As a freelancer, clients are your lifeblood. But when you unknowingly take on a difficult client, they can drain the life out of you—sapping your time, energy, and enthusiasm. To avoid these nightmare situations, it’s better to weed out bad clients before you start working with them. So, when and how do you spot a bad freelance client?
#1 During preliminary discussions
Preliminary discussions aren’t just there to find out more about the job, but to find out more about the client. Even if the original brief was clear, think up some questions so you can have a chat with them. The aim of these questions isn’t necessarily to get the answers, but to see how the client responds:
- Are they happy to answer further questions?
- Do your communication styles gel?
- Do they seem open, polite, and friendly?
You can tell a lot about what a client will be like to work with from these preliminary discussions.
Warning: watch out for…
Sometimes, a client’s response to your questions is enough to tell you they’ll be difficult to work with. For example:
- The rude client: If a client is, for example, saying “Why are you asking me questions?” or “Didn’t I make myself clear?”, then run like the hills. This is a big warning sign that you won’t have a harmonious working relationship.
- The rush job client: No matter what type of freelance work you do, you no doubt want proper time to complete the job. If a client has an unreasonable deadline and is unwilling to compromise even after you explain how long it will take, then decline. Otherwise, you’ll end up rushing and risk getting bad feedback if you can’t meet their timescale.
- The unclear client: If they’re unclear or can’t answer the questions you pose, this can indicate a nightmare client. An unclear client is usually one who doesn’t know what they really want—making it pretty much impossible to please them.
- The overly specific client: Equally, if they’re extremely specific about what they want, it can be difficult to match up to what they’ve pictured in their mind. Most freelancers need creative freedom to complete the work in their own way.
- The ignorer: If they answer some questions and ignore others, this may be a sign of what it would be like to work with them—chasing up chasing things they haven’t replied to, or only being given part of the information.
#2 During contract negotiations
If you don’t spot a potentially troublesome client in the preliminary discussions stage, your next chance to weed them out is at the contract stage. At this point, some difficult clients make themselves known by adding unreasonable clauses or querying your reasonable clauses.
- The multiple rounds of amendments client: We’ve all encountered clients who want numerous rounds of amendments, which can be costly as a freelancer. To avoid this, specify the number of amendments offered in the contract and be wary of clients who want more rounds.
- The time-dragger: Similarly, some clients let projects drag on for ages. Impose some approximate timeframes in the contact and penalties if the client doesn’t meet them. Avoid clients who want indefinite timeframes.
- The talker: Another potential time-sapper is clients who want regular meetings or lengthy progress updates. Of course a few quick updates are reasonable, but if clients want hour-long chats every week, then make sure you bill them for this time.
- The micromanager: One of the beauties of being a freelancer is being your own boss, so watch out for clients who want to manage you or every part of the project. Make it clear from the contract who is responsible for decisions and delivery, and the points when the client can input, review, and feed back.
If you’re diligent during preliminary discussions and contracting, then you should be able to avoid the majority of problematic clients. If you’re not sure about a client (for example, they haven’t done anything specific to concern you, but you get a bad feeling about them), then trust your instincts. You’ll always find another client, but you won’t be able to get back your time if you choose a bad one. However, ruthless doesn’t mean being mean or impolite when you decline them.
Learn from it
Occasionally, you’ll agree to work with a client who seems absolutely lovely and gives you no cause for concern. Yet somehow they turn into a nightmare client anyway. In these cases, do what you can to mitigate the problems, such as reminding them of relevant points from the contract. When it’s over, review what went wrong and learn from the experience to improve your chances of spotting bad eggs in the future.
Have you ever had a troublesome client? What did you do to resolve the situation?
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