The Worst Freelance Project Ever

A lot of us complain about our clients. They’re too demanding, too nitpicky, late with materials or late with payments. Thankfully, the majority of our clients and projects tend to go pretty smoothly, otherwise none of us would want to be in business anymore!

Every once in awhile we come across one of those nightmare clients you read about online and wonder if someone could really be like that. The sad, sad answer is yes–there are plenty of crazies in the world. And they like hiring freelancers for some reason.

I had my first (and only I hope) nightmare project with an even worse client several months ago. While he and his company will remain nameless, I think we can all learn from my experience–and my mistakes.


In The Beginning

This client approached me with a seemingly simple project. Basically, it was just a simple one-page site with a form that users would need to fill out, submit and see the results below. He explained that his budget was pretty low (red flag #1!) but that he thought the project was really easy (red flag #2). In hindsight, I don’t know why I accepted the project. The two red flags already meant going against many of the principles I talk about on here. I think I was pretty slammed with work during that time and not monitoring my clients well enough.

Anyway, I sent the project to the designer. The designer sent something back to me and without looking at it; I sent it to the client. The client had a few changes and went back and forth a couple of times. Then hell started.

Red, Red Everywhere!

The third red flag came at the end of the design process when the client asked for custom illustrations of a city in a foreign country. Mind you, he was only paying $400 for the design. After explaining to him that he couldn’t get custom illustrations for the price we quoted him, he complained that he was disappointed, but approved the design anyway.

The fourth red flag was when he sent the programming spec. It was nowhere near what we had talked about. All of a sudden, he required that the user be able to upload images, choose from several different options and dropdowns. I told him this wasn’t possible with the original quote and he said OK.

My Biggest Mistake

My biggest mistake in the middle of all of this was that I was slammed with my own projects and I stink at project management. I was so slammed, that I was forwarding emails left and right and not paying attention to what was in them. Little did I know he had asked the designer to place a ton of stuff in the design that would have to be programmed and wasn’t in the spec! He assumed because I didn’t say anything that it was OK.

An Angry Client

After explaining to the client that basically everything he asked for wasn’t what was in the quote, he was furious. He demanded that we do all of it and he wouldn’t pay a penny more. He refused to acknowledge that we told him earlier it couldn’t be done. Normally, I would tell a client to walk, but this was the first project where I was handling two other freelancers, and both of them had done more work than what they were paid for and all three of us deserved to be paid.

After several back and forth emails, we finally did most of what was out of spec for free and sent him a preview of the final project. Expecting to be thanked, I found this email in my inbox instead:

There are a lot of issues. Please send the illustrator/photoshop design mock-up quoted for $400 and consider the project closed.

Of course, there was nothing wrong with the project. I even politely tried to ask the client what the “issues” were and he refused to explain it to me. He demanded the “files he paid for,” but wouldn’t pay the final invoice. I finally had to (for the first time ever) threaten him with the contract he agreed to. He finally paid the final invoice and disappeared.

What Did I Learn?

While this was certainly an outragous client, I did manage to learn several things from the project:

  • I stink at project management, so future projects will be broken up and other freelancers will deal with the client separately, with separate contracts.
  • I should really stop writing vague programming specs. It’s the programming that always trips me up.
  • Don’t take on a client with so many red flags
  • Never, never, never take on a client who asks for a discount.
  • Properly read your emails!
  • If you don’t catch the out of spec work early on, it’s almost on you to provide the work for free, since you let it go.

Since then, I’ve gotten better at managing clients and spending the time to make sure I read each of the client’s emails thoroughly. I also try to examine all PSDs and put everything in the contract, so if need be, I can go back later and say, “this isn’t in there.” While I still mess up the programmer’s specs, both of us have gotten a lot better at figuring out how to manage the client’s expectations. Neither of us want to do free work ever again!

Nightmare Projects

What was your worst project? How did you handle it?

Image by ark