Bad clients come in many forms. The longer you work as a freelancer, the more you see the wide variety of clients—good and bad—that exist. Often (although not always), bad clients provide some kind of warning sign early on that there are likely to be problems. The tricky part is knowing how to recognize the red flags when they arise and trusting your reaction enough to walk away when it’s called for.
To help you avoid learning the hard way, here are some of the top warning signs veterans know to watch out for and the types of clients they forgo.
- The client that won’t consider a contract.
Contracts are nothing more than a written agreement of basic terms between two parties. They ensure you and your client are on the same page and give you both a chance to cover all your bases when it comes to issues that could arise. It’s immensely reasonable for freelancers to require a contract and any client that seems uncomfortable with it is likely to be trouble down the line.
To be clear, it’s OK for clients to request reasonable changes to the contract you present, just as it’s reasonable for freelancers to request changes to contracts their clients provide. Contracts are often a good catalyst for starting a conversation about what terms you both consider reasonable. But refusing to consider one at all is a sign that you’re probably better off not working with that client.
- The client that asks for a free sample.
Most freelancers have encountered this one, and many of us have even given into it once or twice before learning our lesson. If you have a full portfolio or plenty of samples you can send to prospective clients for review, there’s no reason to do work for free to prove yourself to them. While you may find one or two freelancers out there who have gotten real work after providing a free sample, you’re likely to encounter many more who worked for free, got nothing out of it, and learned to see it as the red flag it is.
- The client that refuses an advance.
Requiring an advance is pretty typical for project work, particularly for bigger projects that will take awhile. It lets you know the client is legit and can be relied on to pay the amount you agreed upon before you put in hours and hours of work for them.
Not all freelancers require advances, and some only do for certain types of projects. But, if you request an advance and the client balks, then it’s reasonable to worry that you’ll have trouble getting paid by them at all. You should especially be concerned if a client wants rush work and won’t consider an advance. If you’re going to move other plans and deadlines around, demand that they give you something upfront so you know it’s worth it and walk away if they don’t.
- The client that can’t communicate what they want.
In some cases, the work a freelancer does involves helping clients figure out what they want, so it may be OK if your client doesn’t have a clear picture of the end result they want from the moment they contact you. But in all cases, the client should have some idea of what they want you to do and what they want the work to accomplish.
If they have a hard time describing what they want, or worse, if what they want seems to change with every conversation you have, then you may be dealing with a familiar client type: the client that will never be happy. No matter what you produce, there will be something about it that “just doesn’t feel right,” but they can never seem to tell you what the actual problem is.
If you have a hard time understanding what a client’s asking for before you ever get started, then you’ll probably have issues throughout the course of the project as well. Avoid this type of client if you can, or be prepared for the frustration and investment of uncompensated time that may follow if you do take on the project.
- The client that misses multiple meetings.
Sometimes things suddenly come up or you do your time zone calculations wrong—it happens. Missing a scheduled call isn’t always a huge red flag. Missing a meeting without an understandable excuse (and an apology) or missing multiple scheduled meetings is.
If a client can’t show up at the times you’ve agreed upon, it means they don’t respect your time and there’s a decent chance you’ll learn they don’t respect you and your work either if you continue working with them.
One of the first lessons every freelancer learns is how important our time and energy is. Anybody that’s cavalier about wasting either one isn’t worth spending any more of either on.
- The client with unrealistic expectations.
This can take many forms: a client hiring someone for SEO services that wants a promise that you’ll get them on page one of Google; a client that wants a difficult project done with an extremely fast turnaround; or, the client that thinks great copywriting or design will make up for a bad business idea.
If you sense a client expects something from you that you can’t deliver, at the very least you should clearly shut that down. If they can come around to a reasonable view of things, you may still be able to work together. But if they seem intent on insisting on the impossible (or the implausible), then there’s no point in doing work you know will only disappoint them.
- The client that wants to pay you way less than you quoted.
A lot of freelancers leave some room for negotiation in the rates they offer, so asking if you’re open to charging a little less or working within the budget they have is sometimes OK. But it’s a problem when they come back asking you to work at far lower rates than you’ve proposed.
If your relationship is starting from a place of them saying the work you do is worth far less than you believe it to be, then you can trust that they won’t respect your work once it’s delivered. Many a freelancer can tell stories of the clients that pay the least being the ones who demand the most. The clients that value you, your work, and your time will know your rates are reasonable.
- The client that undervalues your work in other ways.
Money isn’t the only way clients can tell you they don’t value you. A condescending tone or an assumption they know your industry better than you can also be a clear sign that they don’t respect you.
A client that acts like they’re an expert in the thing they’re hiring you to do (then why hire someone?) will likely micromanage or second-guess you throughout the whole project. A client that casually asks you to do something extra while downplaying how much work it is (“it should only take 5 minutes”) doesn’t understand or value the amount of time and work that goes into what you do.
- The client that’s hard to reach.
Your prospective client expresses excitement about getting started as quickly as possible. They are ready for this project to get going! Then they disappear.
They don’t respond to emails. Your calls go to voicemail. You don’t know what to think. When they pop back up a week later, it’s like nothing’s happened and they’re ready to go.
How do you think they’ll react once they get an invoice? If you have a hard time getting responses from a client at the moment when they actively want something from you, there’s no reason to think they’ll be more responsive when it’s time for them to give you what you’re owed.
- The client that expects you to be available at all hours.
Freelancing comes with the awesome benefit of flexible hours. You can work whenever it’s most convenient for you. The flip side is, sometimes you have to work when it’s not so convenient if you want to get all your work done.
Some clients assume your flexible hours mean you’re available at all hours to them. If they try calling at night or on weekends, then they don’t have good boundaries. If they get upset when you haven’t returned a call within an hour, then they’re likely to be the kind of client that expects more of your time and energy than you can afford to give to one client.
- The client that just gives you a bad feeling.
Sometimes you can’t place why you don’t feel good about a client, but you just don’t. Maybe there’s something in their tone, or a weirdness in how they responded to something you said. If your gut’s telling you something’s wrong, don’t talk yourself out of the feeling because you don’t think it’s reasonable. It’s OK to listen to your gut.
You run your own business, it’s up to you who you work with. Sometimes walking away from paying work is hard, but if you don’t feel good about the project or client, it’s often the best choice. Don’t second-guess yourself.
There may be exceptions to these rules. Now and then a client that exhibits a red flag early on can turn out to be a perfectly good client in the long term if you’re able to effectively communicate the issue and work past it. In most cases though, these types of clients are more trouble than they’re worth.
Bad clients are a distraction from the work you could be doing for good clients. It’s within your power to be picky about you who work for, so don’t let a bad client drag you down.
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