Roundup: How to Spot Problem Clients Before They Cost You

There are myriad ways a new opportunity can turn into a nightmare project. It takes experience to spot problem clients before a project begins.


Micromanagers. Never-ending delays. Stultifyingly complex or boring work. Incommunicado clients. Scope creep. Late payments. (Or worse, no payments.) Know-it-all clients who don’t trust your expertise. In-over-your-head demands.

There are a myriad of ways a new opportunity can turn into a nightmare project. It takes experience to spot problem clients before a project begins, but once you know what to look for, it is possible to sidestep disastrous client relationships before they wreak havoc on your service provider business.

Below, 5 members of our successful small business owners panel share their best advice for spotting a “problem” client before getting sucked into their vortex. Plus, we added our 2 cents on how to handle each of these client problems.

Table of contents iconTable of Contents


    crack the client code ebook ad

    Feli Oliveros

    What I Do:

    “I write long-form content for business finance and B2B fintech companies.”

    Red Flag Alert:

    “If a client isn’t interested in following your processes, this might indicate an overall lack of regard for the work you do. Of course, there’s certainly room to negotiate, especially if you’re just starting out. But if a new client sets impossible deadlines or expects free work before signing a contract, it can lead to unreasonable demands or poor communication later on.”

    Our 2 Cents: When Your Client Wants to Run Your Business…

    If you’ve just started your freelance business, you may actually find it helpful to lean on your client’s existing processes as you learn the ropes.

    But as you learn more about yourself as a business owner, you’ll understand that your business operates best under certain conditions. Over time, you’ll develop guidelines—like only taking scheduled calls or charging for extensive client delays—that create and support that ideal environment.

    If your client expects to control how you do your work, explaining why these rules matter may be enough to get them to ease up. After all, you’re the expert, and it’s possible that they just don’t know what they don’t know.

    But what if things don’t improve? Well, they may be better off hiring an employee instead. Politely end the client relationship and seek new opportunities elsewhere. Just make sure to set expectations with new clients and update your project scope agreement accordingly.

    Jennifer Matthews

    What I Do:

    “Communications strategy, including project planning and communications audits. Plus, writing and editing of:

    • Internal communications like training materials, conference scripts, and change communications
    • External communications like magazines, annual reports, brochures, books, fundraising documents, executive speeches and presentations, and websites”

    Red Flag Alert:

    “Clients who don’t have a clear sense of their needs often aren’t ready for you. And clients who are really hesitant about your hourly rate may not be the right fit.”

    Our 2 Cents: When They Want the Lowest Rate…

    When you’ve sussed out that a client is simply shopping around for the lowest price, respectfully declining is a no-brainer.

    But if the client owns or works for a non-profit organization or a small- to mid-size business with limited resources, their price concerns may be more understandable. If the client appears to be a reasonable person, it might be worth considering price matching if:

    • Their budget isn’t absolute highway robbery (i.e., $20 to write a 1,000-word blog post)
    • You have time in your schedule and it seems like you could knock off the project fairly quickly
    • The work is something you haven’t done before or in an industry you’re trying to break into

    Tim Dolan

    What I Do:

    “Kickframe is a new type of consulting and training firm built to serve the need that organizations have for a specialized digital strategy partner that is independent, agile, and experienced. Kickframe helps organizations become better digital marketers.”

    Red Flag Alert:

    “When I work with a client, I am invested in their success (beyond the success of the project). It is important to me that the person who I am working for is someone that I am motivated to help succeed over the course of the project and their career.”

    Our 2 Cents: When You Don’t Like the Client or the Work…

    If you’re committed to the financial success and growth of your business, you’ll no doubt find yourself feeling frustrated and gritting your teeth behind a polite smile with a difficult client. You might also take on dull projects that require regular brisk walks around the block in order to stay engaged.

    Working with difficult clients who rub us the wrong way and projects we don’t necessarily believe in are part of paying your dues as a small business owner until you can afford to be more selective. They can also be great motivation to market your services and send cold pitches to ideal clients in every spare second. Drumming up more clients and keeping a steady project pipeline is part of running a business!

    Note: There’s a difference between abrasive and abusive, annoying and intolerable, boring and against your values. When you’re confronted with an opportunity that you’re inclined not to take, ask yourself if you can stomach the project because you need the work—or whether your time would be better spent working on your business. Sometimes the answer will surprise you.

    Andrew & Jess Campbell: Client Relationships, Speaking, Writing, Project Management

    What We Do:

    “Andrew’s focus is on training and skill development in communications; Jess does project management and freelance writing.”

    Red Flag Alert:

    “A major one for me is lack of detail. This client can be challenging if what you develop isn’t what they had in their mind. It means a lot of back-and-forth on something that no one ends up really happy with. Sometimes, though, these can also go the other way when you produce something that is exactly what they wanted. It’s impressive and both of you are thrilled right away. The interesting part is figuring out which it might be early on.”

    Our 2 Cents: When the Client Is Vague About the Project…

    “We need some freelance writing/design/web development support. What are your rates and when are you available?”

    While it’s exciting to see inquiries in your inbox, this kind of vague request is a red flag. It’s reasonable for a company to avoid going into detail in a preliminary email, but if they’re just asking for price and availability right off the bat, there’s a good chance they’ve sent this request to a long list of people.

    Save yourself time and weed out noncommittal prospects by thanking them for reaching out and suggesting a phone consultation to better understand their needs. If you don’t hear back, you can move on to better clients. And if the call goes well, you can prepare a customized estimate or proposal that outlines exactly what you can provide and how much it costs.

    Paul Russell

    What I Do:

    “I’m a writer and communications consultant specializing in both corporate communications and marketing. I have extensive experience working in the human resources (internal communications) and financial services (external communications) areas.”

    Red Flag Alert:

    “2 things I’ve learned:

    1. Be wary of clients who got your name off of the internet and know nothing about you. They are usually fishing for something cheap and who knows if they will pay. Word of mouth (where a client has heard about you from someone else) is golden.
    2. Avoid ‘bidding’ on jobs whenever possible if you compete on quality and not price. I know I’ll never be the cheapest option, so bidding for me has been a waste of time.”

    Our 2 Cents: When You’re Constantly Bidding (and Losing) on Work…

    It makes sense for consumers and businesses to shop around for the best overall candidate for a job, but if you find yourself losing on bids, there are few things you can do to get out of this cycle.

    stand tall
    1. Improve your proposals. How do you submit a quote for a job? Email, Word, Excel? A less-than-professional-looking bid can make a poor first impression and eliminate you from the running at first glance. Estimate and proposal tools (like FreshBooks) offer sharp formats that allow you to enter important components like an overview, scope, timeline, pricing, and even a place to enter samples or photographs of your work. A comprehensive, well-written bid can make all the difference.
    2. Target a different clientele. Whether it’s high-priced government contracts you’re missing the mark on or low-balling clients whose main concern is getting the lowest price, if the bidding process is not working for you, consider reexamining your target market. You may not be qualified (yet) for those big jobs and you may be over-qualified for those small jobs that are more hassle than profit. What kind of work are you most skilled at and most passionate about? What type of client needs your unique expertise? Once you’ve defined your ideal client, go after them by:

    Avoid Problem Clients Now for Better Opportunities Later

    Although the road to success is never easy, avoiding problem clients when you can will certainly make running your business more enjoyable.

    When you’re just starting out, this is easier said than done as saying no to clients might mean cash flow issues. But remember, when you say yes to one opportunity, you say no to everything else. The time and effort you spend catering to the whims of a problem client is time and effort that could be better spent on multiple projects and clients that respect you.

    But with these tips, and your own experience working with a variety of client types, you’ll be better equipped to manage client problems like differing expectations and client frustration—and ultimately, take on new projects that are a better fit for your business.

    This post was updated in March 2022.

    Heather Hudson

    Written by Heather Hudson, Freelance Contributor

    Posted on August 24, 2018