Client Red Flags: 11 Signs of a Bad Client

“I should have paid attention to the red flags.”

Freelancers often say this about a project that has gone wrong.

And it’s true. Most of the time, in hindsight, there were red flags. But if we pay attention to them sooner, we can eliminate problem projects from the get-go and increase the likelihood of smooth, successful projects for ourselves and our clients.

Like I talked about last time, free consultations are a great way to get to know potential clients and find out about their needs. They’re also an opportunity to pay attention to red flags. In my 15+ years as a freelance designer/developer, here are the client red flags I’ve encountered: 

  1. They don’t have a budget. This is huge, yet a lot of creatives don’t even discuss money with prospects until much later. Money should always be discussed during your first conversation.
  2. They bad mouth previous creatives. Sometimes they’ve had a bad experience for a justified reason, but you can usually tell based on how they talk about the situation.
  3. You’re having communication issues. Maybe they sound rude, demanding or impolite—or maybe they’re nice but you just don’t seem to gel.
  4. They’re having trouble defining what they want. If they don’t know what they want, how can you deliver a satisfying outcome?
  5. They’re in a rush. I don’t take rush projects anymore. I don’t like working that way. You might be willing to. If so, I recommend an added charge.
  6. They talk about their personal lives (a lot). We all have personal lives, but if prospects spend the first conversation focused on personal stuff instead of business, it indicates where their priorities are.
  7. They stand you up. If they miss your free consultation, this is usually not a good sign.
  8. They want everything! The person might want a website, a forum, an online community and a bunch of sales pages. There’s nothing wrong with being a big dreamer…but you’ll have to see how they respond to being reigned in and if they’re open to splitting the project into manageable phases.
  9. They’re waiting for a check to clear. If on the first call, they mention that they’ll be able to pay the deposit after a check clears, this could be bad news.
  10. They dangle the carrot for a discount. If they promise future work for a discount now, I usually say, “Let’s talk about this project first…If it goes smoothly, we can talk about a volume discount moving forward.
  11. They’re doing other things. If they can’t dedicate 30 minutes to your first call…or if keep putting your on hold, they might be unable to focus during the project.

Disclaimer: We’re all human. We all get confused. We say things that aren’t perfect. Shit happens. But pay attention to how people speak about and react to different situations. Listen to your gut. Ultimately you’ll be able to answer this question for yourself: Is this someone I can make happy while being happy myself?

Can you turn red flags around?

Some initial red flags might just turn out to be confusion/misunderstanding. For example, a person initially gives you a low budget or crazy timeframe because they don’t understand the amount of time or money it takes to do the project properly. A little information can often give the prospect the info they need and help them turn into a great client. 

A good client is usually someone who is reasonable, who values your expertise and who you can communicate clearly with. If these traits prevail over the red flags, and you’re willing to guide the client through the project by setting clear boundaries, timelines and expectations, red flag clients can definitely become green flag clients.

Did I miss any red flags? Comment and let me know.

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