I recently had a prospect contact me about redesigning their website. This is a fairly typical experience for me since I’ve been doing freelance design work for about a dozen years, so we proceeded to do some initial intake questions and get clear on their needs. I then provided them with a project proposal and a contract to sign to begin the work. This is where things got sticky. The prospect came up with some vague excuses why they wouldn’t or couldn’t sign a contract. It was also a major red flag for me so I subsequently [politely] declined the project. As a result, we both went our separate ways, but it got me thinking about the many red flags that prospects and potential clients reveal to us. And wanting to learn more about how to avoid the “clients from hell” in your freelance or solo business.
After that, I posed the question to my terrific network on Twitter. The responses I received were tremendous! The thread became not only a cathartic sharing of experiences but a great learning tool that I wanted to dive deeper into and share with you. It can be hard to tell if a client will be good or bad before you sign on with them. This post will help you avoid the “clients from hell” so that your freelance business can thrive.
🚩 The Clients from hell Red Flags 🚩
1. They won’t sign a contract.
As I mentioned from my experience, if they won’t sign a contract, they aren’t serious about doing business with you. A written contract protects both you and the client. It doesn’t have to be a document full of legalese! But putting down in writing exactly what you’ll be providing, for how much, and the timeframe is important to avoid any miscommunication.
2. They balk at having to pay a deposit to get started.
A deposit upfront before beginning work is a must in my book. This secures your time. It gets the attention and energy of the client as well. The deposit lets you know that the client is serious about getting the work completed and has the money/intends to pay for the work. Above all, it gets everyone on the same page.
Writer & PR consultant Michelle Garrett has this on her list of red flags:
They:— Michelle Garrett (@PRisUs) June 8, 2021
Are in too big a rush to getting started.🚩
Say they have NO competitors.🚩
Balk when you ask for some form of payment upfront.🚩
Ask for too many meetings/too much work upfront before agreeing to hire you.🚩
Unable to clearly articulate how they're different.🚩
3. They don’t respect boundaries (in some cases even before ever working with them)
When a client expects you to answer calls, emails, messages at all hours of the day and night, things are destined to go south. Establishing boundaries and expectations about communication upfront is a good way to keep things running smoothly. Don’t be afraid to establish work hours for yourself and stick to them! Schedule calls or meetings so the client still gets attention and their concerns heard. In short, communication is good, unless it’s over-the-top.
Steve Morgan, SEO consultant, and author found this out the hard way:
One of the worst clients I ever had sent me an email, a LinkedIn message, a text, & also tried to call me in the space of an hour when they first contacted me as an enquiry. Should’ve known that that was a very bad sign… 😂😩— Steve Morgan (@steviephil) June 8, 2021
4. They use phrases like “It’s just a quick/easy job.”
If the project is so quick and easy, the client could do it themselves. When a prospect is using phrases like this, they are letting you know that they want the project done fast and cheap, regardless if it actually warrants that. A red flag like this doesn’t have to end the relationship, but you should stay on alert.
Copy editor and proofreader, Robyn Santa Maria put this one on the list:
The initial conversation is all about budget and very little about expected outcomes; you can tell their shopping for the lowest price. And they say things like "it won't take you long, it's just a quick job".— Robyn Santa Maria (@RobynJaneSM) June 9, 2021
5. They lack clarity and struggle to give direction or define their goals.
When a potential client has a hard time defining their own goals, doesn’t seem clear on what they want, and/or is unable to give much in terms of direction, this should be a red flag for you. It could be an indicator that they don’t know what they want and will be difficult to please. Or it could also let you know that they are struggling with defining their own goals and messaging, which is just setting you up for failure. No matter what you provide on the project, it won’t be successful. Subsequently, it’s a good idea to avoid these clients.
Both Nicole Slaughter Graham & Brian Eastwood have had this experience:
They give very little direction but then tell you what you’ve turned in is all wrong. They reschedule or are late to https://t.co/0BcQvRAxec. that they schedule. They say things like “this shouldn’t take you that long” or “this should be easy.”— Nicole Slaughter Graham (@nslaughtgraham) June 9, 2021
"Other writers are struggling with our messaging, too."— Brian Eastwood (@Brian_Eastwood) June 9, 2021
Ok #freelancers I wanna hear about your red flags 🚩🚩🚩— Kelli Koladish - The Growth Catalyst™ (@kellikoladish) June 8, 2021
As in, terrible clients you've worked with that you later looked back and said, "I should've known!"
If you haven’t seen any red flags with your new prospect and want to know more about onboarding new freelance clients, check this out.