Client Red Flags (And What They Are Trying to Tell You)

Would you like to avoid clients that suck up all your time with petty demands and complaints, then try to haggle over the final payment?

Would you prefer to spend your time working on the thing you’re really good at, rather than trying to collect on overdue invoices?

Would you like to avoid being named “Top Contributor!” on Clients From Hell?

Then, friendly freelancer, you need to start paying attention to red flags. And you need to do something when you spot them.

What is a red flag?

By Andrew Middleton via

By Andrew Middleton via

A red flag is anything that makes your stomach lurch when talking to a potential or new client.

It’s the request for an unreasonable timeline.

Or the offer of “exposure” in exchange for work.

Or the suggestion that the neighbor kid could do this job, but he’s busy with basketball practice so can you take care of it real quick?

Client red flags are ways that clients show you that they don’t have one of the four important components necessary for a happy freelancer-client relationship:

  • Adequate money for the project
  • Adequate time for the expected result
  • An understanding of what the freelancer does and what the client needs
  • Respect for your professionalism

If your client doesn’t have one of these very important elements, guess what? Things won’t go well.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the client is bad, it just means that the client might not be the right fit for you.

That red flag is telling you something is not quite right and you need to pay special attention to the area – time, money, understanding or respect – where it’s flapping in the wind.

By Fredrik Rubensson via

By Fredrik Rubensson via

If you say “yes” to a client waving one of these red flags, you should be prepared to do the job and all of the other work necessary to deal with that red flag.

That could mean chasing after an invoice, dealing with irate demands on your time, or trying to respond to complaints or quibbles about work you know is good.

The best thing you can do when you see one of these red flags is to say, “I’m sorry; I’m not able to help you with that. You might consider checking out the following resources….”

But what if you don’t want to say “no”?
Because of money, or the experience, or because, honest to God, the exposure is worth it?

Then protect yourself.

Clearly lay out your expectations for the job and what you need the client to do for the job to be successful. Have them agree to those expectations, in writing and with a signature.

If money is the red flag, get paid as much as you can up front, no less than 50%.

Give the client work to do: if they don’t seem to have a plan in place, tell them what you need them to figure out before you can start work. Be as clear as you can about what they should accomplish before they come back to you.

But whatever you do, don’t expect a smooth road. If you accept a client waving a red flag, be prepared for some serious, possibly maddening, bumps along the way.

By Karl Monaghan via

By Karl Monaghan via

What are red flags you look out for and how do you deal with them?

Categories: Dealing with People


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3 responses to “Client Red Flags (And What They Are Trying to Tell You)”

  1. James Babb says:

    Hi Katie, once again you hit the nail on the head! Grappling with the first two red flag issues (money and time) covers about 1/2 of my clients, the other two (understanding and respect) just about covers the other 1/2. In my experience, most clients fit in one of these two camps, at least to some extent.

    I guess I need to find that third 1/2, the ones that totally get it 😉

    Best, James

  2. […] are they thinking? That is .00025 per word. So, maybe this is not a problem client; maybe it is an ignorant client, so I bid on the project to give them an idea that they were out-of-bounds. And, I bid low to […]

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