Bad clients are expensive. It’s weird to think about, since the whole point of a client is that they pay you, not the other way around. But a bad client actually costs you money. This article is about how to avoid those – and how to spot a bad client before they become a huge pain your backside. As a freelancer, I’ve had to turn down freelance work before and “fire” clients. It’s something most freelancers will do at least once in their careers (or something they wish they’d done).
It’s tough to know when to turn down freelance work because, well, money is a lot of fun. But what about when you have a client you thought was going to be awesome, but isn’t anymore? When your gut is feeling off, but you can’t quite put your finger on it? If you think you’ve got a bad customer on your hands, watch out for these red flags.
How to spot a bad client as a freelancer
If you’ve already taken on a client, it’s too late to turn them down politely. However, you also don’t want to end up in a major freelance client horror story situation. With that in mind, here’s how to spot a bad client as a freelancer, keeping an eye for eight red flags in specific.
1 – Pushy on prices
As a freelancer, you’re going to have customers that negotiate your rates with you. That’s totally ok. You may choose to not negotiate, which is definitely a valid option. But if you’re wondering how to spot a bad client, look no further than someone who is ultra pushy on prices, that’s a huge red flag.
When I say “pushy” I don’t mean asking for a discount. I mean being rude about price, asking for price changes after you’d signed the contract, or using nasty tactics like claiming that because they “let you” charge full price up front, you owe them more work for free. This is a huge no-no.
The moment this happens, you should stand your ground and calmly explain that you agreed on the price, and that’s what the client will pay. That usually solves the problem. In rarer cases, you may have to stop work, “fire” that client, and potentially not get paid anything – it’s happened to me a couple times and it could happen to you. However, it’s worth it every single time. If it’s a relatively small amount of money, you can just walk away. If it’s a bigger amount of money, you can negotiate a pay rate for any work already completed.
2 – Obsessed with every little detail with no reason
This kind of client appears great at first – “invested in the project” – but can quickly turn into a bad client. If you’re wondering how to spot a bad client based on how they talk about details, check the style of their questions. A client that asks questions about how a piece of your work fits both scope and outcome of the project is great – we like those. But if the questions are more about “how much you did” or asking “why did you do this” without connecting it to the project, that’s a red flag.
In most cases, you can default to the project scope to defend yourself. This is especially helpful for questions that seem to imply you should be doing more work than you were scoped for (Side note: this is also why you should have iron-clad freelancer contracts).
3 – Can’t or won’t tell you the outcome of the project
This happens to all of us as freelancers. The sales process is exciting. The person is ready. They want to hit the ground running. You, expecting their excitement to continue, say absolutely. They agree to your rates and you send the contract. Amazing! Then you start work and realize… no one told you exactly what you’d be doing. So you ask, but suddenly the client isn’t as excited or responsive. It’s like pulling teeth to get them to answer an email or book a call. And when they do get back to you, the answers are non-committal.
Unfortunately, this type of bad customer is hard to get anything from. If someone doesn’t know what they want, then you can’t deliver for them. If you’re doing deliverable-based pricing, that basically means you don’t get paid. After a couple earnest attempts to get them onside and ready to act, it’s probably best to just let the project fall. Go focus on clients that actually are ready to work (and pay you to deliver). If you’re on a retainer, you can remind the client of their obligation to pay you anyway, so you’d like to get to work. Depending on your contract though, you may need to cancel the retainer if they don’t come to the table with project outcomes for you to deliver on.
This is also a good lesson – to ask the right questions of all prospective clients – so you can avoid this trouble for the future.
4 – Always asking you to do more and never delivering what you ask
Freelancing is a partnership. Yes, you are hired to execute on your work. But your client needs to make sure you are able to deliver. That might mean giving you login information, sharing insights or documents, or hopping on a phone call with you. Hopefully, you’ve made that clear in the sales process so the client knows what’s expected of them. Either way though, if the client isn’t delivering their end of the bargain, you can’t deliver yours. That’s a big red flag (and revenue risk).
The same goes for if they keep asking you where the work is that you’re supposed to deliver. If they aren’t making it possible for you to work, it’s not fair of them to demand your deliverables. In these cases, politely remind them of what you need from them. You can explain what you’re able to do (and what you’ve done) without their input, but that you need their input for any further work.
5 – Can’t or won’t tell you the company’s bigger goals
Freelancing is execution-focused, but almost always in support of some larger goal. Even high level freelancers who provide strategic advice are doing it in support of a bigger goal. So it’s a major, project-cancelling red flag if the client can’t – or won’t – tell you the company’s bigger goals.
If they can’t, you’re headed for a dead-end project that will probably require a lot of extra work, handholding, or coaching. If they won’t tell you, that’s an indication your client doesn’t trust you. And if they don’t trust you, the project will go nowhere and chances are they may even demand a discount or refund for “low quality work.” Of course, the low quality will be their fault, but they’ll still blame it on you.
6 – Unresponsive
One of the worst feelings as a freelancer is sending deliverables and sending an invoice, only to have the client not respond. You’re entitled to be paid for the work you delivered, but it’s such a weird feeling. The only feeling worse than that is when you are ready to start work… and the client doesn’t give you any direction or go-ahead to start work. So not only are you not getting any feedback or partnership from your client, you aren’t even able to start working. It’s a horrible feeling like you’re entirely stuck. It gets worse if you’ve signed a retainer contract.
If you’re dealing with an unresponsive client, eventually you will have to pull the plug. You can do this politely and calmly, simply focusing on the facts of the matter. If you like the client otherwise, you can add a note that you’re happy to pick the project back up when they are ready to take action. Unfortunately there’s little more you can do. Otherwise you’ll just be wasting more of your time.
7 – Blames you for everything
Part of being a freelancer is owning – and correcting – your mistakes. Nobody is perfect, and that’s fine. It’s how you handle the mistake and fix it that counts. And a good client knows that. Of course, they have a right to expect that you deliver what you agreed upon, so you can’t get mad if a client does that. However, there’s a difference between a client that expects you to deliver and a client that blames you for everything.
When a client has high expectations, you can rise to meet them or choose not to work with them (if their expectations are unreasonable or not in your skill set). But if you find yourself dealing with a client that blames you for their problems or other issues outside of your control, put an end to that immediately. The first step is to stand your ground and point out how the issues they blame you for are not in your scope – and perhaps they should talk to someone else. This step is as much for defending yourself as it is for documentation, should things get ugly. From there though, this type of client probably deserves to be fired if they don’t come around quickly (and apologize for their error).
8 – Mocks or demeans you (or your work)
Tough clients with high expectations happen in freelancing. Working with them can be difficult, but it can also be rewarding (either financially or because you learn something from them). What’s not helpful or appropriate is a client that mocks or demeans you.
Delivering tough criticism is one thing. Calling you (or your work) stupid or some other personal insult is crossing the line. A quick mental test you can run when you get negative feedback is to ask yourself if it’s about the outcome of the project, or about you as a person. If it’s about the outcome of the project, you should engage. When it’s about you, then it’s not fair, appropriate, or worth engaging.
If this is something off the cuff, you can choose to ignore it and move on. But if it becomes a larger or more common thing, you need to stand up for yourself or move on from that client. This can be especially tough if they are worth a lot of money to you. However, constantly getting mocked or demeaned by someone can take a serious toll on your mental health and it’s almost never worth it in the long run. There are plenty of ways to make more money freelancing even if you can’t find new clients.
Bad clients cost more than they are worth
Even though you make revenue from your clients, each one has a cost. In freelancing, your time and energy is a critical resource. A client that drains you is functionally draining your business.
You may not notice it like you would notice a cash expense, but over time you’ll be more tired, more burnt out, and less able to grow your business. And that sucks. So don’t just think about your clients in terms of how much money they are worth to you. Think about how much time, effort, and energy it takes to work with them. In other words, think about the cost of doing business with that client. Sometimes, it’s just not worth it.