Many business owners and self-employed people feel as though they don’t have much of a choice about the clients they take on. Any work is good work, right? Well, not really.
In fact, taking any job that comes your way can be a big mistake and it can set you and your business back. Bad clients come in various guises, but there are a few patterns to watch out for.
Let’s have a look at the most common client red flags indicating that a prospect might be more trouble than they’re worth.
They ask for free work
This is shockingly common and shows that the prospective client doesn’t really understand what you do or the value it provides.
Sometimes they appeal to sympathy by telling you they’re totally broke but if you’d just do this piece of work for nothing it would help them get back on their feet. Sometimes they ask for an initial freebie to “prove” your ability (that’s what a portfolio is for.) And sometimes they promise you that they’ll tell all their friends about you and that getting to work for them will be amazing exposure for your business.
Whatever guise it comes in, the bottom line is the same: they don’t respect you, your expertise, or your time, and they’re simply trying their luck.
“Exposure” isn’t a currency and doesn’t pay the mortgage. Don’t fall for it.
They ask for work at ridiculously cheap prices
The cousin of “can’t you just do this piece of work for free?” is “why do you charge so much when someone on Upwork will do it for a fiver.”
Your knowledge and expertise has worth, and someone who tries to talk you into working for a pittance doesn’t respect that. If they want to pay the lowest possible rates, they’ll end up with work of the lowest possible quality.
Incidentally: my experience says that the amount a client tries to haggle my rates down correlates directly to how much of a headache they will be to work with.
They expect you to drop everything to be available to them
Fast turnaround work happens sometimes. But it’s a pretty big red flag if someone constantly expects you to drop everything to do work for them at a moment’s notice.
A good client understands that you’re busy and have multiple priorities, and will work with you to agree on a mutually acceptable deadline for the project. A bad client will say things like, “it’ll only take you a couple of hours, can’t you just work late to get it done?”
See also: they email you and then send you a follow-up/chaser email (or worse, phone you to chase it up) an hour later.
Ridiculously vague instructions
A client who is extremely vague or makes you guess what they want is going to be a nightmare to work with. They might not know the exact specifics – that’s what they hire you for, after all. But at least some idea of their expectations is essential. A client who can’t tell you what they want also tends to be a client who will nitpick every last little detail of what you eventually produce until it looks like something they had in their head but didn’t communicate.
They’re disrespectful or condescending
Someone who is rude to you or talks down to you early on in the relationship is unlikely to improve. If they are condescending or otherwise make you feel disrespected, it’s probably not worth engaging any further. You deserve clients who will treat you like the professional you are.
Badmouthing other freelancers or businesses
Most of us have had a nightmare experience or two with someone we’ve worked with. This is normal and sharing a bad experience isn’t a red flag in and of itself.
But if someone has had issues with a string of people one after the other, there’s something else going on and the problem might be them. Beware anyone who says something like, “you’re the sixth web designer I’ve tried, the other five were all idiots.”
Let’s be real: this is the professional equivalent of “all my exes are crazy.”
You know it when you see it
When you’ve been in business for a while, you’ll probably start to develop something of an intuition around new clients. This can be off, of course, but more often than not it’s astonishingly accurate. Trust your gut – if something seems off, ask more questions or politely decline.
What client red flags have you learned to spot over the years?