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15 Early Warning Signs of a Bad Freelance Client

How to spot problem clients on Day 1

As a freelancer, there’s not much worse than finding yourself stuck in a relationship with a bad freelance client. It can be difficult to end a client relationship, especially if you’re dependent on the income you earn from them, but continuing to work with them isn’t always an option.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could spot a bad freelance client before the relationship even starts?

While you can’t always avoid problem clients, there are obvious red flags to look out for. Here are 15 early warning signs of a bad freelance client.

1. They’re not responsive

A client who doesn’t respond to your messages in a timely manner is a bad sign. If they take weeks to respond to your quote, chances are they’ll take forever and a day to send payment, too. Save yourself the headache and worry and get out while you still can.

2. They’re clingy

On the other end of the responsiveness spectrum is the client who sends several emails in the space of an hour and expects you to respond with the same speed. Clients like this often end up disappointed when you don’t respond to their requests right away, and disappointment doesn’t make for a good freelance relationship.

3. They expect you to be available 24/7

I’ve been known to stretch my business hours on occasion for certain clients if we’re in dramatically different time zones, they’ve been with me for a long time, or they’re paying me the big bucks. But clients who expect you to be on call around the clock with none of those factors in place simply don’t respect you or your business … and an absence of respect opens the door for a whole slew of other issues.

4. They ask for more work than agreed on

Scope creep is the bane of every freelancer’s existence, and it often comes from problem clients who don’t consider the the time required to fulfill these requests. Scope creep may seem small at first — like changing a word here and there in an article, or tweaking the font size on a graphic — but before you know it, you’ve spent more time than you bargained for and haven’t been paid any extra.

5. They ask you to work for free as a test

Say it with me: Freelance isn’t free. If client asks you to do spec work or a trial period for free, even if they promise ongoing work afterward, run. They clearly don’t value your time and skills, otherwise they would be happy to pay you for your effort. Plus, nothing’s stopping them from dipping out once the free trial is over and leaving you with nothing to show for those hours you gave away.

6. They question your rates more than once

There’s nothing wrong with a client asking you to explain your rates … ONCE. There’s also nothing wrong with negotiating a rate that works for both of you.

But clients who repeatedly question your reasoning or comment that your rates seem high are just bargain shopping. Your time and skills are worth something, and if a client can’t see their value before hiring you, your relationship with them is already headed downhill.

7. They have unrealistic expectations

Clients with unrealistic expectations are closely related to clients who question your rates. These clients expect you to be able to whip up a fully responsive website in a matter of hours. They have a whole laundry list of fancy features they’d like included. And they have no budget.

If they don’t have a proper grasp of the amount of work or the level of investment required to pull their project off, they’ll either fight you on the rate OR you’ll spend valuable time educating them on why you’re worth more. Any client you have to convince to pay what you’re worth isn’t a client you’ll love working with.

8. They don’t know what they want

There’s nothing more frustrating than working with a client who doesn’t know what they want. This includes both people who want a logo designed but don’t know what it should look like, and people who don’t understand what you do but think they need a content manager for some reason.

Without a clear vision for the project, they’re likely to be disappointed in the work you deliver. And as discussed earlier, disappointment doesn’t make for a good freelance relationship. Add a clause in your contract limiting the number of revision requests you’ll honor and avoid clients who don’t have an idea of what they’re looking for.

9. They want you to copy another person’s work

A freelance client who wants you to copy someone else’s work is bad news all around. Not only do they not respect your intelligence and trust you to do good work on your own, but they also have no regard for the other person’s time, skills, and intellectual property.

Plagiarism is wrong and there’s no way around that. Copying work for a client puts you both at risk for legal action and destroys any reputation that either of you have built in your fields. Under no circumstances should you work with a client who wants you to do this.

10. They complain about other freelancers

It’s not uncommon for clients to have worked with other freelancers in the past. After all, 36% of the U.S. workforce freelances at least part time. At some point, you’re bound to run into a client who’s had a less-than-ideal experience with another freelancer.

The problems set in when they won’t stop complaining about the other freelancer. You probably show sympathy the first time they mention their past troubles, but by the second, third, or seventh time they bring it up, the situation feels a lot more awkward.

Remember, there are two sides to every story, and while that freelancer may have been at fault, you client may just like to complain. What’s to stop you from being the freelancer they complain about to the next person?

11. They don’t want to answer questions

Clients who evade questions about the project or their business should raise some major red flags.

Protecting trade secrets is one thing, but refusing to give you the information necessary to do you work doesn’t help either of you. If a client won’t cooperate in giving you the information you need, it’s better to end the relationship early and save yourself the frustration.

12. They won’t work with a contract

There’s nothing sketchier than a freelance client who refuses to sign a contract. Let’s forget for a moment that the contract protects them just as much as it does you. Instead, let’s absorb the implications that they clearly don’t want to be held to the terms of the agreement they’ve made.

Contracts exist to stop shady clients from skipping out the minute you deliver you work and never paying you one red cent. They’re there to make sure you get full credit for your work without having to give up more assets than you agreed to — like the raw design files to a logo or extra hours rewriting an article.

If a client has nothing to hide, they won’t mind signing a contract, plain and simple. And if they balk at this step, you should drop them like a hot rock and count your blessings that you didn’t get caught in a situation where you couldn’t get paid for the work you completed.

13. They give you a bad vibe

If a potential client gives you a bad vibe, it’s a pretty good indication that you shouldn’t work with them. Your gut knows more than you probably give it credit for, and if your first impression of someone is that they’re not completely on the up-and-up — or that they’re just a creepy person — you’re probably right. Trust your instincts, and if something doesn’t feel right, end the conversation right there.

14. They nitpick

An overly picky client is just as bad as a client who doesn’t know what they want. In lieu of constructive feedback on your work, these clients zero in on the tiniest things and make them a big issue. We’re talking using parentheses vs. em dashes in a blog post, changing the logo size by five pixels on a website, or removing an imperceptible blemish on a photo.

True nitpickers are never done finding something trivial to complain about, and eventually, the relationship will cause more frustration than it’s really worth.

15. They micromanage

Good freelance clients hire you because they believe you do good work, and they trust you to do it the right way. Bad freelance clients hire you because they need someone to do the work that you do, but they don’t really believe you can do it yourself.

Clients who think they know everything are bad clients. If they micromanage, constantly question your methods and reasoning, or always think they have a better idea of how to do the job they hired you for, you’re not in for a happy time working with them.


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