Lessons learned: identifying problem clients

identifying problem clients at www.blog.cleanlinestudio.com

Hi there, happy Friday! Today I want to talk about a clients, rather potential clients, and how to know when things aren’t going to work out. When you get that initial inquiry from a potential client, it usually feels pretty exciting. You’re eager to hear about their project, and psyched to work out an agreement with them. If you’re a new freelancer or are going through a dry patch, you may be anxious to get started. I caution you to step back, take a deep breath, and follow your usual protocol. I never do work for a client before a contract is signed, and a deposit check is in my bank account. Any good, professional client will respect your policies, and follow through in a timely manner. Below is a list of warning signs that a client may be difficult, or one that you shouldn’t proceed with at all…

1. They mention problems with past designers or other contract workers…
Unfortunate business relationships are sometimes just a part of doing business, but if a client has had many ongoing problems with contract workers, it may be evidence of an internal problem and not the fault of the contractor they’re asking you to replace

2. They have many issues with your policies…
An occasional amendment to your agreement may be necessary, but if a client is unwilling to pay a deposit, sign your contract, or pay you in full before the work is complete- consider it a huge red flag!

3. They have no problem wasting your time…
If a potential client shows up late for meetings, makes you endure lengthy or unnecessary phone calls, or insists on meeting in person when it isn’t vital, think twice before signing a contract with them. It is my policy to give clients one freebie in-person meeting before they sign a contract. Any additional face-to-face meetings are billed at the same rate I charge for design work. If you do meet in person, be sure to set a time limit for the meeting (ie: I have another appointment at 3:30). I’d say limit the meeting to 1.5 hours. If they can’t explain the project in 90 minutes, they might not be ready for your involvement.

4. They question your rates, or try to talk you down…
If a client questions how much you charge, it comes across as a sign of mistrust or possibly a lack of communicating your value to them. Explain to them why you charge what you do (subcontractor costs, software costs, production time, etc.) and make sure they understand the depth of your involvement in the project. If they still won’t budge, you could suggest that they decrease the scope of the project and proceed with the remaining items after you’ve established a good working relationship. If they want you to do work on a trial basis or say they’ll pay you when the project is done, head for the hills.

Bottom line, if something about a client’s request makes you concerned or uneasy, it’s probably not a good fit. Not all inquiries will turn into paid work, so don’t be discouraged if some of your inquiries don’t work out. Treat each new conversation as a learning experience. You’ll never feel taken advantage of if you stick to your gut. Building relationships and doing work for good clients will ultimately take you much further than accepting bad clients out of desperation.

Once you’ve identified a problem client or one you aren’t comfortable proceeding with, there’s the issue of telling them. Be incredibly diplomatic and professional in your correspondence. They last thing you want is for that business acquaintance to be spouting complaints about you all over town. Be really clear in your explanation, and take care of it as soon as you’ve decided that it’s not going to work. Cut ties quickly and graciously so that you can spend your time with clients you like working with.

Do you have any red flags to add to my list, or client horror stories you’d like to share? Please let me know in the comments section and have a great weekend!

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4 thoughts on “Lessons learned: identifying problem clients

  1. Ashley

    Absolutely fantastic advice! I’ve occasionally found myself going against my policy to make my clients happy, leaving me feeling completely blank. I’ve learned that it’s always, always, always best to simply create a good list of policies for you and your business and stick to it. Don’t let yourself feel bad about momentarily letting a potential client down. It’s healthier to let a client know that you appreciate their inquiry but that you have to decline than to beat yourself up and regret your decision later on.

  2. Abigail

    Such good tips! Most clients are really lovely, but like you said, the alarm bells ring when a client isn’t willing to pay anything until the project is complete.

    1. Sarah Post author

      Totally, Abigail! Most of my clients are absolutely lovely, wonderful people who I have great report and interactions with. I can’t stress that enough, BUT for that reason, it makes it all the harder to notice when a client pops up with intentions of taking advantage. If you stick to your policies, most reasonable clients will be very respectful of them. My next Lessons learned post will have to be about positive relationships with clients, cause that’s really what the vast majority of them are!

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