Every freelancer has a horror story…
They took on a client, and it all started great. But then, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly, things began to turn.
- The client started having unreasonable expectations they couldn’t meet.
- The requirements for the project began to change, sometimes repeatedly.
- The client began demanding last-minute revisions.
- The project keeps getting delayed because the client can’t, or won’t, provide the necessary information or feedback.
Why does this happen?
Freelancing can be extremely rewarding, freeing, and engaging.
It’s one of the few ways you can control what you do, how you work, when, and how you get the job done.
But, all of that comes to a halt when you have an impossible client.
Good clients make work fun, engaging, enjoyable, and rewarding.
Bad, impossible, and demanding clients make every day a nightmare.
The key to a long, financially rewarding, and personally fulfilling run as a freelancer is great clients.
Knowing how to salvage and repair a relationship with a client is one thing.
But, it’s better for everyone if you can avoid terrible clients altogether.
I’ll give you some proven techniques for identifying and avoiding impossible clients before you begin working with them in this article.
Following these techniques will help you avoid 90% of the bad clients and projects you’d otherwise take.
What makes a terrible client?
Some clients are just awful.
They are cheap, slow to pay, have unreasonable expectations, and expect you to put them ahead of everyone else.
But, these are the exception, not the rule.
Most clients aren’t terrible. In fact, they could be long-term valuable partners in the right situation.
They want someone reliable, trustworthy, and capable of doing the job without much oversight.
They just want YOU to handle a task, project, or area of their business, so they don’t have to think about it.
A little-known fact about freelancing is that it is usually the freelancer who creates bad clients. Tweet this
Let me explain.
As the freelancer, you are the expert. You know what needs to be done, how to do it, how long it should take, and what all is involved.
The client doesn’t.
That’s why they want to hire you.
So, because the client doesn’t understand the project like you, they aren’t capable of anticipating all the problems, issues, and trouble you might encounter when working.
That’s your job.
Often, the client doesn’t understand:
- How difficult some technical requirements are to fulfill.
- How long it should take to finish a project.
- If their requests and expectations are reasonable.
- How the technology works, and why it should be done a certain way (and why it can’t be done other ways)
- How this project impacts other software, technology, or elements of their business.
Of course, there are exceptions. However, for the most part, this information is up to YOU to anticipate, understand, and determine before you agree on a project.
If you anticipate this well, your client will see you as the partner and expert you are, trusting you to handle the work in the best way.
But, if you don’t anticipate these things effectively, the client begins to lose faith, trust, and confidence in your ability to deliver.
They start to think of you as an employee who needs oversight to get the job done rather than a freelancer who works effectively on their own.
So, when clients turn on freelancers, it’s often (though not always) because we failed them in some respect.
1. The first step to avoiding impossible clients is to create realistic expectations.
Map out the job, the work, and the process of how you’ll complete the project as thoroughly and completely as possible.
Anticipate technology issues resulting from your work, and anticipate timeline issues and delays.
Think deeply about how long it will take, how much money it will cost, and what you need before taking on the work.
Then, communicate as much of this as possible to your client.
The point isn’t to overwhelm them with technical language they don’t understand but to clarify and communicate how things should unfold to deliver a result that exceeds their expectations.
Several important things happen when you take the time to map everything out, communicating thoroughly with them before the work begins.
- You can charge more because you’ve justified the value of your work.
- Clients who can’t pay your fee tend to back out, knowing they can’t haggle you down.
- You establish trust and expertise.
- You position yourself as a partner rather than an employee.
You set the stage for a positive partnership based on clear communication and expectations.
Identify potentially problematic clients by interviewing them.
Experienced and successful freelancers know that new client intake processes are essential to getting the projects, the clients, and the income you need to make freelancing work for you.
New freelancers are usually so excited to begin working that they overlook how vital this process is. It prevents most of the issues that cause miscommunication, frustration, anger, and missed deadlines, all of which sour and destroy client relationships.
Whether taking on a single, one-time project or getting ready for a multi-year partnership, interviewing a potential client is essential to setting up the freelancer-client relationship in a way that works for both parties and avoiding impossible clients.
The interview process
Typically, the freelancing process begins with some sort of meeting, which is, in reality, an interview.
They are interviewing you to see if you are competent if they like you, and if you can do the work in a way that works for them.
But you should be interviewing them too.
Failing to interview potential clients opens you up to being blindsided by clients who shouldn’t be working with you. Tweet this
When you meet, whether it’s a zoom meeting, in a board room with a suit and tie, or casually over a cup of coffee, you need to be interviewing the client while they interview you.
It’s pretty easy to do, and most people realize it’s happening because it simply involves asking questions that clarify the project and your role.
The trick is to ask the right questions and listen to the answers.
These questions include things like:
- What is your budget for this project?
- Do you have a projected timeline or deadline?
- Who will I be working with, and how will I integrate with the team?
- Have you worked with freelancers before? If so, how did it go?
Asking simple questions like this can shed a lot of light on what it could be like to work with them.
- Does this client have a clear vision for what they want?
- Can they pay me what it takes to complete the project?
- Are the timeframe and vision realistic/ can I meet it?
- Do they understand their role and expectations of our agreement?
Why are these questions important?
It doesn’t matter what you deliver. It will never be good enough if you have a client who doesn’t know what they want. Tweet this
If they can’t pay you in line with your current rates, do you really want to work with them? Will the financial payoff be enough to compensate you for your time?
Did they wait too long to bring in a freelancer, setting you up for long late-night programming sessions that you won’t be adequately compensated for completing?
Will you be sitting around waiting for them to give you what you need, extending the project’s life and postponing your compensation?
This isn’t scientific, nor is it a guarantee that you’ll be right.
But, it doesn’t take long to get a sense of whether or not you want to work with someone.
Listen closely and pay attention to their language and presence during the meeting.
There are several things to listen for, and here are a few of the most important ones.
First, listen for how they talk about other freelancers, employees, and business partners.
A potential client who talks badly about other people to you will speak badly about you to other people-steer clear of them even if they pay well.
This is extraordinarily unprofessional but surprisingly common.
You can listen for phrases like,
- “I’ve hired three other people to do this job, and none of them could do it.”
- “My last developer walked out without finishing the job.”
- “The in-house programmers aren’t smart enough to do the job.”
Always steer clear of people who talk badly about others behind their back. It simply isn’t worth the risk to your reputation.
Legitimate criticism, however, is different than negative talk.
It’s one thing if the project switches scope and they have to part ways with someone because something changed.
“Our last programmer did a lot of great work in C++ but had to switch to Python, and they aren’t proficient, so we needed to move forward with someone else…” is different than “all the programmers we get from outside have been underwhelming, I hope you are better.”
Next, do they have longstanding relationships with freelancers?
Taking a project with someone who hasn’t worked with a freelancer before isn’t a deal breaker, but it is something you need to consider.
Do they think they are hiring an employee? Do they understand how a freelancer works differently than an employee?
You aren’t an employee and likely don’t want to be treated like one.
If they are brand new to this sort of relationship, you must make sure both parties are very clear about the nature of the agreement. If they think they are getting an employee, they won’t be happy when you don’t act like one.
Another potential red flag is if they use a lot of different freelancers for the same sort of work.
Great clients feed you regular work, coming back to you again and again for relevant work.
Are they just trying to save some money? Do other freelancers refuse to work with them? Do they have some sort of issue with other programmers?
If they have problems with other freelancers, those issues will pop up with you too.
Last, how do they treat you during the meeting?
Are they late? Do they reschedule at the last minute? Do they interrupt you when you are speaking?
Pay attention to how you feel during and after you meet with them.
You know exactly how you feel after meeting someone who makes you feel good. You also know how you feel after meeting someone who interrupts you, makes you feel inferior or is rude.
This one conversation will set the tone for the entire relationship.
What tone do they set?
Will working with them make you feel good or bad?
The most important part of the client intake meeting isn’t about money.
New freelancers focus on whether they can get the work, how much they’ll get paid, and what they’ll do. This isn’t bad, but it’s only a tiny part of your experience as a freelancer.
Bad things can happen when they don’t do what we’ve just discussed.
One good client is far better for your long-term mental, financial, and physical health than ten bad ones.
And, for your income, workload, and mental health, the most important thing you can do is find ways to identify and avoid bad clients.
The best and easiest way to do this is to pay close attention to them during the client intake phase.
2. Establish the scope of the project
Your potential clients are generally busy, overwhelmed, and need significant technical help and expertise.
They are talking to you because you bring the know-how to help them.
As a freelancer, you can take over a project or task and get it done for them.
Freelancers are appealing not just because a company can use them without having to pay employment taxes and provide extra benefits an employee technically requires.
They are appealing because they don’t have to be managed.
Companies worry about measuring productivity for their employees hourly or daily, ensuring they fit seamlessly into the organization’s hierarchy and operate well within established processes and procedures built (in theory at least) to make them successful.
Employees are managed within this hierarchy.
Freelancers don’t work this way, often having a lot more freedom to tackle the project in the best way.
Employees are judged on work.
Freelancers are judged on the final product.
This freedom of operation comes at a price, however.
And, if you don’t establish the project’s scope effectively, you’ll pay a steep price for that freedom.
Always establish the scope of the project.
Of course, this means what you are taking on as your responsibility. But, even more importantly, it involves what isn’t your responsibility.
The scope involves a relatively extensive list of things, like the following:
- Essential elements of the final delivery.
- Project roadmap involving proposed timelines, payment schedules, and key delivery dates,
- Agreements about the frequency and method of communication (slack channels, email updates, meetings you’ll need to attend, etc.)
- How do you interact with anyone in the company/how do you fit within the established structure?
- What they agree to provide (information, resources, help, etc.).
- What will you handle or subcontract out on your end? Is this ok?
- How you’ll handle changes to the project
Not all projects require all of these things. But, the longer and more complex the project, the more you’ll need to map out the detailed scope of the project.
Things will change. You’ll have to adjust timelines, delivery dates, requirements, and more.
Setting this up on the front end of the project saves uncomfortable and awkward conversations down the line.
Why is establishing the scope important? Let’s give an example that happens pretty frequently.
You agree to take on a significant re-design project for a client’s website. Their branding, product mix, and corporate structure are all changing, and their current website is quickly becoming obsolete. They also want to add new functionality to their site.
Excited about the work, you agree to do the job, invoice half the agreed-upon price expecting to invoice the 2nd half final three months later.
Unfortunately, the logo redesign takes three months, pushing everything back by several months. What do you do now?
If you never discussed the details of payment terms, and the project takes several extra months, you have some hard choices.
But what if you defined the terms of payment? Half up front and half on delivery or within six months. Any work beyond six months is another separate monthly fee.
Suddenly, the extra time goes from a financial disaster to something you can handle easily because you clarified something within the project.
Projects seldom go as planned. Defining the scope of the project protects you when things change.
What happens when requirements change, unforeseen complications arise, or new issues develop?
What happens if the company suddenly adopts a new technology or platform that complicates your work or makes it obsolete? What do you do now?
If timelines get re-arranged or things change for the business, forcing the project to change, move, or get more complicated, defining the scope ensures you are adequately compensated for unforeseen circumstances.
If you’ve outlined the scope of the project effectively, you and the client know how to move forward and are updating the project based on a shared set of facts about what is expected.
Defining the scope of each project makes it easier to close new business as a freelancer.
Companies want to know what to expect when they have results and how much things will cost.
When you take a client through this process, companies quickly gain confidence that you’ll accomplish what you promise.
Even if you are new to working as a freelancer (we’ve all been new at one point), this work on the front end establishes the scope, defines the project, and clarifies your role and expectations, establishing confidence.
This confidence will help you close more new work, establishing new, happy, and trusting client relationships.
Get everything in writing.
Depending on the size of the company, and the procedures of your client, “writing” will be different things.
If you work with a larger or publicly traded company, “writing” will probably be some sort of formal contract.
If you are working for a small business, it could be an email you keep around, just in case something happens.
Sometimes, you’ll have a formal proposal. Other times, you could capture it on the back of a napkin.
No matter the scale and scope, get it in writing.
Usually, it won’t matter. But, if something happens and the client who’s been happy with your work suddenly shifts, there’s something to fall back on to clarify and define the project.
If it isn’t in writing, it probably doesn’t exist because the client won’t remember it.
3. Charge a fair price
We’ll discuss how much you should charge at a different time.
There are a lot of things to consider when setting prices.
However, the fee you charge MUST be a fair market value for you based on unique factors like:
- The value of your time
- Your experience
- Your skill
- The amount that other clients charge you.
One common mistake for newer freelancers is to give specific companies steep discounts, hoping for more work later.
Don’t fall into this trap, especially if you have more than one client.
If two different clients demand your time and one paying you more will get more time and attention.
But, it’s not good business to charge different clients different amounts of money for the same work. It isn’t fair to them. And, even more importantly, it isn’t fair to you.
If you aren’t being compensated fairly for work, it won’t be as good.
And, you won’t want to do it either.
And, stay away from companies who ask you to discount your prices up front, promising to give you more work at a fair price later.
Clients that operate like this either don’t have the money to pay you a fair price or aren’t willing to pay you even if they do.
Promises don’t pay the bills, income does.
Don’t work for promises of future work. Make sure to get paid for your time and expertise.
4: Start with a preliminary project
As a rule, always start a new client with a small project to test the waters of the relationship.
If possible, make sure it’s something you know you can deliver quickly and in outstanding quality.
And, don’t be shy to tell them why. “Why don’t we start with something small, like _____? If things go well, we can always do more work together.”
It’s easier for a client to agree to this, allowing you to see what it would be like to work with them.
- If they pay on time
- If they give you what you need to complete the job
- How they communicate with you
- If they operate in a way that works well with how you do things.
When you finish this initial project, you’ll know if you want to keep working with them.
And it will prevent you from forming a long-term relationship with a client who is incompatible with you.
It only takes five steps to avoid nearly all bad clients.
- Interview them closely and set realistic expectations.
- Establish the scope of the project in writing.
- Charge them a fair price.
- Start with a preliminary project.
Doing this allows you to avoid bad clients or pull the ripcord on bad ones before getting into a soul-sucking long-term relationship with them.
Thanks for reading!