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9 Minutes Read

Avoid These Client Red Flags : Spot the Warning Signs

GatherKit client red flags

Want to know the fastest way to kill your business? Simple – by taking on the wrong clients.

Just because you have an opportunity to get a paid project doesn’t mean you will make money on it. If projects drag on too long, you lose a lot of time and effort getting nowhere. Even if you do make a profit, sometimes the money isn’t worth the headache the client brings with them.

We’ve learned the hard way to identify who will be a problematic client before working with them. Doing so saves us time, money, and sanity. Good clients do exist. Not every paid project is a good prospect. Saying “no” to the wrong clients means allowing yourself the possibility to say “yes” to the right ones. Learn to identify these client red flags before signing the contract.

“It should be easy / quick / simple. Just do …”

If it is so easy, then they should do it. These clients underestimate the skills, efforts, and time required by their challenges. Using these words, they minimize the work value before the project event begins. If you have a potential client who doesn’t value the work you do or dictates orders to you, it is best to not work with them. If they don’t respect your skills, find other clients that will. Your client should be a partner, not a boss.

“I’ve already gone through 2 (or more) freelancers/agencies and they just can’t get it right.”

If your client said that, you have to aware that it’s one of client red flags. Firing one vendor, ok, it happens. Maybe it was a bad fit. But two or more… there might be a reason. Chances are the client is difficult to work with, changes their mind often, or doesn’t know what they actually need. Sometimes you can ask what happened:

“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Can I ask what went wrong?”

Listen to how they complain about the previous vendor. Look for any signs that they are not holding themselves responsible in the failures. Any clients who take no responsibility of their own can be dangerous. They provide a crucial role in the outcome of their own project. If they aren’t willing to hold up their side of the deal, it might not be a great client to work with.

“I’m picky / I’m difficult to please.”

At least they are self-aware. These client red flags might take you more time. It doesn’t mean to never work with them (because I am also picky), but it does mean that it might take longer to get the project done. If you decide to move forward with this client, budget extra time for revisions and reviews. But if this client says this in addition to any other red flag, they could be showing signs that they will be challenging to work with.

“I need this done yesterday.”

Sometimes that can be said as a joke. We all want things done yesterday. But sometimes, they are serious. If a client comes to you, frantic, stressed, or urgent, hold your ground on what kind of boundaries you need for success.

We’ll get on calls with potential clients who want a 60-page website live in 3 weeks. Even with extra funds, we know we won’t be able to do a good job. So we tell them that and hold firm to requiring the time we need. It’s better for us to establish boundaries, including requesting the time we need to do a good job. If they are a good client, they will understand and readjust their expectations to what is actually possible.

If the project is rushed before you even get on an introduction call, it’s usually a sign that they have dropped the ball somewhere, and you’ll have to carry the brunt of their chaos. We do work on rushed projects (with a rush fee), but rarely, and only for long-term clients. We will never work on a rushed project with a new client. With existing clients, we’ve already established a good relationship with them in past projects, so we can be flexible and help in times of emergencies. But it should be just that – emergencies. We don’t want clients to get into the habit of requesting from us only at the last minute.


Any potential client that gets hostile or raises their voice at you need to stay exactly what they are – “potential.” If they are aggressive before even sending you money, it’s setting the tone for the rest of the project. I can tell you from experience that it will never get better from there.

Very simply, if you don’t have a good fit with the client, it’s best to refuse their project. Your health and wellbeing are worth more than the deposit check.

“Can you do a test for us?”

They are not fully committed to the process if they are interested in “testing” you. Any kind of test requires research, strategy, time, and effort. If they ask for this, you can simply tell them:

“I would love to, but to do a test, I would need to spend time researching and creating a strategy to make sure it hits your goals. Unfortunately, I can’t do that without getting a scope of work signed and deposit in. But you can see how we solve another client’s problem in my portfolio here…”

Redirect them to similar projects and leave it at that. If they want to work with you, they will need to trust and respect your process.

“So we want to show some pictures of babies crying on the home page to get more donations…”

As Randy Travis said many times, “That’s a no from me, dawg.” Establishing your own values as an agency (or solopreneur) is important. This might be refusing to work with specific industries, conditions, or standards. For our agency, we took the Ethical Storytelling pledge, promising to use people’s images and stories in honorable ways. This includes not putting negative terms next to someone’s face or showing distressing photos to manipulate people into donating. If a potential client doesn’t align with us, we don’t want to work with them, it’s a client red flags.

“X said they could do it cheaper. Can you price match?”

No. Just no. You are not a washing machine built on a factory line. You offer custom services and processes that are unique to you. You are problem-solving in ways others aren’t. If someone can do the same thing for cheaper, the client should just choose them. And you can tell them that too.

“Oh wow they can do that for cheaper? It might be best to choose them then.”

Holding to your value will cause your clients to hold to it too. They will start to wonder why you cost more and want to explore why that is. After all, cheaper is not always better. If the price is a problem, you can talk to the client about reducing the scope of work. But if they truly are shopping for the cheapest vendor, it’s better to let them pass. No one wins in the race to the bottom.

“Here is our RFP. Just send a proposal back.”

These clients are price shopping. RFPs (Requests For Proposal) are usually sent as a formality to collect a required amount of proposals. Because we work with nonprofits, RFPs are still very common. I will send proposals from RFPs, but only if I jump on a phone call with them first. I want to talk with them, see if we are a good fit, and ensure they truly need what they think they need. I need an opportunity to build a relationship before I spend time building a proposal for them. If the client isn’t willing to spend 30 minutes to meet you, don’t spend hours creating an RFP that just goes to the trash anyway. Your time is valuable.

“So we can’t pay, but we can give you profit-sharing.”

This is always a hard no for me. Any potential client that has the funds “later” or offers equity share is not worth going into business with. (On the other hand, if your business model is investing in startups and exchanging services for equity, then go for it. But 95% of the time, this doesn’t work out.)

Also, avoid “We want a perfect website and will pay with a check, but you need to pay our web consultant…” emails. These are scams. If you get sketchy emails, Google some of the sentences in the email to see if similar scams exist before wasting your efforts with them. Even if you try to jump on a call with them, they will never show. Don’t waste your time with scammers.****

“How do I join the call?”

We require our future clients to be able to navigate basic technology, like joining a web conference call. We once waited over 30 minutes for a potential client to figure out how to join a Google Meet call. We didn’t take the project. But the agency working on their project reported to us that it was tough because she didn’t have a basic understanding of the online world. They told us we dodged a painful bullet.

It’s important to us that our partners have a basic understanding of the web. This will speed up the process since we don’t have to be their IT department or do extensive training on basic concepts.

“I’m not exactly sure what we need.”

Depending on what you do, this might not be a deal-breaker. If brand or digital strategy isn’t your strength, it might be best to skip this type of client. These types are deep in exploration and need time to discover what they need. But they are also potentially open to learning what is best.

But if you offer Discovery and strategy, you can sell it before any deliverables are promised. We love these types of clients because we can work through our Discovery process with them and develop a solid Statement of Work from your research. Often, brands think they need something (like a discussion board that mimics Facebook timelines), but users never use it. Running Discovery sessions before building the SOW can help the client save time and money by creating exactly what they need.


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