At some point every freelancer will deal with a difficult client, but there are recognisable signs that should raise a red flag when you hear them. If you pay attention to those red flags, they’ll help you spot and avoid difficult clients; here’re a few I’ve come across:
“It’ll be fantastic exposure for you”
This client generally has a small budget (or none at all) so tries to entice you with promises of other benefits such as recommending you to everyone they know and driving a lot of future business your way, to pointing out how good their project will look in your portfolio.
However, the promised exposure rarely happens; they might send out a tweet thanking you publicly for your help, but more often they will just forget all about you once they have the work and you’ll never hear from them again or receive any of the “fantastic exposure”.
Instead of falling for this, charge what you’re worth and take care of your own marketing.
“I’ll know what I want when I see it”
This client will give you as vague a brief as possible (once the only information I was given was “it needs to look high-end”), and leave you guessing as to what they’re actually looking for. This is because they don’t actually know what they want, and if you don’t manage to pry some more information out of them, no matter how many ideas you show them they will never be happy.
If you’re the kind of freelancer who offers unlimited revisions, this client will make full use of that offer, and ask for change after change. You’ll both get increasingly frustrated as they’re never quite satisfied with the work and you’re watching any hope of profit swiftly disappearing.
On the other hand, if you offer a set number of revisions, the client may get annoyed once their allocated revisions are used up and you tell them it’ll cost extra to keep making changes.
“Can I get a sample first?”
This usually comes from an inexperienced client; they may not have hired a freelancer before and are worried about making the right decision about who to hire. They may not realise that by asking for a free sample, they’re devaluing the work you do (see the no-spec website for more on this).
If you have a portfolio, that should be enough for the client to judge the standard of your work. If they don’t like the work you’ve done previously then obviously there’s no point in hiring you.
If they’re adamant that they want to see some ideas first, you can explain to them that you don’t work for free and either walk away from the project, or offer to create the samples as a paid pitch.
“Your terms are too restrictive”
Hopefully you get your clients to sign a contract when you work together. In addition to outlining the scope of work, schedule and costs, your terms should cover things like permitted revisions, your responsibilities and those of your client, payment terms, and your cancellation policy.
If the client doesn’t want to agree to your terms, it’s a warning sign that they don’t necessarily intend sticking to them. Whether it’s increasing the scope of work without paying for extra features, or not paying you on time, you’ll probably find working with this type of client is too stressful and frustrating so it’s best to avoid them.
“Do I really have to pay a deposit?”
Thankfully I haven’t personally experienced this type of client, but a friend of mine has.
It’s good practice to ask for a deposit upfront for every project; it shows that both you and the client are committed to the work, and it’s also good for your cashflow!
If the client is unwilling to pay you anything upfront, it’s a really bad sign; it usually means they have no intention of paying you at all. This type of client is best avoided as it’s not worth the risk of doing the work and not getting paid for it.
These are some of the difficult clients I’ve come across, and the warning signs I’ve learned to recognise so I can try to avoid those types of clients in the future. What warning signs have you come across?