Client Red Flags for Web Developers — With 35 Animated GIFs Illustrating Each Exciting Disaster!

Photo adapted from “Beware of Horses” by Tim Green (Flickr, Creative Commons).

Here’s a list of potential red flags (in no particular order) to consider when taking on new web development clients. Keep in mind that a red flag isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker; it’s merely a warning — could be subtle, or not so subtle. It just means “proceed with caution.”

The following situations represent my own red flags, as well as many I’ve seen discussed in online forums or from colleagues.

They’re running a painfully old, outdated CMS and insist on not upgrading. Obviously, this is a recipe for disaster. Usually, they won’t upgrade because they’ve made changes to the core CMS files, and don’t want to lose functionality. Somehow, the numerous security patches they’ve missed out over the past 5 years aren’t a concern.

They want a bid from you … and from 10 others. Complete waste of time. Why compete with a huge pool of vendors? It’s just going to force the fees downward and waste the time of everyone who doesn’t “win” that low-paying work.

They want a bid for upgrading an enormous, old, outdated web site. Larger jobs need to be scoped out properly before work begins, and that scoping itself is a ton of work on larger sites, often requiring significant research just to determine the scope and approach. Clients should pay developers for this, not expect a well-thought-out roadmap from developers for free.

They want you to scope out any large job before hiring you (or do “samples” / spec work). Basically, the same rationale applies here as in the previous item. You shouldn’t be writing huge book-length proposals, which provide the client with considerable value, for free.

Their install contains sample data. Usually, this means that a novice built the previous web site, which can be a red flag that things weren’t done properly. (Actually, any such sign that a novice built the previous site is a red flag.)

Their site is a shell only — no content. I used to see this one a lot. They’ve installed a CMS and a theme, and now “just need someone to finish it up.” Of course, this usually means a ton of things are left to do (and often the basics mentioned are also already done wrong).

Their current site bears a link to an overseas web design company. Not to disparage all overseas development companies, but this usually means that the client wanted to pay nothing for development, went overseas, had a bad experience, and now is coming to a local developer — only having just wasted time and money, and still not valuing the developer’s skill.

Their kid, brother, sister-in-law, etc. did the previous site. Always a complete disaster, without exception. Similarly: “We have a friend / associate who’ll do part of the work.” Always a disaster, as well.

Or, similarly, they are your friend, relative, associate… As bad as you feel for them, and as much as you want to help them, it’s usually not a good idea, unless they’re very, very close and you don’t mind spending all of the time required.

Or, similarly, their mother, friend, etc. will be on the team to review the design — because they have an “eye for design.”

They’re using junky or weird 3rd-party design templates. You know the ones — the ones with weird encoded PHP to make calls to outside servers to make sure you’ve paid the $4.99 monthly fee or whatever for the crappy code it’s running.

They want sketchy features / things against your advice. Oh man, the stories I could tell on this one. I don’t mind the “going against my advice” part so much, but the sketchy stuff … man, o man.

They’re hiding the ball. This is when a client doesn’t tell you the whole story about his or her business, or the development. There’s a proportional relationship between web development and success — the more transparent a client is about their business, the more successful the project will be.

THEY have a contract for YOU. I get that kind of thinking, of course, 100%. But, in web development, it’s the other way around, at least at my company. In other words, I have a contract for THEM. I can’t be signing (and living up to) hundreds of incoming contracts and NDAs that vary widely in their provisions; I have my own already, thanks. (NDAs are standard in this industry, of course; we do them all the time.)

They’re from really far away. I’m less leery about this than I used to be, as my own clients span the continental U.S., Europe, Asia, and Australia. Still, a developer needs to be careful and do a bit of due diligence. If anything seems sketch, then that’s a cue to walk. If they’re from another country, it needs to be extremely easy for me to find them and verify that they’re with a legitimate business. Well, that and payment up front.

They say the work’s “easy”, “quick,” “small” etc. Funny how they need help, don’t know what’s involved, yet are certain it’s so easy.

They want you to add functionality to their current web site. While this is fairly routine, it’s on the list because it still requires some extra due diligence. If you built a site, or are redesigning it from the ground up, then you’re working with a known entity. If someone else did, then you may be up against all sorts of weirdness. So, not a super-intense red flag, here, but be careful nonetheless, or you could be in for some peek-and-shriek surprises when you login to that server.

Their current looks like it might have been decent at some point, but is now an awful mess. This one is a red flag because the disfunctionality may not be the fault of a previous designer / developer. It could well have been caused by the client’s own tinkering. Either way, it’s not always clear what you’re getting into in these cases.

The person managing the project: (1) built the current site, and/or (2) is incompetent / incapable of learning tech / incapable of running a CMS. I have nothing against non-tech-savvy people,except when they’re spearheading tech projects. That usually leads to headaches.

Or, similarly … too many cooks. I don’t really mind these huge-team scenarios, but you have to build in a whole lot more time, as everything runs slower, and you have to do things way less agile-like than you may prefer. So, it’s a redd-ish flag, at least in that you should be aware of this.

They can’t decide what they want, and won’t pin down a scope. Indecisiveness can be brutal, especially in web design. There’s nothing like rewriting code, or scrapping tons of CSS, eh?

They say they need several web sites. Rarely is this true. I suspect this is sort of a “carrot-waving” thing to get a developer’s attention.

They give the whole “groundfloor opportunity” spiel. This is a classic. Run, don’t walk, from these clients!

They say their project will be the star of your portfolio, and will lead to great riches, etc. Similar to above.

They want some huge, unattainable thing — like the next Facebook or something, and don’t even have a business plan or any kind of realistic budget. Once a guy asked me for an entire social media platform —“like Facebook,” he said. He had a budget of $1,000.

They promise to refer you to the whole world. See above under carrot-waving and other delusions.

They’re in a huge rush. This isn’t always bad, per se. But, watch out. It also could mean you’re going to get calls at 2:00 a.m. regularly, and/or that the client cannot plan work efficiently.

Meeting after meeting after meeting. Classic “all talk, no action” clients. At least make sure they know meetings are billable, if you don’t mind the slow pace.

Sketchy NDAs. I’ve seen this a few times. NDAs are standard, of course, but you should read them — or better yet, be the issuer of them instead of the recipient. Not infrequently, for people who come with their own NDAs, the NDA language can go well beyond what’s reasonable and normal in that type of situation. To not disclose trade secrets is one thing; to enter into a contract about other aspects of your business relationship is separate matter, not part of the NDA.

Too much push-back on your contract. My own contract is pretty mature now, as I’ve had so many clients send it to their lawyers for review and have incorporated reasonable improvements from them over the years. But boy can those lawyers sometimes comb through these things. Occasionally the push-back is downright unreasonable, in my opinion.

They say your rates are too high. This is different from clients who simply cannot afford you. Rather, these people are trying to tell you that your work is not worth the asking rate. Yet they need your help, of course.

“I’d do it myself if I had the time.” These people usually believe that they’re way more tech savvy than they really are. Maybe they can run iTunes successfully, so they believe that they could whip up a database application if they had only enough free time.

They’ve been “advised” to have certain features, designs, etc. This is similar to the brother-in-law syndrome, above. But, it comes from colleagues who are also not professional developers. In this case, the business owner has no specific personal goals for the work; he/she just wants a web site.

Bad blood between them and the last developer (or string of developers). Don’t fool yourself into believing that your reasonable nature will make the difference. If the client has a string of bad experiences, it’s not the other developers; it’s the client. And, you’re next.

Nonresponsiveness / nonprofessionalism / etc. People are at their most professional while forging new relationships. If they’re not behaving like normal professionals at the start, it’s not going to ever improve. In fact, it’ll much likely get worse. Weirdness, weird hours, off-color comments, over-demanding, doesn’t keep appointments — all glaring red flags.

Bottom Line Summary:

For most of the above, it boils down to this: What is your gut feeling about this potential client?

Follow that.

Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at]