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You meet them sooner or later. That one type of client who looks like trouble from the beginning. But of course, you don’t want to judge, to follow whatever prejudices you might have. Most importantly - you don’t want to lose a potential customer.

According to Statista, over one-third of freelancers have issues finding new clients. No wonder we’re jumping at every chance. And we end up accepting contracts that cost us nerves, precious mental balance and invaluable time.

But here’s the thing: you can avoid it. All it takes is to learn how to tell a difficult client from afar. Do they really share some “difficulty symptoms” though, you might wonder.

It turns out that they do. One trip into freelancer communities on Facebook or LinkedIn will show you that indeed difficult clients appear to wave similar sets of red flags. Freelancers all over the world complain about the same characteristics.

So let’s have a look at them now, shall we?

They Want Free Samples

That’s a red flag that makes even a beginner freelancer think twice before they accept the job. Free samples? Free work? On what basis?

Let’s make it clear: it’s okay if a client wants to see your work. They need to know what kind of person they’re dealing with, after all. Hiring a wrong person costs them as much as it costs you to accept a bad contract.

But no decent person will ever ask you to work for free. There’s no “sample logo design so we can see if you’re a good fit”. Chances are, you’ll hear you’re not good enough, but your free sample will be used anyway.

The safest way to go around it is to send your potential client to your previous work.

They Undervalue Your Knowledge And Experience

That's, frankly put, an absolute classic of the freelancing world.

“This shouldn’t take you more than [insert estimated delivery time].”

Well, okay. Maybe you’ll design that banner under half an hour. Or code that landing page for a day. But that’s not what you’re basing your pricing on. Obviously.

You’ve spent weeks, months and years developing your skill set. You’ve worked hard to get where you are now. You strained every brain cell you’ve got to be able to do the job this quickly.

This all comes in the price package. A client who doesn’t appreciate that, will not appreciate your work either.

They Contradict Themselves

When things you hear from the client don’t add up, there are two possible reasons for that.

They don’t have their stuff together or they’re plainly lying.

Imagine you hear from them that they’re a fresh startup. But you did your research and everything on the internet suggests they’re in the market for years. What does it tell you about them?

They’re either lying to their customers to up their credibility or to you to get a lower price on your service.

Both are equally bad.

If you find discrepancies in your client’s statements, that’s a massive red flag. You’ll never know what’s the next thing that will turn out untrue.

They Compare You To Other Freelancers

A freelancer’s classic #2.

“I’ve had a person who did it for half the price.”

The logical answer would be “and I’ve had a client who paid me twice as much”.

But of course, that’s not classy. And because freelancers care about staying classy, most of them will politely end the negotiations after hearing such a line.

And they’re right to do so. Unless you want to keep getting compared to others, you’ll walk away as well.

They Don’t Know What They Want

People outsource your services for a reason. And most of the time, the reason is that they have no idea about how things work.

And this is where you - the specialist - step in. You solve the issue the client couldn’t solve on his or her own.

However, a completely clueless client can turn a supposedly easy contract into a nightmare.

Not only don’t they understand how things work from a technical standpoint, but they’ll also be clueless about the results they want to achieve. In worst cases, you will have to start from defining that’s the outcome that your client expects. That’s right. It happens.

Be wary of those. People who don’t know what they want are prone to changing their minds ten times and they often don’t care you’ve got a formal agreement on something already. And all, of course, within the same price.

They Don’t Set Clear Expectations

In comparison to the above-mentioned, this client knows exactly what they want. But they won’t tell you. Because of reasons. Or because they consider these things “obvious”. They think they don’t have to mention it. Their expectations should be self-explanatory to you.

Now, a contract with such a client can end in two drastically different ways: they’ll be happy with whatever you deliver. Or they’ll decide your work is worth nothing, they won’t use it, and they won’t pay you.

It’s tempting to accept a contract from a client who seems to give you free rule over the project. But remember - the pretty beginning can lead to a horrible end.

Always specify the outcome. Even if it looks basic, obvious, logical. Nothing’s obvious in business, especially not online.

They Get Too Personal, Too Fast

Of course, there are different types of people. Some are shy. Some are very direct. Some are open and some keep others at distance.

But a client who treats you like their buddy instead of a service provider? That’s a red flag.

In some languages and cultures, they may start addressing you like their colleague, instead of “sir” or “madam”. While not always a massive warning sign, it can trouble those people who prefer a formal approach.

All in all - if your client acts like you’re meeting up for a beer instead of doing serious business, that’s probably not the most reliable person out there.

They Play An Expert

“I could do this myself but… [insert an excuse of how busy and important he/she is].

“I’m a professional [insert role] myself, so I’ll have a look at your work.”

Both of them translate to “I’m not less skilled than you, and I’ll be judging you, so don’t get too confident.”

They’re Nosy

In the online world, it’s good to look after yourself. Whether you’re a freelancer or a client, it’s only reasonable to keep your eyes open at all times.

But some of your customers will take it too far. Already at the stage of contract negotiations, you’ll be “reminded” that every task will be “checked for quality” or that your work will be sent to “another professional” for review. They make you feel like you’ll be monitored and graded like an intern.

If you’re certain of your skills, this won’t bother you. But be ready for the worst. An approach where every single action of yours is strictly monitored speaks for an absolute lack of trust. And that can’t mean anything good.

They Expect Instant Answers

So you answered a client query in the evening and went to sleep. When you check your email again in the morning, there’s another question from your potential customer, and then another message - they gave up because you didn’t answer fast enough.

Don’t worry. You’ve just dodged a bullet.

Freelancing and remote work are more and more popular, but it would appear some of the clients still don’t know how it works. They may not grasp the concept of a time zone difference or think you’re living glued to your screen.

It’s good to stay in touch with your clients and answer them quickly. But that’s not always possible. A client who doesn’t understand that will only cause troubles.

They Want To Be The Only One

The second type of client who doesn’t understand the freelancing is the one who wants to be the one and only.

Some companies will want to hire you full time. It’s up to you whether you agree or not. But most of us juggle several customers and can’t allow ourselves to drop out of the market.

And this one client? She or he is going to complain that you don’t devote all your time to their company. They’ll want you exclusively for themselves and a tsunami will ensue the moment you’re unavailable, caught completing some other contract.

Make sure you’re on the same page about it. Some people really need to be told this upfront.

You Accepted A Difficult Client - What Now?

If you’re anything like that 30% of freelancers, you may end up accepting a difficult client despite all the red flags.

That’s alright. Being a difficult person is, after all, a matter of perspective. A horrible customer to you can be a wonderful one for another freelancer.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t undertake some security measures. If you suspect a client can give you a headache at some point, do the following:

  • review if they’re reliable: be twice as inquisitive when you research their company online

  • prepare a comprehensive list: write down literally every single thing you will do for them to avoid misunderstandings and unwarranted expectations; this should include the evaluation criteria of the results you’ll deliver

  • document everything: just like in case of tasks, you may want to write down every arrangement. Appreciate written communication - email and messengers. Phone calls are good so long the client doesn’t come up with “I never said that”

  • use a third party platform: this may be costly, but sometimes it’s better to secure your payments with a third party platform in case of possible disputes

  • don’t give into emotions: whatever might be happening, don’t ever lose your cool. Stay polite and don’t lower yourself to petty comebacks even when you don’t like what you’re hearing from the other party.

Over To You

Difficult clients: a risk, a challenge, a lesson. Working with them may turn out to be a wonderful experience or your greatest horror. But how you handle it - it’s up to you. And hopefully, now you’ll know how to tell a difficult client the moment a message from them appears in your inbox.