“A man running with a briefcase at Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport” by Andy Beales on Unsplash

Why You Should Turn Down a Toxic Freelance Client (And 5 Ways to Spot Them)

You don’t have to take every client who comes to you with a sob story and a “vision.” It pays to be picky.

I work in digital marketing and spend a lot of time speaking with prospective clients, and I can usually tell in our first meeting whether or not I want to work with them. I’ve talked to a ton of different people, and I’ve even turned away good money because I knew a client would cause trouble for either me or my team.

Sorry buddy, but no amount of money is worth the headache.

Landing a meeting with a prospective client is exciting, but don’t let it muffled the alarm bells going off in your head. If you recognize any of these 5 red flags, that’s your signal to run for the door:

1. Resistance to Change

If I’m going to work with someone, I want to know that they’re open to adjusting their plan if something’s not working.

You want a client who is willing to have an open dialogue with you. For example, if you’re worried about a long commute to a job site, ask if they’re flexible about the start time. (Why sit in rush hour traffic if you don’t have to?)

If they’re unwilling to compromise with you on the small stuff, there’s a good chance they’ll fight you on the bigger issues down the line. There’s nothing worse than a client who doesn’t want to listen to what you have to say. If they seem willing to work with you to come up with solutions to your concerns in the initial meeting, it’s a sign that they’ll be open to your suggestions when you work together.

Look out for clients who tell you that they always do things one certain way. Too many freelancers want to seem willing to “go the extra mile,” so they don’t bring up potential issues. Then, by the time they get into the job, they realize that there’s zero flexibility, and they’re stuck in a situation that’s unfavorable for them, their client, or both.

2. No Defined Role

You should know what you’re getting into, and so should your client. If they don’t really know what they’re asking for, run. If they don’t have a budget,sprint.

They don’t need to have all the answers (that’s why you’re there, after all), but they should have a concept, a practical plan, and objectives. If they don’t know what they want, chances are, you won’t be able to deliver on their expectations.

Once you have a plan, budget is the next logical discussion. Do not move forward without a realistic and concrete number. It’s one thing to see a client with a new business who’s a little clueless about the cost and process of working with freelancers. It’s another thing to see that from an established and mature business.

For example, I’ve met with clients from large companies who had no marketing budget. They assured me I’d be paid for my work, but I walked away because there was no guarantee that they’d be able to continue paying me to manage their campaigns.

Then, of course, there are the clients who want $2,000 worth of work for $200. Personally, I choose to keep my prices extremely competitive. I pride myself on being able to work with any budget, but it’s still important for me to that the client has realistic expectations for what can be done with a minimal budget.

3. Micromanagement

I cannot stand working with micromanagers. I hate the constant requests for updates. I hate the feeling of someone looking over my shoulder, waiting for any perceived slip-up. It’s stiffing.

I, and most people, do not do their best work under a micromanager. There is little opportunity for learning or innovation. It isn’t a satisfying experience. Some studies have even pointed to micromanagement as a cause of early death.

The funny thing is, every micromanager who I’ve had the displeasure of working with said the same thing to me upfront: “I’m not a micromanager.”

Yes. Yes, you are.

Maybe it’s because they’ve heard the criticism in the past and want to distance themselves from it. Maybe it’s because they’re delusional. Either way, when someone tells me, unsolicited, that they aren’t a micromanager, I am immediately skeptical.

So, keep your sanity and your health; avoid micromanagers. The stress has never been worth the money for me. An ideal working relationship is built on trust. Look for someone who will trust you to do the job right.

4. Request for Custom Work with No Reciprocal Investment

Freelancer does not mean you work for free.

Don’t invest your time and energy unless your client is also willing to invest work into you. Every freelancer, at one time or another, will sink a massive amount of time and energy into a pitch or a project, only to be met with the news that your client is going in a different direction. Obviously, things happen. You don’t land every client, but take steps to make sure you aren’t wasting your time with a lost cause.

Worse yet, some prospective clients will pressure you for work with absolutely no intention of ever hiring you.

To avoid this, I use a form to weed out clients who aren’t serious about working with me. I direct them to fill out some basic information on the requirements and expectations of the project. If they are willing to invest their time into me for a simple request, it’s a good sign that they’re serious about hiring a freelancer and aren’t just shopping around.

5. A Rush to Setting an Arrangement

Beware of the hard sell. It can be extremely flattering to be offered a contract in a first meeting (They like me, they really like me!), but hold on. Desperation is never a good thing.

Think about it. What’s the hurry? Why aren’t they taking the time to consider their options or nail down the specifics? And no, the answer is not your phenomenal sales skills.

Maybe they’ve burned bridges with other freelancers in the area, and they’re trying to convince you to sign on before you figure that out. Maybe they don’t have a long-term plan and are looking for a Band-Aid solution (which just so happens to be you).

I’ve also found that clients who are too eager to rush into an arrangement have a tendency to make for pushy clients. It will start small: late night messages and small changes. Then it will snowball into requests for a ton of revisions or new work with no pay. Beware the gradual labor creep.

The number one piece of advice for freelancers (and job hunters in general) is, “Don’t chase money; chase management.”

Obviously, there will be exceptions to the rules I’ve listed above, but the main takeaway here is simply to remember that, provided you aren’t living out of your car, you do not have to take any job offered to you. When you’re meeting with a prospective client, your conversation is a two-way street. The person across the table from you is trying to figure out if you’d be a good fit to work with them, and you should be doing the same.

And if it’s not right, walk away.

Thanks for reading.
Take care.
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