How to spot a bad client BEFORE you start working with them

Clients are the lifeblood of every freelance business.

Even though they drive us crazy, we love them just the same 🙂

But there are some clients that just aren’t worth it, no matter how much money they seem to have. Read on to find out how to spot a bad client before you get involved.

1. They badmouth their previous freelancers.

We all know there are some really unprofessional people out there. And occasionally you’ll come across a new client who needs to vent about their experience.

But when every word out of your client’s mouth is an insult related to their previous freelancers, they’ll eventually do the same thing to you.

2. They don’t keep in touch.

Clients like this tend to disappear when it comes time to pay the bill. Yes, they may be good people, and yes, they may just be busy, but working this way will wreck your schedule and keep you from focusing on clients who value your time.

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3. They keep asking for quotes.

This could signal one of two things:

  • they can’t afford you
  • the client doesn’t know what they want

If a client can’t afford you, keep in touch with them via email but don’t spend a lot of time trying to sell to them. When their business gets to the point that they are ready to pay your rates, they will get in touch.

People who don’t know what they want is a bad case of scope creep waiting to happen. Run, don’t walk, the other direction.

4. They don’t want to sign a contract.

 In the past, I never sent a contract to a client for work under a certain dollar amount. After losing hundreds of dollars worth of work to various clients who skipped out on paying, I learned my lesson.

Don’t let it happen to you.  No contract, no work.  Period.

5. They won’t allow you to talk to previous contractors.

If your client will tell you who they currently use or have used in the past, contact that person for a reference. Try to do it without the client’s knowledge to avoid any coaching beforehand.

6. They micromanage.

As you work they point over your left shoulder and command you to move some element somewhere else.  Then they tell you to move it back. Then they start nitpicking at another element of the design.

Or they say they love your work, and then 2 weeks later send over an email full of changes longer than Santa’s naughty list.

Either way, your calendar is wrecked because this client is a time vampire.

Some freelancers who are much more patient than I actually charge more for clients that need a little extra handholding. You can do that, but make sure it’s built into your contract.

Wrapping It Up

In a perfect world, clients would pay upfront. There would be no price haggling. No changes to your design. No silly questions about why they need to sign a contract.

Wouldn’t that be awesome?

But unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. And while no client will be perfect, hopefully we’ve equipped you with the knowledge you need to know who to avoid before they derail your business.

Do you have some tips about spotting bad clients? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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  1. Hi,

    Micromanaging is the worst I guess, it cancels all the goals of hiring a professional but merely a tool. on the other hand contract also filters out who are serious about work and who are not.

  2. When they want to change your agreement. Literally I had one guy fax back my agreement and cross out a few things and change the price on me LOL.

    1. Good point, Sean! I find that sometimes it’s necessary to negotiate a deal that works well for both parties, but I’d rather discuss it than get a fax like that. At least they were honest! 🙂

  3. Point number 1. If you spot this on your client, then let them go. If they can do that to other freelancer’s then they can do that to you too

    1. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen red flags like this but still worked with the client anyway. It NEVER ended well. Thanks for sharing, Mars 🙂

  4. Hi Sharon,

    I’m still finding my feet as a freelance Designer and your blog has given me a lot to think about, especially when it comes to potential clients. I know I still have so much to learn but I’ll always appreciate your practical, insightful and experienced advice – Thank you!

  5. Very nice, Sharon. And so refreshing to see a woman writer on here. Now if we could only find editorial photos that aren’t of young white males. Thank you!!!

    I’ve decided recently not to work with a certain breed. I should have decided this a long time ago. This particular vocation–prone to individuals heavy on the OCD–are very difficult and ruin your bottom line. Although they seem very nice and agreeable, the projects usually go incomplete and unpaid. Last week I got a call from one and politely turned them down. I was impressed with myself for finally having the nerve. It would just be easier to write them a check out of your own pocket and cut your losses. HAA But if I were to pick one up again, I’d definitely charge double. 😉

    1. Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for the compliment!

      (Unfortunately all the free stock photos I find are not very diverse.)

      I am finally getting to the point where I don’t have a problem saying no, though occasionally I relapse and pay the price.

      I agree that there are certain people or companies (for me that’s alcohol, tobacco or medical marijuana) that I just won’t do business with, either because we don’t mesh well together or for personal convictions.

      Not every client and freelancer are a match made in heaven, and I think that’s why so many people can be successful in an industry with so much competition.

  6. Points 2 and 6 aren’t really things you can know before you work with someone, but 3 and 4. are bang on.

    I would add that if a client isn’t happy for you to show the work in your portfolio there’s a potential red flag (part of your payment is your ability to promote yourself and thereby win new and better projects). Also, projects where clients aren’t able to commit to providing content upfront, often end up taking much longer than they should.

    1. Definitely agree with you on Point 6, but on Point 2 I have a lot of clients that require a fair amount of communication before working with them, and there are red flags that pop up while I’m still in the proposal phase. Thanks for pointing that out NB!

  7. Great article! I had a client that is a slight variation of the presented cases. It started by being a nice very well paying client in the first two years. Unfortunately during the last two years things started to fall apart.

    I was contacted from time to time for quick fixes but the deadlines were always for today or at that exact moment. Simple fixes then started to become complicaded time consuming never ending corrections. The client clearly didn’t know what she wanted often and when unhappy it would send emails, messages on Skype, phone calls all at once, even at weekends. Once I had to get up Saturday early morning for an urgent call on Skype. The issue was a missing period on a Facebook image post.

    Later she started criticizing other people that worked with us, making me questions like I was supposed to watch or also criticize their work. Very strange! Then she started ignoring emails requesting for payments or simple referrals, paying only when she wanted and focusing only on her issues, making pressure right after leaving a request and not being present for hours or days for simple questions or doubts I needed cleared to move foward with the project.

    At last I quit as professionally as I could. She didn’t react very well, but it was the first time in 4 years I denied to do something for her. Thet bridge got burned and the door automatically shut but now I feel I have more time to focus on all the other long term respectful clients as well as new ventures. When we feel this kind of relieve, we know we did the right thing!

  8. We all can commiserate on this topic Sharon!

    I get some clients who balk at signing my contract and whining about prices. But the most annoying for me is the Micromanager! They are the worst.. the nitpicking and the back-seat designing (lol). They are the one’s usually guilty of scope creep also.

    I take it all in stride with a smile and move onto the next. Thank you for expounding on this topic.

    1. Hi Chris,

      Micromanagers are horrible, and there are lots of them in the commercial printing and real estate industries I’ve worked in!

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  9. Hi. As a freelancer what am I supposed to tell my client if they ask me about my office, and I don’t have one. I work from home.

    1. Hi Evanson,

      No one has ever asked me where I work. You can always tell them the truth. Many people work from home and it really shouldn’t be an issue.

  10. Great article, and true every time. The worst clients however are always friends and family. They expect the world at drastically reduced mates rates and they expect that you are available just for them 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Don’t go there. Especially if you are having a bad month, as that is when you also get the righteous view of “well, I am doing you a favour, you should be happy to work for 3 cents an hour”. It isn’t. It will sap your strength and energy and you will find it very hard to be creative for a real client. You try and be a good helpful person, but it only works both ways. Remember that. Go the extra mile only for clients who appreciate what it is you do, everything else, stick to that contract!

    1. I feel you Helena! That’s why I very rarely do projects for them unless they truly have a need and I am in a healthy enough place to take on the extra stress.

  11. I have found that the lower th budget the worse the client is when it comes to ‘project creep’, I guess it’s because as they have less budget they want to make sure that they get their moneys worth.

    I have one client that continually moans about my prices, uses me and goes to a cheaper guy, but invaraibly comes back to me. I used to do lots off minor things for her but now I don’t do anything unless it’s paid for. Yet I have good clients that I often do ‘freebies’ for as I know when it comes to more than a fe minutes worj they value the professionalism I try to give them.

  12. It’s like most of our clients are these people. I’m trying to reach better clients and need help with B2B sales. Our website design company needs help!!

    1. You are not alone, Brittany 🙂 I find that there have been times when every client is like this too. Don’t give up, good ones are out there, I promise!

  13. ALL my clients pay upfront (50% at start, 50% when mockup design is approved and I start coding the theme). I don’t do anything until the money is in my account. Had few bad experiences (weird enough, with people who were closer to me) and I’m not making the mistake again 😀

    1. I am working on setting my pricing structure where many of my clients will have to pay 100% upfront for projects under a certain dollar amount. Thanks for sharing your experience, Ramona 🙂

  14. Any freelancer will have a bad client. It’s just part of the process. This list, however, gave a great start on how to not only spot them but also try and avoid them. Good clients are the lifeblood of a freelance business and even one bad one can indeed cause issues. Thank you for sharing this valuable info!

    1. I agree that bad clients can’t be avoided, Robert. In my experience writers and designers seem to have a lot of issues with clients and I hope that just one person can learn to identify problem clients before getting in too deep 🙂

  15. Hey Sharon, you definitely hit home with this blog, I’ve had my share of those types of clients over the last 18 years. Spot on! Good advice!

    1. Thanks, Tom. And of course the day this article comes out I have a bad client situation 🙂

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