Let’s not dance around it: If you don’t have clients, you don’t have a business.
In the world of self-employment, there are tons of amazing clients who are responsive, pay on time, and treat you as they would treat any other professional. In other words, they are a joy to work with.
However, there are also some not-so-great clients out there, too. Dealing with red-flag clients is never fun, but here’s the thing: You have the power to get out of a bad client situation.
So, if a client makes you feel like part of your soul is slowly disappearing every day, it’s time to make a change.
Should you just deal with it and press on?
If you’ve ever dealt with a terrible client, chances are you’ve had what I like to call the “Money Justification” internal battle. Your client could be a dragon, but if the money’s good, sometimes we like to entertain the idea of sticking it out for the sake of your bank account.
This may work for a little, but one of two things will happen:
- You will develop a tolerance for this client and decide that you can deal with all the curve balls they throw at you.
- You reach your breaking point and burn out like a lit match.
If you’re able to deal with a tricky client and still sleep at night, by all means, carry on. But if you’re thinking you may fall into the second category, keep reading.
As it turns out, bad clients aren’t just a bummer for your business but your health as well.
Increased stress, insomnia (cold-sweat, middle-of-the-night panic attacks, anyone?), lowered productivity, and an increased negative attitude on your end are all signs of a toxic working relationship.
Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest client red flags.
1. They try to talk you out of your rates
It’s a tale as old as time. You’ve set your rates based on your experience, the value you provide clients, and what the market can withstand. You even have other clients that don’t so much as bat an eye at your rates. Yet, this client is trying to talk you down to a lower price.
“We’re working with a limited budget and can’t afford to pay that much right now.”
“Your rates are the highest I’ve seen so far.”
“I could find this for cheaper on Upwork.”
As a result, you’re left feeling deflated, and maybe a little self-conscious. This is a classic example of a client who doesn’t see the value in what you’re offering. Not because you can’t do the work, but because they don’t understand the actual function of what you’re providing and how it’s going to improve their business.
How to deal: Kindly explain to them that these are non-negotiable rates that you’ve calculated based on the value you provide and your experience. If they cannot see eye to eye with you on this, chances are there are going to be other issues down the line as well.
2. They refuse to sign a contract
You know the importance of protecting yourself as a freelancer or solopreneur, which is why clients who refuse to sign contracts can be swiftly upgraded to a Category 5 client nightmare.
A healthy client-service provider relationship should be one built on trust, mutual respect, and honesty. If your client doesn’t understand why you need to protect your business or that signing a contract is part of your process, it’s best to nip this in the bud before anything goes awry.
How to deal: Use a secure tool like HelloSign or AND.CO to make your contract-signing process quick and painless. With either tool, you can draft and upload contracts, and easily change the terms to match your client’s needs.
Unemployable Tip: Make sure your contracts spell out your payment terms, including what happens if clients pay late, as well as other relevant project information like the number of revisions, relationship termination terms, and more.
3. They expect you to be available whenever they need you
Just because your client is paying you for a service, doesn’t mean they own your soul and your time. You have other paying clients (and a life!) who deserve your attention and focus.
Not to mention, you are not an employee of theirs, so legally, you cannot be expected to work under the same parameters as one. Clients that don’t understand this may be more trouble than they’re worth.
How to deal: Set strict boundaries early on in the relationship to avoid any issues. In your onboarding process, including information regarding how clients can communicate with you, when your working hours are, and what your vacation policy is can save you a lot of stress in the long run.
4. They don’t know what they want
This red flag may seem harmless, and of course, there is nothing wrong with helping your client brainstorm or work through a concept. But if your client still has fundamental steps to nail down (like the name of their company—unless that’s what you’re helping them with), then it’s probably a good idea to hold off for now.
Clients that aren’t sure of what they’re looking for can pave the way for a relationship built on miscommunication and frustration. Plus, if they don’t have any direction now, it’ll be difficult for them to make any decisions once you get into the project.
How to deal: If you like the client and want to work with them at some point, explain to them that you think it would be best if they reach out to you once they have their ducks in a row. It’s not a solid no from you, so you’re not closing off the relationship, but you’re saving yourself the headache that comes with trying to create something without clear direction.
5. They don’t see your value (and are sure to tell you)
Like the clients who try to haggle with you about your rates, if your client can’t see the value you’ve delivered on, that’s a big problem. If they say things like “this shouldn’t take long” or “can’t you just write something up real quick?” that quantifies your work in terms of time instead of value.
How to deal: Schedule some time to talk through a recent project with them and explain your thought process and how it’s positively impacting their business. If your client can understand why you made specific choices with a design or why you formatted a blog post the way you did, things will go a lot smoother.
6. They micro-manage you to no end
Potentially one of the biggest red flags for us independent, self-managing business owners is when clients micro-manage. There are many reasons why clients do this. Maybe this is their first time working with a freelancer, or perhaps they’re feeling a lot of pressure from their boss regarding the project you’re helping them with. A client who micro-manages not only has a control problem, but they may have a trust problem.
Though there’s nothing wrong with getting direction in the beginning stages of a project, if the client begins to take it too far, it’s time to have a conversation.
How to deal: If things are escalating, talk to them face to face or over the phone and explain how their workstyle is hindering more than it’s helping. They hired you for a reason, and now they need to let you do your thing. If you don’t see any changes, start working on your exit plan.
7. They don’t respect your professional boundaries
Similar to the client who thinks they are, quite literally, the boss of you, the clients who don’t recognize the boundaries you’ve set are ones to watch out for, too. Clients that make you uncomfortable—for any reason—are ones to run away from. Whether they say inappropriate things to you or ask you questions that make your skin crawl, you should never feel bad about confronting them or even ending the relationship.
How to deal: Explain to them that their behavior is inappropriate and that it’s impacting the work you produce. If their behavior doesn’t change, it’s time to walk away.
8. They never pay on time and always have a “good excuse” for it
As sad as it is to say, it almost seems like it’s a freelancer’s rite of passage to experience a late-paying client at some point in their career. What’s worse than a late payment and a lame excuse? Late payments and lame excuses every month, that’s what.
One late payment probably isn’t grounds to break off a relationship with a client, but if it becomes a repeat issue, it’s something that needs to be addressed.
How to deal: Reiterate what your payment terms are and give them a few options to fulfill the invoice. Most invoice platforms come with the ability to select various payment options, which may encourage your client to pay sooner. If they continue to miss payments, refer to your contract terms on how to proceed.
9. Your gut is telling you something is off
This may sound a little too “woo” for some, but there’s something to be said about listening to your intuition. As you grow your business and work with different clients, you know what you need to be successful, and you learn how to spot the red flags before they appear.
Be careful not to jump the gun, but if all signs are seeing red, don’t be afraid to run for the hills.
Identifying red flags early on comes with experience
Unfortunately, we’ve just scratched the surface with this list. There are plenty more red flags freelancers and solopreneurs should be wary of.
However, as you become more experienced, the easier it is to sniff out potential red flag clients and act accordingly.
What are your biggest client red flags?