Freelancing Tip: How to Spot Client Red Flags

I've done it, and I'm sure you have, too: Taken a freelance project or started a client relationship that you just knew was a bad fit. Perhaps the job was beyond your capabilities. The budget wasn't adequate to cover the value of your work. The client was demanding or indecisive. Still, in spite of the warning voice in your head and the queasy feeling in your stomach, you plunged ahead.

And then you kicked yourself every day until you could get out from under the project.

There are three steps to avoiding this bad project/bad client problem: 1) see the warning signs; 2) actually pay attention to them; and 3) just say no. Sounds easy, right?

So why do creative freelancers wind up regretting clients or projects they take on?

The answer is fear. When we take a job that we know isn't right for us  when we see and ignore all the warnings  we do it because we're afraid. Afraid that there isn't another better project in the pipeline to replace this one. Afraid of losing a client. Afraid of being the bad guy.

Getting over this fear takes experience and practice  so if you're new to freelancing, know that you'll become better at spotting red flags and saying no to lousy projects over time. I still struggle with it. But here are some lessons I've learned:

Spot the warning signs. Red flags surrounding a new freelance project or client typically fall into three areas:

  • Time – Is there enough time to do the work? Will the client give you information and feedback in a timely manner? Listen for phrases like, "I'm sure you can just knock this out" or "I don't have time for a strategy meeting" or "We need this tomorrow; can we skip the contract?"
  • Money  Will the client tell you her budget, or have a respectful conversation about your fee? Does she want a sports car on a junker budget? If you take a job for which you're not fairly compensated, you lose all power in the relationship.
  • Personality  Do you have a gut sense that you'll have difficulty working with this person? Is he abrasive, rude, unresponsive? Watch out for strong personality differences.

Get comfortable with no. Practice saying no when there's little at stake. For example, I pick up occasional contract work for a client  I'm sort of an as-needed backup for their team. We have an understanding that if I have time for the work, great, but if I don't, it's not a problem. On the few occasions when I've declined a project, I've gained confidence in saying no. Try saying no to a social invitation, just to get the feel for it.

Embrace the power. The first time you say no to a project or prospect, it's a real buzz. (Trust me.) Saying no means that you're confident in your abilities, that you recognize your work has value, that you have professional standards. 

Saying no is scary. It also feels awesome.