When to Fire a Toxic Client

No matter how long you’ve been in business, a “Client from Hell” could be waiting in the wings.  Learn how to recognize the danger signals so you can “fire that toxic client” hopefully before becoming entangled.

Watch: Keeping Video Production Clients Happy

Our Most Toxic Client

Our record was mostly good for decades until we accepted the client to end all toxic clients. His publicist wanted video of him speaking in front of an audience to promote his new book. He asked if we could videotape him speaking to a pretend audience. He wanted three teleprompters so he would look more natural. Our director of photographer, Mark Schulze, warned him that you cannot fake speaking to an audience.

The client – we’ll call him Andy – was insistent. We should have taken this as a warning sign, but Mark and I both appreciated Andy’s story so we agreed to shoot his video at our home studio. We set up three teleprompters and a second camera package, green screen and lighting. We charged him half of what we would have invoiced a typical corporate client.


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After the shoot, we showed Andy the footage. He was excited and cut a check on the spot. He appreciated the first edited video we sent him a week later with a blue curtain keyed in as background. I even added an audience at the beginning and end, marrying it with audio of a murmuring audience I found at Audioblocks.

But he wanted me to edit two more videos. For the next few weeks, Andy requested that I change out the background a few times and deliver “little test videos.” I should have said no, but instead I spent more time in the editing bay than with family who had flown into town to see us for the holidays. Just when Andy’s project was nearly done, he’d throw another curve ball. Every time he wanted a change, I warned him it would entail more editing hours and I’d have to purchase more background plates. “Just do it,” he commanded angrily, as though budget was not an issue. This should have been another warning sign that we should cut ties with Andy, but we persisted.

We undertook his project because we believed in his message, so even though we normally get a contract in place prior to a large project, we moved forward on a handshake.

We undertook his project because we believed in his message, so even though we normally get a contract in place prior to a large project, we moved forward on a handshake. I bought music and background plates for his project, anticipating he would pay us. We even let Andy have downloadable non-watermarked clips. I know — amateurish. But we trusted him.

When he failed to respond to several emails with our invoice attached, we knew something was wrong, but by that time, it was too late to take back the hours of work we had sunk into the project. In a telephone conversation, he admitted that his publicist did not like the videos because they seemed “too fake” — exactly the issue we had tried to warn him about at the beginning.

Fresh after filing our first ever Small Claim to get Andy to pay what he owes us, here are some red flags we should have noticed along the way.

Red Flags

“Good, Fast or Cheap: Pick Two” – This is the video producer’s axiom. Beware of the client who wants all three: good, fast AND cheap. We’ve discovered that the client with the smallest budget needs the production done yesterday and wants it to look like a Hollywood movie. If the client doesn’t understand the problem with this, it’s time to drop them.

What’s the Budget? – Most authors don’t have much money unless they’re J.K. Rowling.  We figured that, because Andy was once an attorney who lived in an upscale neighborhood with an ocean view, he would pay us as agreed in past emails, even with substantial discounts. But he balked. Find out what your client wants to spend on the video. Don’t lower your rates “for just this one time.”  That’s a slippery slope and a “race to the bottom.”  If your client cannot afford your rates, tell them it is better to wait till they can and thank them for their interest in your services.

Unrealistic Expectations – A great video producer tries to deliver everything the client wants. This is why pre-production should take more time than production itself. Communicate with your client and write down everything you will do, along with dates and what everything will cost. Structure a payment plan, i.e., first third due upon signing the agreement; second third due after the shoot and final third due upon delivery of edited master. You and the client both sign off on the agreement so there are no unpleasant surprises down the road. If the client isn’t cooperative at this stage, think about whether you really want to continue your relationship.

Failure to Sign Your Contract – We sent Andy a Production Services Agreement to sign at the beginning of our relationship, but he ignored it. When he presented us with a check directly after the shoot, we ass-u-med he would pay for the editing, too. We were wrong. In retrospect, maybe that first check was his “loss-leader” and maybe he never intended to pay for the editing.

Don’t rely on a handshake to seal the deal, always get a signed contract.

Contentiousness – From the first phone call, Andy was argumentative. Even after warning him that a simulated presentation had little chance of looking “real,” he still wanted to hire us to do this “simulated” show. When his publicist noticed that his performance was “not good” for her use, he decided not to pay us for the rest of our work. As an award-winning editor with “the eyes of a fawn and the skin of a melon,” I suffered a series of Andy’s abusive and snarky emails until realizing they were probably just part of his campaign to not pay us in the end. Looking back, I had more than sufficient reason to ditch Andy much sooner.

In Conclusion

I hope that these little tips can help you sidestep an abusive client. Writer Steve Maraboli says “Don’t let someone’s words blind you from their behavior.” Stay sharp, and if you ever do become entangled with the “Client from Hell,” take it as a lesson; you’ll be stronger for it.

Patty Mooney has been a VP at San Diego’s longest-standing video production company, Crystal Pyramid Productions since 1982.  She serves as a Producer, Editor, Sound Tech, Boom Pole Operator, in Voice-Overs and as a Writer.

I have been involved in video production since 1982 and wear many hats: Producer, Editor, Teleprompter Operator, Sound Mixer, Boom Pole Operator, Voice Over and Camera Operator. And in my "spare time," I enjoy Mountain Biking, Hiking, World Travel, Beer and Wine Tasting, and Philanthropy.


  1. If you want to get paid for your work, before you start a project, you’ll send your client a Letter of Agreement that clearly spells out exactly what s/he going to get for a given price, i.e. hours, people, tasks and gear.

    The LofA also spells out costs for extra hours of shooting, editing and other production services… states when fees are due… and what happens to the project if fees are not paid.

    Consider the LofA less a legal document and more a summary of conversations you’ve had with the client that features a concise list of services, time limits to complete each phase, personnel list and gear list plus payment schedules; it’s your last chance to spell out what you are going to do for a given price and to clear up any misunderstandings.

    Having said that, if the unspeakable happens and you have to take a client to court to recover unpaid fees, the signed LofA is the strongest protection you will have. This is why I don’t write a single word or shoot a minute of footage until the LofA is signed and the first check clears the bank.

    Finally, if I have strong concerns about the client ignoring my advice and making critical missteps, I clearly (but diplomatically) state those concerns in the cover email that accompanies the LofA. I include a statement that I will nevertheless agree to the client’s wishes and will continue to attempt to help in any way I can. I end by saying I hope the finished project will meet the client’s expectation but it is important to understand extra charges will apply should the client want reshooting, rewriting or reediting.

    Occasionally, a client may request a change or clarification to the LofA, which is fine.

    However, if they want extensive revisions, this is a client 1) who has been burned by video crews before… in which case you might be able to capture a longterm and grateful client by delivering a pain-free production and polished product or 2) who is attempting to write in language s/he can use to delay or avoid payment, or sue you afterwards for failure to deliver on promises made. If this is what my gut… or a couple of research calls tell me… I tell these clients I’m not the right guy for this project, thank them for considering me and tell them goodbye.

    Guess what? I always get paid and clients always come back.

    You don’t show your professionalism and expertise by agreeing with clients who have unrealistic expectations and are destined to fail.

    Instead, you show your value by helping clients succeed.

    Do this by carefully listening and taking notes… clearly communicating with them in person and in writing… giving them honest advice on how to complete the project on time, on budget and in an esthetically pleasing way … steering them away from failure by making decisions you need to make and allowing them to make decisions they need to make… and always delivering more than promised.

    Let me know how this works for you!

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