How to spot bad design clients & when to ditch them

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Opportunities quickly become nightmares when a freelance worker takes on a bad client. Whether you work as a designer, developer, writer, or other professional, the joys of freelancing can turn to angst when a client becomes bent on paying you less than you’re worth or making you do more work without additional pay.

A bad client threatens your reputation, gets on your nerves, costs money, and wastes your time, so you should learn how to spot bad clients & when to ditch them. Look out for these warning signs so you can focus your efforts on good clients and better outcomes.

1. Clients that always pay late

How long would you work for an employer who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay you on time? Probably not long. You can understand if someone has financial problems, but if you don’t get paid on time, your own financial standing is jeopardized. A client that doesn’t pay on time lacks professional business practices and demonstrates contempt for you and your work.

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2. Dissatisfaction with other freelancers

When a client praises you while expressing discontent with their last freelancer grab your hat and head for the door because trouble is likely headed your way. Don’t let the client stroke your ego to the point you’ll do anything to prove that you’re better than the other guy because it’s only a matter of time before that client becomes disgruntled with you and goes somewhere else. If you really want to take the work, give the other worker a call to find out what really happened in that relationship.

3. Lack of direction

When a client tries to hire you but has no definite requirements or goals for the job, beware. A customer driven by indecision will waste your time by constantly changing requirements and terms. Don’t get started unless you receive clear and documented specifications and instructions from the client.

4. Unsubstantiated claims of lots of work coming your way

One of the oldest tricks in the book still suckers in freelance workers every day. The client talks about huge plans and work that will keep you busy for years until you agree to a reduced rate. After the ink dries, all those projects tend to become increasingly uncertain until they have completely disappeared from your client’s vocabulary, or maybe the client mysteriously becomes dissatisfied with your work. A better approach might be to offer rate concessions with each subsequent job rather than to offer reduced rates up front.

5. Too much interest in your technique

A client that shows too much interest in how you are doing the work, rather than on the deliverables you provide could be dangerous. Your skills and techniques are your bread and butter, so why would it be in your interest to show a client how to do your work? Clients that want to bleed your knowledge dry are clients that want to terminate you and do the work themselves to save money. Don’t be a sucker.

6. Moving the goal posts

Clients that constantly change the requirements of a project are likely to be as dangerous as they are unprofessional. These clients are from the dark side and want to get more work from you for less. As soon as the goal posts begin moving, it’s time to get what you can out of the deal and then punt the client to the next desperate freelancer.

7. A client with a bad memory is going to be a bad client

When you make agreements and later on the client “forgets” details or “remembers” things that you never agreed to, you need to run for your life. Even if you get everything in writing, this type of client is going to have memory problems. You need to have a memory good enough to remember that you won’t get paid until this client’s bad memory has cost you far more than what you work is worth.

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Add your horror stories and advice for others

Now that you know how to spot bad clients & when to ditch them, heed the warning signs, minimize your losses and use your time for better things. What other tips or scenarios could you add to this list to make it more helpful to all of us?

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About James Adams

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  1. The only thought I would add, particularly to those very new at freelancing due to a recent layoff, is BE AWARE to not take every job that comes into your path. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a specific client for a couple of years now, and realized at the very beginning they were the wrong client but took the job for the income (recent layoff) and thought I could educate them on the process. Wrong. They didn’t want to be educated; they wanted to be in control. Once I realized that (through the help of my mentor), I thanked them and turned them loose to find another freelancer. They did change the expectations many times, but being afraid of change I allowed them to do so.

    Freelancing doesn’t mean you have a sign on your head that says “take advantage of me, I don’t mind”. Freelancers are professionals. If you treat your clients professionally and recognize the signs listed above, it will help you avoid a messy situation and could potentially open the window to a better client.

  2. This is one of the main reasons I choose not to take down payments. I make sure that if I need to terminate the job from my end, whatever that reason may be, that I can do so knowing I didn’t take a payment which might otherwise seem like an obligation from the clients point of view. If I feel I have put in a substantial amount of time and work into the project, I can still opt to terminate the work relationship while sending them an invoice, for which it clearly states how many hours were worked and what they owe me for the work done up to that point.

    Great article, and I hope others aren’t afraid to take that stand when the time comes. We all come across this at some point in our careers. Its not a matter of if it will happen, but when, and will you be able to recognize it when it happens to you.

  3. I would disagree with #2, “Dissatisfaction with other freelancers,” on the basis that sometimes people just get involved with other freelancers that don’t do what they promised or their work is sub-par compared to what was expected of them. I’ve had clients tell me of dissatisfaction of other freelancers and then have turned into great clients for me (repeat business and they paid on time).

  4. Giving the other worker a call to find out what really happened, is a bad Idea because

    1) It is pessimistic behavior by it self.
    2) The other worker always tells bad about the job.
    3) If the Company know about your contact with old worker you may lose the job.
    4) Most important, it’s wast of time.

    @Bret Juliano : I think the point is good, may be we can come to know some impotent job-focusing points from client.

    I always wonder and read the comment by Millo folks. The articles are cool and the comments are great too.

    Thanks for great comments by Lisa, DigiP and Bret Juliano.

    Thanks for Great article JamesAdams

    Thanks for Great Millo Preston d lee.

  5. Clients who want to design it themselves. These clients don’t have the software or skills themselves and simply want you to execute ill-advised or impossible work. Run from dabblers; don’t be a design “waitress.”

  6. lol ok, so I’m not a Pro. yet, but I’ve done some things. I have to agree with #3, I hate when people don’t have an idea of what they want, I ask what they want, and the only thing I get is a layout, so I’m like “ok then I’ll make something myself”, and when I show them what I have done, their responses are “stick to the layout, and avoid using these colors”, I’m real happy that I’m done with them

  7. For those who work out of their homes, a client who insists on working at your house – and won’t take no for an answer – is a nightmare client. This happened to me a few months ago, and the client wouldn’t accept a rational compromise (i.e., meet in a coffee shop nearby).

  8. The question is…how to ditch them in style? 🙂

  9. What I noticed while freelancing is that the client who don’t value your time turn out to be indeed very hopeless clients. It has personally happened to me couple of times, that a client has turned an hour and a half late or in some cases even later than that for an initial meeting and has kept me waiting by giving me a lame excuse of being held. These clients normally consider the designers to be lame people who have nothing better to do. Also these clients normally create problems regarding the payment on the end of the project. So beware of such clients.

  10. Very interesting and informative post!!

    I must admit that I have had some of these issues come true for me personally as i progress in my new freelancing career! Let’s hope I can learn my lesson fast and avoid these problems in future…. Thanks for the advice 🙂

  11. This kind of foul play by greedy people has been consistent throughout my entire nightmare of a career. People who exhibit these traits are evil and will destroy your life. Narcissistic personality disorder clients and graphic design is a match made in hell.


  1. […] RT @prestondlee How to spot bad design clients & when to ditch them […]

  2. […] clients (both good clients and bad clients) who want some web design work done for them often are not able of asking themselves that question, […]


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