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10 Signs You’re About to Work With a Difficult Freelance Client

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I’ve worked with just as many bad clients as I have good ones. I’ve also had to fire a few clients and a few clients have fired me. Freelancing is a whirlwind of passion, bliss, beauty, suffering, agony, high-risk, and glorious reward.

One of the most difficult parts about it is knowing which clients to work with and which ones to avoid. It’s not always easy because that can sometimes mean rejecting potential income and a new portfolio piece, but working with the wrong client is never worth the headache.

Here are 10 red flags to help you avoid working with difficult clients:

1. They want it done super cheap

Beware of people who try to haggle you for a lower rate. There is nothing wrong with clients who can’t afford you. If you are doing things right, many people won’t be able to and that’s ok.

However, a client who tells you that the project shouldn’t cost so much is sending early signs of distrust. It also means they don’t really see the value in what you are offering them or think the investment is worthwhile.

Either way, you should have a referral source prepared for them or be able to present a cheaper alternative solution. Negotiating isn’t always a bad thing, but if you decide to do it, negotiate the scope and not the price.

2. They want it done super fast

I’ve seen clients express this in two ways: They are either really ambitious and overly excited to get started or they are frantically trying to find someone to meet an unrealistic deadline. Again, this is a project and client you want to avoid.

Sometimes the request is simply impossible and it’s easy to move on. Other times, it is possible to do the work, but you’ll have to make some sacrifices. The decision is ultimately up to you, but quality work shouldn’t be rushed.

If your client wants the work done quickly, they may not see the full value of what you’re offering. In the event you do want to pursue the project, consider charging a rush rate to be fairly compensated for the quick turnaround time.

3. They ask you to “polish” their work

Clients that start a project with this mentality usually aren’t seeing the bigger picture and won’t fully appreciate the work you do. More importantly, the client probably doesn’t see the value in what you’re offering since they don’t want to pay your rate or take the time to properly execute the project.

Your job as a freelancer is to create something for your client that will help their business grow. Polishing someone else’s work usually doesn’t do that.

This should also lead you to ask important questions. Where did that work come from? Why wasn’t it finished by that person? Ideal clients will have existing documents (such as a project brief) ready for you at the start of a project. But be wary of clients who already have existing designs or code that they just want you to tidy up.

That’s not the type of work that will help either of you in the long run.

4. They communicate poorly

When clients contact you about a project, you’ll want them to cover a few main topics: scope, budget, timeline, and goals so you can immediately assess whether this a project you would be a good fit for. The best clients I’ve worked with have clearly outlined their expectations in the first email or phone call.

Pay attention to the style and frequency of the communication. Use this to help you assess the client as a person and determine whether you would work well together. I recently had a client who took several days to respond to my emails and when he did, he was strangely short with me and didn’t completely answer my questions.

I got a bad vibe and chose not to work on the project even though the timeline, budget, scope, and goals all looked good on paper.

5. They nitpick

Clients who pay attention to the fine details in your work are awesome. In fact, I prefer when they question specific choices I make because having to explain my thinking helps me be a better designer.

This is good for both of you. But there is a fine line between clients who are genuinely curious and clients who actually think they can do it better.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference so pay close attention to how they handle change requests and revisions. Are they challenging your thinking or do they just want it done their way?

What you really want is a client who can share the broad goals of the project with you and offer just enough detail to determine the scope of work.

Later on, you’ll want that same client to challenge you on occasion, but ultimately trust you with the final decisions.

6. They won’t work with a contract

No matter how nice the client may seem or how well you might know them personally, you should never work without a contract or formal agreement. I enthusiastically decline projects from clients who won’t work with a contract.

The purpose of the contract, proposal, or scope of work document is to ensure a mutual understanding of the work to be done and serve as a formal reference should things go wrong.

For example, if the client wants additional changes made or you aren’t able to deliver the work on time, it is important for both parties to have a reference for how to proceed. The proposal or contract is a sign that both you and the client are committed to this project and that a breach of the terms will have consequences.

It also will ensure clients pay you and that they will receive the work you do for them. You should never start a project without a signed agreement and a down payment.

7. They’ve had bad experiences before

Finding out if your client has worked on this type of project before can be quite informative. If they haven’t, then it is your responsibility to guide and educate them, perhaps more than usual. This is good for both of you.

If they have worked on this type of project before, you might consider inquiring about their experience. If it was good, you probably have nothing to worry about. The client is experienced and comfortable working with freelancers.

However, if it was bad, you’ll want to find out more about what went wrong and why. There are always exceptions, but sometimes these clients can bring unnecessary baggage into the project that can cause it to suffer.

8. They want you to do spec work

One of the easiest red flags to spot is the request for “spec work.” This means the client is asking to see designs, ideas, or solutions for their project before having to make the decision to hire you. You will almost never hear this request anywhere outside of the creative industry.

For example, you would never ask your mechanic to show you 3 different ways of fixing your car’s engine before you decided to hire him. You would never ask your hair stylist to try 2 different cuts before you decided if you wanted to pay them. Get the idea?

Doing spec works means that you will invest time into their solution without getting anything in return. Remember that you should be hired based on your experience and the value you can add to their business, nothing more.

Lastly, most clients will expect to sign a contract before any work is done because they are paying for something that is going to help their business grow.

9. They promise you future work

Who wouldn’t want to work with a client that can give them more work in the future? Well, it depends on the sacrifice you have to make to get the first project off the ground. Most of the time, clients will say this in an attempt to strike a deal or obtain your services at a discounted rate.

While only you can determine if the promise of future work is genuine or not, my experience has shown me that these clients are usually desperate and just looking to cut corners due to their inability to properly compensate you.

However, if you feel like the client has good business sense and that there really is potential to establish an ongoing partnership, giving them a deal on the first job might be worth the risk. Just remember there is always a chance you will never hear from them again.

10. They give you a bad vibe

The most difficult red flag to understand is the “gut feeling” that a client is trouble. After working with many, many clients, my instincts are now almost always right and I simply don’t work with clients I get a bad vibe from.

This can be difficult if you are just starting out, but I hope this list will help you avoid some of the headaches I have encountered over the years.

As you work on more projects, especially ones you wish you hadn’t taken in the first place, you will learn when to accept and reject work based on your own experience.

Last updated on March 3rd, 2023

About Matt Olpinski
I've been freelancing since 2009 and have worked with over 100+ clients including some of the biggest brands in the world. I later started my own company Matthew’s Design Co. and now teaches 50,000+ freelancers each year how to succeed through his personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers.