Signs of a Bad Freelance Client

And how to know when it's time to say goodbye

Freelancers can waste a lot of time and stress on a bad freelance client.

There are few things worse than being trapped in a client relationship that has gone sour. It will cost you headaches, and maybe even financial or legal troubles. Plus, while you are wasting time with a bad client, there are plenty of good clients you could be working with.

The best way to avoid these bad clients is to spot them early on. There are some telltale signs you can look for to quickly determine whether or not you have found a rotten egg or a golden goose.

They do not know what they want

When businesses do not have a clear vision or goal in mind, they will likely be vague in their proposal or overly broad about the scope of work.

These potential clients don’t know what they want. Only after you submit your work will they realize what they really wanted. You will end up making change after change as the client figures out how you fit into their scattered vision.

Continually changing the project’s scope is called scope creep.

Sometimes, the clients’ ideas are so disbanded they might forget what they asked you to do and question the work you submit. Avoid these clients like the plague.

Look out for:

  • Vague proposals.
  • Changing their mind when talking through the work.
  • Not wanting to answer too many questions, particularly specific ones about the project.

how to spot a bad freelance client

They are stingy with money

Handling payments can be awkward with clients, and even more so when the person is questioning your rates or slow to pay for the work.

Bad clients might even ask you to work for free as a test. That is never a good sign.

Clients should always pay you a percentage of the payment before you start working. If they are not interested in securing a down payment with you, your best bet is to walk away.

They might try to lure you with the idea that what you don’t get in pay, you will get in exposure. If that exposure is real — maybe it is a big company and you are playing the long game — go for it. But don’t trust that exposure from the next “up-and-coming company” will be valuable.

Look out for:

  • Asking “How much will this cost?” right away.
  • Not wanting to pay you a percentage of the payment before you start working.
  • Going back and forth with different projects and rates to see what they can squeeze out of you.

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They are masters of your subject

This is a trait that might be hard to catch, but know-it-all clients are a nightmare.

They will never cease to critique your work and gloat about their own mastery. If you are a SEO freelancer, for example, these bad clients will constantly drop their knowledge about keywords and Google Ads.

A client who is interested in the work you do and offering value is great. But when you can’t do the work they hired you to do because they are critiquing and suggesting changes all the time, no parties benefit.

They will try to micromanage you, yet still never be happy with the work you give them.

Look out for:

  • Scrutinizing your proposal.
  • Tooting their own horn about their expertise in your subject.

They complain about other freelancers

First off, a new client should not be talking smack about anyone else straight out the gate. It’s not professional.

If they are voicing off frustrations about other freelancers, that is a big cause for concern. They likely are hard to please and will say similar things about you in the future.

Some clients talk about negative experience they’ve had because they are scared of recreating a similar situation. If they are respectful about former disagreements with freelancers, you are probably safe to work with them.

But if they are ranting about how awful a previous (or current) freelancer is, feel free to end the relationship. See if you can talk to them on the phone or in person to properly gauge their tone.

Look out for:

  • Bashing previous freelancers.
signs of a bad freelance client to work with

They are on a rushed deadline

One of these clients’ favorite phrases is “ASAP.”

They are a whirlwind of stress, and it is easy for you to get caught up in their storm. They tend to have unrealistic expectations when it comes to deadlines or the amount of work you can do for them. Their minds are sprinting too far ahead to see how ridiculous their asks are.

You might hear the desperation in their messages and think, “Good, it’s a challenge.” But running behind could be their normal, and it is exhausting to work with someone who is barely staying afloat.

Plus, these are the kinds of clients who will want you to be available 24/7. They might be quick to snap if it takes you more than a couple hours to message them back.

Look out for:

  • Phrases like “asap” and “quick turnaround.”
  • A frenzied tone in their emails/voice

They love to talk

Communication is necessary for a positive client/freelancer relationship, but sometimes it can go too far.

Sending you five emails before 8 a.m., and then calling you because you didn’t respond to them yet — that is worrisome. Bad clients use up your time talking rather than actually letting you do the work.

They talk too long on the phone, send too many emails and want to check in way too often. These clients are difficult to deal with because they will eat up your time without you even realizing it.

Look out for:

  • Long emails from the start.
  • Talking incessantly without letting you get in one word.
  • Not sticking to a schedule.