There comes a time in your freelancing career when you realize that the money just isn’t worth it. The money isn’t worth putting up with a bad client. Sometimes, it’s better to just walk away.
As a freelancer, it took me a long time to realize I don’t have to accept every job that comes my way. Some extra cash is always nice, but today, I place more value on finding a good professional match. I would rather have three clients who I truly enjoy working with than six clients who I dread talking to.
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Based on my experience, I have identified five early warning signs of a bad client. They are:
The relationship between you and your client is kind of like dating, except for all that romantic stuff. What I mean is, you should “click” with your potential client. You should feel some sort of spark that inspires and motivates you. After you speak with a client for the first time, you should feel excited about working on the project together.
However, there will be times when your personalities just don’t click. Conversation is strained and awkward, you’re constantly being interrupted, or you feel defensive or belittled. When you’re first starting out as a freelancer, it’s easy to make excuses for this (“It’s not about the person, it’s about the project/money!”). The truth is, who your client is as a person is much more important than the work itself. If you see yourself dreading talking to a potential client, don’t sign a contract.
Lack of Organization and Preparation
During your first meeting with a potential client, count how many times she changes her mind. Is she all over the map or does she have a solid idea of what she wants you to accomplish? Does she jump back and forth between goals and priorities?
Your clients should be ready for you. They should understand why they’re hiring you and what they want you to do. They don’t need to know every single detail (that’s why they hired you), but they should have done their homework. It does not bode well for you if your potential client is disorganized and scattered. In my experience, this is an indication that you will constantly have to defend your ideas and projects.
All clients want to see results, but good clients understand that it takes some time (and a couple failed attempts) to find out what works. A bad client blames you when she isn’t seeing the numbers she wants.
Let’s say a potential client comes to you and wants to build an email marketing list of 100,000 people in 3 months, with no marketing budget. Seeing an unrealistic expectation like this should indicate that your potential client doesn’t understand your field. She doesn’t know the time and effort required to build up a subscriber base, and as such, she probably won’t be able to appreciate your value.
And, most importantly, unrealistic expectations usually mean that you will never be able to make your client happy. She will always be wanting more.
Long Negotiation Process
You will inevitably run into potential clients who can’t afford your rate, but there is a right and wrong way to communicate this sentiment. A respectful client will say something like, “Unfortunately, I’m working with a small budget and can’t afford your rate.” A bad client will say, “That rate is way too high. I’ve been in this business 30 years and never seen a rate like yours. How about [insert very low rate here].”
The negotiation process will tell you a lot about your potential client and how your working relationship will look like. The longer the negotiations and the more bullying or pushback you receive, the more potential for a rocky, toxic relationship. If a client is disrespectful, difficult, or demanding before you even sign a contract, you can be sure he or she will show the same behavior after the contract is signed.
You are an expert in your field. People hire you because you know what you’re doing. And if a potential client doesn’t recognize your expertise, your entire working relationship will be a struggle.
Your clients will obviously need to give you insight and feedback on things you don’t know, but they should also give you the space to do your thing. During your first couple interactions with a potential client, watch how she responds to your ideas and recommendations. Does she constantly challenge you? Is she condescending or disrespectful? If your client thinks she knows more than you do, you won’t be given the opportunity to do your best work.
What You Can Do to Avoid a Bad Client
All freelancers have different thresholds for “bad clients.” Some people steer clear of unreasonable expectations, while others avoid working with know-it-alls. Make sure you have a clear idea of what your personal threshold is. Make a list of the traits and characteristics you want in an ideal client and another list of ones that are deal-breakers. Then, refer to this list whenever you are evaluating a new freelancing opportunity. The first step to avoiding toxic clients is to understand what they actually look like to you.