Weed Out Bad Clients

by Ilise Benun

In a previous post, I wrote about a process to help find your ideal clients, and made some recommendations as to how professionals could keep a running list of positive characteristics through which they can measure the potential of new relationships.

But sometimes you need to keep track of the bad experiences too in order to make smarter decisions about future engagements. That’s essentially what the qualifying process is for after all. We’ve all experienced difficult clients, and designers need an equally well-tuned sensitivity to quickly recognize them too.

Look for:

  • Respect. How do they treat you? Like an employee or a partner? Do they show respect for your work and your process? Do they expect you to drop everything and focus on them? If so, is it because they have an urgent need and are willing to pay the price to get it done? Or does this seem to be their way of doing business? Do they realize you have other clients and projects and you will have to fit them in?
  • Trust. Will they be micromanaging the project with you as the lackey, or are they coming to you for your expertise? Will they put their trust in you or question you every step of the way?
  • Substance. Do they seem to know what they’re doing? Or do you sense they’re going nowhere fast? Are you confident that they have the resources to pay your fees and can execute your great ideas?
  • Fairness. Are they willing to pay for what they need? Or are they trying to get as much as possible at the lowest price?

Listen for:

  • Experience. Have they done this before? You can tell by how they describe what they need and the questions they ask. If they don’t know what they need, you will spend more time defining the project and describing your process, which should affect your pricing.
  • How they found you. Always ask and if they say, “I saw something you did and want you to do something like that for us,” they may be pre-sold on you, which will make your job easier. If they found you in a random online search and want you to explain why they should hire you, you’ve got some work ahead and that should affect your price too.
  • Confidence. Is their plan realistic and credible? Are they confident they can accomplish their goals? If not, your hard work may all be for naught or you may never get to the end of the project.
  • Order. Is your contact organized or disorganized? Do they follow through on what they say they’ll do or do they consistently let things fall through the cracks? And how many people are involved in the process? Projects with multiple decision-makers, even if they’re all nice people, can be disorderly time-wasters. If you decide to accept this type of project, prepare in advance and anticipate the problems.

Warn about extra hours involved and figure an extra fee into your proposal. You can also recommend (or even require) that they elect one to be the point-person.

Ilise Benun is a national speaker, founder of Marketing Mentor and, with HOW Magazine, of the Creative Freelancer Conference.



Being attune to what characteristics build a for a bad client relationship can help save you time, money, and hassle.

Illustration courtesy of Branden Vondrak


Quick Tips!
Declining Projects That Aren’t a Good Fit: Should you take difficult clients or clients who aren’t a good fit for you just because you need the money? That is a question creative professionals face every day, and only you can answer it for yourself. Experience shows, however, that if you give in, you usually pay the price—in mental anguish and time wasted, time that could be used finding better clients. Saying yes because you can’t say no is a bigger problem.

Learning to say no is an essential skill for running a successful business (and for life too). Maybe you don’t know how or don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Maybe you’re just a bit too polite.


Dig Deeper!
1. For more information like this, pick up a copy of Ilise Benun’s new book, The Creative Professional’s Guide to Money: How to think about it, How to talk about it, How to manage it.

2. Check out Ilise’s blog, The Marketing Mix, and sign up to receive her bi-monthly Quick Tips via email. Plus, get freelancing tips.

3. Want to try a free mentoring session? Sign up here.


3 thoughts on “Weed Out Bad Clients

  1. Wayne

    Funny. We have been talking to a prospective client who hits every limb down the tree. We have already decided not to take the client on for every single reason you have listed above. Seriously….ALL of them.

  2. Paul

    I’ve had a few clients who appeared like a dream job and transformed it into a nightmare, once the initial deposit check was cashed.

    Change orders (sometimes several in a day), demands beyond the agreed upon scope of the project, hourly calls to request a status report (weeks before a deadline), competing authority of project managers, and moving deadlines up while withholding necessary information are but a few examples.

    Although it can be difficult to predict when this might happen, I’ve found the best way of dealing with this is to charge a modest fee for administrative expenses that will be incurred for each proposed change. I also submit a revised contract (via certified mail) which states the proposed changes, including a change in the expected deadline.

    The fee and a signed copy of the revised contract are necessary for my work to continue. I give the client 30 days to respond, during which time work on their project is halted. I’ve had a few clients who have refused to sign a revised contract/letter of agreement. I either have the choice of fulfilling the original contract, or stopping work altogether.

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