4 Clients Freelancers Should Avoid

potential clients

We freelancers perform without a net. We are constantly taking plenty of risks with potential clients — one of them being simply not getting paid.

This can mean getting stiffed, or it can mean having your work deemed unacceptable and facing the threat of not getting your much-needed compensation.

However, we also risk such frustrations as facing inefficient working styles that slow us down and make our overall freelancing life less successful than it should be.

Or we experience unpleasant interactions that hurt morale and thus threaten our freelancing career in general.

It’s true that in every field there are annoyances, and there may be some good personality traits associated with being able to put up with these. To some extent they’re unavoidable. But here’s a guide to minimizing things that slow you down or that detract from the success — financial and spiritual — of your freelancing life.

If you have enough available work to be able to avoid potential clients who look like trouble, it’s a matter of heeding certain warning signs. Here are the ones of which I’m aware.

1. Wishy-Mishy-Washy-Mushiness

Whether you’re a graphic designer, writer, programmer or video editor, a myriad of problems can arise from a potential client who doesn’t know what he or she wants. This includes a higher risk that your work won’t be up to standards, problems over deadlines, and other traps you could fall into that cause the client to claim you haven’t done your work properly.

If the listing about the job is brief and undeveloped, you have a warning sign. Sometimes, the client will supply plenty of detail upon request and that can solve the problem. But if the client doesn’t have much to say about the specifications of the needed video, article, etc., you very well could be in trouble.

All too often, potential clients who ask for “excellent,” “appealing,” “professional” work have no clue what they’re looking for.

They don’t know what “appealing” is, don’t want to try very hard to articulate this and probably won’t think that anything they get meets these vague standards. Leaving the specifications undefined leaves far too much room for the work to not meet them.

Similarly, if you ask clients about deadlines and they just say “soon” or “as soon as possible,” this indicates a lack of planning and consideration about the project at hand.

2. Lack of Understanding of the Field

If you’re a freelance writer and you see advertisements for “non-fiction novels” or other senseless use of terms, you’re dealing with someone who just doesn’t know what he or she is doing.

It may be the case that, for example, a lumber company wants a video made and the point person on the project doesn’t know anything about video production, but that person may have some common sense about what you may produce. Look for this as much as possible in your communication with the people.

I once worked for someone who wanted descriptions of various jumps to do with a jump rope and he wanted each one to be about 400 to 500 words.

The beginning of this article until now is 500 words and I’ve fully fleshed out one main guideline with the introduction. He wants a description of jumping over a rope to be of this length?

One of the warning signs with this client I could’ve heeded was that the total length of the e-book didn’t really make sense either. I should’ve been more on top of this.

3. A Bossy Boss

Every so often you run into a truly rude person, with whom you’re not going to want to work very many times. The bossiness of the person may also make you feel you can’t do things your way, may cause self-doubt and a lack of confidence, which won’t help the quality of your work any.

Obviously, if you get the kind of job announcement full of all caps and demeaning and insulting demands, there’s no real question. But there are some other things to look for.

Basically, during the process of going from your initial reply to the job listing to the beginning of the job itself, there will be some back and forth.You’ll have to negotiate some things, perhaps discussing what sort of software you use and how you accept payments and various logistical concerns.

I feel that I get the best results with potential clients who ask me some questions during this process, and who are at least interested in knowing what works for me.

If instead, it’s a long string of “We’re doing things this way,” even with a few pleases, we may find ourselves back in the realm I mentioned above of the person not liking my work, because he or she lacks flexibility.

Now, you may feel that the boss is the boss and you should just do whatever he or she wants. If so, just go with that.

But if you hire a stock broker, you don’t roll in and say “Here’s how we’re doing things;” you respect that person as a professional and think of your work as a collaboration, even if you’re the one paying the fees. If you would like to be treated with that sort of respect, look out for the warning signs above.

4. Times are Tough

The only real sign that the client may flat-out stiff you on payment is any indication that the person is in rough shape financially, which may cause the person to justify it.

There’s no real indication, and in my experience, it doesn’t happen very often. Generally, the more professionally the person presents himself or herself, the better off you’ll be.

Freelancers do take risks with clients, but the work is usually rewarding enough to justify what might happen. That being said, there is nothing wrong with knowing what warning signs to watch out for in the off chance you get a tough client.

(Photo by Gerd Altmann / CC BY)

Jeff Maehre is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. His fiction has appeared in Story, The Northwest Review, Cutbank, and Phoebe; he often blogs and writes other copy about social media.


  1. Kristy M. Lopez on the 5th January

    These are all definite warning signs that something may go wrong in a freelance position. My brother and I worked for sister franchising companies several years ago. After he left the company, the CEO of my company asked my brother to take over the development and maintenance of the company website and email. He knew that the company had not paid the previous person who was developing and maintaining these things because the account was locked out for non-payment (when a customer went to the website it said “Account suspended for non-payment” – yes, it was quite clear). My brother chose to go ahead and take the work. And guess what, he moved the website to a new server, did a bunch of design work and maintenance, and was stiffed for payment. I love my brother to death, but sometimes there are huge red flags that are ignored, and this can get us into serious trouble.

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