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How to Recognize and Avoid Terrible Clients as a Freelancer

<h2>Bad clients are everywhere.</h2> <p>As a freelancer in the professional jungle, it is a matter of survival to recognize terrible clients before you waste your precious time and money.</p> <p>With limited legal power and financial means, you are at the bottom of the professional food chain. Your best strategy will always be to identify abusive clients sooner than later.</p> <p>Discussing with freelancers who went through painful professional experiences, we built an exhaustive list of red flags that will hopefully help you develop a 6th sense.</p> <p>Mistakes will be made on the client side, of course. Not all of them are experienced with freelancers. Use your judgement when it comes to applying cutthroats methods, sometimes a short discussion goes a long way.</p> <h2>Before the project starts (the best timeframe)</h2> <p>The following red flags will habitually be raised very early. With them in mind, you should be able to filter out bad clients before you work a single minute.</p> <h3>They don’t ask about your fee</h3> <p>First thing first, don’t let your fee become a taboo. If a client gives you tasks before even knowing how much it’s going to cost, they probably haven't budgeted you, if they have a budget at all. A cost/benefit analysis is pretty hard without the cost factor. They’ll act surprised when you send them an invoice and will try to negotiate you down once the job is done.</p> <h3>Their brief is very vague</h3> <blockquote><p>“I'd like to have some kind of web presence.”</p></blockquote> <p>This client hasn’t done its homeworks, and the pressure is going to be on your shoulders. He has a very vague and uneducated idea about what he wants, most of the time based on results obtained by other companies.</p> <p>It will be very painful to figure out what they have in mind. Since it’s not part of a stable strategy, the plan will change numerous time in a very unpredictable way. They’re not gonna be willing to pay and will put the blame on you for not building what they didn’t know they wanted the first time.</p> <h3>They look disorganized</h3> <p>If you can’t even get a clear answer within reasonable delays before a project starts, just imagine what it will be like during a crunch time with aggressive milestones.</p> <p>If multiple people are involved, it’s going to get exponentially more complicated, as key informations will be lost in translation.</p> <p>If the plan changes numerous times, in a very polar manner, before you even start working, expect vision shifts in the middle of the project.</p> <h3>They try to cut your rate drastically</h3> <blockquote><p>“My little nephew can do that for a quarter of your price.”</p></blockquote> <p>You are a micro-business, act like it. While it is ok to reduce your fee if you follow strict guidelines <a href="https://www.momenteo.com/blog/my-client-is-trying-to-negotiate-my-rate">(read this article for more details)</a>, agreeing to a ridiculously low price won’t do you any good. Working on that project will be frustrating, your patience will be much lower and the overall quality of your work might diminish.</p> <p>Stay far from these. They don’t respect your work.</p> <h3>They talk about giving you exposure</h3> <p>Don’t walk away. Run away.</p> <h3>They want stuff for free</h3> <p>The only free stuff you should give is your portfolio. It should be enough for them to see the quality of your output and figure out if they want similar results.</p> <p>Don’t let them put the risks of their project on your shoulders by having you work for free and only pay if it is exactly what they had in mind. They often have multiple freelancers work on proposals - this isn’t a contest, you deserve to get paid.</p> <h3> “I’ve been through a lot of freelancers before I found you.”</h3> <p>Most of the time, you can translate that into “other freelancers like you didn’t accept my abusive conditions”.</p> <p>Remember the e-card that said “The only constant in all your failed relationships is you.” If you can, talk to other freelancers who know that client, just to make sure your intuition is right. Unless you are way above average (the alpha freelancer), the problem is probably the client.</p> <h3>They want to get started NOW (or yesterday)</h3> <p>No contract, no vision, no guidelines, no specs, no agreement.</p> <p>This isn't being lean, this is being reckless. It will back fire soon enough, as any freelancers with a bit of experience could tell (painful memories, huh?).</p> <p>Always plan for the worst and make sure all of the core questions are answered before you start working. Try having at least a written agreement (it could be an email or a contract), it isn't a strong legal ground, but it's better than nothing.</p> <h2>During the project (you’ve been baited)</h2> <p>Some clients are experts at the art of deception and manage to make their project look very exciting at the start. They might even know about the previously mentioned red flags and make you believe they are a specie of great clients. If you come across any of the following red flags, just know it was only camouflage.</p> <h3>They constantly change the deadlines and requirements</h3> <p>If you are dealing with multiple clients on a daily basis, this will be hell. Prepare for a very unstable schedule, your priorities will be reviewed overnight, you'll learn about this new deadline 4 hours before leaving for vacation.</p> <h3>The approval structure is complex</h3> <p>If the project manager has to get it approved by the producer who has to get it approved by the art director who has to get it approved by the CEO who has to get it approved by his wife, rest assured you’ll end up receiving curveballs.</p> <h3>They come back on stuff they agreed on a while ago</h3> <p>A symptom of the previous red flag. Your work went through the whole approval process, it was stamped by every single decision maker on the client side. Yet, 3 months after, someone in the command chain changed his mind and you will be required to re-do everything.</p> <h3>They refuse upfront payments</h3> <p>Part of doing business is sharing risk. Receiving an upfront payment (15-50%, usually) is a good sign of an healthy business relationship. It forces everyone to be more cooperative, and you won’t fear that they pull the plug out of the blue.</p> <p>As a general guideline, don’t work too much without being paid, bill early and bill often.</p> <h3>They think everything is a minor fix</h3> <blockquote><p>“Can you make our website available on mobile phone for our demo tomorrow morning?”</p></blockquote> <p>The underlying complexity of your job has to be understood, at least partially. It is your responsibility to educate them about what these minor changes imply. The unreasonable revisions are often requested by clients with very low experience in your domain of activity.</p> <p>Things often look simple when you don’t understand.</p> <h3>They think they know more than you do</h3> <p>Confident clients who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing are a very dangerous specie. Their gut feeling will overrule many years of expertise. They are absolutely unpredictable and will shamelessly break the rules of your profession many times. These clients hire you for your expertise yet don’t recognize it. Oh by the way, in the end, after numerous hours of useless micro-management, they will blame you for listening to them.</p> <h3>Their work environment is highly political</h3> <p>You left the corporate world to be far from politics, haven’t you? If you aren’t a freelance psychologist, it should be a red flag when a client keeps emptying his heart about his boss and colleagues. A clash of vision and values is happening inside the client business, and you might face the consequences at some point. Be wary.</p> <h2>What to do?</h2> <p>Here are a few guidelines that could help you deal with tough clients.</p> <ul> <li>Talk to them, sometimes they just don’t know about your dissatisfaction and a quick discussion could fix a lot of problems down the road.</li> <li>Don’t accumulate anger, it will make any potential discussion fraught with emotions.</li> <li>Stay professional, you don’t want to ruin your reputation.</li> <li>Be flexible, business is chaos, your clients probably have a lot on their shoulders too.</li> <li>Suggest solutions, no one likes a whiner.</li> </ul> <h2>If all else fails</h2> <p>Firing a client isn’t never fun, yet sometimes, it’s the right solution.</p> <p>The quick revenue loss is nothing compared by the quality life gain. A client who doesn’t respect you and your time can end up making you hate your career choice. One upside of being a freelancer is the freedom of choosing who you work with. Don’t become miserable, fire awful clients.</p> <p>Just make sure you get paid before.</p>

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Philip Barclay CMO@Momenteo