Red Flags That Your New Freelance Client Will Be Trouble

Red Flags That Your New Freelance Client Will Be Trouble

As freelancers, we’re always thrilled to bring on a new client. It means an extra revenue stream, potentially greater exposure and (if all goes well) more work down the line.

But sometimes, it can be clear from the get-go that all will not go well. When you’re just starting out and eager to get work, it can be easy to ignore some of the red flags that tell you a client may not be the best person to work with. But you only need one or two horror story experiences to learn to pay attention to those red flags, and quickly.

In the hopes of saving you from learning the lessons I learned the hard way, here’s a quick cheat sheet of warning signs that should have you politely saying, “Thank you, but I don’t think this business relationship will work.”

They’re as cagey as a CIA covert op

Minimal project descriptions, unclear guidelines and disappearing from the grid for days at a time are all signs that a client will be more trouble than they’re worth.

If they take forever to get back to your emails but always have really good, emergency-level reasons for it, ditch them.

If it takes more than one or two email exchanges to get clear on any detail about the project, ditch them.

If they try to slip in additional work that wasn’t included in the original project scope, ditch them.

Oh, and if they refuse to sign a formal agreement as to what that project scope is? Ditch them, twice.

Shady and unreliable clients are a dime a dozen. Your billable time is not. Only dedicate it to clients who appreciate that. (Do you agree? Click to tweet this idea.)

Only dedicate your time to clients who appreciate your worth

They tell you their entire life story

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the client who won’t stop talking (or typing). You ask, “How many blog posts will you want on a monthly basis?” They come back with a three-page stream-of-consciousness rant about how tough it is to be a business owner, the five other fantastic ideas they have to talk to you about once you’ve started working for them, how their daughter’s name is also Kelly and isn’t that fate…blah…blah…blah. Blech.

Or, you ask for an outline of what they want on their product page, and they send you back the virtual equivalent of their mind spewed on paper—random excerpts from sites they like, stick figure drawings you’re supposed to be able to decode, the occasional commentary like “I want something like this, but more WOW!” (Don’t laugh; I’ve seen it all. Okay, maybe not the stick figures — yet. It’s only a matter of time.)

Run, don’t walk, from clients like this. They either a) don’t know what they want (and you will kill yourself trying to figure it out), b) are way too busy to give you coherent directions, which makes project completion kinda impossible, or c) are simply flakes hoping you can jump into their brains and create something coherent through sheer mental magic. Sometimes, it’s all of the above.

Either way, run.

They want stuff for free

With very few exceptions, no legitimate client will ask you send them a free “sample” of your work. The only samples they should need are already-published examples of work you’ve done in the past. If they want you to write a free post for them “to see your style,” it’s most likely a scam.

My only exception for this red flag would be if, by some chance, it’s a seriously big company you want to have a shot at working for. If Forbes ever asked me for a free sample, you better bet I’d be on it! But even in this case, make sure to protect yourself by getting it in writing that you’ll be compensated should they choose to use your work — or, if not, that you’ll retain full rights to submit it elsewhere.

They won’t let you do your job

It’s one thing to get an occasional “Hey, how’s it going?” check-in. But if your client is constantly shooting you “one more thought!” emails, that, my friend, is “scope creep.” Either they start paying you an extra hourly fee for fielding all their communications, or they stop bombarding you with phone calls and emails and trust that you know how to get the job done.

Even if they do agree to the hourly fee, it might not be worth it. Chances are you became a freelancer to escape the constant interruptions, shoulder-peering, and hand-holding of the 9-5 world. So you don’t need to put up with it now.

What other warning signs have you received from potential “problem clients”?

Filed Under: Freelancing


  • Michelle says:

    Thanks for this great post! I’m just starting out myself, and burned myself quite nicely with one of those ripoff freelancer sites; let’s call it ‘Upwank’. I learned the hard way, but the experience was thankfully brief and I at least got a blog post out of it! And it wasn’t even the client that was the PITA, it was the website itself!
    I will be sure to adhere to your guidelines in future, and check out the more reputable sites. 🙂

  • x says:

    “They tell you their entire life story” honest to god, everything in that section. We’ve worked for the same client, I shit you not.

  • Brett M says:

    I am new to freelance videography and photography and I keep hearing people say word of mouth is key. Okay, where do I go? who do I talk to. I am in the process of creating business cards and distributing them….not sure where yet, but I also am building a portfolio to get a job at the Picture people and possibly get families in there to give my cards to. If you have any advice to give by all means do it.
    I am turning 18 in a few days and I want to really succeed here and live on my own!

  • Jean Dion says:

    I’m usually open to multiple stream-of-consciousness email messages and phone calls at the beginning of the working relationship. I prefer it, actually, so I know what people want and how to please them. The more information, the better. I also find that it tends to taper off with time, as both the client and I come to know one another a little better.

    The rest, though, I totally agree with.

    • Cordelia says:

      As long as you’re comfortable with that upfront, and it doesn’t continue with no end in sight, then if it works for you, keep on doing what you do. It’s all about setting a line of what you personally expect from the relationship and making sure you take on clients who are on the same page.

  • LivP says:

    Re: “The writer must have access to the person who is approving the copy.”
    I agree. That’s why I avoid projects that involve subcontracting with clients who have a contract with another company. Too many layers often leads to confusion about what the writing requirements are and too many rewrites.

  • BetsyM says:

    Great post! Unfortunately many of us had to learn the hard way, so I’m glad you’re putting the word out help freelancers learn how to look out for themselves, their time, and their businesses.

  • Every single one of these was spot on. Holler back! But it makes you wonder how they don’t recognize themselves….

  • Daryl says:

    The one that ticks me off the most are “clients” who don’t get back to you, or take 3-4 days to respond to an email or message.

    Thankfully, I’ve never worked with any of them, and usually ditch them first if try that with me!

    • Cordelia says:

      Good for you! More than a day or two to respond only slows the project up for both you and the client and limits how much time you’ll have to do your best work before deadline.

      Equally frustrating are clients who expect YOU to respond within…oh, an hour or so…or else they start barraging you with “have you read my email??” follow-ups.

      Both the kind to avoid altogether. You’re smart to know you deserve better.

  • Rachael says:

    Yesssss. As always, dear Kelly, you tell me what I need to hear even when I’m pretending it’s not true.

    I have one client that really has to go. I either compromise my values to make a little infrequently-paid money or just put up with it.


    Also, ditto to Leigh above when she says:

    “I particularly dislike the “work for exposure” line. I have yet to see exposure be worth the time or effort.”

    Why is that to go-to line people pull when they want to convince you to do something for THEM that really offers little to nothing in return for YOU?

    I’m past the desperate portfolio-building stage. Even then, I wrote for myself.

    • Cordelia says:

      Good for you, Rachael! Let that dead weight go! As you know, quitting something that isn’t working in your life frees up room for more things that DO work.

      If you haven’t read it yet, might I suggest:

      I think it will provide you with any necessary final kick in the pants. 🙂

    • Ms Hanson says:

      Upon opening my mouth one day, praying for the right words, someone (upstairs) poured these words right out of my mouth:
      “I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to give that (person/project/discussion) the time it deserves.”
      A-mazingly, every time I’ve uttered those words, it’s like they got a consolation prize, assurance that their person/project/discussion was worthy of time and would best be handled elsewhere.
      I never told anyone that, in most cases, it deserves ZERO time!

  • Gretchen Friel says:

    The writer must have access to the person who is approving the copy. It’s not a good sign if your client (even if he/she is the one with the budget) has a boss or committee who will approve the copy later. No doubt those persons have opinions which will cause rewrites for you. Unless discussed, there may be awkward ambivalence about who will pay for those hours. Try to clarify the project purpose and general creative approach on paper up front. That way, if the project purpose or general creative approach is changed by anyone involved later on, then you have a solid basis for raising your project fee.

    • Cordelia says:

      An excellent point! That’s why project scope and contracts are SO important. They let both you and the client know exactly what’s expected, and cover your tail if anything winds up straying outside those expectations.

      Too many freelancers, especially starting off, don’t realize they need to treat their services as a business. You wouldn’t make a verbal agreement with a new vendor for your store without a signed contract, would you? Same goes for any writing project you take on.

      Great point!

  • Just reading this makes my stomach tighten with nerves, especially the people who want you to work for free. Such gall.

    I particularly dislike the “work for exposure” line. I have yet to see exposure be worth the time or effort.

    I will at times do pro-bono work or trade for services, but only with people I already know and trust.

    I’d love to add my own advice, but I think you have it covered pretty solidly.

    • Cordelia says:

      Thanks, Leigh! It makes my stomach tighten, too, to see the things clients try to get away with–and know that less-experienced freelancers are happy to go along with them! The main takeaway is to believe your work is worth clients who’ll value it, and that it IS possible to hold out for these clients. Even if you’re a newbie just starting out, you don’t have to grovel for work. Believe in what you’re providing, and the good clients will recognize it and find you.

      • Leigh says:

        Absolutely. I know there’s a tendency to feel like you don’t want to say no to paying work even if the pay is low. What I’ve found, though, is a good client who recognizes your value and is willing to pay your rates is a much easier client. So it makes sense to search and find the right clients.

        Because 4 clients who pay 25% of your worth with me 8x the work as one client who pays your full worth and actually loves what you do.

        It’s hard to be patient, though.

  • SusieR says:

    Well done – excellent points! As a 20-years-plus freelancer, I’ve learned to quickly identify those red flags. But I’ve also learned not to always turn and run. Many times, I’ll take the work and either charge a bit more for the PITA (pain in the a$$) factor, or reign them in when they travel outside the boundaries of good behavior. If they don’t come back for the next project, so be it: I didn’t sell my soul. Really enjoying your blog!

    • Cordelia says:

      Very good point. In some cases, if you’re confident in your services and able to channel the necessary boldness, clients ARE reign-in-able. I have one myself who’s provided a reliable source of income, although I regularly need to remind her when she’s overstepping boundaries. (And, to her credit, she always apologies and improves. She just doesn’t realize she’s doing it.)

      It’s all a matter of how comfortable you are in yourself, how responsive the client is, and how much PITA you’re willing to accept for a certain ROI. All things you learn after enough years in the field!

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