16 Red Flags: Say “No” to That Potential Client!

Illustration by Ramiro Roman.
Illustration by Ramiro Roman.

Clients often remind me of the poem “There Was a Little Girl” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow–when they’re good; they’re very, very good; and when they’re bad, they’re horrid.

What Makes a Bad Client “Bad?”

There are two types of “bad” client:

One: A “client” who isn’t a client at all. This so-called client is either a scam from the get-go, or is someone who runs off without paying (negating any real “client” status they may have obtained).

Two: They’re more trouble than they’re ultimately worth. Even if this client does end up paying…it’s not enough to cover the costs for all the extra work and/or headaches they’ve put you through to get it.

The 16 red flags I’ve outlined below are designed to help you recognize these two types of trouble clients before you get roped into working with them. There are probably other red flags that I’m missing (feel free to mention them in the comments section!), but these are the ones I’ve dealt with personally.

I learned the hard way, but you don’t have to.

16 Red Flags to Watch Out for When Scoping Out Potential Clients

  1. The client asks for “samples.” Very rarely is this legitimate. Most “potential clients” who ask for free samples are just suckering you into doing free work. (And some will even resell the articles you’ve written!)
  2. They ask you to work “on spec.” This means that they won’t pay you unlessthey decide to use what you wrote. That might not sound too bad, but keep in mind that they might not use your writing until months (or even years!) later. Or not at all.
  3. They refuse to sign your contract. I’ve said this in articles, I’ve said this invideos, and I’ll tell you this in person if we ever meet: Never EVER work without a contract! Any client who wants you to work without a contract is bad news. To quote The Doctor, “Basically, run.”
  4. They won’t pay your advance. Always get at leastsome of your money up front. Personally, I like to get the entire payment up front, but, if that’s not feasible, I insist on being paid at least 50% in advance. If a client is willing to pay the first 50%, they’re usually good for the last 50% after the project is finished.
  5. They ask you for a consultation…and it goes on FOREVER and leads to nothing. I offerfree mini-consultations, but I always make sure they’re just that: Mini. If someone asks you for a “consultation” and they talk to you at length with no sign of hiring you–they’re probably not going to hire you. They’re just after the free advice.
  6. They ask for too much personal info. It sounds weird, but some “clients” are actually people running a phishing scam. Clients don’t need to know every last detail about you. And there’s a lot they probablyshouldn’t know.
  7. They want YOU to pay THEM for work. Sounds ridiculous, right? But it’s an easier trap to fall into than you may think. There are some legitimate job boards that require you to pay a fee to use them (The Freelance Writers Denor some of LinkedIn’s premium features), but most of the time this is going to be someone trying to sucker you. Always double-check the source.
  8. They’re never satisfied. This could just be a jerk client who’s trying to exert power over you just to get their “money’s worth” out of you… But if a client keeps asking for rewrites to the point that the project hasmorphed into something entirely new, then they’re probably trying to get double the work out of you for half the pay.
  9. They’re a “start-up” that’s going to “hit it big” and they “promise” that they’ll give you a “percentage of the profits.” This breed of potential client might offer you stock in their company, a percentage of the profits, joint ownership of their business, or something equally fantastic “once they really get things rolling.” Uh-huh. Be polite to this person in case they actuallydo succeed–but say “no” until they actually have the money to pay you what you’re worth.
  10. They want you to write for “exposure.” As Linda Formichelli recently said in one of her Morning Motivation e-mails: “People die from exposure!” So true. Nix this gig.
  11. They want to rush everything. This person is probably used to paying people by the hour. So they figure if they make you rush through everything they won’t have to pay you as much. Bottom line? People who are always in a rush don’t understand thatgood work takes time–and costs money.
  12. Their e-mail is poorly written. This one is a fine line and you’ll need to go with your gut. Often people who need to hire writers aren’t the best writers themselves… But if it seems like they barely understand what writingis, then they’re probably not someone you want to work with. It’s harder to explain your value to someone who doesn’t know what it is you’re selling.

I will sometimes take on projects from people who have sent me atrociously-written e-mails, but only if the person is a total sweetie-pie, I love the proposed project, and I have a lot of extra time on my hands to handle the additional communicative back-and-forth that’s likely to ensue. These projects have been some of the most time-consuming (and therefore money-wasting) gigs I’ve accepted. The person has to be really special for me to get on board.

Also, many poorly written e-mails are from spammers. So there’s that…

  1. They’re mean/disrespectful to you right off the bat.You don’t need to take that crap. I wrote about this here:V is for Vending Machine Mentality.
  2. There’s no info about the “client” anywhere.If they’re a legitimate business, they should havesomething about them either online or offline that checks out. A website, a LinkedIn profile, a phone number in the Yellow Pages…SOMETHING.

But, like #12, this is something you’ll have to use your gut instincts on. Some people really do have a low profile and/or are so new that they don’t have any information up yet. If your intuition is telling you that this is a great project–go for it. But I highly suggest you ask them to pay in full up front, just in case!

  1. They avoid communication.If they’re doing this to you before you even start working with them, then they’re only going to get worse once money is involved.
  2. They say the work they have for you is “easy.” If they think it’s easy, then they’re going to expect you to do it on the cheap. It’s a sign they don’t respect – or fully understand – what it is you do. And, hey, if it’s so “easy” then they can do it themselves!

When in doubt? Say no.

And, if you do end up getting ripped off… Don’t feel too bad. It happens to every freelancer at some point in their careers.

Important Note: They’re Not ALL Bad!

Writing this post made me a bit grumpy because I had to remember all the times I was mistreated or otherwise suckered. But, you know what? Not all clients are bad!

When you get a great client: Treat ’em right!


Great clients are precious gems.

Thank them. Check in with them from time to time (not begging for work–just to say “hi!”). Follow-up on the projects you’ve done for them and offer further advice.

Great clients are great people and they deserve to be treated as such. They didn’t have to choose you–there are plenty of writers out there!–but they did and you should be properly grateful.

Without clients, you wouldn’t be a business. Writing would be merely a hobby.

Good or bad, you need clients. So it’s in your best interests to keep the good ones pleased! (You may even make a few friends!).

Don’t be a diva. And know when you’ve got it good. 🙂

Want more?

Laura Spencer recently wrote “11 Reasons to Believe in Your Freelancing Client.

Check it out! It’s a great read. It’s all about how to quash your inner “is-this-person-going-to-screw-me-over” worries once you’ve already accepted the work.

Your Turn!

Have you had any experience with one of the “red flag” clients I mentioned?

Is there another warning sign that I missed?

Leave me a comment!


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