Freelancing is more popular than ever, which means more people and businesses are using freelancers to meet their needs. It’s a tremendous time to be a freelancer as nearly every industry is embracing this work model, especially since the pandemic.

But while many of your client relationships are healthy, productive, and lucrative, some just aren’t worth the trouble. As a freelancer, it’s smart to identify your problem clients and abandon them quickly. The sooner you call it quits with a bad client, the sooner you can start working with a good one. 

How do you predict if a client will be a problem? By looking out for red flags that indicate the arrangement won’t be pleasant for you. This article lays out the top freelancing red flags and what to do if you spot them.

As a freelancer, it's wise to identify your problem clients and abandon them quickly. Click To Tweet

The Top Freelancing Red Flags

Before we jump into our warnings, remember that most clients are wonderful. We don’t want to make it seem like you’ll be abused daily as a freelancer. You won’t find yourself dodging a minefield of terrible clients. 

With that said, not all clients are right for you. It’s important to protect yourself by identifying bad clients before you build a deep relationship with them. Our goal is to help you identify clients that will make your life tough so that you can focus on the clients that matter the most. Here are the top freelancing red flags. 

1. They Ask for Free Work Often

You might be friendly with your clients, but it’s still a business relationship. You deserve compensation for your labor. Good clients know this. They want to compensate you for your work because they know that’s how they get your best effort. This is especially true if they expect a long-term relationship with you.

At the beginning of the client relationship, make it absolutely clear that you expect payment for your work. You can do this by setting clear project or service deliverables and establishing a per-hour rate for any out-of-scope work. (Use time tracking software like Timing to automatically calculate your time so you can bill accurately.)

Most importantly, don’t work for free. If a client asks for something extra, clarify that you’re happy to help and will put it on their next invoice. If they protest, explain that you don’t work for free just like they don’t. And then start looking to replace them as a client. 

2. They Ask for Free Samples

Freelancing red flags

Some clients ask for free samples of your work to help them decide if you’re the right person to hire. You may think this is justified to get the job (especially if you need the work), but many unscrupulous clients will decline your service and then use your work anyway. This practice is a blatant copyright violation, but you may not have the resources to resolve it through a lawsuit.

If a client asks for a free sample, politely decline. Let them know that your portfolio accurately represents your skill and expertise. If they claim that your portfolio isn’t sufficient, consider improving it, but you still shouldn’t work for free.

3. They Expect Constant Availability

One of the reasons you began freelancing may be the freedom it provides. You want flexible hours and a schedule that fits your life. You probably have several clients, too, so your time is divided across them all.

Unfortunately, some clients expect you to be available at all times. They send an email and expect a reply within a few minutes. They expand the scopes of projects and expect you to deliver on the same deadline. They do not tolerate your other obligations. The worst offenders will send emails or call you at outrageous hours of the day, like 11 PM, and expect an immediate response. 

The best way to avoid this situation is to spell out your availability in your contract. Determine a reasonable response time for their questions and comments. Give them access to a few ways to communicate with you. That said, once you set these boundaries, you must do your part by replying and meeting your deadlines. 

4. They Don’t Pay On Time

Freelancing red flags

You would think that this freelancing red flag would be obvious, but it’s surprising how many freelancers will continue to work for clients who don’t pay on time. Good clients want you compensated so you continue to perform good work and help them meet their goals. If a client doesn’t pay on time, they don’t respect you and your work.

Define your payment terms clearly at the beginning of any new client relationship. If possible, collect a partial payment before you start work. Don’t be afraid to enforce those terms if it seems like a client is slow to pay. And if a client is habitually late with payments, fire them quickly.

5. They Expect Unlimited Revisions

You should expect a few revisions whenever you submit work to a client. If the assignment was clear and your work is good, there shouldn’t be many revisions, but some are usually necessary. Your agreement with your client might even guarantee a specific number.

Bad clients will expect you to perform an unlimited number of revisions. They will pick apart your work and demand numerous little changes. In the worst cases, they will ask for so many changes that the project no longer resembles its original form.

If you charge by the project, each revision represents lost income. If you charge by the hour, you can get paid for the time you spend revising, but an endless list of changes can disrupt your schedule and prevent you from working for other clients. In either case, it’s essential to stick to the number of revisions defined in your contract. If your client can’t accept that, you may need to fire them.

6. They Refuse to Sign a Contract

A quintessential piece of freelancing advice is to have every client sign a contract at the beginning of the relationship. The contract is where you define all of the parameters of the relationship to avoid confusion. That said, many freelancers are comfortable working without a contract. If you fall into that group, that’s fine; just understand that you are missing out on a key piece of protection.

If you decide to use a contract, be wary of any client who refuses to sign it. It’s OK if they have some objections to the contract’s provisions and want some changes. Everything is negotiable, including the price. But if they flat out refuse to sign anything, consider that a serious red flag. It may mean they intend to violate your agreement and don’t want a paper trail.

7. They Require an Unusual Payment Method

To succeed, it’s wise to give your clients plenty of convenient ways to pay your invoice. People are more likely to work with you if you make the process convenient. Doing this is important to ensure that you get paid quickly and reliably.

Sometimes, however, a client is only able or willing to pay one way. They might use a complicated system that takes months to process the payment or insist on using an obscure payment platform that burdens you with excessive fees. For example, a large corporate client may require you to go through their long accounts payable process and use their vendor’s bill pay system.

You’ll have to make a judgment call here. In some cases, it may be worth your time to put up with these obstacles. But in other cases, you may find it’s just not worth the effort.

8. They Try to Micromanage You

Freelancing red flags

Some clients may view you like a traditional employee, thinking they have the right to manage every moment of your time while you work for them. They may want you to work on their premises, share your screen with them while you work, or make other unreasonable demands in an attempt to study your every move.

Sadly, these demands aren’t just annoying. They can stifle your creativity and waste more time, which forces you to bill the client for extra hours. Explain politely that your freedom and privacy are essential so they won’t manage you so closely. 

However, it may help to offer your clients a timesheet of your hours spent on their projects. With Timing, you can organize your work by client or project, and then produce a timesheet that shows exactly how you spent your time. 

9. They Don’t Understand What You Do

Obviously, your clients won’t know how to do your job. That’s why they’re hiring you. But they should have a general idea of how you work, what you’ll achieve, and how you bring value to the table. If they don’t understand, there’s little chance they’ll appreciate you as a freelancer. They will probably see you as only an expense, instead of an investment which recognizes the value you bring to their business.

For instance, let’s say you are a social media content creator. You craft copy, images, and videos that drive engagement on social media. If a client says, “anyone can make social media posts,” it means they don’t understand your expertise. They view you as simple labor, not an expert value-adder. Ultimately, this relationship wouldn’t last long.

10. They Offer a One-Sided Contract

Freelancing red flags

Ideally, it’s best to be the author of any contract you ask a client to sign. Depending on their feedback and request, you can customize the contract, but it should be your document. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible, especially with large corporate clients bound by in-house policies.

If you use a client-provided contract, make sure that it is not one-sided. Contracts should be balanced to protect the interests of both parties. If a client wants you to sign a contract that gives them all of the protection and you all of the responsibility, it’s a good idea to ask for revisions or reject the client entirely.

Here are some examples of unreasonable provisions that clients sometimes try to include in contracts:

  • If you decide to sue the client, you must do so in the client’s jurisdiction.
  • If you sue the client, you must pay the client’s legal expenses.
  • The client may exit the agreement at any time without notice, but you must provide several months’ notice. 
  • If you exit the agreement, you must pay the client’s expenses as they search for a new freelancer.
  • You may not work with any clients in the same industry for the duration of the agreement plus X months after.

11. They Constantly Complain About Cost

Your prices aren’t arbitrary. You set them based on your costs and the value of your work. If a client complains about your fee multiple times, it means either they won’t pay, it will be difficult to get them to pay, or they don’t see the value in your work.

You may have a contract, but contracts require time and money to enforce. If you have any reason to think a client won’t pay, it’s almost always best to walk away before performing any work for them. It also helps to ask for a deposit or charge a monthly retainer, so you are always compensated.

Should you lower your prices? That’s a judgment call. On the one hand, you should never undervalue yourself. On the other hand, a slight discount might be reasonable if it leads to a lot of work. But whatever you do, don’t reduce your rate on the promise of future work. Get it in your contract.

12. “This Shouldn’t Take Long” or “This Won’t Be Hard”

This red flag comes in a variety of other forms, such as, “This should be easy” or “I bet you can do this in one day.” You are the only person who can accurately estimate how long something will take or how difficult it will be. Why do some clients do this? To prime you to charge less. If they set an expectation that a job only takes one day, you might reduce your fee or bill for eight hours when it really took 12. 

Never – absolutely never – use a client’s time estimate to quote a project. What they think will take 15 hours might take 40, meaning you get paid a lot less. Instead, use your experience and consult your time tracking logs to learn how long similar projects took to complete. 

Time tracking software is a great way to reassure your clients about your time spent working. Timing automatically tracks your work so you can reproduce what you worked on at any given time. Timing produces timesheets you can trust, even when you forget to start a timer.

13. They’ve Run Through Several Freelancers

If a potential client has burned through several freelancers like you in a short time, it may indicate that the client is doing something to chase people away. Maybe they have unreasonable expectations, maybe they fail to pay in a timely manner, or maybe they exhibit other red flags on this list.

Ideally, it would be best if you could speak with some of these past freelancers to learn more about the client. If they speak poorly about the client, you may decide to pass on the opportunity rather than become another fired freelancer.

14. They Want to Pay in “Exposure”

Exposure is a bit of a meme in the freelance community, but it’s definitely a real issue. Some clients offer exposure to new audiences or potential clients in lieu of payment. These offers are almost always worthless because the client’s exposure won’t impact your business. Truthfully, they’re just trying to get free or cheap work out of you.

Does this mean all exposure is bad? Definitely not. If you accept some form of exposure as payment, ensure you understand exactly what you’re getting. Does it actually open you to potential customers? Can you communicate with them? What are the odds of actually closing a deal?

15. The CEO/Founder Needs to Approve Everything

Freelancing red flags

As a contractor, it’s best to work closely with the person who has decision-making authority. If you build websites, you should work with the person who has the power to green-light the site and make decisions. You may work with other team members, but you need a line of communication with the decision-maker. 

If everything you do has to be run up the chain to someone you can’t access, you will undoubtedly suffer delays that could lead to slow projects and untimely payments. Furthermore, this person will usually insert comments or request changes you’ve already addressed with their team. It could also mean dysfunction in the lower ranks that the CEO/founder/director needs to pin down. 

16. You Don’t Enjoy Working With the Client

This one seems simple, but many freelancers continue to work with unpleasant clients because they fear moving on. But working with a client you don’t like will only create stress and a headache for you in the long term.

Look at it this way: You’re a freelancer because you love the freedom, including the freedom to choose for whom you work. If you had a traditional job, you wouldn’t get to pick your manager. But as a freelancer, there are countless pleasant clients out there.

If you don’t like a client – for any reason – don’t be afraid to move on. You can fire them immediately or wait until you replace that income with a new client. You have a lot of freedom at your fingertips; you just have to use it. 

When to Keep a Client:

Just because a client exhibits one or several of these red flags doesn’t necessarily mean you should fire them immediately. There are plenty of situations where it may be better to stick with a client even if they aren’t ideal.

For instance, a client may be unaware that their behavior is inappropriate. Perhaps they don’t have much experience working with freelancers. In cases like this, educating the client about their behavior and why you can’t tolerate it might be worth your time. If you show a bit of patience, you may turn a problem client into a long and healthy relationship.

The size of the project could be another factor as well. A big project that drastically improves your salary might be worth putting up with a client’s inconveniences, especially if their infractions are minor. You could also ask for compensation to tolerate one of these red flags. For instance, you may decide to accept a client’s unusual payment terms and exchange for increasing the project cost by 5%. Everything is negotiable, after all.

How to End a Relationship with a Client

If you decide it’s time to abandon a problem client, your first step is to discuss your concerns with the client. Be honest about your needs and why you don’t think the relationship will work. Don’t be afraid to be candid and direct here. You’re prepared to lose the client, so there’s no sense in holding back. 

That said, be kind and professional throughout this conversation. There’s no need to insult the client (even if you feel insulted by their behavior). You can still end the relationship positively, even if you decide the relationship isn’t suitable. 

Next, complete any outstanding projects to which you’ve already committed. You may dread working with the client, but meeting your obligations is still professional. If you work for the client on an ongoing basis, give reasonable notice (e.g. “I’ll continue to maintain your website for three weeks.”) You should only abandon outstanding work if you find yourself in financial, legal, or personal jeopardy, or if the client’s behavior is so egregious that working together has become pointless. 

Finally, try to find a replacement for the client if you can. Tap into your network of similar freelancers to find someone who may suit their needs better. Oversee the transition, so the new freelancer gets up to speed quickly. 

Key Takeaway

Please don’t let our red flags scare you! They will help you spot bad clients before you suffer their inconvenience, but remember that most clients are great. You can use this advice to protect yourself, but you should still freelance enthusiastically and positively.

Want an easy way to keep your client relationships healthy? Track your time with Timing. It automatically records your time, so your timesheets are always accurate. Your clients will love honesty and transparency. Download Timing for a free 30-day trial.