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Client Red Flags… and Why it’s OK to Dump a Bad Client

Picture the scene… it’s autumn 2019. I (Sophie) am living a blissful existence working remotely from Lisbon. It’s sunny, I have access to an endless supply of cheap wine and custard tarts, and the phrases ‘covid-19’ and ‘cost of living crisis’ aren’t in my vocabulary. Neither is the phrase ‘client red flags’. It was a simpler time *sigh*.

Good Egg hadn’t yet hatched, so I was freelancing as part of a small woman-founded collective of creatives. Our collective was pretty new and we were starting to have some success, but we had a lot to learn about client management.

The most important lesson of all was when to dump a bad client. Here’s how I learned this the hard way…

The Least Zen Yogi in the World

My little collective was thrilled when we landed a contract to work with a successful yoga retreat owner — let’s call her Karen for the purpose of this story (original, I know). Karen had a thriving business and was looking for support across all of her digital marketing.

It was the biggest project that we had won and we were hella enthusiastic about getting started on it. So enthusiastic in fact that we ignored a bunch of massive ‘client red flags’.

Karen’s communication was as clear as mud and her inability to provide the info we needed (logins, branding elements, target demographics, etc.) left our heads spinning. She also wanted everything done yesterday. This tangled mess resulted in us spending A LOT of wasted time attempting to unravel it.

 

A pile of custard tarts
Custard tarts were the only things keeping me going during this stressy time


Shouty Emails & An Eventual Breaking Point

When things inevitably started going wrong, Karen became abusive. I’m talking late-night, swear-filled WhatsApp messages and emails written entirely IN RED CAPS. This went on for a couple of weeks until one member of our collective received an email so vicious that she fully broke down.

At that point, we decided we had no choice but to dump Karen as a client. We’d put in a lot of hours but we needed a clean break for the sake of our mental health, so we informed her that we wouldn’t be continuing with the project and would send her a full refund. The tirade of abuse that followed the dumping will forever be seared into our brains, and it took us a long while to recover from it.

8 Client Red Flags to Watch Out For 

I wouldn’t wish our awful experience with our very first Karen on anyone, but I do hope that it can serve as a helpful lesson for other new business owners.

There are a few common client red flags to look out for when vetting potential clients. Keeping an eye out for the following early warning signs will help you avoid bad experiences with businesses that don’t deserve to work with you.

 

1. They Don't Know What They Want...

…or they know, but they are horrible communicators. It’s worth noting that not being sure of the support they need doesn’t automatically equal a bad client. A significant part of my work as a copywriter has been helping prospective clients identify where their comms are lacking and coming up with a plan of action for them.

However, the issues arise when you’ve spent a good chunk of time putting together a proposal and it’s met with “ah no I didn’t mean that” or “I think I actually need something totally different”. If you’re certain you correctly interpreted their brief, this unclear client communication is a sure sign of a tricky client that’s more trouble than the fee is worth.   

A stressed-looking woman sitting in front of a laptop dealing with client red flags
Hands up if you've ever found yourself in this exact 'ARGH' position

2. They Know What They Want but Don't Want to Pay for It

So you’ve got a good grasp on what the client wants and how much that’ll cost, but the client isn’t having any of it. This might be telling you that they can get the work done by another freelancer for less, or that your payment terms aren’t acceptable. The client is probably correct in thinking they can get the work done cheaper, but that doesn’t mean they should (we all know that you get what you pay for).

Of course, negotiating a contract for a project is normal and can actually be a green flag as it shows you that they feel comfortable communicating honestly and openly with you (which is a must when it comes to briefing and feedback). However, if they devalue your work by asking for unreasonable discounts, it might not be a professional relationship worth pursuing. 

Adjacent — if they offer exposure instead of payment the only response to this is to say BYE.

3. They Tell You It's 'Just a Quick Job'

Telling a copywriter that they could do the ‘simple task’ in ChatGPT or a graphic designer that the ‘quick job’ could be handled by Canva are classic examples of client red flags (and I’ve seen both of these grim scenarios IRL).

If I had a quid for every time I’ve heard “I just need… can you just… I have a tiny job…” I’d be a very wealthy woman. There’s no such thing as a tiny job and these projects are ripe for scope creep. You’ll almost certainly find yourself being talked into just one more round of amends or just one more version of that deliverable.

4. They Want You to Be Available 24/7

One of our key mistakes with the Karen I mentioned earlier is that we didn’t set any clear boundaries. She had a habit of emailing and WhatsApping day and night, and we would respond because we wanted to give her good customer service. Of course, Karen got used to us being available 24/7 and whenever we weren’t she would be irate. 

In Karen’s defence, this issue was mostly our fault for not setting any boundaries. But it did teach us that a client who won’t respect boundaries is a client worth avoiding.

 5. They Refuse to Sign a Contract

Early in my copywriting career, I had a client who commissioned four 4,000-word blogs from me. It was set to be the single biggest invoice I’d sent since going freelance earlier that year, only I hadn’t thought to insist on a contract before I started the work. So, when I did finally send that whopping big invoice they just didn’t pay it. I had no idea what to do or how to fight it, so I didn’t. I lost the time and the money and also a lot of confidence.

Nowadays, nothing gets written before the digital ink on the contract has dried. This article on Upwork features some great tips on what to include in your contract, and there are loads of free templates available online if you don’t yet have a work agreement in place for your biz.

A hand signing a contract to avoid possible client red flags
We bloody love contracts

6. They're Rude

These days, we’ve got zero time for bully clients who don’t treat us with respect. But as you read earlier in this post, I’m no stranger to being digitally shouted at by an unprofessional client.

What that awful Karen experience taught me is that sometimes there’s more value in protecting your mental health than there is in completing a contract. Just be sure you have a kill clause in those contracts so you’re within your legal rights to get out of it — read more about kill fees here.

7. They Want Everything Done Yesterday

Setting out a project timeline is an important part of managing client expectations. It’s common for clients to respond with “ASAP” when attempting to ascertain delivery deadlines, but a prospective client who wants everything yesterday is one to ditch today.

It can be tempting to shorten timelines to please clients and it’s totally fine to do so, just as long as you remain in control and it doesn’t impact your wellbeing.

 

A black alarm clock on a desk next to a laptop
Answering emails at midnight is not a situation I ever want to be in again

8. The Work Doesn't Align with Your Morals

If you aren’t ethically aligned with a potential client or their business is something you morally object to, do you really want to be working with them? For me personally, this could be jargon-spouting digital bromads (read more about those guys here), work for politically right-leaning folks, or anything directly impacting animal welfare (if your main gig is selling sausages then this veggie writer might not be the gal for you). 

This is much easier to do once established, and I spent years working for big corporate clients like Samsung and Panasonic before having the confidence to back my ethics with my income. 

We actually started Good Egg for this very reason. We want the power to choose who we work with so we can build a client list that operates within the same moral boundaries as us. Our current clients include a massive UK charity, a female designer with a focus on making the luxury sector more inclusive, and a culture-focused non-profit organisation. These days, there isn’t a red flag client in sight!

My Advice for Client Management — When it Comes to Client Red Flags You've Gotta Trust Your Gut

Being able to spot ideal clients in a forest of red flags comes with experience. But even if you’re new to business ownership, you’ve been honing your intuition your entire life. So if your gut is telling you something is off, it probably is! The tricky bit is having the confidence to trust that feeling and to turn down the work. 

Finally, don’t forget that there are LOADS of perfect clients out there. Don’t be disheartened by a bad client situation — they just make the good client relationships all the more enjoyable.

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