I’m just going to come out and say it; at some point during your freelance career, you’re going to have a run-in with a bad freelance client. It’s never fun to deal with but bad freelance clients are everywhere. Some may be entirely too clingy while others ignore you like it’s their full-time job. But, there’s a big difference between a demanding client and a bad client.
A demanding client may be difficult to work with but they know what they want and when they want it. The likelihood that you’ll have to chase them down in order to complete their project or pay an invoice isn’t very high. On the other hand, a bad freelance client tends to be hard to reach and has no qualms about leaving an invoice unpaid.
The major distinction here is that you don’t trust a bad client—and let’s be real, trust is an important part of any business relationship. This is especially true for freelancers because we rely on our clients to be able to pay our bills. Luckily, there are some common warning signs of a bad freelance client; you just have to know what to look for.
10 Warning Signs of a Bad Freelance Client
Whether you’ve been burned before or you want to be proactive, knowing the signs of a bad freelance client can save you a headache down the road. Here are ten red flags to keep an eye out for.
1. They’re Bad a Communication
One of my biggest pet peeves is poor communication, especially while working with a client on a project. I can only do as much as my client enables me to do. Without the information I need to complete the work, the whole project gets stalled and it impacts the rest of my project timelines.
No joke, I had a client ghost me for three weeks one time. The client dodged my calls and emails so frequently that I was about to chalk it up as a complete wash. Right when I was about to send the client break-up email, they got in touch like nothing ever happened.
If you’ve been in this boat, you know just how frustrating it is when a client is bad at communication. The best you can do is keep following up until they acknowledge your attempts. At the point, schedule a call to address the communication problems and try to solve the problem together. If nothing changes after a month or two, you might have to move on.
2. They Try to Get a Discount
If I had a dollar for every time someone tried to barter for my services, I’d be able to treat myself to a lot of tacos and margaritas! While I’m all for a good margarite, the truth is, it happens a lot more than it should. If someone is asking to lower your prices, they’re essentially telling you they don’t value what you do and your work is not worth your rate.
When that happens, you feel offended, frustrated, disheartened…the list goes on and on.
Here’s the thing. You shouldn’t have to defend your rates! Provided that you’re not charging an astronomical rate than your competition, your rates are fine. The problem is that your rates may not align with that prospect’s budget. In that case, they may not be the right client for you.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you want to discount your services. If the project sounds right up your ally or gets you excited, do what you have to do.
That being said, you shouldn’t ever feel like you have to reduce your rates. By sticking to your guns, you will begin attracting the level of clients who are willing to pay what your work is worth.
To limit how often this happens, create a pricing guide for your website. Clearly stating your freelance rates will deter people who can’t afford your prices from getting in touch and potentially wasting your time.
3. They Won’t Sign the Contract
Nothing slows down the start of a project quite like a client dragging their feet on signing the contract. As annoying as it may be, there are plenty of reasons a client might be hesitant to sign a contract. The client may be unsure of what something means or concerned about a term within the contract.
If you find yourself in this situation, first let them know the contract is meant to protect both you and the client by clearly outlining the expectations of working with you. Then, ask them why they’re hesitant to sign. Once you know what’s holding them back, you can work on correcting the issue.
Refusing to sign the contract after you’ve addressed their concerns is a big red flag and you shouldn’t move forward with the project. Performing work without a contract can be bad news for your business. Not only are you vulnerable to scope creep, but you also have no legal grounds if the client doesn’t pay.
Bottom line: ALWAYS work with a contract in place.
4. They Can’t Explain What They Want
Freelancers aren’t mind readers. Sure, we like to add our own creative spin to our projects, but first, we need to know what the client wants. While most clients know what they’re looking for the first time they reach out, some aren’t quite as prepared.
In that case, you have two options:
- Try to walk them through it.
- Ask them to get back in touch once they’ve got a better idea of what they want.
If you choose option one, beware; If a client can’t communicate what they want from the beginning, it often sets the tone for the rest of the project. When you ignore this warning sign, you may just end up with an unsatisfied client no matter what you do.
5. A Bad Freelance Client Often Attempts Scope Creep
Scope creep; it’s a rabbit hole no freelancer wants to go down! If you’re not familiar with scope creep, it’s when a client tries to get you to perform more work than originally agreed to for free. This can be as simple as surpassing the number of edits included in the agreement or as big as asking for an additional page of website copy to the original five you agreed to.
Sometimes, scope creep happens on accident and the client may not have realized a particular element wasn’t included. Other times, a client might be trying to work the system.
So, how do you protect against scope creep? By having the client sign a contract, creative brief, or proposal before any work begins. A cut and dried contract clearly outlines what services you’re offering and what is included. If a client requests additional services, refer them to your contract or proposal. There they’ll find exactly what is covered under the current contract and can then make the decision to get a quote for any additional services.
If a client keeps trying to creep even after pointing them to the contract, it’s a major warning sign they’re a bad freelance client. At that point, it’s up to you whether you want to continue working with them or cut them loose once the contract ends.
6. They Pull a Houdini
Does this sound familiar:
You get an email from a prospect who sounds very interested in working with you. They’ve taken the time to type out a detailed email about what they need and how you can help them. So, you spend valuable time typing up a reply and inviting them to set up a call and you wait…and wait…and wait. After they haven’t replied to your initial email or any follow-ups, it finally dawns on you; they Houdini’d.
There’s nothing quite as frustrating than getting excited about a new client and investing time nurturing the lead, only to have them fail to respond to every point of contact.
As annoying as the Houdini is, it doesn’t necessarily mean the prospect would be a bad freelance client. People get busy and responding to emails often ranks low on the priority list. That’s why following up is super important. It not only keeps you on your prospects radar but most will appreciate the gentle reminder to get back into contact.
Not sure when or how often to follow up? Here’s what I recommend:
- 1st follow up – between 3-5 business days after the initial reply
- 2nd follow up- 1 week after 1st follow up
- 3rd follow up – 1-2 weeks after 2nd follow up
After the third follow up, you can either drop it or keep following up every few months or so.
I personally like to continue to follow up at least once a quarter. That way, I’m still putting myself on their radar if something changes. I do this for prospects who have Houdini’d as well as prospects who weren’t quite ready to pull the trigger.
7. A Bad Freelance Client is Rude to You or Your Team
Some clients just don’t understand the nature of a good business relationship. Instead of viewing your services as an extension of or a partnership with their company, they treat you as an employee. So, they may feel the freedom to be rude or extra demanding. If that’s the case, you’ll be happier than ever to be an independent contractor!
A business partnership is a relationship built on mutual respect and teamwork. For a happy business partnership to occur, both parties need to communicate effectively and kindly to one another.
If you find yourself in a situation where a prospect or client isn’t treating you or your team with the respect (and common decency) you deserve, it may be a good idea to cut them loose.
Sound a little dramatic? You can also attempt to nip bad behavior in the bud before ending the partnership. Schedule a call to talk about your concerns. Let them know their behavior won’t be tolerated and if it doesn’t change, you’ll have to end the contract.
8. They Have Unrealistic Timelines
When it comes to hiring someone for a service-based business like website copy or graphic design, timelines can vary. The thing is, no one knows better than you how long it will take you to produce high-quality work.
The best you can do is explain to the client or prospect how you work, what your process is like, and where their project falls on your current to-do list. Most people will adjust their expectations according to the given timeline; others may not be quite as receptive. When that happens, take it as a warning sign that the client may be trouble going forward.
9. They Try to Contact You Outside of Normal Business Hours
Before you begin working with a client, you should make it clear what your business hours are. That way, there’s no confusion about when you can be reached. Most prospects and clients won’t expect you to reply outside of standard business hours (M-F, 8 AM – 5 PM).
Still, there are bound to be a client a or two who sends you a 911 email or text in the middle of the night and expects a prompt response. If it’s a real emergency that can’t wait, that’s one thing. But if the “emergency” isn’t an emergency at all, that’s something else entirely. Or, they may send you an email and multiple follow-ups in a short span of time when you don’t reply.
In those cases, gently remind the client of your business hours and how they can contact you. If they refuse to adhere to your business hours, you may need to have a conversation about each of your expectations.
10. You Have a Gut Instinct
Whether or not a prospect or current client exhibits any of these warning signs, always listen to your gut. If something feels off from your initial interactions, it’s okay to turn the prospect down. Sam Vander Wielen summed this up so perfectly in a Facebook post I saw recently. Here’s what she had to say about what she calls a PITA client:
“Pain In The….you get the idea. Requesting off hour appointments, jerking you around on price, asking for you to justify your value…If someone acts like a PITA from the start, believe them. It’s no judgment against them. It’s just a sign that it might not be the best fit.” – Sam Vander Wielen
On a similar same note, if it’s not going well with an existing client, don’t be afraid to cut ties. It may be hard to do but both you and the client will benefit from ending the relationship. You’ll be much happier and the client can find someone more suited to their project.
The truth is, not every client or project is going to be right for you. The beauty of being a freelancer is you can turn them down if you don’t think it’s going to work out. However, you should always try to do it in the best way possible. Don’t just Houdini (we hate when clients do that to us, remember?) or make a passive-aggressive comment about it not working out. Be kind and respectful; nothing good usually comes from burning bridges!
If it’s a case of just not thinking you’re the right fit, explain that to the client. Most will appreciate your honesty, especially if their project requires a big investment of time and money. If possible, make some recommendations for other freelancers you know who may be a better fit for their project.
What to Do if You See Any of These Warning Signs
As a freelancer, the last thing you want to do is fire a client. But, there’s no doubt you’ll see a warning sign or two while working with clients and prospects. For most, addressing the issue or behavior before it progresses will often do the trick.
When it doesn’t, you might have to bite the bullet and send a break-up email. Sounds scary, right? While it’s definitely not a fun part of being an online business owner, sometimes it’s necessary. The good news is that by firing bad freelance clients, you have more time to work with clients who value your time and respect your business.
Katie Jenison is a freelance writer offering copywriting, blogging, and ghostwriting services. She works closely with home builders, remodelers, interior designers, real estate and property management professionals to help them create content marketing strategies, improve their digital presence, generate leads, and engage with their target audience. Katie also helps freelance writers and creative entrepreneurs pursue their dreams of working from home by providing tips and advice, business strategies, and writing tips on her blog, The Quiet Type. Download her free workbook, A Freelancer’s Guide to Setting Rates, here.