11 Signs Of Problematic Clients You’ll Meet in Freelancing

In freelancing, it’s not the number of clients you have that will make or break your freelance business, but the kind of clients you have. There are a variety of clients out there, some are easy to work with, others make you feel like you want to give up freelancing forever. Sometimes you see the signs early; other times you will only realize that you working with a client from hell when you get burned midway to the project.

(Image Source: FreelanceSwitch)

Truth be told, as a freelancer, you will bump into one or more of the following clients as you stay longer in the freelancing feel. If you have a choice in it, avoid them like the plague. If you don’t, there are other ways to get around the problem and prevent further damage.

So keep your eyes peeled and watch out for the client who:

1. Doesn’t know what he wants

We’ve all had clients who are not sure of what they want. What do they mean by ‘a new look’? Do they mean the logo, the entire website or just a new web copy? Usually, the scope of the project can be cleared up quickly by asking the right questions. Having and using a standard list of questions is a great way to clear the confusion and get to the heart of the problem before any work is started.

(Image Source: FreelanceSwitch)

But every now and then you get a client who can’t explain what they want even with after answering all the burning questions you have, or they simply don’t agree with your assessment, for example, while it’s obvious from their responses that what they need is a rebranding exercise, they’re adamant that all they want is just a new logo. Watch out for said client – there’s a high chance they’ll never be satisfied. The worst part is when they come back saying that your work was faulty and despite not being able to tell you what they wanted, they somehow know that your work is not what they were looking for.

2. Runs through freelancers extremely fast

If your client mentions having a lot of trouble with their previous freelancer (or freelancers) then watch out! One or two problematic freelancers are a common occurrence but if they have a history of running through them really fast, then the problem might be the client.

Where possible, ask around in freelancing forums or in your network about the client before you accept their projects. Try to get hold of the freelancer who had worked for them and see what he has to say. If the problem turns out to be the client, turn down the offer as best as you can.

3. Wants the ‘Best’ rate

When a client asks for your best rate, that’s code for your cheapest rates. Before long, you will feel like you are bargaining your self-worth away. Gently remind your client that your rates are reflective of the quality of the work you put in. Never lower your rates beyond recovery. If you give them a low rate now, they will expect the same low rates for future projects.

(Image Source: Webdesigner Depot)

4. Thinks his nephew can do it better

We’ve all probably heard this one. It could be a jab at your prices, or at your ability to understand their gibberish and read their minds. When expectations don’t meet, tempers may flare and they might give you weird excuses on what they didn’t like about your work; excuses like one of his many designer nephews can do better.

If their niece and nephew could do it better they wouldn’t have to come to you, things like that. But honestly if they don’t like your work, they’re more than welcome to get their own family members to do it for them (for free). But remember to let them know that since they’re rejecting your work, they can’t use it, as you still own the copyright.

5. Doesn’t want to sign a contract

Having a contract is standard practice. If you don’t have one, please do, even if it’s just pasting the contents of the emails you exchanged with the client while you are both ironing out the details. Turn it into a document and send it to the client for signing. If the client refuse to ink the contract, you may run into problems later on down the project. The whole situation for refusing a black-and-white reeks of trouble. If they say something along the lines of "we trust you and you can trust us too" just tell them that it’s to prevent confusion and double work in the future.

Just so we’re clear, negotiating on contract terms and clauses is fine. It’s the "not signing or delaying of the signing" that is a warning sign. Even if a customer has said that they’ll sign it, on the side of caution, don’t start work on the project until you get a copy of the signed contract back.

Related: 8 Contract Clauses You Should Never Freelance Without

6. Does not communicate on time

You’re working on a time-sensitive project for a client. You meet your end of the bargain and send the work for approval or review. Then you wait for them to get back to you. One week later you’re still waiting and then out of the blue they get back to you, saying they need changes done, and within 2 days, because they have a deadline to meet.

Who doesn’t dislike a client like that? Send the client an email reminding him that he hasn’t sent you the information or feedback you requested on time and as a result you will not be able to meet their deadline now. While we’re on the subject…

7. Always wants rushed work

If you rush work often enough for a particular client, the client might begin to expect the same from you every time. Talk to your client about not regularly doing any rush work. Even if they’re paying you more, the stress of pulling all-nighters does not justify the money.

If the customer does not ease up on the rush work, it might be time to say bye-bye to him. You don’t want to burn out after all – unless you’re happy with the customer always wanting rush work and putting pressure on you, because that’s when you do your best work. In that case, by all means keep at it!

8. Is a bad paymaster

Just because a client pays doesn’t make them a good paymaster. A client is a bad paymaster if he pays late, changes the payment schedule and pays in installments, or pays less than agreed (I’ve had that happen to me before).

(Image Source: Webdesigner Depot)

Find a client who pays on time or better yet pays in advance and stick with that client instead of this one. If you’re tempted to give them a chance, think long and hard. In my experience, if a client starts delaying payments or changes the terms mid-project, it’s a clear sign of trouble.

9. Wants you to do spec work

Spec work (spec here is short for speculative, not specifications) is the bane of a freelancer designer’s career. I’ve never understood why clients ask for spec work, but some do. The work that you pour into your spec work (if it is requested by the client) will not be paid if the client does not like what they see, so you can see the risk factor here.

In my opinion, clients should pay for sample work that they asked the freelancer to do, whether they hire him or not, simply because spec work eats into our billable hours. There are of course exceptions but 9 out of 10 times, spec work is counter-productive to your freelancing goals.

Instead, show them your portfolio, accummulated from the past work you have done for previous clients or what you have done during your spare time.

10. Promises future work if you work for peanuts now

Ever had an email from a prospect who says he’ll have more work for you in the future if you work for next to nothing now? Or that he’ll pay you more once his business/service gets established and he’s earning big bucks? Newsflash: That’s never going to happen. Unless it’s an uncle who is ripping off his nephews and nieces.

11. Is never satisfied

You work hard on a project, put in all you have and send it to the client. They send it back to you for major edits. You make the changes; send it to the client again only to have it sent back to you again for changes, and again and again and again. Unless you really messed up the project it’s safe to say that when a client keeps sending back your work to you for changes, they’re never going to be satisfied.

(Image Source: FreelanceSwitch)

Charging for the changes usually puts a stop to it. And once you’re finally done with the project and have greener pastures to graze on, let go of this client.

Letting go of problem clients

Avoiding clients who might pose problems in the future is a smart move; What’s not smart is judging prospective clients harshly. They’re not always at fault. Freelancers are known to be a problematic bunch too. You can bet that clients have signs they keep an eye out for when it comes to freelancers they work with as well. No one likes to admit they’re wrong but before you judge that a client unfit to work with, take a good look at the relationship and yourself. Is your work above reproach? Did you communicate effectively with the cleint, meet deadlines and go out of your way to cooperate with clients? Most importantly, do you treat your clients the way you want to be treated?

A lot of times, what we as freelancers see as signs of trouble in a client is usually just an oversight on the client’s end. Talk it through with your client, let your client know the problem you’re facing and see what they can do about rectifying it before making the decision to continue working with them or finding another client. Have you dealt with a client like any of the ones listed above? How did you resolve the situation?

Related posts:

  1. 5 Ways to Tame Difficult and Problematic Clients
  2. Freelancers: How to Work Better with Your Clients
  3. How to Deal with Criticism in The Freelancing World
  4. Roadmap to Freelancing: Getting the Deal (Part 2)


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