Follow That Gut Feeling: 4 Signs You’re Dealing with a Toxic Client

UPDATED: August 3, 2023
PUBLISHED: August 4, 2023
business manager in front of his computer looking frustrated because he's dealing with a toxic client

A few years ago, ghostwriter Marcia Layton Turner met with a potential client for the first time. The meeting went well—the client had a clear idea for the book and Turner thought they might be a good fit. She scheduled a second meeting to talk about the book in more detail.

“It was during that meeting that I got a totally different impression of this client,” she says.

In the meeting, where the client’s associate was also present, Turner asked him a question.

“The female associate started to answer and he cut her off angrily,” she recalls. “It was totally rude and I was shocked by it.”

Right then, Turner knew she no longer wanted to work with the client.

How to spot a toxic client

Unlike Turner’s situation, however, it’s not always so easy to spot a toxic client right away. A business owner might sign a contract with a client before discovering they aren’t a good fit. Or, they might have gone against their initial feeling, signed with a toxic client and later regretted it. 

Here are some signs that you may be dealing with a toxic client, as well as how to terminate the relationship the right way.

They don’t trust you

A client comes to you because they know you’re skilled in your field… right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Baruch Labunski, founder of Rank Secure, an SEO marketing company, knew from the moment that he started talking with a potential client that he “was one of those people who would never be happy with anything that was done,” he says. “It was in his tone and his attitude.”

But since Labunski needed the money, he took the job anyway. Eventually, he saw how his gut feeling turned out to be right.

“[The client] scoffed at any professional advice and truly believed he knew better than me about marketing, even though he came to me for help,” Labunski recalls. “He said every plan and proof I sent him was wrong.”

The lesson? Don’t work with people who don’t trust that you’ll do a great job for them.

“It was an awful experience, and I fired him as a client halfway through the project,” Labunski says. “I missed out on a lot of money because I didn’t finish it, but it wasn’t worth it.”

They don’t treat your employees with respect

At Miami’s Armour Settlement Services, President Tali Raphaely cut off a client once they started upsetting Raphaely’s employees.

“They felt disrespected and that none of their efforts were getting any appreciation whatsoever,” Raphaely says. “We are very protective of our people, who work so hard and care so much about the company.”

Raphaely had a conversation about it with the client, but it was clear they weren’t going to change their behavior. So he did what he had to do to keep his employees satisfied: “We made the decision to show our staff our support and stop working with the client immediately.”

They don’t respect your personal time

Sonya Lee, a mindfulness coach who previously worked as a design freelance artist, received a text on Christmas Eve of 2016 about meeting with a potential client.

“I quickly agreed because time is money, and set up a phone call to speak with the founder right away,” she recalls. “He did not seem to be bothered by the fact that I was out of town visiting my family, at a bustling restaurant in the middle of a meal. I knew at that time that this was going to be toxic based on the fact that this client was so eager to overlook the holidays and my own family plans,” she says. “But nonetheless, I agreed to it.”

He told her there would be a hotel room in Las Vegas where she could stay when she flew out to meet him. But when she arrived, there was none.

Now, Lee knows to never go with a client who isn’t considerate up front. “A great client is someone who will respect your time, boundaries and experience,” she says.

They don’t listen to you

When Mike Wood, founder of the marketing and Wikipedia editing company Legalmorning, notices a potential client isn’t listening to him, he won’t sign with them.

“[Watch] their reaction when you answer their questions,” Wood says. “If they cut you off and ask a different question, they likely aren’t listening and just want you to tell them something they want to hear.”

Wood won’t take on these clients’ projects because he knows they will end up being a disaster.

“These are the projects that you wind up failing at because although you provided them the exact service you stated, they ultimately did not receive what they hoped for,” he explains.

How to end a relationship with a toxic client

Whether you’ve had one meeting or you’ve worked with a toxic client for a long period of time, there are amicable ways to terminate the relationship—or convey you don’t want to work with them in the first place.

For Turner, that involved sending a quick message.

“As soon as the Zoom session concluded, I sent an email conveying that, as it turns out, I was not available to take on this project,” she says. “The client wanted to schedule another meeting to understand my change of heart but I declined. I also let the person who had referred him know about his behavior.”

Labunski said he told his client that he appreciated the work, but needed to end the professional relationship. 

Raphaely also takes an honest approach with any toxic clients he deals with. “In situations like this, we simply tell the client it’s not a good fit and that we can’t accept any new orders from them,” he explains.

The bottom line? If you’re trying to decide whether or not you’re dealing with a toxic client, look at the signs and trust your instincts.

“Your gut is a good indicator of who may be a good client for you,” Turner says. “If you feel a hesitation or anxiety about a client, pay attention to that. Something is amiss that your body is trying to warn you [about].”