I rarely break up with clients over bad behavior. In fact, it’s been years since I’ve had to pull the plug and call it quits.
But it does happen.
And when it does, I try not to blame the client. Even if the client is being a real [insert your favorite swear word here].
I blame myself for ignoring the red flags.
And to be clear, it’s something that I try to avoid at all costs. I am a big believer in trying to resolve problems with good old-fashioned listening and customer service.
After all, terminating a contract early is an inconvenience for all parties involved and something that should be avoided if at all possible.
This is why, over the years, I’ve tried to prevent these bad interactions in the early stages before they happen by learning to identify common red flags and common characteristics that these problematic clients share before the project ever begins.
Stopping a problem before it starts is always easier in the long run.
Below, you will find a list of my own personal biggest red flags, ranked by severity of the infraction (least to worst).
Each of these warning signs is based on real interactions I’ve had – and negative patterns I’ve observed – over the course of my now 6-year career as a full-time six-figure freelancer. Interactions that, it’s safe to say, didn’t go as planned.
Today, I can proudly say avoiding clients who demonstrate these characteristics has really helped me cut my losses significantly. It’s also helped me make better use of my time by allowing me to focus on great clients who appreciate quality work.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Note: Most of the screenshots below were taken from the Upwork platform, which I use frequently, but I find the same red flags apply to the “real world”.
10. The client says “this shouldn’t take long”
This one, for me, isn’t necessarily an instant deal-breaker but it does raise an eyebrow.
Imagine for a moment that you have hired a contractor to perform a task that you know nothing about. Like hiring a plumber when you’ve never handled a wrench before in your life.
Now imagine proceeding to stand over that plumber as they try to repair your pipes and talk to them about how the task “should be easy” or “shouldn’t take long”.
If I were to play devil’s advocate for a moment, some clients will have more subject matter knowledge than others. Which makes those statements perfectly acceptable and rather harmless.
But it could also be a sign that the client doesn’t fully respect your expertise on the subject.
To determine whether or not this is the case, push back slightly on those assumptions by providing your own cost and time estimate.
If the client graciously accepts these estimates, you’re good to go.
If the client becomes defensive or insists that the project should be “approached differently”, “shouldn’t take that long” or “cost that much” – it may be an early warning sign.
9. The client says “I’m also a …”
I want to start out by saying that there is no harm in subcontracting for another professional in your field.
As a freelance designer, I hire other graphic designers all of the time.
The problem here is similar to the last. If the potential client isn’t really the professional they claim to be, it could, again, be a sign that they won’t respect your time.
Let’s use the above screenshot as a perfect example of someone who is, very likely, not actually a professional designer.
The job post mentions needing a new logo for an eye surgeon’s private practice. The job poster also mentions that he is in charge of running the company.
While there’s an exception to every rule – what do you think the odds are that this person is really a professional graphic artist turned surgeon/owner of a medical-related private practice?
It’s probably more likely that this person is, at best, a hobbyist.
I personally encountered this type of difficult client early on in my Upwork career.
The guy who claimed to be a graphic designer and wanted a newspaper ad for his tutoring business.
I sent over the first draft, and he immediately asked for source files. I obliged.
About an hour later, he sent it back to me saying he had made his own edits and wanted me to “finish it”.
The file was a disaster.
Layers were merged, photographs were distorted and the text was flattened.
We went back and forth like this for several hours. With him sending back broken files and me performing repairs.
As you might imagine, this was more than a simple nuisance. It also added a lot of time to the project.
When it was time to request payment, he refused to pay the originally agreed upon amount citing the fact that he had to “do half the work” himself.
I never received full payment for the project, but I reported him to Upwork.
I don’t know what happened after that, but I’ll tell ya one thing – I don’t plan on working with any more pseudo “designers” any time soon.
8. Excessive communication
I am a big believer in communication.
I ask a lot of questions before taking on a new project or a new client. I’ll even hop on a short introductory phone call if necessary.
But it can be a problem when communication becomes excessive – with multiple calls, multiple interviews and dozens of messages – and you’re not being paid for your time.
I personally experienced this phenomenon a few years ago.
The client was a marketing company looking to retain graphic design freelancers for ongoing work.
I participated in multiple rounds of interviews, multi-hour training sessions, dozens of email exchanges and even installed their proprietary software on my computer.
Four months after our initial engagement, they had failed to produce a single assignment. And I hadn’t received a dime for my time.
As I began to realize that I had given an exorbitant amount of my time away for zero pay-off, I couldn’t help but wonder – if they are dragging their heels this much when it comes to assigning work, how are they going to be about actually paying me?
I listened to that gut feeling and decided to cut my losses and run.
Today, I limit new client inquiries to a single 15-30 minute discovery call and/or a handful of e-mail exchanges. I count anything more than that as a paid consultation.
7. The client says “This is a rush job”
Look, rush jobs happen, it’s part of life.
Sometimes a client might even be willing to pay a higher rate or a rush fee to push their project to the top of the pile.
But I refuse to take on rush jobs with a brand new client.
Mutual trust is, without question, one of the most important aspects of healthy client relationships. And it takes time to establish.
Rush jobs with new clients are the business equivalent of a trust fall with a stranger.
And while everything might turn out just fine. I personally prefer not to enter into a brand new relationship under a pressure-fueled situation.
Editor’s note: This could also be a red flag for existing clients. Good clients know how to plan ahead. And the best clients know how to properly manage a project from start to finish. Rush jobs should be the exception, not the rule.
6. The client says “this is a great opportunity!”
I’m sure we’ve all heard this line at some point in our careers.
It’s usually wrapped in the context of a potential client trying to get you to perform cheap or free work in exchange for “opportunity” (like exposure or future work).
I literally work on multi-million dollar projects on a daily basis that never brag about being multi-million dollar projects.
However, John Smith with a $20 budget loves to tell ya all about how his/her idea is going to absolutely take off, and if you’ll just work a little cheaper, or for equity stake, you’ll be a rich freelancer one day.
In my experience, this is either a sign that the client is naively ambitious (not great), has a small budget (also not great) or nefariously trying to trick you into working on the cheap (even worse).
Don’t waste your time unless the client is willing to pay your normal rate.
5. The client asks for a free sample
This ain’t Sam’s Club – there are no free samples.
Unless you are knowingly volunteering your time and skills to a charity or a good cause, you should never work for free.
It’s problematic for many reasons.
The first (and most obvious) issue is that you’re not getting paid – which is never good for your bank account.
Second, you devalue your work and your time in your client’s mind.
Lastly, for those of you who use Upwork, it’s a breach of their Terms of Service. The act could even result in a temporary suspension from the platform.
Admittedly, I don’t immediately hold it against prospective clients when they ask me for cheap work or free strategy sessions prior to the engagement.
Asking isn’t a crime. They may not know better.
And I’m always happy to provide a brief project overview and point them to my portfolio for additional examples of my work.
But my knowledge and expertise are just as important, if not more important, than my ability to click the right buttons on the computer. And when offering those services, I expect to be paid.
I’ve met far too many clients who have taken my ideas or sketches and farmed them out to a cheaper designer to finish the project.
Tell your prospective client that you’ll be happy to hop on a quick discovery call and that you’ll be glad to provide creative direction and strategize in detail once you’re under contract.
If they push back, it wasn’t meant to be.
4. Your client says “I fired the last freelancer”
Here’s another major red flag.
High turnover in any capacity – whether it be in the freelance world or corporate America – is almost always a reflection on the client or employer.
If you have a prospective client that says they fired the previous freelancer, or that they’ve already cycled through numerous freelancers, it could be a sign of mismanagement, unrealistic expectations or unprofessional behavior (on the client’s part).
When in doubt, ask a lot of follow-up questions about what went wrong. If their answers are suspicious, consider cutting your losses before you end up being another notch in the client’s ex-freelancer belt.
3. The bait and switch
You’ve probably experienced this one before.
The client says they have a healthy budget. You take the bait. But before you know it the client begins to backtrack and now says they can only afford to pay a fraction of the advertised hourly rate.
For me, asking for a lower rate than advertised is almost always an instant deal-breaker.
Deceptive activities such as these are early warning signs that your client may not be an entirely honest individual.
In a nutshell, it’s a huge red flag.
2. A lack of mutual respect
Another instant deal-breaker for me is when the client displays a lack of mutual respect.
A lack of respect may present itself in many forms.
It might be blatant and involve name-calling or belittling.
Or it may be more subtle with a client who is unable to control their temper and becomes short or dismissive.
It may even take its – in my opinion – most annoying form: A power play like mansplaining.
As a female in business, I’m a frequent recipient of disrespect. And generally – at least in my case – it tends to come from a much older male who seems insecure about himself.
All of these offenses can be fairly maddening. And as a business owner – and I do count freelancers as business owners – it’s your job to keep your cool when these types of situations arise.
But you don’t have to put up with it either.
In fact, I think having the ability to say “no” to a rude client or fire a problem client is one of the biggest perks of self-employment.
When I see a client displaying early warning signs that indicate a lack of respect, I simply thank them for their time, let them know that I am not the right fit for the job and wish them luck on their future endeavors.
1. You have a bad gut feeling
Finally, we have the biggest red flag of all – you’ve got a bad gut feeling.
At the end of the day, everyone will have their own potential red flags.
And everyone has a different definition of what it means to be a nightmare client.
What may be deal-breakers for some, may not be for others.
So if you’re having a hard time deciding whether or not you are a good fit for the client and the client is a good fit for you, let your intuition be your guide.
It will rarely lead you astray.
What are your major red flags when it comes to bad clients? What sort of character traits do you think these types of clients share? Have you had any bad experiences lately that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below. Also, don’t forget to connect with me on social using the links below.