How to spot a (potentially) bad client

Ah, freelancer. You’re living the dream, aren’t you? You only work a couple of hours a day, on a beach somewhere, while sipping a colourful drink complete with cocktail umbrella. It’s a great life (and only a little bit exaggerated). And it’s only possible because you have great clients. Clients who are just as committed as you are to making the work great, who respect you, and who pay you. Because the alternative is terrible. With bad clients, you’ll be overworked, underpaid, and maximally frustrated. So, before you take on anyone who walks through the door, learn to spot the tells of potentially difficult clients.

1) They change suppliers like they change underwear

If they go through suppliers like a storm through Tornado Alley, that's a warning sign.
If they go through suppliers like a storm through Tornado Alley, that’s a warning sign.

If your potential client opens with ‘We’ve worked with a bunch of suppliers, but things just haven’t worked out with any of them’, you should immediately be on your toes. Of course the client will tell you it’s not them, it’s everyone else who’s the problem, but this is sometimes not the case. Clients who change suppliers frequently usually fall into 3 categories:
People who don’t know what they want, so keep issuing bad instructions, and getting the wrong thing back.
People who are terrible to work with, and don’t appreciate any supplier.
People who know what they want, but just haven’t been able to find the right person yet.

If your client is category 3, you’ll be alright. But, be sure! Try to ascertain exactly why none of your predecessors have panned out, and read between the lines of things like ‘They just weren’t getting it’. If you can, try to find out exactly who the client has worked with previously. This might give you an indication of where the problem lies. Then hit up your colleagues on a platform like Kalido (you can call or chat for free from the app), to get the supplier’s side of the story too. If they’re not notoriously horrible at their job, then it’s probably a client issue.

In general, freelancers know that every project is important, because every client is paying their rent, so they’ll usually do their best for clients, and they’ll put up with a lot. A client has to be truly impossible for the average freelancer to cut their losses and walk away.

2) They’re scattered

Waiting for a reply from THAT client, like...
Waiting for a reply from THAT client, like…

Everyone is entitled to a bad day when they’re just not as productive as usual. But some people seem to have a bad life. This is the type of client who habitually replies to emails a week later, never calls you back, and keeps rescheduling meetings. If you’re having problems pinning your client down for the initial briefing, you can be sure that things will only get worse when you do take the job. A scattered client is liable to give you the wrong instructions, then demand miracles to fix things, or issue no instructions at all, leaving you to develop telepathy on your own time. And when it comes to payment, scattered clients are the worst.

As a professional, you should always do your best to produce work of the highest standard, on time, which solves the client’s business problem. But doing so requires a client who 1) knows what they want 2) is able to tell you what they want, and 3) gives you the time and support to produce the work. If you’re unsure whether your client will come to the party, perhaps you should decline the invite.

3) The internal team isn’t great

We are not saying the team needs to be like this, but morale and team dynamics is very important.
We are not saying the team needs to be like this, but morale and team dynamics is very important.

If you have the opportunity to visit your client’s office, check out the staff and general atmosphere. If the staff look demoralised, or the place feels like a nuclear fallout site – be wary. If the client’s internal team is unprofessional, unproductive, or terribly incompetent, their internal procedures and politics will strangle any good work you try to do.

In your initial dealings, you can pick up how competent and professional the people are from little things like: whether their phones are answered, whether your messages are relayed to the right person, whether your name is spelt right in correspondence, whether the relevant people have been kept in the loop etc. Unless you’ve been hired as a consultant to fix the business, an unprofessional company is bad news for you.

4) They think the most important thing about you is your rates

Do they see the banquet or the bill?
Do they see the banquet or the bill?

Beware the client who hires solely on price. As a professional, you’re bringing your unique knowledge and skills to the table, and those are worth a fair price. As a freelancer, you decide what fair means to you. On Kalido, you can set your rates (and availability) on your profile, so the client should know what they’re in for at the outset. Of course, you can offer discounts for larger projects, or to regular clients, but if a new client begins your relationship with price haggling, this is a bad sign.

However, all is not lost. Try to see why the client is wrangling you on the money. Is it because they don’t know your industry, and can’t see why your work is better (and worth more) than the next person’s? If that’s the case, take them through your portfolio, and show them why it’s better. As a Kalido user, you can add your portfolio and supporting links to your work on your profile. If you get the sense that the client isn’t as interested in the quality of the work, and just wants to get it done for the lowest price, you’ll have to decide if that price is still fair for you.

As a freelancer, your name is on every piece of work you do. And in order to do the type of work that you’ll be proud to have your name on, you’ll need clients that work with you, not against you. In this article, we talked about how to spot bad clients. Luckily, there aren’t that many out there. In our next article, we’ll show you how to spot the winners – the clients that’ll help you do the best work of your life. And once you’ve read both, be sure to log onto Kalido and find some fantastic clients of your own!