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Signs of a bad freelance client

Bad clients are a dime a dozen. On the other side of the coin, being a freelancer means that you set your standards. Here are some tell-tale signs of a bad freelance client.

Abbey Charles
Abbey Charles
· 9 min read
Hand coming out of a pile of papers with the words "How much is too much?"

There are a million and one great things about freelancing, like getting to choose the subject matter you work on, having greater geographic mobility, and my personal favorite: grocery shopping at 2pm on a Tuesday, when the store is practically empty. You can take on a huge, challenging project that’s got you heads-down for months, and then follow it up with something more lightweight that allows you to reset. And you get to decide if the person who wants your skills actually gets to become a client.

When freelancing, it’s a challenge not to accept every job that comes down the pipeline, since you never know when your next opportunity is going to pop up, and the money needs to keep coming in. Sometimes, the decision is made easier when there are things you can do, but aren’t that great at, or when you don’t agree with what the company requesting your bid does to make its money. Then there are other times where things start out fine and quickly degrade. 

If you’re wondering if it’s time to move on, here are some great ways to recognize when you have a bad freelance client who needs to get the boot for good.

Asking for free samples or won’t sign a contract

If you’re serious about your freelancing business, you should have plenty of examples of the kind of work you are capable of producing. Whether that is in the form of a portfolio, your GitHub repo, or references to current sites, a prospective client should already have a good idea of the quality of your work. Asking for a sample and not offering compensation is not only taking advantage of you and your time, it’s extremely lame. If they start out by asking for free work, you can bet that they will continue to ask for free work along the way. 

Along the same lines, if you don’t have a contract in-hand and signed, you are essentially doing free work. Unfortunately, some people suck and will do everything they can to avoid paying you. Don’t let yourself get caught in the trap of a bad client before you even begin. Get. A. Contract. If you’re new to the game and aren’t sure what to include, or have been having issues and could use some guidance, check out the Contract Creator over at Freelancers Union; it’s a great resource.

I pay my rent in exposures, thankfully.

What do I say?

  • I would love to create that email sign up flow for you. I charge a fee of $300 for initial mockups, and that money can be applied to your first invoice after signing a contract.
  • Unfortunately, I can’t work on that for you right now as I am prioritizing clients with signed contracts. I’m happy to talk about scheduling details as soon as your signed contract is returned.

Lowballing and questioning your rates

Asking to clarify what they receive in return for what you are charging is absolutely a client’s prerogative. Once. If they keep questioning your rates, chances are fairly high that they will question the value of your work along the way. If they have the gumption to tell you how much they think you are worth by offering a lower number, they’re showing you that they think they know more about what you do than you, yourself. 

Clients who will start out lowballing and undercutting you are not going to be worth it, full stop. Even if this comes after a contract has been signed, make sure to leave yourself an out in that all-so-important contract.  

What do I say?

  • I’m happy to offer suggestions of where you may find a more affordable rate, but at this time, I can’t commit to any work below my stated minimum.
  • The tasks included in the quote are what can be completed at that rate. If you’d like to add more to the scope of the project, I can add that in for an additional fee.

The scope of work changes repeatedly

Not a single one among us is unfamiliar with scope creep, but when you’re freelancing, you don’t have a project manager level-setting the expectations with the higher-ups; you have to do it alone. 

Making change requests to a project isn’t out of the ordinary, but there may come a time when the requests have become so numerous or so grand that you’re not just out of time and over budget–you’re cutting into other work that good clients have paid good money for. Know when to say no if it becomes too much! Reworking button order for a better UI is one thing. Rewriting API hooks to accommodate a new payment schema is entirely different.

What do I say?

  • The number of changes to the original project is approaching more than is reasonable. I will finish what was in the original scope, at which point you are free to either re-negotiate the contract or pass this off to another developer.
  • I would be happy to add those changes to the scope. I will send over a change order addendum to my contract and add those updates to the schedule once I have received a signed copy.

Not being involved at all

People get busy, right? Totally understandable. But when you have a client that never seems to be available, it’s a huge red flag. You know the type: they respond to the blockers seven hours after you asked about them; the expectations they set are unclear, and they’re not in a position to clear them up; it takes a week to execute a full conversation by email. It’s frustrating, it’s not productive, and it’s not a good situation for anyone on either side.

If a client can’t be bothered to provide guidance and clarity on a project they’ve recruited you for, how far are you going to get on that project? Is it something you’re going to be proud of, knowing you had so little direction to go on? Probably not. It’s best to part ways before too many feelings get hurt, and well before the client realizes their “vision” won’t come to life without their input.

Lionel knows you’re looking for him.

What do I say?

  • Without a more reliable way to communicate and clarify issues with you, I will not be able to complete your project on time. I will complete the following tasks and pass the project back to you by next Thursday.
  • Unfortunately, a lack of communication means that I have not been able to complete a number of integral tasks on this project. I have other client projects coming up and will not be able to extend the scope of my work.

Being too involved

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the helicopter clients: the ones who expect you to be available 24/7; who find a way to micromanage you from afar; who nitpick every decision you make, as if you don’t know what you’re doing. To me, this is almost worse than not being involved enough. 

You were hired for the job because you possess a set of skills the client needs and does not have. With the way the job market is now, they probably had a lot of options for freelancers and decided that, out of all of them, YOU were the most expert and most excellent! So they really shouldn’t be hovering. They should know you know what you’re doing. And yet…here they are, asking why the button color looks closer to #02FAE9 when it should be #07F0E0–and you’re in charge of building the databases.

What do I say?

  • I appreciate that you want to be involved in the process, but I’d like to limit our check-ins to once a week to ensure I am able to give the proper attention to the project.
  • The frequency of your check-ins has become a disruption to the workflow and project timeline. If you feel you’d like more involvement with the code base, I suggest hiring someone in-house who is better able to accommodate that request. 


You’re just not feeling it

It’s totally okay to walk away from a bad vibe. There could be any number of reasons that fit this category, and all of them are valid. They could be the most petty reasons in the world, and you know what? Still okay. Gut instincts are right all the time, and do you really want to get into a situation you totally saw coming and do nothing to stop it?

One of the greatest things about freelancing is the freedom it gives you, which is also the freedom to decide you don’t want to work for or with someone. If there’s one takeaway here, it’s this: not every dollar is worth it.

Know what you’re worth, in terms of both money and respect, and don’t sell yourself short. There are always going to be gambles with freelancing, and now you know how to approach a few of those. If you want a sure-fire way to know you’re getting the highest quality clients, come talk to us! specializes in using senior developers to vet jobs and place you with a client that will make you happy. Talk to us today about how we can help land you your next gig.

Whether you’re looking for some temporary help or your next full time developer, let help you find the right person for the job.

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