5 Red Flags You’re Handling Difficult Clients — and How to Avoid Them

Written by Chelsea Baldwin on February 28, 2017

I don’t know about you, but I do an embarrassing happy dance every time a new lead zooms into my inbox. I’m glad I work at home, so no one can see it! Since I’m not a millionaire, I feel thrilled at the prospect of making more money.

However, as anyone who’s played the freelance game and dealt with handling difficult clients for a while can tell you, more money isn’t always worth it, especially if the client is a pain to work with, is never pleased and nickel-and-dimes you for every hour you spend working. But you can’t always tell who these clients are up front. After all, isn’t everyone excited and ready to go at the beginning of a project?

Unfortunately, there’s no magic litmus test to put all your prospects through before you start working with them, but there are some freelancer red flags that will tell you immediately if a client will be less than ideal. In my experience, here’s what they are:

1. They Mildly Insult Your Work

I’ve had people insult my website for not being as mobile-responsive as theirs. I’ve also had people tell me it was “obvious” I was getting started, but they could tell I’m a “smart, tough little cookie.” Gag me, will you?

No, I don’t have the most mobile-optimized website on the planet, and for heaven’s sake, I’m not six years old anymore. (And if they read my website, it’s pretty “obvious” I’m actually not new at what I’m doing.) It’s so subtle, you may not even notice it the instant something’s said. But when you rewind it in your mind, you might think, “Wait a minute, did they really just say that?!” Yes, they did say it, and no, they’re probably not sorry.

Clients who need to assert their dominance over you usually won’t respect your expertise or the years of work you put in to get to your current level. So, if they’re doing something like this, especially before they’ve even signed a contract with you, take it as a cue to politely back out.

2. They’re Too Picky for Their Own Good

If someone has a bad experience with one service provider in your niche, that’s understandable. But if they mention they’ve hired a handful of people just like you and can’t seem to find the “right one” for their project, it’s a major red flag. They’re either overcontrolling micromanagers, don’t actually know what it is they want or have unrealistic outcome or price-based expectations.

To find out if this is the case, ask if they’ve experienced working with someone like you before you even schedule a call. If they say yes, ask what their experience was like and why they decided to reach out to you. This will provide the insight you need.

3. They’re Slow to Respond

If they don’t care about respecting your time and responding to you within a reasonable time frame before you start working together, things will only get worse once a contract’s in place. Not responding over the weekend is understandable. Even taking a few business days is usually okay.

If they’re not getting back to you after a week or more, politely bow out or casually mention you don’t have space on your calendar for them. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than trying to move a project forward and finish by a deadline, while the client couldn’t care less about responding to you.

4. They Don’t Respect Your Conversation Boundaries

I once worked with a client who refused to communicate even the most basic information over email. I needed to schedule a call if I wanted to run an idea past her. It was so bad, she’d spend at least 20 minutes typing an argument for why I should just get on the phone with her instead of simply saying yes or no. Needless to say, we didn’t finish that project.

As a contractor, it’s good to speak with your clients on the phone sometimes, but your time is valuable. If you have a client who only wants to speak on the phone or bulldozes through your 20–30-minute time limit for an initial call, take it as a sign they don’t respect you, your time or your boundaries.

5. Their Site Is Down and They Don’t Realize It

If you need to tell them their website is down, especially your work is related to their website, don’t work with them. This is an obvious sign they’re not taking their business seriously, and since their business should be more important to them than whatever work you’ll be doing, they won’t take you seriously, either.

I used to see this as just a glitch or misunderstanding, but after three instances of this occurring and having clients totally disappear on me, this red flag is as clear as ever.

What to Do in the Worst-Case Scenario

When a difficult client slips through the cracks, you can usually wind down the contract professionally and quickly with no harm done. In the worst-case scenario, you might need to refund the client to get yourself out of a headache of a situation, but if you keep these five red flags in mind, handling difficult clients shouldn’t be an issue, and you should be able to avoid working with them at all.

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