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Red Flags That Your New Freelance Client Will Be Trouble

by | Sep 11, 2013

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”?