Part I

With some hard work and maybe a little investment, any freelancer can land a client once in a while. And once you get the hang of it, establish repeatable processes, and get a few referrals, you can land a lot! The problem for any freelancer (or really any business that operates off a clientele) is that, frankly, some clients suck. Some will try to screw you over, some don’t communicate, some will be extraordinarily difficult to work with… some, all of the above. So how do you weed out the all-stars from the undesirables? Here are some red flags to watch out for.

They don’t want to pay “that much.”

Freelancers may love what we do, but we’re in this game to make money. So if someone asks you to work for free, run in the opposite direction like they are a rabid, radioactive goose and you just threatened their young! (Geese are assholes, look it up.) There are a few exceptions to this rule, but only a few. Offering to work pro bono isn’t always a bad idea, especially at the beginning.

That said, some people are just cheap. Everyone loves a deal, sure, but clients need to understand (and, more importantly, you have to make them understand) that they can’t get a thousand-dollar product for a couple hundred bucks.

It doesn’t always have malicious intent. Sometimes a client’s eyes are simply bigger than their stomaches. They want a beautiful logo, album cover, poster, what-have-you, but they have a “limited budget.” Don’t get me wrong, limited budgets are fine — and working within budgets is an excellent skill and selling point — but you can usually tell when someone is just trying to find a deal.

Finding and setting your price is a different (and complicated) issue, but go in willing to say “no” if someone tries to low ball you. Think like Fifth Harmony: “Baby, I’m worth it.”

They’ve got grandiose ideas.

Unfortunately, I’ve taken on clients (and even partnered with a couple) because they got me excited. They say things like, “We’re going to change the game!” or “…disrupt the industry!” Or some form of, “We do everything for everyone!

These people throw out big potential numbers. They cite past successes and drop names. Basically they’re sales people, and they want your skills to make up for their lack of knowledge, and it’s usually a bigger lack than you think. Rule of thumb: the more shit they talk, the less likely they know what they’re doing.

In my experience, these types of people aren’t looking so much for a designer or consultant (or whatever you do), but more for someone to come on board with them — and usually at a cut rate. Even if they agree to pay you your quote, beware. Cliché or not, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Want a bonkers but true example? Watch FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened on Netflix.

Their business practices are questionable.

Often this and grandiosity go hand-in-hand. If someone starts throwing out big names and big numbers but has very little evidence to back it up… start digging. Use your instinct. Sometimes a client just doesn’t pass the smell test. 

One time I was in talks with a company (I didn’t end up working with them) who’s name was one word off from a very well-known, highly respected corporation. The man I spoke to didn’t hide it either. He said, “When we call and say we’re [XYZ], they often think we’re [Official XYZ], and they help us right away!” According to him, it was also a Google strategy. I immediately looked them up (his Google strategy wasn’t working quite as well as he claimed), and after one look at their website I went: “This guy’s got his head up his ass, right?!” Keep in mind, due diligence into someones online presence isn’t creeping; it’s just good business.

There are simple, more definable red flags too. If a client is terrible at giving you what you ask for in a timely manner, they’ll probably always be difficult to work with. If you’re working with a business and you see them treating their own people (or other freelancers) poorly, keep a sharp eye. If a client misses one payment, that could be innocent enough. If they miss two, it’s time to get serious.

Again, we’re in this to make a living. Money creates some of the most simple patterns to spot. If someone is bad at paying you, they won’t get better. Period. Unfortunately, I think every freelancer has to deal with this at least once before they realize it. So don’t let it happen. You will, but don’t.

Want a very real example? It’s that asshole who planned the FYRE Festival!

The product they put out is trash.

I don’t mean smut (there is such a thing as good-quality pornography after all), I mean bad. I work with singers/songwriters/musicians a lot. I’ve gotten to work with some really great ones… but I’ve also worked with some where it blows my mind that they even got someone to record their ratchet voice. This is where your personal discretion comes in, because while they will often be fine as clients, at the end of the day your name is on that.

Trash products also often come from the aforementioned blowhards. I worked with a company long ago that had lots of money. The execs (a generous term for these people) drove really nice cars, they took me out for big dinners, they had toys and gear and space… and what they were cranking out what complete garbage. Every time they’d show me something they worked on, I would go, “How in the world does this make you money?”

The “trash” went even further than their product. No one at the company looked or acted like professionals. It was like a bootstrapped, knock-off mafia operation. Turns out they were actually into some shady (not illegal, just shady) back-channel stuff, and that’s how they made their money. While I was admittedly intrigued, I didn’t stick around long enough to figure it out. Ready for another cliche? If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…

They’re never happy.

This is more common than one might think. This is the client that dislikes everything you bring to them, no matter what. Sometimes you’re just simply not the right fit for each other. That happens. Sometimes they’re way too picky. That’s something freelancers tend to deal with. But sometimes they are trying to screw you over.

I tend to operate as a pessimist when it comes to people’s intentions (which is safe, but not always healthy), so forgive me. But I know I have dealt with clients who want you to do work — a lot of work — and then not pay you “because you didn’t meet our expectations.” Even if the client isn’t a conniving menace, if they dislike everything you throw at them (or even worse, nitpick it to shreds) they’re not worth the stress. That said, make sure you do meet expectations! So begin by setting them.

Want an extreme example of who’s never happy? It’s those people who went to the FYRE Festival. Not a parallel to my point, but seriously, that shit was bananas.

Of course everyone is different and every situation is unique. Most of it comes from learning by doing. After 10 years or so I’ve figured out some warning signs. You don’t have to compromise.

Now then… what is a list of problems without solutions? (A dumb, bitchy blog post, that’s what.) And so I have written a part two of this series (which I’ve been linking to throughout):

How to Avoid Sucky Clients.