8 red flags to avoid bad freelance clients

A bad client can cost you more than just the time spent dealing with the hassle they create. There are greater risks like not getting paid, or having legal issues. I have a strong gut feeling when dealing with a bad client, and every time I’ve ignored it, it’s ended badly. Over time I learned to recognise the things they did leading up to a bad break-up.

Demanding an urgent response

Emailing you at 11 pm and getting angry at a lack of response usually means they-they haven’t hired anyone before. This lack of experience will usually cascade into other areas of the project and cause further problems. Learn to manage your clients effectively, so they don’t end up trying to manage you.

Make sure you’re clear on what you’re working hours are and stick to them, even if you’re working late. Setting these boundaries is your job if you don’t do it you open yourself up to interpretation.

Asking for free or trial (unpaid) work

Very common, and obviously a bit dodgy. If someone doesn’t value the work you do initially, why would they value it after that?

A common twist on this red flag is asking for quick changes, expecting them not to be billed.

The only time this is acceptable is if you have no track record at all. Otherwise, you can reduce their risk with case studies and references.

Starting without a contract

A contract gives you a slightly higher than zero level of trust. But it’s probably the most important thing you should do before starting work. My problem with contracts is being able to enforce them — it can cost more than it’s worth. To me, it’s worth more psychologically.

Also, starting too fast or without them asking too many questions usually means they will try to push their luck. Loose boundaries allow unscrupulous clients to push the scope of their work without getting billed. If they legitimately want to start fast, they won’t mind paying a rush fee for your trouble.

Complaining about cost

If they complain that the fee is too expensive more than a couple of times, it probably means they aren’t going to pay, or it’s going to be difficult to get them to pay. Contracts are great for setting expectations and trust beforehand, but it costs money to enforce them. Don’t trust your contract to make a bad client pay up. Instead, you can ask for a deposit and have short milestones that allows you to be paid for your time before the work is completed.

A common way clients negotiate on price is to promise future work in exchange for a discount. This is a trap. You should only be charging for work they’ve promised you (in a contract). You aren’t a credit agency. It isn’t necessarily a red flag, they may just not have enough budget — but if that is the case you can reduce the scope of work instead.

Lack of commitment

If the project isn’t that important to them, it causes delays in signing off and paying their bills. That’s why it’s important to learn about them and their business before you work together. Find out what the project is for, how it will be used, and how important it is to them. If you’re solving a painful problem, they’re more likely to respect your boundaries and appreciate the work you do.

Cutting corners

It might not seem obvious at first, but cutting corners is again, something that flows over into everything else the client may do. This can manifest as things such as using Google images instead of buying stock. Clients that cut corners, will probably want a discount, and will probably ask for some things for free. Before you know it, you’re losing money working for them. And the worst way this can manifest is when they spot an opportunity to not pay for something, such as missing a deadline, they will jump on it.

Payment terms longer than 30 days

Poor cash flow kills businesses. You should aim to get paid within 7 days, and there really is no good reason not to be. If you’re dealing with enterprise customers then you won’t have a choice, but I would ask, what the fuck are you thinking working for those people? Enterprise or government customers are the worst. Leave them to the companies that like dealing with their particularly awful issues.

Unclear scope

If your scope isn’t clear, you’re inviting scope creep in. It’s possible to change scope completely, but make sure to settle up for the work finished and start again from the beginning. Any small changes should be clearly billed as extra. If your client complains about this and holds up your project, it’s probably time to drop them.

This isn’t such a strong red flag as the others, but if it happens repeatedly, you’re probably losing money working with them over the long run.

The best tip for avoiding bad clients is to use your gut feeling. Most of the time this feeling is overridden by our greed or desperation. But don’t let it, it will hurt you later on. Aim to grow a sustainable freelance business, with good clients, and you’ll enjoy every minute of working for them.

* We contacted Mitchell and asked if we could share this article on our site as we feel this will provide our readers with value and Mitchell was more than happy for us to share this article with our readers.


Mitchell Bryson
Designer and Developer for Start-ups. Founder of Workroll.com a platform created to help advanced freelancers and small digital agencies grow their client list.

Follow @mitchellbryson
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