How Freelancers Can Spot Difficult Clients

When you decide to go freelance, you suddenly become responsible for everything to do with your business. You’re suddenly the salesperson, the accountant, and the account manager. 

Building a successful business means having great clients who value your skills and are prepared to pay a fair price for them. 

But as every freelancer will tell you, not all clients are perfect. And some can make your working life seem more like a nightmare. It’s all about what you’re willing to put up with as a freelancer and identifying those characteristics which signal a red flag with a potential client. 

Create a Financial Buffer Against These Clients

It’s an unfortunate situation, but many freelancers will work with terrible clients because they cannot afford to turn away paid work even when it’s making them miserable. Try and create freedom for yourself by having a financial buffer with savings, cash train loans, or by putting a percentage of your earnings aside. 

They Expect You to Work for Free

You should never be expected to work for free but this is becoming more commonplace. A company or individual will ask you to produce a piece of test work or sample work. The idea is that they want to evaluate your level of skills. 

At best, this is a misguided attempt at hiring and at worst, is trying to get free work out of people. If you are asked to produce free work, simply tell them that this is why you have references or a portfolio. Have respect for your own time and talents and walk away. 

Always Try and Negotiate the Price Down

A great client relationship stems from them knowing and valuing your skills, and paying a fair rate for them. It’s natural for people to want to get good value, but if your prices are constantly being questioned, or they’re forcing you to lower them, you should consider whether you want to work with them. 

They Tell You How to Do Your Job

As a freelancer, you’re being hired because you’re good at what you do. If you’re being dictated to in terms of what you’re doing, how long it should take, and other specifics, you will find your working relationship strained. 

They Don’t Understand How to Work With a Freelancer

A common source of conflict between freelancers and their clients is the difference in working style. After all, a big part of becoming self-employed is so that you can have a greater amount of freedom in your work and timetable. If a client starts dictating your every move or expects you to be available at a moment’s notice, with their work as your only priority. 

You aren’t an employee. If they can’t grasp that you have a different way of working, then they are likely to get frustrated with your work, even if you’re performing. 

They Won’t Sign a Contract

Contracts are there to protect both parties. They make sure that you both know what to expect from each other and what your recourse is should there be a disagreement. If a potential client does not want to sign a contract, then this should be ringing alarm bells. If you take on the work without a contract then you are putting yourself at risk. 

Conversely, they may want to you to a contract that they have created and this could be a very one-sided contract that binds you to some very strict terms and conditions. 

They Pay Late

Cash flow can be difficult for companies of all sizes. The occasional late payment from a good client isn’t the end of the world. But if you have a client that is constantly paying late, giving no explanation, and still expecting you to continue to work, this should be a red flag. 

They Are Unrealistic

You’ll often find that people want things done too fast, too cheap, and with unrealistic expectations around quality. This attitude can come from inexperience, or, at the other end of the scale, arrogance.

They Don’t Respect You

A great client relationship is based on mutual respect. At the very least, they should be treating you as an equal. You don’t have to be friends, but if they are talking down to you or can’t be cordial, then this is a sign of a bigger issue. 

How to Protect Yourself From Bad Clients

No system for selecting clients is 100% perfect, but there are a number of things that you can do in order to reduce the chances that you’re going to have problems further down the line. 

Use a Contract

Before you do any work, get a contract signed that outlines exactly what is expected of each party. There should also be a details scope of works produced that will outline what you will do for any given project. 

The contract will also outline any payment terms, expenses, and late fees. 

Get Payment Upfront

Insisting on a percentage of the contract fee paid upfront can buffer you a little against late payments from clients. It’s not an uncommon thing for freelancers to do. If a potential client refuses this, then it’s unlikely they would have paid you on time anyway. 

Agree on a Line of Communication

Communicating regularly is vital to any client relationship. Agreeing on minimum levels of communication and through what channels can avoid mismatched expectations. For example, if you’re planning on checking in once per week, or if there’s a problem, but your client is expecting you to be in touch every day, then there’s going to be a problem further down the line. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away

You will know how much you’re willing to put up with from a difficult client. But at a certain point, the issues they cause may become too much. If it starts affecting your other work or bleeding over into your personal life, then you may be better off cutting ties with them and walking away. 

Learning to recognize a lot of these client red flags comes down to experience. You’re likely to make a mistake or have some bad luck somewhere along the way but by putting some hard and fast rules in place, you can avoid them.