7 Bad Clients and How to Spot Them

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Whether you’re a brand-new freelancer, or an established veteran, there are going to be times when you come across a bad client.  They may seem like mild-mannered Dr. Jekyls at first, but then they turn into slathering, dangerous Mr. Hydes.  Here’s a field guide to bad clients (and how to spot the red flags).

1. The Schnorrer (sponger).  The schnorrer loves freebies, and is always trying to get more.  They’ll take a few minutes of your time here, another few there.  It seems innocuous, but pretty soon those few minutes start to add up.

Tell the client you’re implementing a minimum fee structure.  Bill in fifteen or thirty minute increments (if you charge hourly), and invoice the client monthly.

If they want free samples (especially suspiciously detailed free samples: a 500-word blog post with 15 ways students can save on summer travel in Ontario), politely decline and point them to relevant examples of work you’ve already done for other clients.

2. The Waffler: They take up lots of time, want endless meetings, but can never quite bring themselves to sign on the dotted line. If you can’t get them to make a commitment, try the “reluctant rock star close.”  Tell them you want to work with them, but your schedule is getting tight, and want to make sure you can give them the attention and time they deserve  If they’re not ready, that’s OK, but it will mean you can’t turn everything around as quickly. (thanks to Peter Bowerman for this idea).

3. The Cheapskate: Close cousin to the schnorrer, they’ll offer to “buy you coffee” or take you to breakfast in return for “picking your brain.” This can be tricky if it’s a friend. Offer to share a limited amount of time with them. Do it over the phone if possible, and be very clear about what you can and cannot do for free (or for coffee).

If you get the same questions repeatedly, set up pre-written answers, or point people to resources on your blog or an FAQ page.

4. The Guilt-Tripper: (often non-profits) they’ll try to make you feel guilty about turning them down, insist you cut your rates, or even demand that you work for free. If it’s a cause you love, and you have some extra time, or are just starting out, then sure, work for free or cut your rates.

If not, politely and firmly point out that you devote X time to non-profit and have reached your limit, or cannot take on any additional pro bono projects.

5. The Illusionist: It will be the next [Facebook, Twitter]! We’ll pay you in stock! It may be; but it probably isn’t. Don’t do it.

6. The Nickel and Dimers: They question every expense, and every minute you spend working on their project. Get around this by charging a flat project rate, rather than by the hour.

Explain in your contract exactly how many revisions are included, and which expenses will be billed. If they want extra revisions, quote them a fee, ask for a paypal payment and set a start/end date.

(I’ll sometimes do a tweak for free, as a favor: I tell clients that a tweak is changing your shoes; a revision is changing your shoes and putting on a different jacket).

7. The Discounter: related to the nickel and dimer, they want a price cut on everything. If they can’t afford the full package, offer a streamlined version, with fewer revisions or a reduced workload, such as 15 blog posts instead of 25.

Have you had bad experiences with clients? What happened and how did you handle it?
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Has this gotten worse with the economic downturn?

image: NOAA