Recognizing The Red Flag Client (Like a Bad Date)

Posted: June 30th, 2010

Photo by Kioan (Flickr)

Photo by Kioan (Flickr)

Picture this: A potential client consults with you. You give a (rather pricey) estimate. He is still interested and looks like a nice project to keep you going for a while.

Then you get to further discussions. He doesn’t pay attention to your suggestions. He is unclear of his goals and vision for the project. You just don’t see eye-to-eye.

Memories of a bad date are popping into your head.

So now you face an interesting dilemma in freelancing. Do I give up a great project and the nice income it will provide or do I take those red flags into account and let this client slip away to another freelancer?

Well, do bad dates ever get a second chance?

OK, maybe once in a blue moon but you eventually become quick to learn that, at any signs of trouble, it’s time to bolt.

On the other hand, with clients, it’s not so easy. Especially if you have kids to feed and rent or mortgage payments looming every month. When your own livelihood is at stake, turning down clients doesn’t seem like a very wise option.

Let’s, however, take a look at the real cost of turning down work from “bad date” client for a second.

It’s not the lost income

It’s easy to see that letting a potential (but temporary) cash cow go is equal to taking money right out of your pocket. The mistake in this line of thought is that you haven’t earned the money yet. There is no income lost at all.

Note that the keyword here is earned. How many hoops do you think you’ll have to jump through to even know what the project scope is and create a spec for it? Plus working with a client who isn’t aligned with your own style and goals means you’ll be spending most of your time trying to figure out and give the client what he wants while he continuously rejects your work.

All this adds up to significant extra time aside from the actual time worked on the project. And extra time costs you money in time that can be spent with clients who work well with you.

Read the signs

Much like a bad date (hell, we can say exactly the same as a bad date), your un-ideal client carries visible warning signs to stay as far away as possible. These can easily be seen within the first few consultations of a project.

  • The client is not receptive to your  suggestions. You begin to wonder why you were chosen in the first place.
  • One sided (that would be favoring the client) and long communication through emails, IM or calls. While you’re trying to comment and advise, you are interrupted with speeches on the client’s requirements.
  • The client couldn’t “work” with several other previous freelancers. It’s important to ask about this since it usually means others had enough of the client in the past.
  • You can’t figure out what the client wants… even after spending the time on all the emails and calls.

Hey, I won’t go as far as to tell you to let the client down gently and run but it is in your best interest. There are plenty of other fish, er, I mean clients in the sea that are great to work with and have great projects available. There is no sense in getting down in your loss either.

Nothing like the job boards to get you back on track again.

* * *

Let me know some more of the warning signs you’ve experienced with “bad date” clients in a comment below.

More on the author, Johnny Spence
Johnny is the founder of The Freelance Rant and a freelance web programmer with 8 years in the business. Have a visit at his company Oscarrr!web or see what he's up to on Twitter.

10 Comments. Join In!

  • Tweets that mention Recognizing The Red Flag Client (Like a Bad Date) - The Freelance Rant --

    June 30th, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by curiouslt and others. curiouslt said: RT @freelancerant: New Post! Recognizing The Red Flag Client (Like a Bad Date) […]

  • Jon Buscall

    July 1st, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    * clients that try to get you to work at a cheaper rate “because there’s loads more coming”
    * clients that never respond promptly to your emails but expect you to be there 100% of the time whenever you want them
    * clients who expect you to work after 19:00 and on Sat/Sun.
    * clients who are looking to cut corners and want a fast turnaround and who will settle for “good enough”
    Jon Buscall´s last blog post ..Summer Blog Post Schedule

  • Johnny

    July 1st, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks for additions Jon! I know and really hate that “I have loads more work you” line too.

  • Resources - Tweets of the Week (6.28.10 - 7.2.10) | Think Design

    July 2nd, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    […] A Set Of Stylish Social Bookmarking Buttons From @wpstudios   RT @freelancerant: New Post! Recognizing The Red Flag Client (Like a Bad Date) From @curiouslt   RT @tripwiremag: 35 Excellent Web Design with great use of Textures From […]

  • Tidbit: 7/2/10 | Nicola Black Design

    July 2nd, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    […] Recognizing the Red Flag Client via The Freelance Rant // AKPC_IDS += "1078,";Popularity: unranked […]

  • Moz

    July 12th, 2010 at 6:18 am

    When the tone of correspondence develops a personal edge, I flag the client as needing a bigger agency. My ideal clients always maintain a professional tone, no matter whether they’re expressing concerns or not.

  • Johnny

    July 12th, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    @Moz – I usually notice that these same types also need excessive hand holding. Definitely not worth the time!

  • Andrea @ Consultant Journal

    August 12th, 2010 at 2:13 am

    This is a fabulous post. So many people feel like they have to bow to the pressure of a prospective client. But, if you start out bowing, you’re going to be doing it the entire time and you’ll never get to be in an equal position again. It’s better to fire the client before the trouble starts.

  • Kate

    September 18th, 2010 at 12:39 am

    I wish I’d read this about a year ago. I walked blindly into a textiles-related job not long afterwards without much experience of doing the type of work the client was asking for and so gave a price that turned out to be about 25% of what I now know I should have quoted. I’ve tried again and again to explain what the creative process involves (ie. if one design takes 2 hours to produce, four items with that design on will take at least 8 hours) and ultimately was making so much of a loss that I’m having to close my business.

    Unfortunately the client hasn’t grasped this, contacts me (after long delays) with e-mails/letters saying “your work is so good . . . but X detail on this design isn’t right” (even after they approved the final draft) and generally tries to get round me with flattering comments like, “You are such a good designer that we know you will do this for us”. (Well, actually, I won’t – they were informed a month in advance that I was ceasing to operate as a business and were given a firm deadline to submit last orders, which was three weeks ago.)

    I just wish I had spotted the warning signs earlier.

  • Johnny

    September 29th, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Hi Kate,

    I feel your pain. I have had my share of clients who had gotten the better part of me. The reality is that these types of clients have exactly what they want in mind and a price to match (which is usually lower than market value). Better to recognize them and let them go on their way because, in my experience, they will eventually get what they pay for only to return and eventually pay a fair price for quality work.