The Nightmare Client Detector

Before you sign the contracts, determine if your prospect is a predator posing as a house pet

Credit: Adobe Stock // Studio Grand Web

Let me tell you a story. I received a project referral from a friend. The assignment was to develop a brand, define their customer segments, and draft their key messaging. The business was owned and operated by a woman and, she was a New Yorker — what’s not to love? Well, everything.

I had five calls with her (FIVE!) before we even got to the proposal phase. She emailed me incessantly, and would follow up within an hour to see if I’d “received her note.” She kept talking about ROI, and I kept explaining that brand development doesn’t bear an ROI. But still, she wouldn’t listen.

When I turned down the opportunity at the proposal phase (because I suspected she would be a nightmare after the checks were cut), she sent me six emails, had my friend begrudgingly email me, and expressed her lament over how much time she had spent on this process.

Okay, she spent time getting free insight and information, but I wasted hours of my life I won’t get back.

While you won’t be able to suss out every bad client, there are some red flags you can’t ignore.

They ignore communication boundaries or don’t communicate at all

Communication is the key to a successful client relationship. If you find that your prospective client believes that your job is to be on-demand and on their schedule, this won’t change when the contracts are signed. If prospects text, phone, and email incessantly with “I have another quick question,” remind me that you’d be happy to schedule a call to address any follow-up questions during your regular business hours. If they ghost you for weeks with no excuse and come back to rush everything (go, go, go!), this will carry over to your project.

Every case is subjective and is to the level of your comfort. If the style and method of communication make you feel uncomfortable or makes you waste unnecessary time, and the prospect makes no effort to adjust, consider that they will likely be a nightmare client. Remember, most relationships end because of communication disconnects and disrespecting boundaries.

Boundaries are so crucial for freelancers because you have to juggle multiple projects with varying priorities and stages of deliverables as well as your life! So, if you are spending half the day answering random questions or listening to a prospect’s problems, they’re not respecting your space and boundaries.

They don’t see the value in what you do, but they know they “need XYZ” for their business.

If I have to keep proving my worth, you will never be happy. Recently, I got an opportunity to work on a research and brand development project for a company run by an engineer. The consultant who wanted to engage me shared that the client knows that they “need this stuff,” but I would need to prove that they “need this stuff.” That’s not my job.

My job isn’t to sell you on the value of the work; my job is to convince you that I would be the best person for the task.

If a prospect doesn’t understand your business and respect the value in what you do, you’ll likely struggle to keep proving your worth throughout the project. And this is to say that people have varying levels of tolerance. While I educate my clients throughout the project, all of them recognize the value I bring to the engagement. I have a low tolerance for having to prove my worth every step of the way because then the engagement feels less like a true and equal partnership and more like me placing an empty bowl in front of the client like I’m Oliver Twist.

They use the acronym “ROI” as often as they exhale.

I don’t know who started this ROI sermon, but I would like to find this person and punch them for it. I’ve been in marketing for 20+ years, and read these words carefully:

NOT EVERY STRATEGY OR COMPONENT OF MARKETING WORK HAS A DIRECT ROI.

Some marketers have the best tools in the country, and they still can’t figure out attribution for an influencer marketing campaign, but you want me to give you an ROI for a Brand Voice Guide? STOP.

Not every tactic is tied to revenue, and it shouldn’t be — we’re not running a direct mail company. There are robust brand qualitative measures such as brand health and equity, the share of voice, perception shift, awareness, etc. These measures are important because without them the road to conversion would be paved with buckets of tears. For example, if people think a company’s products are stodgy and out-of-date, no amount of Facebook ads are going to change consumer perception. There is only so much glitter you can hurl on shit, and you can’t monetize what people believe about your brand. But what you can do is make changes that shift perception, and that perception shift could reap financial benefits for the business.

This is a long-winded way of saying that if your service is one where direct ROI is a challenge, show them other relevant metrics that have impacted previous projects. But run away if they expect a million dollars in sales for a visual identity system.

They act like they’re the expert.

Clients hire you because you’re the expert. You have a proven track record and a process that works, so if clients in the process belittle or debate the time or value of your work, this is a major red flag. You have the opportunity to debunk myths and educate them based on your experience, but if they continue to act as if they know more than you — especially if they’ve never done what they’ve tasked you to do — RUN.

They’re inflexible.

To that end, part of why you’re successful is tied to your process and workflow. If a client ignores your process (or any tools you use) during the preliminary discussion phase, this could be a harbinger of bad things to come. Why? You’re not an employee. The time you would have to take adjusting to a whole new set of tools and processes takes you away from what you’ve been tasked to do. Now you’re spending more time on software and tools than on the assignment. It’s okay to push back and say that you have a defined process that creates the results the client is looking for.


For the most part, clients are lovely and delightful. However, as a freelancer, you will encounter the NIGHTMARE CLIENT. Sometimes they emerge after the contracts have been signed, but sometimes you can get signs in the proposal stage.

It’s a bummer to turn down business, but trust me — noticing the red flags in the early stages can save you heartache in the long run.


This was excerpted from my epic freelancing guide. Sign up for my newsletter.