How to Sniff Out Nightmare Clients

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Hi, I'm Chris and I'm super glad you're here. 7 years ago I taught my self-web design and freelancing. Now, I do my best to teach others what I've learned so they don't have to struggle as much as I did.

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Don’t want to read over 1,000 words about how to avoid nightmare clients? I got you. Here’s a podcast:

The world of web design freelancing is filled with amazing clients. I’ve had quite a few.

But, at the same time, I’ve had a few nightmare clients that were unpleasable, unresponsive, or plain un……

When you’re first getting started it’s tough to see the warning signs. But, over the years I’ve found a few ways to make sure you can see these types of clients coming from a mile away.

Here are a few things you can do to keep these folks at bay and save yourself some unnecessary heartache.

1. Talk to Them Before Accepting

Being a remote freelancer, I tend to pride myself on the ability to communicate without having to be face to face.

Maybe it’s pride that makes me delusional. But, for some reason, every once in awhile I decide to go against my own rules and accept a job without talking to someone first.

But inevitably, it always turns out bad. Almost every client I’ve had that offered me a project site unseen has turned out poorly.

So, get on the phone. Remember, they’re not just interviewing you. You’re interviewing them.

Asking questions like: Have you ever worked with a freelancer before? Can go a long long way.

As you’re talking to them get a feel for their personality. Some clients aren’t bad they’re just bad FOR YOU.

2. Set Really Clear Expectations

There’s so much that can be missed in the initial conversations. I don’t know about you, but I get a bit nervous when I’m on a sales call.

When that happens I end up missing things that I need to communicate in the excitement.

That’s why you’ll want to have a checklist of things that you ask and a checklist of things that you explain.

I once had a client that was appalled that I would suggest WordPress as a platform. I thought I had been pretty clear in communicating that WordPress is the majority of what I do.

But, somehow she missed that.

I tried to salvage the contract but inevitably I ended up having to walk away.

So, make sure you don’t pull any punches about who you are and what you’re capable of in the beginning.

It’s also important to set clear expectations of what you’re expecting of the client and what they can expect from you.

If you don’t state up front that you only do 3 rounds of revisions prepare to do an endless number of tweaks and changes.

I’ve found if you tell your clients exactly what to look for and when to look for it they’re pretty reasonable.

But, you can’t get mad if they can’t seem to settle on a page layout if you’ve never told them they had limited options.

I know the fear is that if you’re too honest then they might not end up hiring you. And, listen, I’m not asking you to air your dirty laundry.

But, there’s a way to communicate honestly and openly without sounding like you’re not capable of doing what they need you to do.

I typically try to give a benefit with every limitation. For instance, if I can’t do a part of the project they’re hoping to have done I explain I’ve narrowed my efforts on web design so I can give them really focused and high-quality deliverables in that specific area.

And, they’d be better off finding someone that is highly skilled in that discipline specifically.

See? Limitation then benefit.

3. Do Your Research

Dig a little bit into who you’re working for. Go on LinkedIn. See if you have any connections.

See if anyone has given them a review online. See if THEY’VE left any reviews for someone on the internet.

This is good marketing and it’s smart business.

People that love to leave negative reviews aren’t hard to find. They leave a trail that follows them around the internet.

Yet, despite how easy it is to find, so many people feel shocked when their reputation is smeared by a serial-bad-reviewer.

If after all your research you decide you’d like to work with this client you now have a lot of ammo to look really good.

Bring up what you found and use it to show them how thorough you are. Without sounding creepy of course.

4. Have An Escape Clause

If you aren’t preceding every project you take with a signed contract then you’re asking for disaster.

I always ask for half of the full amount of the project upfront and 1/4 of the project a month from the beginning.

This keeps projects from lasting longer than they really should because of lack of feedback.

I’ve found if clients have to pay you on a timeline whether or not the project is finished they’ll be much more motivated to stay in touch with you and get things done.

I had a client that asked for a quick turn around. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do it but I pushed some other things aside and made it happen.

I finished my end of the bargain and then I didn’t hear from him for 3 months.

Finally, when he got back to me he had a number of revisions he wanted.

BUT, he hadn’t paid the other 1/4 of the project fee. THANKFULLY, I had a contract and refused to keep going until he paid his end.

If I didn’t have that I would be handcuffed to his whims.

Unfortunately, I eventually had to pull out of this project. The client was incredibly difficult to work with.

BUT, because of the contract, I had a clear route to make sure both parties left without feeling they had been wronged.

Do yourself a favor and make sure to find and customize a contract that will protect you and your client if scenarios like this happen.

If you want more info about contracts with freelance clients check out this episode with an actual attorney.

5. Trust Your Gut

Every once in a while there’s a tiny little voice in my head that says, “Hey, Chris, don’t take this one. You’ll thank me later.”

Malcom Gladwell actually talks about how there’s more to our “intuition” than what’s on the surface level.

In his book Blink he describes how our decision making is based upon thousands of indicators that we’ve perceived either knowingly or unknowingly.

So, really, your gut isn’t just your gut. It’s your brain moving faster than your own thought processes.

So, even though what your gut is telling you might seem completely illogical it might actually be the most logical thing to do to go ahead and listen to it.

I’ve explained my gut away a number of times. I tell myself things like:

“It’s the perfect job.” OR “I don’t have anything else coming up. So, really I need this.” OR “SHUT UP INDIGESTION.”

But, I always kick myself afterward when I take the dang job and sure enough it ends up really sucking.

So, do yourself a favor and go with your gut. If you need help ask a friend or family you trust what they think.

If I’m ever in doubt I ask my wife and she’s always a great sounding board.

6. Listen

Bad clients will sometimes give themselves away in the initial conversation. Here’s a few key phrases that give them away instantly:

– If this goes well, I’ve got a lot of work for you coming up.
– This could really be a good portfolio piece.
– You should be able to get this done in no time. I’m sure it’s really simple for someone like you.

If you ever hear someone say this. Run or hang up. Or RUN AND HANG UP.

All of these phrases are tactics to convince you that they’re doing you a favor to give them a deal or provide a quick turn around.

I’ve never had an amazing client that told me any of these things beforehand. Why? Because actions speak louder than words.

If someone is trying to convince me with their words it makes me wonder if they’re overcompensating for their actions.

7. Know Who You’re Looking For

As a freelancer, you should have a clear vision of what your ideal client looks like.

It’s okay to get really specific with this one.

What’s their age? What’s their income? What kind of business do they have? How long have they been in business? Do they have a family? How many kids?

The more specific you get the more you’re able to turn away people that just aren’t right for you.

In the marketing world, this is called the “customer avatar.” In UX design, this is called “User Persona.”

Some people even give these fictional people a name. They do this so it’s easy to remember when you’re on a call or prospecting through leads.

If your potential client isn’t in your ideal customer avatar it’s a good sign you might need to let this one go.

Listen, I know it’s hard. You hate to turn away business because you don’t know when you’ll get the next opportunity.

But, trust me. IT WILL COME. But, if you’re tying yourself up with bad clients you won’t be able to say, “Yes!” to good clients.

So, do yourself a favor and turn them down from the get-go.

Figure out EXACTLY who you want to be working for.

If not you’ll end up working for ANYBODY and miss out on the SOMEBODY you really want.

8. Set Up a Gauntlet

I always make potential clients fill out a pretty extensive form. I do this for a few reasons:

1. It helps me get a really good picture of who they are and what they need.
2. It shows me they’re willing to work alongside me to accomplish a common goal.

Whether the client likes it or not, there will be some work on their part. This is true no matter who you hire to build your website or app.

We need details. We need info. We need content dang it!

I don’t know of a web design freelancer or business that doesn’t need a hefty amount of information and cooperation with their clients.

If someone is hesitant or unwilling to put in the work to fill out a form with some questions about their business it’s a huge red flag that they might not be the one for me.

Want a full list of the questionairre I use on clients? I got you.

It’s Not Impossible to Avoid Bad Clients

At the end of the day, bad clients are going to happen. They’re almost like a right of passage.

BUT, hopefully, these tips will help you to avoid the worst of the worst. At first, it’ll be difficult to spot bad clients quickly.

But, eventually, you’ll get the hang of it and it’ll be second nature. Until then, use these tips to avoid nightmare clients.

Crab with claws


Hi, I'm Chris and I'm super glad you're here. 7 years ago I taught my self-web design and freelancing. Now, I do my best to teach others what I've learned so they don't have to struggle as much as I did.

Every week, I write an article and release a podcast episode. Sign up if you want to get notified when that happens.



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