How to Respond When a Prospective Client Tries to Take Advantage of Your Business -
Written by James Patrick

It has been instilled in us since the inception of our entrepreneurial careers the paramount importance of customer service. The sole commandment of “the customer is always right” has been enshrined as non-negotiable and undisputed. The repercussions of any rebellion against the utmost consumer experience are compounded with an endless barrage public reviews and social criticism. However, what if the customer was not actually right. What if the customer was actually an asshole trying to take advantage of your business?

Here are warning signs that you might be dealing with such an individual and how you as the entrepreneur and business owner can respond.

Warning Sign: Client is Deliberately Vague About a Project

This scenario often presents itself when a prospective client is trying to get more services than they are willing to actually pay for. Thus, despite how much you inquire and even pry to be able to accurately estimate a project’s size, scope, deliverables or timelines you will be met with opaque and vague answers. An example of this will be when the response from the client is always “this will just be a super quick and easy project.”

Translation: it will be incredibly difficult and complex.

Warning Sign: Client Spends a lot of Time Blaming Past Service Providers

You want to discuss the project, the client’s goals and outcomes; however, it doesn’t seem like you can get a word in edgewise because the client continues to point the finger at and push blame to all their past service providers. They will claim they have been taken advantage of time and time again by everyone else within your industry and they don’t see the common denominator of themselves. Thus, which is more likely? They are an innocent victim who happened to have the worst luck going through a string of service providers or that they are a difficult client and other service providers fired them?

Spoiler alert: you’ll be the next person they blame.

Warning Sign: Client Avoids Signing Your Contract, Terms or Conditions

As much as you attempt to remind them to sign your contract, they consistently seem to have an excuse as to why they have not gotten to it yet. Perhaps they didn’t see it, were too busy to have a chance to review it or they just flat out ignored it. Occasionally you will get an attempt at a misdirection with a statement such as, “the project timeframe is too rushed to have time to review the contract, can’t we just move this forward?” Why would they be so careless you wonder? They want an exit plan should they decide not to pay you.

Good luck collecting without a contract.

Warning Sign: Client Intentionally Plays on Your Emotions

Empathy is a trait that each and every one of us should embrace with the intention of cultivating and growing. However, unfortunately some will see our empathetic tendencies as a vulnerability that can be exploited. The client will share a story of a bad experience and an unrelated past trauma that is often highly personal, with the not-so-subtle intention of getting you to lower your rates.

When in doubt, ask yourself why they would divulge something so personal?

Warming Sign: “Scratch My Back Now and I will Eventually Get Around to Scratching Yours”

The most common way this is presented is when a client uses any form of the phrasing “we have a lot more work coming so if you help us out now, I will be sure to send all the future work your way.” When you think about this statement, it does not make any sense. First, why would they prioritize who gets work based off the first person willing to lower their rates and not quality or value? Second, does this mean they expect to forever lock you into a lower rate, which ultimately does not help your business? In more than two decades of occasionally falling for this one (more often than I’ll ever admit), I’ve yet to ever see a second project.

My response now is “Great, I am all for rewarding return client work. Thus, the first project can be at full price and if there is a lot of return work, I will happily discuss a preferred client discount.”

Warning Sign: There is an Unnamed “Team” They Defer To

This is a scapegoat strategy employed when the client wants to deny accountability. Look out for statements such as

“I will need to check with the team and get back to you”

“That is handled by someone else on the team, sorry”

“My team must not have seen that”

“The team must have missed that”

There is no team.

How to Navigate and Respond

First, it is important to remain professional and even polite. Just because you are dealing with an asshole trying to take advantage of your business, does not mean that you too sink to their level.

You are not ever required to reduce yourself nor are you required to ever go down a client’s endless rabbit holes. Reacting emotionally is sometimes what a bad client wants and will only exacerbate the situation.

When possible, refer very matter-of-factly to terms and conditions, signed agreements and past correspondence. Be clear with boundaries of what is acceptable and not acceptable behavior when working with you.

You absolutely never have to deal with a client’s lack of emotional maturity. Remember, you reserve the universal right to decline to work with a client. If there are red flags present before you work with a client, you can be guaranteed that there will be red flags throughout the project and beyond.

James Patrick is an internationally published photographer with more than 700 magazine covers to his credit, a best-selling author, podcast host and marketing strategist. He works with professionals to help them increase their awareness leveraging the power of earned media to ultimately grow their revenue. His work can be seen at or on Instagram


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