5 Red Flags You Should Spot to Identify a Bad Client

Difficult Client Sales

Tanhaz Kamaly – Partnership Executive, UK, Dialpad UK

We’ve all heard of red flags in the context of dating, but there are a whole host of red flags to look out for with potential clients. If you’re a freelancer, you’re even more susceptible to the negative impacts of a bad client than a large company, so red flags are really important to look out for. 

Whatever your line of work, if you’re a freelancer you probably want to be a little picky with who you choose to take on as a client. After all, there’s not much of a buffer between you and bad customers, nor do you have a team behind you to support you. You have to learn which sales to refuse by yourself.

When you’re first starting out, it’s natural to feel obligated to work with any client that comes your way, as you try to build your business. You’re probably itching to start making some money and getting some experience. A lot of freelancers will work crazy hours for very little money when they first start because of bills. 

They are also much easier to take advantage of than more established freelancers. So, without further ado, let’s delve into what we should all be watching out for. 

 

1. They have a history of not paying on time (or, occasionally, not at all)

Most freelancers will have this experience: your client was so communicative and quick to respond to emails during their phone call recording app project. Then, they suddenly seem to turn into a huge technophobe and lose all knowledge of how to open emails after the project ends and you send over your invoice! Weird. 

Small claims courts can be a big hassle if they owe you a small amount of money. You can always email again, and Cc a friend who’s a lawyer and introduce them as such – i.e. scare them into paying you without the cost and time of going to court. 

The easiest way around all of this, though, is avoiding these clients in the first place. So how can you find out if they’re going to be difficult about paying you? 

  • They have poor reviews online. A quick search on Google or Ecosia will give you an idea of whether this has ever happened. Some websites, like proz.com for translators, allow freelancers to review the client and tell other freelancers if they didn’t pay.

  • They have an over complicated invoicing system.

  • They try to negotiate you down from your price.

  • They initially ask you to work for free, or for “exposure”.

  • They’re fuzzy about the details of when they will pay you, or won’t sign your agreement.


2. They expect you to be available 24/7 

When you accept a project, you probably have a general idea of how you will manage your time for this project alongside all of the other work and general life-stuff that you have. Perhaps your hours are a strict 8am to 3pm. Some people, when they hand over money, feel entitled to your full attention, 24/7, as if you run virtual call centre services as well as being an architect/builder/writer.

These clients lack boundaries. 

You can often tell if they’re going to be this type of client when they first get in touch. Do they shower you with messages on instant messenger, email you constantly, and ask more questions than you have the time and headspace to answer? Do they get annoyed or even angry if you don’t respond within the hour, or after your working hours

These are early signs that they are going to be like this throughout your project. Sometimes people are just very excited about working with you, and have a lot of energy and enthusiasm. That’s great! And it’s also a very different vibe to the pushy, authoritative, angry tone of the client who expects 24/7 communication and immediately wants to know the answer to the question “what is voip”, even though it’s 1am.

 

3. They micromanage you

Certain clients come to you not only with a vision of what they want, but exact details. They see you not as a professional in your own right, with your own ideas, interpretations and skills, but as a vessel to achieving what they want – a puppet, if you will. There are no amount of digital workplace solutions, no matter how useful, that can ease the headache of a pushy client who thinks they know everything.

A lot of us will be familiar with the internet doctor who goes to the real doctor and asks for a series of prescriptions that the real doctor would never prescribe. Or the author who hires a translator and insists on a literal translation, even though it sounds terrible to the native ear.

You can identify this red flag if you offer a work sample and they want to change everything about it but still hire you. Or if they come to you throwing around lingo about the latest trends in ecommerce that they don’t fully understand and presenting as an authority on a subject they barely know. 

 

4. They feel entitled to endless changes and edits 

This one really grinds my gears. When you accept a project, you likely have a certain number of hours you think you can allocate to it. You probably calculate how much money you’re making per hour, to make sure you’re paying yourself a fair amount, as well as factoring in the amount of project stress you will have to manage. However, even the most well organised strategy and planning with the most up-to-date OEM applications and integrations will be enough for some clients. Some people don’t just want the job done right, they want it done precisely their way, even if they don’t have your level of expertise or knowledge.

The number of edits and changes should be clarified at the beginning of your interaction with the potential client, in the negotiating phase. However many edits they are entitled to, along with the cost of those edits, should be stated up front. If they avoid the subject when you bring it up, or take issue with an agreement in writing stipulating your rules about the number of edits accepted, that’s a red flag. 

 

5. You’re the third person (or more) they’ve approached 

If they’ve been turned down by other freelancers, that’s smoke right there. And where there’s smoke, there’s usually a big old bonfire of red flags. Cycling through different freelancers could be a sign that they just haven’t found the right fit yet, but if they’ve hired and fired multiple people before getting to you, that could be a sign that they are very picky and difficult to work with. 

It’s a good idea to dig a little and find out why the previous freelancers didn’t meet their requirements. Were they charging more than the client wanted to pay? Did the client expect constant interaction or endless edits? 

Just as “you’re not like other girls” is a gross thing to say and a massive red flag in the dating world, so is the implication that other freelancers are not hard-working or talented enough at their jobs to be hired by your white knight of a client. 

 

A good client is a chocolate cookie in a sea of raisin biscuits

If you find a good client, hold onto them. They are pretty rare! A lot of clients come with various flags of various colours, and it’s up to you to decide what your boundaries are, and what you’re willing to put up with. Like Mark Manson, bestselling author, said: “Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for” – in other words, choose your battles. Some are worth your time, others aren’t. 

 

It’s also important to note that a red flag isn’t conclusive evidence. It’s a hint, and hints can be wrong. You can judge your potential clients on the basis of the context of your interactions. This list is just meant as a general guide, an aid, not a perfect compass. So, go forth, set boundaries you’re happy with, and value your time and energy like you should.