to freelancers. If a restaurant gives me a bad hamburger, generally I assume that restaurant is bad, not all restaurants that serve hamburgers. Though it may take me sometime to want to eat another hamburger.

    Keep a good attitude, provide a professional and quality service yourself, and stop fretting over elements that are beyond your control.

  3. says

    I can actually relate to this post and I have also experienced the “but the last designer told me”

    Its a bit frustrating at first but it provides a platform in which I can further position myself as the professional to be trusted especially if his last designer was very wrong.

    Another thought provoking article I must say.


  4. says

    I have come across this many times. Here is part of an article I wrote that will tell the story.

    “Handing it over to a junior designer

    Not all designers are logo experts. Recently young designers who may or may not come from design school, are out there for a quick buck for beer money and a night out with their friends. As a customer I would be very cautious about doing any work with them. Just like any investment a business undertakes, research is the key factor before settling with a designer. Years of experience, their portfolio as well as companies they have done work for speaks clearly about their qualification. You do not want a designer that is here today gone tomorrow. If you are serious about your business then contact a serious designer.”

  5. says

    Great comments!

    Aljiro, it sounds like you and I have had similar experiences. It’s hard to compete when the last freelancer may have said something untrue that the client particularly wanted to hear.

    behzad–Your comment makes a lot of sense. Not all freelancers are the same. Some are more professional and experienced. We need to help our clients distinguish between the two.

  6. says

    I agree with the first commenter. There’s absolutely no way a bad apple can hurt you if you’re a skilled enough entrepreneur. People will seek you out.

    Nobody can give a business or a niche a “bad name”. That’s a lame excuse for someone who doesn’t take complete and full responsibility for their business venture.

  7. says

    Thanks Ryan!

    I’m not sure that I agree. Clients can be very trusting of the wrong people. While some clients will seek you out if you are good, there will also be those who innocently believed the bad advice. You may still get the job, but you’ll be dealing with a lot of misperceptions…

  8. says

    I don’t think bad freelancers can hurt you specifically, but it can make that client a huge pain to deal with.

    For example, I had a client come to me with a WordPress site that was have coded. They gave me the list of what they wanted done and I gave them a quote. The client responded:

    “That’s way to high! I’ve already paid the previous freelancer X to code it!”

    And? I wanted to respond that maybe they should seek out that previous freelancer who left them in the middle of the project to finish it then. (Of course I didn’t say that)

  9. says


    That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. :-)

    It does make you wonder what the client is thinking when they come to you after someone else let them down and expect you to work under the same terms as the other person.

  10. crazy wabbit says

    @Ryan, I disagree with you too, you seem like a young lad new to the business, stick around and you will learn quickly.

  11. says

    A big YES on this post.

    A bad freelancer or professional on your area will hurt yourself too, if you are talking about the same client.

    The client will get uncomfortable and will start thinking twice between going to use freelance services or just go and hire a services company.

    Will not hurt you directly, but indirectly could make you an huge damage if you live in a small business environment.

    Thank you for the post Laura.

  12. says

    My opinion is that bad apples are an opportunity to show the client how amazing freelancers really are. If they get a bed apple before, and then you come along and give amazing quality and have an awesome attitude, you’ll have a customer for life. Bad apples make the good guys look good–really good.

    But never in front of a client belittle the last guy. You don’t want to fall into the trap of building yourself up by putting someone else down.

  13. says

    I think the most important thing is to keep your standards high, no matter what. In dealing with any client who has experienced poor results, you don’t say “I told you so” (even if you think it), you just lend them an empathetic ear and realize that they know they made a mistake. But whatever their past experience may be, you should stick to your guns about what you offer them in terms of rates, proposals, etc. It’s telling the client, this is how much my work is worth, and what it should be worth for a quality product.

    I have to say, that’s a really nasty looking apple in that photo, I don’t want to know where it’s been…

  14. says

    Double comment posting here… guess I submitted my first comment without getting all my thoughts out :).

    I also agree that bad apples make working with clients difficult. I think there’s enough business to go around for everybody, but coming into town after a bad apple has been through is tough. You’ve got to clean up the rubble, put pieces back together, figure out what goes where, and then hopefully you can start on a decent foundation. And sometimes, that’s hard work.

  15. says

    I agree… a bad experience with another freelancer should not hurt you.

    But, perceptions are reality for the client.

    If the client experienced less than professional performance from another freelancer, it’s your responsibility to spend more time clearing the air and establishing expectations. If open and honest communication is not possible, you’re probably wise to pass on the opportunity.

    Why? You’re setting yourself up in a No-Win situation … for both you and the client.

  16. crazy wabbit says

    I am not sure if I totally agree with the fact that a previous bad client experience should not be touched. I had a case where I designed a logo and had a great experience with a client that complained about her previous designer. I also make a good amount of money from the project. A bad client experience does not make for a bad client.

  17. says

    Great post and I TOTALLY agree with you, Laura! I wrote about this on my own blog ( because I have experienced several situations where a client’s previous web designer basically held them hostage, over charging for minor maintenance, taking weeks to update something on their site, etc. This left the client with an extremely distrustful and disrespectful attitude toward the next guy (me) before we ever got out of the gate, and became an added time restraint as I continually had to explain everything to the finest detail so they understood and eventually realized I wasn’t going to treat them the same way. Did I still get their business? Yes. But it cost me in less tangible ways and hurt the reputation of the industry as a whole.

    As I said in my own article, I believe we have a responsibility to the community of any context we find ourselves in to influence it in a positive way, or at the very least to do our best to refrain from impacting it in a negative way. That goes for freelancers of any kind. Everyone wins that way! But everybody – client, freelancer, community – loses when bad apples stain the rest of us.

    Thanks for a great post and discussion!

  18. says

    One should also see the other side too: there are also some really terrible clients who treat their freelance service providers with absolutely no respect at all.

    It’s no wonder some freelancers become jaded when it seems like every other client is trying to nickel-and-dime them, insult them and generally behave as if the freelancer is a blagging, lazy nuisance rather than an experienced and professional service provider.

    The whole proposition of a freelance collaboration is that the both the client and freelancer need to understand it’s a two way thing. Some clients treat their freelance providers as mere button pushers, or even worse: employees. And some freelancers treat clients as nothing more than an annoyance. Neither attitude is useful.

    If you’re not both on the same page in terms of expectations, respectful commitment and just generally being nice about things, you’re probably not going to have a successful working relationship.

  19. says

    Great points!

    Minna, I certainly agree with keeping your standards high regardless of what the client was used to in the past. As Walt Goshert pointed out, this may mean you have to pass on a few clients.

    Chris Mower — I like the attitude that the client’s previous bad experience is your opportunity to shine. That should certainly be the freelancer’s first reaction to this situation.

    Brian, Thanks for sharing your link. That post is very relevant to this one. I like the idea of responsibility to the “community of context.” That’s a life principle that goes beyond freelancing.

  20. says

    Your article is excellent as usual is excellent and deeply informative. I think that “bad apples” will give a bad name, but not as much to our entire field.

    I have to say this: There are bad apples and then there are FreelanceAppples. lol, so cheezy! lol

  21. says

    Hate to say it, but my business has flourished due to the prevalence of “bad apples”! ;-)

    Seriously, I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve picked up because the previous “professional” botched the job and/or proved to be unreliable. Their loss is my gain.

    The downside is that my profession (web design) is in danger of becoming the high tech equivalent to the vinyl siding sales business (and I mean no disrespect to the many vinyl siding salesmen that do a wonderful job). While a general lack of professionalism gives the competent and caring freelancer a chance to shine, there are some unpleasant stereotypes and misconceptions to overcome when a client has been burned in the past.

    When I sense this has happened, I go out of my way to over-deliver to the client as a way of regaining trust, not just for me but for my profession.

    By the way, I take a bit of offense to Jordan Walker’s comment about anyone who uses Dreamweaver needing to get out of the business. It takes a lot of nerve to tell someone what tools someone should use to practice their profession. Tools are no better or worse than the people who use them.

  22. says

    I struggle with the aftertaste of bad apples at almost every meeting with a prospect. The positive: It forces me to try harder, be more creative in presenting my case, and do an even better job overall. It’s almost a defiance of sorts…

  23. says

    I think bad apples can certainly hurt your business in the fact that in a small town setting when you have freelancers that are providing low quality work, charging rates that aren’t near industry standards and having an unexcusable level of customer service then it relflects on the few who are performing as they should. Granted this isn’t a business-killer but it does certainly make our job harder to show why we are not the “norm” for freelancers in the area.

  24. says

    I agree with Arron – I’m faced with a similar situation – a small community that seems to have been exposed to poor quality, cheap web design services for a number of years.

    Recently had a prime example happen where I learned a client had a terrible experience with a local printing business selling 3rd rate web design services on the side, for premium prices! I was appalled . Needless to say, because of the bad taste and poor customer service of this other designer, I had to make an extra special effort to show the client how a truly professional designer operates.

    Don’t know if it did much good, the client is now burned and mistrustful – the damage is done.

  25. delpi says

    There are bad apples in every business, they are everywhere, just like in the grocery store, you’ll have to pick your good apples based on your own preferences, one bad apples from one standpoint is not necessary bad apples to others. I think we should not treating “Freelancer” as a stand alone “Brand”, there mice and keyboards and monitors from different brands, some good at monitors and have a bad quality at mice they produce, as always we can always choose the one we like with reasonable price and quality we are after. This is a basic first knowledge you must know if you go to “grocery store” every day or every time you need to cook something delicious. Know what you want and seek what you want. Provider seek the Client they want, Client seek the Provider they want. The easy way, Client can just hire a reputable “Chef” with all his or her “Helper” running around to get things done with following “Chef’s” standard of quality.

  26. says

    Thanks to everyone who shared your experiences.

    I realize that not everyone has had the experience of working with a client after a “bad apple” freelancer, but I’m glad that this has stimulated a thoughtful discussion. :-)


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