How to Identify “Bad” Clients
The ones who are not right for your business — and why.
But how can you tell whether a client is going to be good or bad?
And what about at the beginning, when you’re just trying to build a business?
The thing with bad clients is that they tend to suck the fun out of what you are doing, make unreasonable demands outside the scope of the project, and often push back when it comes to actually paying you.
All of this means that instead of you having the time and energy to build your business, you are stuck catering to this one particular client for much more time than you originally estimated.
Once you learn the signs and can identify “bad” clients, you will do well to stay away from them and spend your time and effort on finding good ones — even when you feel this might be the wrong thing to do.
Here are a number of ways to detect and identify clients you may not want to work with. If you don’t see or ignore signs at the beginning, you may see other signs toward the end of the project, which may be a clear indicator that you do not want to work with them again or any more.
Ways you can detect “bad” clients:
- Their first words are “What are your prices?”
While this is not always a direct indicator, how they respond to you from there will be. For example, when people ask my prices, I always respond with, “My pricing depends on the scope of the work. I can do per-word, per-project, or even monthly prices. Let’s get on a call and discuss what you need!” If they push back hard and just demand a number, I know they are not interested in me as a writer or in my body of work. They only care about the cost, which is indicative that quality is not their top priority and that they may see me only as a means to an end, not as a independent worker with separate time and needs.
- They immediately or aggressively push back on your pricing.
Ok, you told them how much you charge. But they immediately come back with “Whoa! That is wayyyy too much! My budget is about 1 cent per word. Can you do that?” No. I cannot. That is WELL below average market rate, not to mention well below my OWN rate, which they just learned. It is a direct insult to me for them to see a price, let’s say 15 cents per word, and to immediately come back with a counter offer which is not only unfair, but insulting considering my body of work and experience. This shows they do not respect me or my experience and again are not concerned with quality.
If they seem genuinely confused, I may spend a few moments with them discussing average market rate and quality versus price, and in those cases where it is confusion, misunderstanding, or genuine ignorance, they often thank me for taking the time to explain it to them. But sometimes these people will be arrogant or rude in the way the demand top quality for bottom-of-the-barrel pricing, so I will not waste my time explaining. I simply say “No, thank you.” and move on. Pick your battles.
- They don’t want to sign a contract.
I have a contract with every single client, even a one-time project client, before starting work. And I learned to ask for a deposit, too! I now ask for 25% up front and the rest upon completion for projects, though that is waived for monthly retainer clients. I got a simple 2-page contract online and had a lawyer friend take a look to make sure it makes sense. Within it, I spell out exact delverables, timelines, and payments.
When a client doesn’t want to sign a contract, that is immediately fishy to me. Why wouldn’t they want to sign something that protects both of us and shows what they are getting? The only reason I can come up with is if they didn’t want a legally binding document saying they had to pay me.
I am also flexible and completely open to signing their contract if they prefer theirs over mine. I just make sure to read it thoroughly and verify the details are correct.
If a client is unwilling to sign a contract before starting work, they are essentially asking you to “just trust them” that they will pay you — but you don’t even know them! Why should you trust them yet? Do not feel any guilt if this happens. Be straightforward and say “I cannot start work until the contract is signed. I can resend it to you and we can get started ASAP!” Put it back on them. If they are a “bad” client, they will try to get you to start right away. They’ll say they have deadlines or immediate needs, or promise to pay you, or whatever. Do not fall victim to this. If their needs were so immediate, they would sign the contract right away.
I accept digital signatures, too. I do not make it difficult, and my contract is very simple and straightforward. There are only negative reasons why someone would NOT want a contract signed before beginning work.
- They are not responsive to emails/texts with questions or needs.
If they are not responsive while you are wooing each other and trying to learn what the project even IS, how can you know they will respond to you when it comes to the work, time-sensitive questions, or payment? Use the way they interact with you prior to signing the contract as a general indication of how they may act later.
- They try to make many additional or unreasonable demands outside the scope of the work you previously agreed to.
As the project moves on, the client may start asking you to do additional tasks, extra steps, or even extra project pieces. It’s your choice if you decide to just do them as they ask, but it can set an unfortunate precedent.
When a client asks you for extra things that are not included in your contract, you have a choice to make. If it is a one-time small ask, you may want to just do it. But if it is a pattern of more and more things outside the scope of your project, you need to discuss extra costs and fees with the client.
Even something as simple as “I can take care of that for you. My price for it is $xx.” and then let them make the choice. No one has your best interests at heart except for you. It is YOUR responsibility to set and hold on your boundaries. It is in a clients’ nature to get everything they can for their money. It should be your nature to make sure you get paid fairly for the work you do.
- They are demanding many changes, especially once the work is mostly complete. Even if you have done what you originally agreed to.
It should be spelled out in your contract how many rounds of edits or revisions or changes you include in your pricing. But if it is not, set up a reasonable number of revisions or changes and stick to it.
Again, you’re allowed to say no to doing additional changes or just tell them your fee for additional changes.
- They are not making payments on time.
This is a huge red flag. If you have set up specific times for payments throughout a project, you should stop working until the recent payment has been made.
If it is the end of a project, you may decide to add a late penalty fee to the invoice, send reminder invoices, and have a conversation with the client. If you must, you may even end up needing to send the client’s bill to a collections agency or take them to small claims court to recoup the money.
Never ever start additional work or a new project from someone who has not paid you for previous work — no matter how much you need the money. You aren’t getting the money! Don’t work for free! That is a client taking advantage of you.
If you are seeing more signs of these bad clients as the relationship progresses, you are allowed to break up with a client once you’ve completed your current project.
Never feel bad for saying no to work or to continuing to work with a client who has sucked the fun out of the work you do. You’ve done the work you were paid for, there is nothing to feel guilty about when they have made your process 10 times more difficult and keep refusing to pay.
Do not continue letting them take advantage of you.
As you build your business, you will be able to spot good and bad clients from further off. But keep these red flags in mind and make sure to be your own best advocate!
Have you found other ways to determine whether a client is right for you? Share your experiences!