Warning Signs of a Bad Client

These are the tell-tale signs that will help you identify troublesome clients and how to avoid or deal with them

Over the years I’ve learnt how to spot the warning signs of a bad client straight away.

Knowing the telltale signs and phrases can either save you a lot of time declining what would most likely be a bad job, or can help you manage a client better so they know the actual limits and expectations for the project.

So what are these signs? There might be a variation or alternative word used, but they all have the same meaning:

1. The Job is Quick and Easy

When a prospective client says the job they require you to do shouldn’t take a long time and is easy to do they’re actually saying something else.

What they’re saying could be one of two things. One, they believe the job is not difficult or will take a long time, and so the cost should be commensurate. And in most cases that means a lower cost to them.

Or they simply don’t understand what’s involved in the process of completing the job. Perhaps they have a limited understanding of the software or tools and time required.

They may have a deadline but that deadline needs to be feasible in relation to the time you need to complete it. 


It doesn’t matter if the deadline is tomorrow when you need a week to design, film and edit it.

If they’re obviously downplaying the difficulty of the job to reduce the cost, you have to stand your ground. You know the requirements and time needed.

2. The Client Thinks the Job Is Cheap

This is always down to the client’s lack of understanding of the expertise and skills required to complete a job.

In this case it’s your job to manage those expectations and to educate the client on what is required to complete a job. 

This has to be done before a job starts or it will continue to be an issue. If it can’t be resolved from the outset then the client should look for another service provider.

3. The Client Wants Things You Are Unable to Give Them

Some clients will not do their homework when researching possible service providers to commission or hire.

A clear set of outcomes and goals must be mutually agreed on from the outset so that each party understands what is required and what is expected.

4. The Client Doesn’t Understand the Scale of the Project

This is again the client not understanding the requirements that are needed to complete their job.

The client might be new to the industry and have a lack of experience. So it is again your role to educate the client on what is required and why you might need more time than they anticipated.

5. The Client Wants You to Convince Them

This is an odd angle for a client to come to you from but is not uncommon. The client may be representing a large business brand and so will expect you to ‘sell’ them your brand.

Remember they came to you, and if they’ve done their homework, they should know what you are capable of. If you have a body of work, this should more than speak for itself.

I find most times this is a subtle way of negotiating a lower rate to pay. As always I would stand firm on your rates and not budge. There are exceptions but it’s for you to decide if it’s worth making an exception or not.

6. The Client Asks You to Work for Free

The dreaded ‘Work for Free’ request. This is always a hard NO; there is almost no situation when you should work for free.

Clients who ask you to work for free have no respect for your talent and skills. 

They may even dangle a carrot by promising more paid work after, depending on how well this project goes. There is no future work with this client.

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Another variation is the client will say you will get great exposure or it will look great on your portfolio. These two are huge red herrings.

Run for the hills.

Paying clients will happily pay when they know the value of the work received. It will be an investment in a working relationship for them. 

7. The Client Doesn’t Respect Your Time

Some clients will push your boundaries when it comes to your time. And even when you still restate your boundaries they may still persist.

You have to continue to be firm and clear in what you expect from your client’s professional behavior.

For example if the client insists on calling out of hours for updates on the project. Clearly state, when you are back on the clock, what your working hours are and when they should expect their calls returned.

8. The Client Wants You to Copy Another Person’s Work

This is a common one too. First off, outright copying another person’s work is plagiarism. It’s wrong and should always be avoided.

Having said that it’s a grey area, that might require another article, let me explain.

Copycat artists are people who copy original ideas and try to pass them off as their own.

A common excuse or cover up is to say they were inspired by your work when they’ve stolen the work wholesale.

But there is a sort of grey area, there is such a thing as being inspired by another’s work and incorporating their ideas into your own.

It’s up to you to decide where that line is when a client asks you to copy something they have seen.

Be original. A client should be paying you for your original ideas. If a client just wants you to wholesale copy another person’s work they’re not valuing your skills and ability to create something as good and unique.

9. They Ask For More Work Than Agreed On

This is one of the warning signs of a bad client that happened to me a few times before I started writing up good contracts that clearly defined the job set and out and expectations. 

When a client would then ask for more than agreed on from the outset, I tell them that’s fine, but we will need to update the agreed payment and timescale to accommodate the extra work.

In most cases this was acceptable. It’s professional and there is no conflict as both sides know what they’re getting.

10. Payment Is Late

I always ask new clients for 50% of the full payment upfront and then when the project is complete I ask for the final 50% before sending the completed project.

Older clients who I have a good relationship with will get deferred payments. 

When a client is late for that first 50%, that can be overlooked, but the second payment being late too shows a lack of professionalism.

Unfortunately there’s no real way to foresee this earlier or before a project starts unless you have word of mouth on the client.

It’s only until you request payment that you will find out.

Chasing payments is a common issue in the freelance industry. But it’s not always a sign of a bad client.

It might be a sign of a badly organized client. These clients can still be worth working with.

Obviously a non paying client is one you never work with again. I elaborate more on clients and payment in my pillar article ‘How to Start a Creative Business‘.

11. The Client is Not Responsive

The opposite of a client who’s constantly calling you is a client you can’t get a response from.

Having access to a client for feedback on a project or anything else that needs communication is necessary for a project running smoothly.

Issues that need a client’s attention will hold up the project if you can’t contact them. 

This pushes the project deadline or creates more stress trying to play catchup. This rush results in poorer results.

12. Bad Mouthing Other Freelancers

This is quite simple. If they are prepared to bad mouth other freelancers they will most likely bad mouth you at some point if issues arise or not. Stay professional. 

A few creative circles are small, things like this find their way to other creatives.

Finally

I hope some of these tips help you when working with your own prospective clients. Check out more articles on business for creatives here. Also don’t forget to check out my YouTube for more video content.

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