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8 Ways Clients Don't Realize They Are Subtly Bullying Us

Kevin Whipps April 11, 2024 · 8 min read

I’ve been freelancing for way longer than I’d like to admit, and in that time, I’ve had my share of bully clients. Sometimes, it’s pretty overt; they push and shove, thinking that yelling at you will get them their way, and I’ve been known to cave to their demands. But thing is, they’re not the worst clients to have. Sure, they’re jerks, but they’re a known quantity. I know how to deal with them, and you probably do, too (usually it involves an extra 25% surcharge). No, the worst clients are something different. They’re subtle bullies. That’s right, the worse clients are the ones that subtly bully us into getting their way. Through a combination of conniving and smooth talking they make us feel like everything is safe, but then hit us with something that throws the whole project out of whack. How do you identify those people and what can you do to stop it? You start here. I’ve collected some of the types of subtle bullies out there so that you’ll know who they are when you see them. The best defense is a good offense, so get your guard up because here they come.

Let’s Get Buddy Buddy

“Hey man, let’s hang out after work!” or maybe, “Let’s grab a drink and talk shop for a bit. My treat.” Sound familiar? These clients want you to think that they’re your friends, and maybe they are (or were) before the two of you started working together. But thing is, they’re using your friendship as leverage. You’re their own personal designer, right? Why wouldn’t you help out a friend? And you wouldn’t charge your pal, right? These people are the worst. I mean, not literally, because they don’t have visible demon horns or anything, but they always try to get something for free. I’ve got one of those, and just the other day I decided that I had to get them out of my life. Yes, they’re revenue streams, but the jobs are never quite as lucrative as they promise, because there are always things that end up getting done for free. Do what I did: let them know politely that you don’t want to ruin your friendship by working together, and you worry that’s what’s going to happen. They should understand, and if the phone calls stop, then they were never your friend to begin with, so no big loss. Subtle-Bullying-4

The Opinion-less Human

One of these hit me just the other day. He wanted me to do some work for him, and he had no idea what he wanted. And the worst part is that he said to me the same thing that I’ve heard a million times before: “I dunno, you’re the artist. You figure it out.” No. Just … no. Look, we all have opinions, we just may not want to express them at the moment because we’re afraid of insulting someone. But if all you give me to go on is “I dunno,” then you’re going to get an I Dunno design. Having no starting point is just as bad as having too specific a vision, because it’s difficult to work out. You’ll never hit the target if you can’t find it.

This Guy Can Beat Your Price. Match it?

True story: I’m at an office a few years back interviewing for a position. He likes me, I’m gathering, because instead of the original job he offers me the next one up, and seems super excited about it. As we talk, he holds up his index finger in a “hold on” gesture, runs out of the room and comes back with a receipt. “This is what the current person in this role invoices me for monthly. Can you beat it?” This is for a 40 hour a week job, producing a ton of work, and I look at the invoice: $800. Monthly. My response, as you can imagine, was uncontrolled laughter. But what’s more subtle here is how he was trying to push me into a particular payscale with his excitement, even though it only worked to his advantage. Remember, you’re the boss of your own life, so you can choose your value. Don’t just take whatever someone offers right off the bat, unless it’s more than what you ask. Oh, and I did end up taking that job, and was paid a multiple of that previous offer, but he was a horrible person to work for. And once I left, he found someone else who could beat my price. They did it for free. Subtle Ways Clients Bully Us

The Unresponsive Mess

You call, they don’t answer. You text, they never get back to you. Multiple voicemails are left, but there’s never word back. Of course, when they need something, they’ll call you, and expect a response immediately no matter the time of day. How are you supposed to work with this kind of person? So is this bullying? Absolutely. It’s a form of manipulation because they want you to work on their terms, not yours. And if you don’t work within their rules, they’ll use it as an excuse to either short you on pay or not pay you at all. If you start to see signs of this, move on, because it’s just not going to work out.

Old School

I swear, I couldn’t make this one up if I tried. I was working at this one place that had a huge history going back 40-some years, making the owner a guy in his 70s. At his desk was a stuffed wolf – like, for real, the animal, done complete with a growling face and angry stance – standing at the back of the boss’s L-shaped desk. He asked me into his office once, and pointed for me to sit down, directing me to the chair in front of the wolf. I politely declined and opted for the seat just to the right, but once I sat down I realized that he still had the advantage. In one of those old school moves, the chairs on my side of the desk were significantly shorter than his, making him sit taller than me, giving him a psychological advantage. The smug look on his face said it all. He wasn’t overt about it (as subtle as you can be with a stuffed wolf in the room, anyway), but this guy’s techniques were designed to intimidate me so that I would comply with whatever he wanted. He was a jerk, and I was glad when I left the company. Don’t let your clients try intimidation tactics, because it’s bullying, plain and simple.

Can You Do Me A Favor?

Oh, it sounds so innocent. Just one little thing – or one more thing to help you out with their design. You do so much for them, and they’re so appreciative, but maybe just one more quick thing? Just as a favor? Stop. Just stop right now and walk away, because they’re going to waste your time and, inevitably, you’ll end up doing something you don’t like just to end the thing for good. Stop doing favors for nice people and understand that it’s a transaction: you do work, and they pay you money. Keep it simple. Subtle Ways Clients Bully Us

Not The Decision Maker

One interesting negotiation technique is to claim that someone else is the true decision maker. You might’ve even done it yourself when buying a car, for example. I have. “I’m sorry, but I can’t make this big of a decision without my wife. We need to make the call together.” It makes sense, and it’s totally understandable, but you don’t want to work with the person under the decision maker, you want to work with the decision maker. Why wouldn’t you? If you find yourself here, negotiate right back. Tell them that you’d like to meet with their decision maker, that way you can get the answers straight from the horse’s mouth (proverbially, of course, unless you’re dealing with an actual horse, and then you should take the job because who wouldn’t want to work with a talking horse?).

Scope Creep

I know this has happened to you, because it happens to me regularly. You accept an assignment from a client, and at first, it’s pretty straightforward: you do the job they requested, you get paid and everyone is happy. But soon things start getting added to the list. “Can you just add this into the workflow?” “Maybe you could finish this in a shorter amount of time?” “OK, now just add exporting to this format to the process.” It’s called Scope Creep, and it’s when the client starts requesting additional work from you without increasing the payout, and it will continue to escalate until you put a stop to things. Is it bullying? Yeah, of course it is, because they’re manipulating you to do something without giving you additional pay, and that’s not fair, right? Of course not. Make your decisions accordingly.

At the end of the day, here’s what you have to remember: you have a valued skill, and you’re serving this client because you can do what they need. You can say no. You can fire your clients. You can get rid of the worm that’s eating your apple. Life’s too short to spend it dealing with horrible people. It’s just a waste of your time.

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About the Author
Kevin Whipps

Hi! My name is Kevin Whipps, and I'm a writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona. When I'm not working taking pictures of old cars and trucks, I'm either writing articles for Creative Market or hawking stickers at Whipps Sticker Co.

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