4 Warning Signs You Have a Potential Nightmare Client on Your Hands

4 Warning Signs You Have a Potential Nightmare Client on Your Hands

Nightmare clients are often difficult to please.

Nightmare clients are often difficult to please.

Ghostwriting is a rather unusual service business in that clients can have so little familiarity with the writing and publishing process.

Unlike construction, or janitorial services, or even product assembly, which many folks can at least picture, writing endeavors are often a mystery. Couple that with the discomfort many people feel about communicating their thoughts on paper and the potential for disaster can be high.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had few nightmare clients. Sure, there have been a couple that have been challenging, but if any of the following four warning signs surface before I’ve committed to a project, I decline the opportunity. I’ve saved myself lots of time and energy this way.

The four clues to watch for early on include:

1.Excessive demand for your time before the project has even started. One phone call or two up front is reasonable while the prospect assesses all the ghostwriting candidates. But there is a limit.

More than two calls, or constant questions via email or Facebook is pushing it. Likewise, one in-person meeting makes sense – to see if you’re a fit. One.

Prospects who want to schedule phone call after phone call to firm up the scope of the project may expect you to do some work on spec, to test the waters. Or they may simply may need a lot of hand-holding, which you’ll want to be sure to be able to bill for.

Ultimately, the expectation that you will invest time in their project without pay is concerning.

2.Expressions of dissatisfaction about prior ghostwriter(s). Once in a while you’ll come across a potential client who has hired other ghostwriters and been unhappy with their work. They’ll tell you all about their poor experience. Don’t get sucked in.

The truth is, you have no idea what the previous ghostwriter was asked to do and under what constraints. Maybe they were expected to write a complete chapter in two days. Or they were asked to edit when the client really meant “draft from scratch.” Whose fault was that? Probably not entirely the ghostwriter’s.

Miscommunication happens all the time, but when a client takes no responsibility at all for the situation they currently find themselves in, be careful. And if they are quite comfortable bad-mouthing former service-providers, be aware that they will likely be quite comfortable doing the same to you. Are you okay with that?

3.An inability to articulate what you are expected to write about. If you find yourself asking, “Are you saying that…” or “Let me just restate what you said to be sure I’m clear…” the problem may not be with you. Your client may be unclear in their own mind what they want to convey. This could spell trouble for you.

Part of a ghostwriter’s role is to draw material out of a client, or to assist them in expressing themselves. We ask questions, push clients to rethink their position, ask them to come up with examples to support their point, and expect them to provide other resources for us to turn to. After all, it’s their book, article, speech, blog post, or white paper – not yours. You are not the subject-matter expert.

So if your potential client is having trouble telling you what their project is about, or how their perspective is different from current thinking, realize that they may expect you to do all their thinking for them. Is that what you want to do? Is that what you’re being paid to do? Make sure before you sign on the dotted line.

4.Rarely available, or only available during traditional non-working hours, like evenings and weekends.

It’s true that busy people are great ghostwriting prospects, because they often don’t have the time to complete writing tasks. But that doesn’t mean that they can dump a project on an unsuspecting ghostwriter and expect it to turn out well without their input. And yet that may be exactly what they’re expecting.

Some clients think that a ghostwriter will do their thinking for them. They’re under the impression that paying a ghostwriter absolves them of any responsibility to be involved in the work process. After all, they signed the check, right? So they don’t really need to respond to questions via email or accept phone appointments.

This creates a potential nightmare scenario when you’re responsible for ghosting, say, a keynote speech and you have only past speeches to draw on. What does the client want to convey in this new speech? Who is the audience? How does this speech need to be different?

If your client can’t make the time to meet with you by phone or answer questions via email in a timely fashion up front about the scope of work, the deadline, and other particulars, you may not want to take them on.

Few of us are interested in taking on nightmare clients. They’re time-consuming, difficult to please, and a lot more work. But it’s so much easier to avoid them when you know what to look for early on. Keep these four warning signs in mind as you evaluate future business prospects.

What are signs you’ve discovered that warn a client may be uber difficult?

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Marcia Layton Turner


  1. Dennis Briskin on December 31, 2015 at 4:59 am

    Wonderful article. Another sign to add: The client tells you how long something should take you (usually “not that long.”)

    The underlying facts seem to fall somewhere in the following:
    1. The client is buying on price not quality.
    2. The client is sensitive to the cost to them. and/or
    3. The client feels anxious about or fearful of being cheated/overcharged/duped.

    Related to this are the two kinds of working time. Clock time: You work on it until you run out of time regardless of the proximity to completion. Goal time: You work on it until you reach the standard you envisioned however long that may take.

    Even the best of clients need to understand that distinction.

  2. Ally on December 31, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    Great article, Marcia! I’ve got another warning sign for you, too: Be wary when a potential client has wildly unrealistic expectations of bestsellerdom when they don’t have the platform to support such a high level of sales. I’m often surprised how many savvy businesspeople don’t realize similar principles apply to selling a book as they do to selling their own services. People need to know who you are, they need exposure to you and your book, and depending on the book subject they also need to see you as an authority whose advice they can trust. A great book alone rarely becomes a huge bestseller without a strong platform to support it–it happens, but it isn’t as easy as it may look from the outside.

  3. Bobbi Linkemer on January 10, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    I have a knack finding articles and posts like this one AFTER the potential nightmare has already turned into a real nightmare. This point is one I should have read sooner:

    An inability to articulate what you are expected to write about. If you find yourself asking, “Are you saying that…” or “Let me just restate what you said to be sure I’m clear…” the problem may not be with you. Your client may be unclear in their own mind what they want to convey. This could spell trouble for you.

    My client was very clear in his own mind about what he wanted to say; it’s just that he was speaking in a kind of jargon for one that didn’t translate into business language or, sometimes, even plain English. He attributed the problem to a “generation gap.”

  4. Ghost on May 25, 2020 at 5:48 pm

    Here’s another: If your client says, “I’m actually a very good writer,” run. These are the people who believe that no matter how good you are, no matter how many years you’ve put in honing your craft and sweating the small stuff, they can do it better. Often, these “leaders” surround themselves with obsequious minions, each tripping over the other to tell their boss how fabulous and insighful his choice of lunch was. Avoid these narcissists at all costs.

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