The Types of Clients You'll Get
Not all clients are created equal.
When you first launch your freelancing career, ANY client is a good client. Sometimes, that even goes for clients who can’t pay. You just want the experience and will do almost anything for a good reference.
But quickly, you begin to realize that not all clients are created equal. Some are better than others. And, some are better for YOU than they are for other people.
A great client-freelancer relationship is a little like a great marriage. Both parties recognize and appreciate where they are different from one another. They respect each other’s roles and know that they can accomplish far more than either of them could alone.
This is the holy grail of freelancing situations. We all want to work for someone who respects us, who gives us the freedom to accomplish their vision in the best way, and who listens to our input. But, it takes time to find and develop this type of client-freelancer relationship.
As you’re working toward this, I want to help you define the types of clients you’ll typically encounter.
Once you know what to look out for, it is much easier to avoid the difficult clients altogether and choose the clients who are best suited for you.
As an added bonus, in this article, I’ll also give you some tips for working with many of the different types of clients you will face so that you can make the best of working with these clients. And, maybe, turn a mediocre client into a good (or even great!) one.
The Client Mountain
Often, as a baby freelancer, you’ll either not recognize the clients who are wrong for you, or you’ll be forced to work with them simply because you don’t have other prospects.
All freelancers have taken on at least one nightmare client. Unfortunately, it’s what you have to do as you ascend the client mountain.
There are a lot of sub-par clients looking for help. But, as you ascend the mountain, you can become a bit more choosy, refusing to work with those clients who don’t meet certain criteria.
Here’s the beautiful thing about freelancing. As you ascend the mountain, there are less clients because you are charging more and doing better work, but those clients are much better.
A typical freelancing experience is that you’ll go from bad clients to mediocre clients, to good clients, to dream clients - those clients who make it a joy to get up and work every day.
Those dream clients are few and far between. Sometimes, you need to wade through the sub-par and mediocre ones to figure out which types of clients work for you.
So, here are a few warning signs of clients to watch out for and tips for working with these clients.
1. the “Budget-Obsessed” Client
This first type of client only cares about one thing: how much it costs them.
They don’t care how much time it takes you, how many costs you incur during the project, how hard it is for you, or how demanding their requirements are.
They want it done as cheaply as possible, to the point where they haggle over small things and make a big deal over even minor expenses.
Sometimes this is warranted because of the type of work they do.
But, other times, they are more than willing to accept mediocre work simply to save a little money.
How do you work with a budget-obsessed client?
Recognize that everything comes back to how much money they have to spend. Get clear about their budget before they spend any money, and if their budget is unreasonable, make that clear up front. The worst thing you can do for this client is to waste their money.
If you struggle to talk to clients about money, this client-freelancing relationship will be a disaster for you! So, get comfortable talking about money with clients and be clear about your budget expectations and theirs.
Also, recognize how THEY view your working relationship. For the budget-obsessed client, this is all a transaction. Don’t expect them to become friends or suddenly find more work for you.
Get the work done for them within the agreed-upon parameters, get a testimonial, and move on.
Doing good work without any financial surprises is the best way to serve this sort of client.
2. the “Expert” Client
This person believes that they could (usually if they had enough time) do your job better than you.
Sometimes, they really do have genuine expertise, and they just need someone to take care of lower-level tasks for them. Other times, they are frankly delusional.
Maybe they’ve been successful in other things, lending them a sense of expertise they don’t actually have, or maybe they simply don’t have enough of a grasp on the work to realize everything that is required.
Regardless of why they believe that THEY are the smartest ones in the relationship, this client will insist that THEY have all the answers and that THEY should call the final shots.
If their expertise is warranted, great! This is a wonderful opportunity to get paid to learn from them. Embrace it.
But, if they are delusional (which is, in my experience, the more frequent situation), run. Nothing you do will be quite good enough, even if it is.
All of us have an ego, especially when we are working in an area of expertise. Often, our ego gets in the way. We believe that we know best and the client should listen to us. That doesn’t always happen.
One of the dangers here is to not recognize how your ego, and your own corresponding sense of expertise, makes you feel about and interact with the client.
As a freelancer, you need to be able to do things that are sub-optimal at times to please the client. A good freelancer knows when to swallow their ego for the sake of the client.
How do you work with the expert client?
Let them be the expert (and swallow your ego).
Ask them how they want to accomplish the work and what they want it to look like.
If they don’t know what they are doing, get their directions in writing so they can’t accuse you of going rogue. Attempt to explain in simple terms why you think a different approach is best, but be willing to do what it takes to do what they want.
Then, get the work done as quickly as possible and get out before things really get sour.
But, if the expert knows their stuff, engage with them fully and turn the job into a learning opportunity. If they don’t, do what it takes to achieve their vision as quickly as possible.
3. the “Overwhelmed” Client
The overwhelmed client typically hires you because they either have too much going on or taking on the work that you do personally is overwhelming to them.
Either way, they are overwhelmed, and this creates potential issues.
The overwhelmed client is typically a poor communicator. They often don’t understand the full scope of the project, or they don’t take the time to communicate it. They are slow in responding to you, getting you the information and assets you need, and slow in providing critical feedback that allows you to push the project forward.
Sometimes it is because they are just too busy, but it could also be that they don’t know how to communicate effectively with you.
Particularly with software programming-related jobs, many people from previous generations don’t actually have the vocabulary to describe what they need from you. They stay away, not because they are aloof, but because they are self-conscious and don’t want to appear foolish.
How do you work with an overwhelmed client?
First, see if you can discover the source of why they are overwhelmed. Is it because they have too much to do? Or is it because they don’t have a sufficient grasp of how to talk to you?
If it is the first option, limit communication with them as much as possible. Find ways to streamline email communication or even wait for several things to pile up before getting the client’s attention for several things. Also, proactively ask for creative freedom to tackle the work with minimal oversight.
If it is the second option, make sure to get rid of all technical language in your communication and only talk about things that would directly impact them. If there are other people in the organization, find a different person to communicate with more frequently. Don’t overwhelm them with seemingly minor decisions, and do what you can to keep their involvement as simple and straightforward as possible.
No matter what, the overwhelmed client wants you to do your job without bothering them, so find ways to work as independently as possible. Your maximum benefit isn’t just you doing the job but doing it without them having to think about it.
4. the “Visionary” Client
This person sees themselves as a savant or world-changer. They are building something that will impact the world, change their industry, or create something big. They are, ultimately, all about themselves.
They have a vision and want the team (including you) to get on board and help them achieve it. Often, they don’t want to be bothered with minute details that they see as unnecessary. Nor do they want to be told that something can’t work.
One of the chief issues with this client is scope creep.
They hire you and simply expect you to change your work as their vision changes. Sometimes that is fine. But, other times, they expect you to begin to take on things that are not your strength, leading to issues. Or, they could add things to your plate that they aren’t actually paying you to do, expecting you to just do it to help them achieve their vision.
How do you work with a visionary client?
Recognize that your job is to enact their vision. Embrace their vision and do what you can to make it a reality.
Because the visionary is focused on the big picture, embrace a “yes-and” approach. They’ll ask for things that might not make sense and may strike a programmer as inefficient or unreasonable. But you can see this as an exciting challenge instead of a problem. Find creative solutions to solving the issues that they throw at you.
Also, don’t bother them with details. They are usually not interested in them. Take care of them yourself or find the people on the team or in the company who can help you handle the details.
Lastly, pay attention to scope creep. If you are up to the challenge and believe you can tackle it, meet it head-on. But, be willing to put your foot down if you don’t think you are the right person to do the job (or you aren’t being fairly compensated for the work you are expected to do).
Often, the visionary will respect someone who is willing to speak up so everyone can move faster more than someone who slows things down by working outside of their area of expertise.
5. the “Indecisive” Client
This is the client who always sees the dark side of things. They always see how things can go wrong or where the issues of every situation could potentially cause problems.
They want to do the work, but their indecision is a drag on everything.
The problem could be that they want to make all the decisions themselves, so everyone is waiting on them. Or, it could be that they simply can’t make a choice.
The indecisive client presents a problem which is potentially worse than many of these other clients.
Often, you don’t know before a project starts that they suffer from this fault. As a result, the project takes far longer to do because you are sitting around waiting for them. Instead of taking on a new project, you are stuck with a current project that is going nowhere or proceeding too slowly, and you can’t make money by doing something else.
How do you work with the indecisive client?
Take as many decisions out of their hands as possible.
Ask them directly if you can make the smaller decisions. Then, only come to them for significant ones. If they say no, make sure you can take on other work to keep you busy while they sit around.
Most importantly, if you are working with an indecisive client, make sure they pay you for your time, not just for a project.
An indecisive client, who only pays you at the conclusion of a project, holds your finances hostage. If they are going to drag everything to a halt, make sure you are compensated for the time they waste, slowing everything down.
6. the “Micromanager” Client
This person doesn’t want a freelancer. They want an employee without the protections and benefits a typical employee requires.
In extreme cases, they want unlimited access to you, controlling when and how you work, and treating you like an employee, even to the point of controlling what outside work you can do.
They value control and are happy to sacrifice results and productivity to get that control.
I’m going to say this bluntly - never work for the micromanager if you can help it. If they want an employee, let them hire an employee and pay them like an employee.
You got into freelancing because you wanted freedom, control, and say in how you worked. Don’t give that up to work with someone like this.
There is very little room for growth with this type of client. Either they don’t have the money to pay a real employee (which is why they think they can hire a freelancer to do their job), or they are too cheap to pay them the right way. Either way, they are expecting you to work for a discount.
With this type of client, there is no clear path to more work, better-paying work, or more fulfilling work as a freelancer.
How do you work with the micromanager client?
Don’t. Or, if you have to, find better clients ASAP so you can ditch them.
If you don’t learn how to handle these impossible clients quickly, you’ll soon find yourself contemplating whether freelancing is really for you. Don’t doubt yourself!
In the meantime, you will have to speak up for yourself, set boundaries, and maintain strict agreements - which you should get in writing.
For your own sanity, get paid upfront (non-refundable is best) for specific, contracted work.
Finally, know when to pull the plug. Sometimes, you must tell the client that this working relationship isn’t working.
Even if you have to walk away, learn from the experience how to spot the red flags so you won’t find yourself in this situation again.
7. the “Partner” Client
This is the holy grail of clients, i.e., the “dream” client.
They are invested enough in your work that they stay engaged and are responsive when you need them.
They provide a clear vision, so you know what your target is.
And they stay out of the details, letting you work the way you see fit.
They trust you as an expert, collaborator, and independent agent. And that trust translates into how the relationship works and progresses.
Personally, when I find this type of client, I’ll do almost anything to keep them around. I’ll give them a discount. I’ll go above and beyond. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep them happy.
The partner makes you feel good, pays you a fair price, and stays out of your way.
As a freelancer, this client is worth their weight in gold. Hopefully, as you slog your way through the client mountain, this is the type of client you’ll find at the top!
Caveat: Not all “bad clients” are actually bad clients.
In fact, a lot of that is on us, the freelancers.
Good communication, good systems, and good vetting skills during the sales process will help us avoid bad clients or possibly even turn a potentially bad client into a good one.
In most of these scenarios, there is something YOU can do to proactively improve the relationship, especially once you understand what type of client you are working with and why they are acting the way they are.
You Can Turn a Bad Client into a Good One.
How? By finding ways to serve them how they need to be served.
Every client, even in the programming world, is looking for something a little different from a freelancer. One of the most important parts of your job is to identify what they actually want beyond the work you are to deliver.
Your job is to find out what they are really looking for because they might not even know it. They might be so overwhelmed they don’t know what they need. They may need someone to help them shape their vision in a way that connects with the real world.
As a freelancer, one of the best things you can do for every client is to find out HOW they really want you to work, and WHAT they really need from you beyond measurable deliverables. This requires you to pay close attention in conversations and really care about serving your clients in the best possible way.
Knowing what questions to ask before starting any freelance project will ensure you find out the crucial information you need from a client before deciding if you should work with them.
This also requires you to read between the lines and take the extra time to get to know them.
I know we’re all short on time, but making this investment could get you a client for life. And, just as importantly, it could help you turn a bad client into the dream partner because you’ve proved your value to them, and they’ve learned to trust you!
Every freelancer is looking for something different in their “dream” client. Know what YOU are looking for in a client, and be on the lookout for potentially difficult clients.
Freelancing is a learning curve, and part of that curve is learning how to find, attract, and keep the clients who will best serve and grow your business.
Thanks for reading!
Get new articles to your inbox
Thousands of other developers from companies like Google, Meta, Siemens, freelancers and entrepreneurs are already learning with me.