Bad Clients: 20 Ways to Spot Them

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Bad clients are an inevitability, whatever line of business you’re in.

When you’re working for yourself, it’s actually quite a luxury to be free to “fire a client” if the relationship isn’t working out, or if dealing with it becomes unacceptably stressful. Obviously, you don’t want to do this too often, or you won’t have a business left!

However, over the years, I’ve personally let a handful of clients go. It’s been liberating every time, and I’ve never once regretted it. That alone, for me, is good enough justification to consider firing clients when things are going south.

That’s why I was happy to publish this guest post, which discusses 20 ways to spot when you might be dealing with one of life’s bad clients! I can certainly recognise plenty of these signs from my own past experiences.

Take a look at these 20 tell-tale signs of bad clients – the kind of clients you may live to regret working with. While it’s tough to turn down money, sometimes it’s the best choice.

1. You feel disrespected. This is an easy one; If a client yells at you, uses inappropriate language, makes you feel anxious or your life miserable, then it’s time to end the relationship. You don’t put up with it in your personal life, so why would you put up with it at work? Just because you work for someone and they pay you doesn’t mean you have to be subjected to inappropriate or disrespectful behaviour.

2. You’re asked to cut your rate. You set your prices because you determine that that’s what you’re worth; When you take less, you’re undermining that worth and so is the client. Bad clients like this don’t respect you or what you bring to the table.

3. The client keeps “moving goalposts.” Everything’s going great until the client calls and asks for a few more things – and then it keeps happening. The project’s going to require more work that wasn’t part of the original deal. There’s often some element of this in freelancing, but if it keeps happening and the client isn’t willing to pay more for that work, finish up the job and cut ties.

4. The client will not sign a contract. If your client will not sign a contract or agree to terms in writing, even if that’s just by replying to a simple email, then this may be a sign of someone who will eventually go back on their word. You may wish to consider whether you’re happy to do business with such a person.

5. The client will not pay a deposit. Your services are not free; If you ask for a deposit and the client refuses, what makes you think he or she will be willing to pay the full amount when the job is done? Good clients will invariably respect your desire to “share the risk” in a new business relationship – bad clients won’t.

6. The client wants to barter. Free car washes for a year! Unlimited hours at the gym! All the clothing you can wrap your arms around! All you have to do is give up your services. It sounds like a great deal, but the truth is bartering with a supplier sets a bad precedent. What happens when he or she needs your services again? Will you get paid in bagels?

7. The client pays late. You did the work, you sent the bill, and now you’re waiting for your money. Late payments are depressingly common in the world of freelancing, but the general rule is that if a client doesn’t respect you enough to pay you on time, you can expect it to happen again. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t need to worry about cash flow, more power to you. But if you’re not, there are people out there that will pay the same amount and on time, too.

8. The client is too hands off. The client goes “radio silent” or you end up talking to a go-between instead of the actual decision maker. If you’re talking to everyone but the decision guy, then it may not be a working relationship you want to be in.

9. The client is too hands on! There’s too hands off, and then there’s too hands on. These are the clients that send daily emails (usually “urgent” ones) and demand a response or call every day; the bad clients who think it’s OK to send a text message at seven o’clock on a Friday night. They cross the line and it often costs you more time and stress than the job is worth.

10. You can’t take credit for your work. There’s usually only one reason a client dictates this, which is that they are going to take credit for your work. You need to decide ahead of time if this matters to you.

11. The client expects miracles. You’re good at what you do, but you’re not a miracle worker. That article you’re getting paid $50 for isn’t going to win a Pulitzer. If it sounds like the client expects it to, cut ties while you can. Unrealistic expectations can never be met, no matter how hard you try.

12. The client knows everything. You were hired because you’re the expert. If the client was, they’d do the job themselves. Clients who act like they know more than you are usually going to prove difficult to work with. (Editor’s note: I have my own way of spotting this with freelance writing clients: If they want a 1000-word article and send 1500 words of guidance notes, they’re going to be a nightmare to work with). 

13. The client is indecisive. One day the graphic needs to be blue; the next it needs to be gold. There are some clients that just can’t make up their minds or don’t have a clear picture of what they want. They can be frustrating to work with and require double the work when all is said and done.

14. The client is closed-minded. The client knows what he or she wants and expects it to be exactly the way he or she wants it; it’s their way or the highway. In these cases, it’s sometimes better to choose the highway.

15. The client cannot handle criticism. In most freelance relationships there needs to be a back and forth exchange of ideas. If your client needs his or her ego stroked for every idea, odds are the relationship is going to be a tough one to handle.

16. The line between business and pleasure starts to blur. Sometimes you may find yourself taking on business from a close friend or family member. In some cases, it works. In other cases, one or both sides start to cross the line. If this happens to you, end the business relationship. No amount of money is worth losing someone who is near and dear to you.

17. The client has a bad reputation. One bad review could just be a disgruntled employee or contractor. However, three or four is a warning sign. If a number of employees claim the client isn’t the best to work for, then this is a clear warning sign that this client will give you trouble.

18. The client asks you to do something immoral. We’re not saying illegal, but immoral. When you are asked to copy someone’s work or fudge the numbers just a little bit, then it’s time to go your separate ways. Remember that if a client is asking you to do something immoral, you are putting your own reputation and integrity at risk.

19. You have a bad feeling about the client. It’s hard to really quantify a gut feeling, but let’s just say if you don’t feel right about working with a client, it’s often best to go with that instinct.

20. You think, “I’m not getting paid enough for this.” If you find yourself thinking this even once, then it’s time to reevaluate your relationship with the client. That’s regret rearing its ugly head and you need to listen.

It can be difficult to spot every single one of these things before working with bad clients. However, once the warning signs begin to become more visible, that’s the time to consider if you really want to prolong the client relationship.

Convincing bad clients to fire themselves?!

Sometimes you can get these clients to fire themselves! Maybe the job would be worth it if you were getting paid double or triple your fee? So put that rate up! The client may leave, or you may cash in on a big payday. Either way, you win.

Further reading: Do you have what it takes to be a successful freelancer?

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