Over the years, I’ve avoided working with problematic clients by learning to identify common red flags and characteristics before the project ever begins. Some of these warning signs I’m about to share with you are based on negative patterns I’ve observed – over the course of my now 6-year career as a full-time freelancer. If you’d like to avoid hellish client experiences and have peace of mind while you work, keep reading this post. 

Here are seven client red flags that should make you run in the opposite direction 🚩🚩🚩🚩…

1. Run away from potential clients that don’t have a clear vision 

Working with a client that doesn’t know what they want means you’ll never be able to please them. All they are going to do is miscommunicate their needs, frustrate & trap you in a never ending cycle of constant revisions. 

Any potential client should know what they need, so you, the freelancer, can ensure they are capable of providing it. Please note, that there is nothing wrong with helping your client brainstorm or work through a concept. But if your client still has fundamental conceptual elements to nail down, then it’s probably a good idea to hold off working with them for now.

How to handle this: If you like this client and may want to work with them at some point, explain 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.

2. Run away from potential clients that want to rush you into a project

Some jobs will have to be rushed, it’s Lagos and everything can be last minute. A potential client might even be willing to pay a higher rate to push their project to the top of your work pile. 

However, I would advice you not to enter into a brand new relationship under a pressure – fuelled situation – even if you think everything will turn out just fine.

Providing excellent services to a client takes time and, sometimes, weeks of planning. It takes multiple meetings, research and managing unrealistic expectations – it’s not an agreement to be rushed into with a new party.

How to handle this: If a client comes in and would like to start immediately without ironing out all the fine details, you can agree to a month long trial run if you’d really like to work with them. This will help you assess how their business interacts with your agency, and if the dynamic is healthy enough to continue long term.

3. Run away from clients that micromanage

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 also have a trust problem. They will show you on multiple occasions that they doubt your advice, expertise or strategy and it will make it difficult, if not impossible, for you to do your job.

We all like to feel in control, and so people micromanage in an attempt to gain that sense of control. In most cases, this feeling of a lack of control occurs when we do not understand what is happening and why. That is common in digital projects because they are specialised and complex.

To make matters worse, digital projects are becoming increasingly critical to organisational success. That means the cost of failure is high. With these higher stakes comes more anxiety and a greater desire to take control.

How to handle this: Despite your years of experience, it may be unreasonable to expect trust until the stakeholder or client knows you well. The aim of your efforts now will be to reassure, rather than hand over power so your client feels confident that things are in control and that the project will be successful. You can manage them by being transparent and keeping them informed throughout every process. It can be a hassle to do for every small thing you want to execute, but when it comes to micromanagers. – great communication is the solution. If things are escalating and you feel like you really can’t take the smallest action independently, talk to them face to face or over the phone and explain how their work style 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.

4. Run away from clients that lowball you

One red flag you may encounter as you build your portfolio is a potential client that will compare you to others. Or even worse, a client that tries to minimise the impact of your work or contribution to their business. This red flag is downright embarrassing but very common. It’s really just a tactic people use when they want to bring down 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, isn’t it just social media management?!”

As a result, you’re left feeling deflated. 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 handle this: Kindly explain to them the positive impact your agency will have on their business  so they are able to understand your value. Also, let them know 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. Run.

5. Run away from clients that have worked with a lot of other freelancers in the past

High turnover in any capacity is almost always a reflection on the client or employer.

If you have a prospective client that says they fired the previous freelancer, or that they’ve already cycled through numerous freelancers, it could be a sign of mismanagement, unrealistic expectations or unprofessional behaviour (on the client’s part).

How to handle this:  When in doubt, ask a lot of follow-up questions about what went wrong. If their answers are suspicious, consider cutting your losses before you end up being another notch in the client’s ex-freelancer belt.

6. Run away from potential clients that lack common courtesy

Clients that drop unforeseen projects in your lap and demand immediate turnaround, the ones that expect you to read their minds, the ones that ghost you for days and return in a panic expecting you to drop everything else for them may be more trouble than they’re worth.

How to handle this: Set strict boundaries early on in the relationship to avoid any issues. In your on-boarding process, including information regarding how clients can communicate with you, when your working hours are e.t.c. All this can save you a lot of stress in the long run.

7. You have a bad feeling in your gut

Finally, we have the biggest red flag of all – you’ve got a bad gut feeling.

At the end of the day, everyone will have their own potential red flags.

And everyone has a different definition of what it means to be a nightmare client.

What may be deal-breakers for some, may not be for others.

So if you’re having a hard time deciding whether or not you are a good fit for the client and the client is a good fit for you, let your intuition be your guide.

It will rarely lead you astray.

Working as a freelancer is a a freeing decision, however, it there are a lot of things to consider if you’d like to do it longterm. However your journey may go, make sure to keep these red flags in mind to stay protected

What are your major red flags when it comes to bad clients? What sort of character traits do you think these types of clients share? Have you had any bad experiences lately that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below.