8 Client Red Flags: How to Spot a Bad Client From Miles Away

stop sign for client red flags

You start talking to a prospective client, and suddenly, you begin feeling uncomfortable. A little ambiguity here, a little uncertainty there. You wonder if you were being paranoid and told yourself you could use the money anyway.

The contract’s signed, the project started. The next thing you know, all hell breaks loose.

Bad clients were an annual occurrence during my first three years of freelancing. After many trials and errors, I’ve gathered eight client red flags that almost tell me to run every time — especially if there is more than one present!

Why You Should Always Qualify a Lead

Before we get into the red flags, let’s discuss why freelancers must qualify their leads. Prequalification answers a few core questions:

  • Can this prospect afford your service?
  • Will this be a one-time or long-term project?
  • Are you the best fit for their project?
  • What communication style does this prospect have?

Prequalification allows you to determine early whether or how you can work with someone. It protects you from wasting your time and effort on an unqualified lead who usually turns out to be a nightmare but also helps you understand how to price yourself as a freelancer with this specific lead.

Anyways, let’s get back to the topic.

When prequalifying your lead, keep your eyes open for these client red flags to spot a bad client from miles away!

1. They Don’t Know The Scope

Trust me. The worst I’ve ever had was someone not only having no idea of their scope, but telling me, they don’t really know what their business is about. Yes. I offer marketing services. Nothing else needs to be said.

However, understand the difference between not knowing the scope and not knowing all the details. If you offer any consulting services, you often have clients who are quite lost. In this case, determine if they have a clear goal and know what they want to accomplish — you can usually build a scope you agree to around that.

2. They Don’t Have a Budget

“I don’t have a budget” is my least favorite phrase. The easiest way to handle that is by asking them for a deal-breaking price instead. If they still refuse to offer a range, 8 out of 10 times, this client will low-ball you or have you put all the effort into a full proposal only to bail out on you.

3. They Can’t Make Decisions

If your contact keeps avoiding giving you a final yes/no, stop wasting your time. Ask them to connect you with the person who has the say, or politely drop them.

If they can’t even decide on starting the project by themselves, could you imagine asking them to approve anything? What a ghostly scene!

4. They Think Money Can Solve Everything

You spent thirty minutes explaining to a prospect why their idea of “how this should work” actually isn’t going to work, and get a “just tell me how much to pay.”

Makes you want to smash your laptop screen, right?

Unfortunately, some people in this world think money can solve every problem. So, when you offer genuine feedback, they look at you like you’re just trying to get more money out of their pocket.

Don’t be tricked by the possible dollar amount. You’ll soon realize these clients often have unrealistic expectations that no money can buy.

5. They Want Things For Free

One of my favorite writers, Robert R. Heinlein once wrote that it would take humans much longer to appreciate anything they get for free. I cannot agree more. Offering a free lead magnet or fact-finding session is fine, but anything beyond that point must be paid for.

Of course, as your relationship with the client grows, you can throw in a few service items here and there if you want. However, anyone coming at you like you owe them free work is a disaster you should run from!

6. They Are Disrespectful

This is one of the client red flags freelancers sometimes let slip. But why should you put up with discriminative douchebags? As an immigrant and a woman, I’ve encountered plenty of clients.

At first, I did try to put up with them, until I realized how difficult it is to move forward on their projects and how the biases made it impossible for me to even get a good review.

So from there on, I call out any disrespectful comments and address them up front. If the client can acknowledge my opinion, we can continue the conversation. Otherwise, it’s best for them to work with someone that they personally prefer.

7. “I know enough to make you worry”

This is a typical line indicating someone’s defensive mentality, which often makes them uncoachable. These clients don’t follow instructions, question your advice, and make every decision take twice as long to be made. In worst-case scenarios, they might even sabotage the whole project yet still throw you under the bus.

Therefore, if you see a client who tries to fight you over your niche expertise, think twice before moving forward.

8. They Ghosted You During Initial Discussions

Oh, yes. It happens. I’ve even had someone returning after ghosting me for months, trying to continue the same discussion. Of course, this is one of the client red flags that come with a little wiggling ground. For example, if the client returns and explains what happened (such as a family emergency), you might still move forward with them.

However, initial ghosting sometimes indicate

  • A lack of responsibility and respect
  • Bad communication style
  • Unstable business operation (meaning they might not be able to pay you!)

How to Turn Down a Client Politely

Like what we talked about in resolving conflicts with a client, just because you can’t work with someone, doesn’t mean you can’t maintain a good relationship. Without further ado, below are some examples you can use to turn down a client politely.

Hello — I truly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. However, I don’t think we’re the best fit on this project. If you would like a referral to someone who is more familiar with what you’re looking for, I’m more than happy to make that introduction for you!

This is a great template to use if you have trusted referral partners. It shows the disqualified client that you care. Also, don’t feel like you’re throwing a bad client your friend’s way. However, only do this if you don’t think the client is too toxic!

Hello — while I’d like to help you, I don’t believe we have enough for us to move forward. I wish you all the best on your project and hope you find someone to work with you soon.

I typically use this one if a client doesn’t understand what they want, can’t figure out a budget, or doesn’t know the scope.

Learn to Deal With Bad Clients

Dealing with bad clients is an art. It trains you to handle unpleasant and stressful situations as calmly and professionally as you can. With these client red flags, you’ll be able to clear your path forward quite a bit.

However, if you do end up with a hard client, don’t worry. I have another guide for you on how to deal with difficult clients. Have faith that your freelancer journey has a happy ending, and keep hustling!

Xiao DaCunha

With a deep passion for content creation and creative writing, Xiao Faria finds a strong sense of accomplishment in creating high-quality content that engages the audience and benefits optimization.

Throughout years of practice, Xiao has learned to communicate with the readers in the most efficient and effective way. Her experience as a visual artist has only aided her in creating refreshing and entertaining content.

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Xiao DaCunha

With a deep passion for content creation and creative writing, Xiao Faria finds a strong sense of accomplishment in creating high-quality content that engages the audience and benefits optimization. Throughout years of practice, Xiao has learned to communicate with the readers in the most efficient and effective way. Her experience as a visual artist has only aided her in creating refreshing and entertaining content.

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