5 Things I Learned From My Queen of the Damned, Client From Hell 

One of my first clients, well, let’s just say she had the social graces of a suicide bomber, and I learned a lot.

Maybe you’ll be lucky and only have the loveliest of people to deal with forever and always. Chances are, however, that won’t be the case, and you’ll find yourself living out the kinds of Dantesian nightmares that will, with time, become your comedic war stories, anecdotal scars that will serve as your badges of freelance honor. Or maybe that’s too dramatic: chances are pretty good you’ll have a healthy mix of the two. Because there’s no such thing as a perfect freelance project. Every client has pros and cons, and while we hear a lot about the good, I think it’s important to talk about the bad. Because that’s also the reality.

I started out as freelancer, so I had a rather steep learning curve — a friend once told me that everyone’s first job is the always the worst, and I agree with that. Paperwork, contracts, personal boundaries, timelines — I had to adapt as I learned about everything. Simply put, freelance isn’t easy, and while I’ve had a few amazing clients, I’ve also had more than my fair share of abject nightmares.

Since nobody really ever talks about the nightmares, I thought I would shed some light on what I learned dealing with my all-time-worst. Because while part of the craft is creating a veneer of perfection and flawlessness — hello glamour! — there’s also the darker reality of a profession that is unsteady and sometimes cutthroat.

Instead of digging up a bunch of dirt and just letting it sit there like a festering compost heap, I wanted to turn this into something positive. Because the important thing is about learning and growing and evolving. And let’s be honest, if you can’t learn something from everything, you’re not playing the game right. Throughout all of the nonsense you need to maintain a level of professionalism and courtesy, but you also need to stand up for yourself.

In looking back on some of my worst clients, there’s really one who stands out — which is perfect, since she always wanted to be number one. Cheap, demeaning, close minded, narcissistic, and often times frumpy, she was an Ivy League education in everything I never want to become.

Here are the 5 things I learned from my Queen of the Damned client from Hell:

1.) Know Your Worth

When I was first starting out I picked up a client as soon as I moved to New York City. I interviewed, and after a few emails I was hired on a consultant basis. My first hourly wage, my first client paycheck! How exciting, right?

Long story short, I later figured out I was making about 1/5 of the going rate for similar positions. I had no idea what people were charging for comparable work, and in the end I sort of lost out when I signed my contract. Which would be fine if my boss hadn’t previously worked in the industry, and knew exactly what she was doing. But I was young and needed to prove myself, right?

Sure. Except this kind of slash-and-burn would continue on a variety of projects. Every time I would agree to one package, QOTD would demand more work, and then end up paying less than we had agreed to. One project I found out the photographer received $5000 for his work — to create 12 video interviews and a behind-the-scenes video I received about $700. Literally pennies, all because she told me the project had no budget, and she was hoping I could help her out. The reality was this was actually the largest budget we had up until that point, I just didn’t benefit from the upgrade. I only found out because a friend on the inside told me what the budget actually was. This was when I decided to stop “helping” — people are going to take advantage if you let them.

As a freelancer people tend to underestimate the time involved in the project, as well as the time it took for you to achieve your expertise. And then there are clients who think they shouldn’t have to pay for anything — that would be QOTD. Greed ain’t pretty, baby.

Knowing your worth is critical, and I think freelancers starting out are inherently bad at knowing their worth. On the one hand they might still be fresh, but loaded with potential, so yes, you might need to start at a lower rate, but on the other, there’s a distinct line between “low budget” and “profiteering.”

2.) Set Boundaries

As a tried-and-true Virgo, I’m a natural workaholic, especially if I love what I’m doing. When I started out freelancing I was super excited to get started working on projects, and the whole experience was a thrill to get that paycheck. As a result I sort of lost sight that I was a human first, and a contractor second.

QOTD hired me to create a series of videos with matching widgets that would allow us to embed the project onto different blogs while maintaining a cohesive look. Thinking it might be good to get some metrics, I incorporated a Google Analytics tag just as an afterthought.

After working on the project for quite some time, I got an email at 10PM asking for a specific set of click-through metrics — metrics that weren’t supposed to be delivered as per our discussions and emails. These were something I was never told about. Since I lived online at the time and was always on call, I replied right away — and got myself caught in a firestorm of belittling emails, where I was attacked and thrown under the bus by my co-worker. After standing up for myself and remaining professional, the last email was sent at midnight.

The truth of the matter is QOTD was deathly afraid of looking stupid in front of her clients. This in turn made her incredibly hard on her team. But instead of working with us, letting us be her support system, whenever she didn’t do something right we were the ones who got the blame.

I was being blamed for not delivering click through metrics, something she had promised the client, but something she forgot to tell me about. Instead of getting credit for my foresight in adding Google Analytics, which in effect gave us the same results albeit in a different format, I was instead thrown under the bus for what I hadn’t even been asked to do. My co-worker, whose fault it actually was since she would’ve been responsible for communicating that request, was quick to say she thought it was obvious I should’ve included the click through metrics.

Maintaining professionalism at midnight on Monday night is not something I signed up for, especially when I’m in the right.

So what did I learn from this? Set boundaries.

Make it clear what you’re doing, what the project entails, and don’t feel bad about setting up business hours. I’m typically available from 10-6pm, and I refuse to do business via text message. If I reply to an email outside of my business hours, that’s my choice — I will not be expected to reply at all hours of the day.

Because without boundaries you quickly self-imolate, and your work suffers. I don’t care how much you think you can handle: everyone needs downtime.

I also don’t do things over Gchat, after QOTD would always chime in and ask for things done NOW. I still get PTSD when I hear that sound effect. I don’t do text messages, since those often arrive while I’m out with friends, and it’s still my personal phone that they get sent to. I don’t really do unscheduled phone calls, since I need things in writing, and in the end, it’s better for both me and my clients.  After enough surprise attacks, that’s my way of operating, and sorry not sorry, it works for me.

Some people might bristle at you trying to establish your boundaries. They think that because they’re paying you they can treat you however they want. They think because you’re nice they can get in touch with you every way they want to. When you’re starting out you might think you have to just take it — but you really don’t.

You’re a contracted professional. And I think it’s fair you’re treated like one.

3.) Take Care of Your Team

A few years ago I got mugged in the East Village. It was 11pm on a Friday night, and while the neighborhood isn’t glamorous, it isn’t typically that dangerous. I was staring at my phone and not paying attention, and someone decided they needed that phone more than I did. After getting jumped and thrown to the cement, I ended up with some pretty nasty cuts and scrapes, and still have some scars to show for the ordeal.

I was fine, and some strangers on the scene took good care of me. But in addition to some nasty scrapes on my knees and elbows, the entire lower portion of my right palm was basically gone, which made working with a laptop a little difficult. At the time I was working with 3 clients on the regular, so I made sure they all knew the situation.

I was on deadline with Client 1 and told them that I might be a few days late due to what happened. One of my highest paying clients ever, they wrote back immedigately asking if I was ok and if I needed anything — and they told me to take whatever time I needed and not to worry about it. I ended up meeting my deadline anyway, partially because I was encouraged. People will always do more than is required when they feel appreciated.

Client 2 had a shoot scheduled that had already been rescheduled once, and so I made it work. I showed up with bandages clearly visible, because you can’t really hide things like that, and I was met with an “OMG are you ok?” and some of the nicest treatment I’ve ever had on set. We got the project done and it was brilliant. The next time I saw the client she asked me how I was, and if everything was ok.

Empathy is critical, and I view all of my work as a collaboration, less as a work-for-hire than about creating and caring for a team.

QOTD, on the other hand, does not view things as such.

Despite arriving bandaged up, there was no expression of concern or any asking if I was ok. The only thing I remember her saying was “Oh my god.”  I arrived on set to do a shoot and have a meeting about a video and web site that was scheduled to go live in the next few weeks. It was an internal project and the deadline couldn’t have been more flexible — it had already been rolled back a bit with no issue, and there wouldn’t have been any kick back had we pushed it another week. That said, I never said anything about being late with my work.

After having our meeting, QOTD looked me up and down and simply said “I know you’re going through….. issues… but I’m concerned you won’t actually be able to get your work done.”  She also expressed concern that she wasn’t getting preferential treatment over my other clients. Even though she was paying less than a third of their rates.

I told her I’ve never missed a deadline, and made my way home.

The lesson here? Take care of your people. Honestly, I had low expectations of her as a human at that point, but that was the final nail in the proverbial coffin. Show your team love and respect, and they’ll take care of you in return, you know? I finished the project on time, but I never again put the same amount of heartfelt attention into my work for her.

Which brings me to my next point:

4.) Care Enough

In my short time in New York I’ve transformed from more of a quiet, afraid-to-say-anything person into someone who is now accused of sometimes being abrasive. Truth hurts, baby.

Short, one word emails demanding changes immediately. Brisk phone calls demanding changes to projects for free. Snide remarks in meetings — “Have you ever actually dealt with VIPs?” was my favorite remark, after I had personally worked with Iman for another client. I’ve dealt with it all, and you learn to filter out the bad and just get your job done.

So let’s set the scene. It had been a very busy, very tense month leading up to fashion week of constant edits and work. I had just been mugged, and I had finally gotten a little bit of time to take some family vacation. I made it clear I would be gone, and I would only be gone for a few days. As soon as I landed and turned on my phone, I had a text message asking me to do something ASAP. I snapped that they needed to get their schedule in order, that I wasn’t available, and dismissed the project.

We made it through fashion week, which was likewise a toxic atmosphere, and we all decided to have a meeting. I tried expressing the fact I felt overworked and underappreciated. The biggest issue was she would bring in clients and sell them vague projects, and then expect me to figure it out and make it work for a tiny budget. The fact she was selling projects she didn’t understand was literally costing me time and money, and I had enough. Choking through my words, and shaking because I was so angry and upset, I was met with the dismissive:

“You care too much.”

Mmmmkay.

I’m a creative person and I take my work seriously. I always have, and I always will — I think people don’t care enough about, well, anything these days. And so I will always continue to care too much about things.

What this client from hell was saying was that she didn’t care that I was upset, because she couldn’t put herself in my shoes. She wasn’t listening to what I was saying, or wasn’t even capable of taking care of her teammates. It’s sad, and that’s just what it is.

But what I learned is that sometimes  you only have to care enough.

Because chances are pretty good the client won’t care, and won’t notice, when you’re going above and beyond. Because if they’re not standing over your shoulder watching you do the work, chances are pretty good they really won’t understand how much you’re slaving away.

Am I saying not to make an effort? Absolutely not. What I am saying is you need to figure out for yourself how much work and effort you need to be putting into your projects where you’re creating work that’s representative of you and your talents, without giving away too much of yourself. Because that’s how you become burnt out.

I’ll be honest, this is something I still struggle with a lot, and I have no real suggestions for how to achieve this mental state.  It’s just something to be aware of and be working towards.

5.) Laugh About It

Queen of the Damned has given me more comedic material than I could ever have hoped for — coming to a stand up act near you — and while the trauma of dealing with the situation means I’m still scared when the Gchat sound dings, I also have some great one liners and character jokes as a result.

At the end of the day you have to laugh about the situation.

I live alone, I work alone, and I don’t really have hobbies that I haven’t somehow turned into work — hi, I’m a freelance hermit — so I totally get how it can sometimes be difficult to actually disconnect from the things that are driving you crazy.

One thing I’ve learned is that while venting is necessary and critical to mental health, venting too much is actually worse. I was reading about it, and studies even show too much venting can put you back into the mental situation of the time you’re venting about, which in turn can trigger biological systems to also revert back to that time. Meaning you’re bringing on the stress by talking about it.

So, grab a drink with a friend and give yourself one margarita to talk about what’s driving you mad. Once that first one is done, maybe it’s time to switch the topic.

Jeff Smith

Jeff started in photography and short format video, and he's been at the forefront of the web tv movement. He’s worked on haute couture shoots in Paris, shot street style in Milan, and is currently developing a steady roster of beauty, fashion, and digital clients in NYC.