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Michelle Nickolaisen

Having the occasional terrible client is such a common experience for freelancer s that there’s a site dedicated to cataloging those experiences. The problem is that, until you’re a seasoned freelancer, it can be hard to spot these potential problem clients...and then you’re sending them revisions at 3am on a Saturday morning.

What signs should you watch for and steer away from? Here are five of the more common ones:


Red Flag One: Being unresponsive or late

Domino Ryan Castillo had a few potential red flags to share, two of them being that the potential client is unresponsive to emails or calls, or late to initial meetings.

Chronic lateness can be a sign of not respecting your time or of being an inconsiderate client. Not responding to emails or calls can be a sign of that as well, but it also might mean that the client is too busy to give their attention to this project right now. That, in turn, often leads to constant delays in other parts of the project, once it really gets rolling.

One way to counteract this is to ask for an upfront deposit (usually 25-50% of the total project estimate). Clients are more likely to stay in touch and focused when they’ve already invested money into a project.


Red Flag Two: Negotiating too hard

To quote Ryan again, a big red flag is the phrase, “why would I pay $X for that when someone else is willing to do it for $Y?”

It’s hard to make a blanket statement about negotiating always being bad — different cultures and personality types will view negotiating differently. That said, aggressive negotiation is rarely a good sign.

My one exception is that, if a client is going to be a decently sized retainer client, I’ll work in a 10–15% discount. That doesn’t really affect my bottom line, because if I didn’t have that regular recurring monthly revenue, I’d have to be pounding the pavement looking for other clients (which is time that’s taken away from doing billable work). If a potential client pushes for more of a discount than that, or tries to lowball me by sending back a ridiculously low estimate, they get a polite but firm “no thank you.”


Red Flag Three: Pushing on your boundaries from day one

As part of onboarding a new client, I always discuss my client policies — everything from meetings, to turnaround times, to payment. If they push back on my boundaries immediately, it’s never a good sign. Some examples of this have been:

  • Wanting to be able to text or call me at any time of day
  • Saying that since their team answers emails on weekends, they expect me to, as well
  • Saying that they only pay net 60 (all of my invoices are due within 7 days of receipt), or can’t pay any way except for by check in the mail

Asking questions about your policies is fine — but when they start to argue with you over them, it’s probably not going to turn out well.


Red Flag Four: Unwilling to sign a contract or pay a deposit

If a client isn’t committed enough to a project to pay a deposit, or hesitates about signing a contract, chances are that they aren’t committed enough to be a good client. The last thing you want to do is wait weeks at a time on an email reply, or on the specs to get started, with the payment date at some unspecified point on the horizon.


Red Flag Five: They break one of your dealbreakers

For more on dealbreakers and how they should affect your client intake process, check out this Spot.



It’s a hard lesson to learn, especially at the beginning, but the truth is that a bad client is worse than no client. Have you heard of opportunity cost? Basically, every choice you make costs you the opportunity to make an alternative choice. In this case, you can only work on so many projects at any one time, so choosing a particular client may cost you the ability to work with another. Choosing a bad client will suck away your time and energy, and deprive you of opportunities to work with better clients— not to mention, they’re just straight-up stressful. Follow the above tips, avoid potential clients from hell, and be happier for it.


Michelle Nickolaisen is a freelance writer and business owner based in Austin, TX.