About Tire-Kickers and Other Bad Clients

“What is your real price?”

I had just responded to an inquiry about my writing services. The above comment was in response to my reply, but that wasn’t all.

The person sending the email was mad. He went on to scold me for daring to quote a living rate. He included his version of the “market” rate (less than 1/10th of what I had quoted). Then he stated that he should get a volume discount on top of that.

Some “clients” just aren’t worth dealing with. This was one of those.

Unfortunately, there are some bad clients who basically want to take advantage of freelancers. They hope that you’re too new, or too desperate for work, to say “no.”

Most freelancers struggle to identify bad clients and tire-kickers so they can avoid working with them. But telling a bad client from a good one isn’t always easy. Sometimes a client seems above board, and then everything starts to go wrong. In this post, I’ll identify some tip-offs that usually mean you’re dealing with a bad client. Then I’ll spend some time talking about tire-kickers.

Bad Client Tip-Offs

A bad client may try to get your services for a fraction of your going rate, or they may not pay you at all. Usually, they’re perennially unhappy regardless of what you do for them.

You can’t always tell a bad client from a good one. But there are some clues that you can look for early on in your communications with a prospect.

Here are ten clues that a client may be less than desirable:

  1. They ask you to blind-quote. A blind quote is when they ask you to provide a price without giving you the project details. For example, a client might say, “how much do you charge to build a web page?” Since all projects are different, it’s important to get the project details to provide a valid quote.
  2. They quote a ridiculously low “market” rate. The market rate for any given freelancing profession is open to some interpretation, of course. But just because some freelancers are willing to work for a low rate doesn’t mean that’s the market rate. Use a reputable source information to determine your rate.
  3. They always seem to be in a rush. I don’t know what it is, but the more a client rushes me the lower the amount they tend to want to pay. I think this is because legitimate clients realize that it takes time to produce good work and they’re willing to pay for that.
  4. They balk at paying part of your fee up front. As a freelancer, you should be asking new clients for an initial deposit equal to a percentage of what you quoted for the project. If a client balks at paying this deposit, what makes you think they’ll pay you the full amount later?
  5. They may even ask you to create a custom sample for them. If you have an adequate portfolio, that should be enough to demonstrate your abilities. Be very wary of clients who ask you to create a sample without pay.
  6. Their email to you is badly written. In general, if a client is serious they will take the time to proofread their email before sending it. Also, avoid prospects with emails that address you as “Dear Web Developer” or “Dear Freelance Photographer” instead of addressing you directly.
  7. They promise more work in the future. Future work is a carrot a lot of clients like to hang out in front of a freelancer in hopes of getting a better rate. In many cases, this future work never materializes. Base your quote only on the work that you are being offered.
  8. There is no information online about them. Nearly every legitimate business has some piece of information about them online–a website, a social media portfolio, or even just a listing on Google Places. If you can’t find anything out about a prospect, be careful.
  9. They use harsh language even before they hire you. If they treat you in an angry or disrespectful tone now, before they’ve hired you, imagine what it would be like to work for them. Run, don’t walk.
  10. They won’t sign your agreement. Most of the time bad clients don’t like to be pinned down or constrained by a contract or written agreement. If your “client” refuses to sign an agreement, refuse to work with them.

Of course, every situation is different. So, if you are talking with someone who has one or more of the traits above it doesn’t always mean that they will become a bad client. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut feelings about a client.

Now that we’ve looked at bad clients, it’s time to take a look at a particular type of prospect that generally never becomes a client–the tire kicker.

The Truth about Tire-Kickers

Tire-kickers are perpetual “prospects.” In many cases, they don’t really intend to become a client and they don’t ever hire anyone.

A tire-kicker can eat up a lot of your time if you’re not careful. They may ask you to redo your price quote according to several different scenarios. They usually ask lots and lots of questions. They may even request a phone call.

The best way to identify a tire-kicker is to understand their motivation. I’ve noticed three main motivations for tire-kickers:

  1. The tire-kicker is your competitor trying to find out what you charge. This isn’t as common as it used to be, but it still happens. Some freelancers will pose as a potential client to discover your rates.
  2. The tire-kicker wants free consulting. I once spent an hour telling a prospect exactly how she should write her web copy. Did she hire me? Of course not, since I told her exactly what to do. Be wary of giving too many details.
  3. The tire-kicker wants affirmation or is lonely. The world is full of lonely people and some of them will pose as potential clients to get the attention they crave. If someone is demanding a lot of your time and not paying for it you need to be polite, but firm. Let them know your time is valuable.

Your Turn

How do you tell genuine clients from bad clients or tire kickers?

Share your answers in the comments.


  1. says

    Great post! My only question now is what to do once you’ve determined you’ve got a tire-kicker on your hands? Do you just brush them off completely by not responding to anymore of their emails, or do you have a polite, one-liner reply that you like to spring on them?

  2. says

    Agree with you, but since it was a time when i searched for a employee, from the employer point of view, there are these two points that doesn’t (really) make sense:

    Since all projects are different, it’s important to get the project details to provide a valid quote.

    Even if i ask for a hourly price? (since i searched a long term stuff, i wasn’t able to ask for a fixed price nor to offer more project details)

    They may even ask you to create a custom sample for them. If you have an adequate portfolio, that should be enough to demonstrate your abilities.

    You will be amazed to know how many employees i found with great portfolio. I made the mistake like 4-5 times to hire without testing. Every single time was a totally mess and I had to spend few hours fixing there and there.

    I was looking for a coder, if that worth something in this context.

  3. AY says

    Thanks for this.

    How do you deal with so-called ‘tire kickers’ and potential nasty clients?

    Identifying them is one thing, but is there a professional way of managing them without just “ignoring” them and making them extra angry and annoying?

  4. says

    Great comments!

    Laura Roberts and AY–Remember, that you don’t have to accept work from anyone. If you suspect a prospect is going to be a bad client, just tell them you can’t accept the project. You don’t need to make excuses or accuse them of anything. As for a tire kicker, put a limit on how much free time you are willing to give. If someone goes over that, say something to the effect of, “I can’t spend any more time on this, but if you’d like to hire me as a consultant my rate is…”

  5. says

    Ionuț Staicu–It seems like you are trying to hire an employee, rather than a freelancer. So, your situation is somewhat different.

    Most freelancers quote by the project and don’t give an hourly rate. Therefore, they need project details to provide an accurate quote.

    If you are testing someone by getting them to do actual work, then they should be compensated for that work. If you think their portfolio doesn’t represent their abilities, however, it is okay to ask them specific questions about that portfolio.

  6. says

    Interesting. But all this talk about the bad client makes me wonder. If you had no bad clients, how would you know if you had a desirable or “good” client?

  7. says

    Great post Laura.
    There should be a “People to avoid” list in every new freelancers kit. I had one client who after five re-writes of a 15 minute speech still wasn’t satisfied and only wanted to pay $20. Of course the job started out with the words, “I have something that just needs a little work.” Any time I hear words even remotely similar, I flee.

  8. says

    There must be a “getting every last cent out of freelancers, making them regret their jobs and making them hate you in the process guide book” because I’ve met people who follow these formulas exactly.

    I have a rule. If I want to hang up on you during the conversation, I don’t work with you. If you ridicule me or anyone else that I know, I don’t work with you. As a freelancer, sometimes I’m dirt poor, so I will take this advantage and be happy with the people I work for.

  9. says

    J. Delancy–Thanks! I hope that new freelancers do read this and avoid dealing with problem clients.

    Paul Clifford, I sincerely hope there’s not a guidebook like you describe. :) However, I do think that there are a lot of start ups that can’t afford pay well and are looking for a bargain at the expense of whoever agrees to work for them. Plus, a few folks you run across are just plain scoundrels…

  10. says

    I don’t necessarily agree on the point ‘the email is badly written’. Sure, it can throw up a red flag, but to my mind, if they were a good writer, they wouldn’t be looking for a pro. Definitely if there are other things that jump out as not being quite right, but a badly-written, unproofed initial email doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker.

  11. says

    Lucy Smith–I totally understand where you’re coming from. Sometimes people just aren’t good at writing. That’s what we’re here for, right?

    But, in my own experience at least, when I’ve tried to deal with someone who sent a really badly written email it turned out to be someone who had practically no budget.

    I also haven’t had very good experiences with people who address me as “Dear Writer.” Often, these are people wanting free samples or trying to get me to write for their website for free.

    Of course, YMMV. Always use your own best judgement.

  12. says

    As a 20 year veteran in the portrait photography industry, it was usually a request to photograph a small wedding. That is fine in itself, but once you hear the reception is at the most expensive venue and their cake is going to cost more than they want to pay you, you can be sure it is not a good fit.
    You show up at the wedding looking like a slacker to all the guests (your future prospects) because you are hired for limited (cheap) coverage and leave the big shindig before it appears you should.
    On the rush jobs, it is likely they don’t value your services enough to plan ahead and get it done right.
    I appreciate the advice as I venture into freelance writing. Sounds like the same song…different verse from one industry to another.

  13. says

    Yes, tyre kickers are a pain. You become familiar with their antics very quickly.

    Would you like a great way to get rid of them — for good? :-)

    Here you go: create a briefing form on your website.

    Add all the info you need the client to give you as questions on the form.

    From memory, my copywriting and ghostwriting form asks for 15 pieces of information. Requested info includes a description of the project, the client’s USP, what the client’s selling, target audience etc.

    When you get a phone call, just say: “Thank you so much for calling. I’d love to speak with you, but I’m on deadline. Please go to ___________(URL) and complete the briefing form, and I’ll get back to you very quickly.”

    You can also use this as a voice message to screen callers…

    Of course, link to the briefing form from all pages of your website.

    It works.

    Genuine clients fill in as much of the form as they can; tyre kickers and others won’t fill in the form at all — hey presto, all gone. :-)

  14. says

    Oh brother! You really hit a nerve with me on this post.

    For me, there is nothing more critical (once you get the ball rolling) than putting the processes in place to improve the quality of the leads and referrals you are getting.

    I would go so far as to say that a stone cold lead is better than a warm lead. Often a warm lead will eat up hours of your time while the cold lead will usually just disappear quickly.

    I like to generate “scorching hot leads.” Here are a few ways to do that:

    1) Generate leads that already know who you are, what your philosophy is, what you charge, what kind of work you do, who you’ve worked with, etc by creating a well organized website and social media program.

    2) Educate your referral sources. Have meetings with people in your network to let them know exactly what you do, what you charge, etc. And use that meeting to get clear on what they do, what they charge, etc If you are receiving poor referrals from people in your network it is likely because they don’t know exactly what you do.

    3) Create a process by which you deal with incoming leads. I start with a phone call, followed by a demo, followed by a proposal. At each step I am evaluating the prospect as much as they are evaluating me. I am looking for a good fit for me or someone in my referral network.

    Thanks for writing this post Laura! Absolutely fantastic!

  15. says

    Angela Booth–Interesting tip. Thanks for your detailed comment. :)

    Russ Henneberry, Yes, you want good, high quality leads. A lukewarm lead can certainly eat up a lot of time and if they don’t buy that’s not a good thing. Thanks your comment and for sharing your lead generation ideas.

  16. says

    This is a great post, Laura – I wish I’d read it when I first started in the game!

    There are a few other types of clients I would add to this list. In my own experience, the clients who have burned me the worst (whether by overpromising work volume, squeezing far more work out of me than they paid for, or simply by wasting my time) have been perfectly nice, friendly and even – initially, anyway – professional. One type is the pennypincher – they have a good business, but just can’t get over the fact that you have to spend money to make money. The red flag for this client is asking you to lower your rates off the bat. Don’t do it.

    Another type – and maybe this has just been a peculiar pattern that’s happened to only me – is the old school “marketing and communications” agency. The owner wants you to lower your rate because of all the work you’ll be doing for them, you complete a few projects but then begin to notice that you spend far more time TALKING about work with this client than actually logging billable hours. If a client has hours to wax on about his or her philosophies regarding marketing, that’s a tipoff that they don’t have much work to pass along.

    If I had to do it again, my response to these types of clients would have been a polite but firm phone call letting them know I appreciate their business/interest, but I’m pursuing different types of projects. A softer alternative would be to raise my rates by 30-40%; that tends to weed out the chaff.

  17. says

    Hi Laura- it’s great that you posted this warning which will be helpful to those who are new to freelancing. While I am not one ( in fact, I’m a client looking for rare talent every now and then ) – I would like to say this in behalf of good clients out there who know what a freelancer is worth: ‘Be proud and stand for what you believe you’re worth… because you deserve just that.’ Good luck and more success to all!

  18. says

    …one of my friends came up with a brilliant counter-suggestion to one of those proposals: “Tell you what…why don’t you pay me my full rate for the first one, and then we can do discounts as all those other projects come in later.”

  19. says

    This post hits home on so many levels. I find a lot of the times people will try to scare me into lowering my price by informing me they contacted other designers who quoted them a lot less then myself. What a great, informative read!

  20. AY says

    @Lucy Smith:

    In my experience, badly written emails are often a sign that a potential client doesn’t understand how to conduct business in a professional manner, and every bad client I have had was lead by bad email writing.

    This might not seem like a problem until you’re a month into a big project realizing that they aren’t getting deliverables to you in a timely manner or are unable to explain things in a clear manner and is making a fuss about paying something they agreed to in writing that they were unable to read.

    “I don’t necessarily agree on the point ‘the email is badly written’. Sure, it can throw up a red flag, but to my mind, if they were a good writer, they wouldn’t be looking for a pro. Definitely if there are other things that jump out as not being quite right, but a badly-written, unproofed initial email doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker.”

  21. says

    A friend recently got a series of passive-aggressive messages from a potential client. He wouldn’t clarify what he wanted to know, and then disparaged her for not answering it. This went on for several hours. In the end I said, “If this is how he’s being already, imagine how awful he would be to work with!” and thankfully she agreed and blocked him. These people take advantage of our good will and desire for work, and unfortunately some are more cunning and save their unpleasantness until you have already signed a contract. I’m always glad, at least, when they are easy to spot.

  22. George says

    When I was starting out as a freelance video production assistant I got a call from a freelance producer who told me he couldn’t pay my regular rate for the project he was working on, but if I took 80% he’d hire me for a day’s shooting and promised to make it up to me on a sure-to-come-along-soon future gig. I needed the money and wanted to explore a new clients so I begrudgingly worked at the reduced rate. Needless to say I never got a call from him for another job.

    Afterwards I wondered if what I should have done was say: “I understand that the budget for this project is low. How about I invoice you for two days at my regular rate and I’ll owe you a second day that you can call me for when that bigger budget gig you’re talking about comes along?”

    Has anyone ever tried that?

  23. says

    Only getting to this post later…very helpful.

    The red flag of “what do you charge?” has already been waved by what could be a HUGE client valuable to winning others like them. But that, and foot-dragging since, has already made me wary. They’ve read my book and seen my 1hr22min. video…and now want to meet. To do what?! I’ll have to quote them an hourly rate to weed them out or make them pay for more of my energy…

  24. says

    I’ve learn a few just right stuff here. Certainly price bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how so much effort you set to create one of these wonderful informative web site.

  25. says

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit
    my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that
    over again. Anyway, just wanted to say great blog!

  26. Todd says

    Yup, all points are good ones. I get the same telltale signs in a completely different industry. There are all kinds of people who will waste someone elses time without guilt or shame.


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