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How to Avoid Working With Bad Freelance Clients

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Have you ever accepted a freelance project that turned out to be an absolute nightmare?

It can be tempting to bend your rules or change your standards when a new client offers you a substantial paycheck, a new project to fill your calendar, or a new addition to your portfolio.

I’ve dealt with a handful of difficult clients over the years. In hindsight, it was because I broke too many of my own rules and ignored the red flags.

Whether I set the wrong expectations, didn’t communicate clearly enough, or just ignored all the red flags – I can usually trace these negative experiences back to something I did wrong.

That’s not an excuse for clients to mistreat me, but I have to accept some responsibility for the situation. Every project begins with a mutual agreement whether it’s verbal or contractual.

Holding that position, attitude, and perspective is what enables you to learn and grow from your mistakes and make better decisions in the future.

The Rules

As a freelancer, I run my own business. As my business has evolved over time, I’ve slowly developed a set of rules that help me avoid problematic clients.

There are times when some of those rules can be bent, but breaking too many can have serious consequences.

On one project, I broke at least 7 of my own rules which resulted in the worst experience I’ve ever had as a freelancer:

  • I accepted the project through an agency that took a 15% cut.
  • I accepted the project even after the client cut the budget by 25% on day one.
  • I agreed to 50% down and 50% at the end, which isn’t typical for me.
  • I didn’t use a contract, proposal, or even a scope of work document.
  • I assumed the project would be easy because it was a 5 page marketing website.
  • I didn’t ask enough questions and accepted an aggressive timeline.
  • I didn’t work with the person paying me. I worked with his assistant.

Bad client experiences happen when you break your own rules. As you gain freelancing experience, revise your rules so you can identify red flags and avoid problematic clients.

The Mistakes

So why did I make these mistakes? There were 3 main desires that clouded my judgment in this situation:

  • Down Time: I had a short gap in my calendar and wanted to fill it.
  • Money: I wanted the money after finishing some home improvement projects.
  • Portfolio: I needed a new portfolio piece as I can’t show most of my recent work.

These are the most common reasons freelancers break their own rules, especially when they’re just starting out.

I should have used that calendar gap to get ahead on my other client work, work on my own business, or just take a break. I should have been more patient and not tried to replenish my bank account by any means necessary. I shouldn’t have set such a high priority on displaying a new project in my portfolio.

If you’re new to freelancing, I want to make this point clear: It’s not bad to fill gaps in your calendar, make more money, or expand your portfolio. It’s just imperative that you vet each project and client carefully to avoid problematic situations.

The Results

What was the outcome of breaking my own rules?

  • The client held my payment hostage in the absence of a contract.
  • I had to comply with their ridiculous demands and scope creep.
  • I was threatened multiple times both professionally and personally.
  • The project went overtime by 3 weeks and interfered with more important work.
  • I lost time, money, and sleep while gaining stress and anxiety.

As much as I wanted to fire the client, my own self-control and professionalism helped the project end on decent terms. I got paid in full and put the project in my portfolio. My work was good, but my client was not.

Avoiding Problematic Clients

As I look back on the few times I’ve had bad experiences with clients, I realized this:

I only experience problems with clients when I break my own rules.

These are the ones I broke that resulted in this terrible experience (paralleled from the list above):

  • I never accepted projects through freelancing platforms.
  • I never accept projects where the client haggles over price.
  • I never accept money at the end of a project AFTER work is done.
  • I never start a project without a proposal, contract, or statement of work.
  • I never assume things will be easy.
  • I always ask enough questions to thoroughly understand the client’s needs.
  • I always communicate with the person writing my check.

Make Your Own Rules

Again, if you’re new to freelancing, I’m not saying that you need to adopt these rules. These are just my personal rules that I’ve developed slowly over time as my freelancing business has evolved.

In fact, every freelancer should develop their own set of rules that works for them.

If you’re just starting out, taking work through a freelancing platform might be necessary. Sometimes you’ll have to accept money at the end of a project. Other times you simply can’t communicate directly with the person writing your paycheck.

Early on in your freelancing career, you can’t be too picky. I worked for anyone who would hire me and I’m sure you will too. As you gain experience, you’ll develop discernment.

However, be prepared to have a few negative experiences that make you say, “Well, I’m never doing that again!”. When that happens, make a rule to help you avoid repeating that same mistake in the future.

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 my personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers.