How to Spot Difficult Clients BEFORE Signing a Contract

Have you ever gotten half way through a project with a new client, and then realized you never should have signed the project in the first place?

Have you ever recognized too late that this new client is a disaster to work with, and then kicked yourself for not listening to your initial gut reaction?

I’ve been there plenty of times. So much so that I finally made myself a ‘cheat sheet’ of how to weed out those potentially frustrating projects before signing a contract.

In this post, I’ll share my ‘cheat sheet’ with you and I’ll give you some tips for handling your current difficult clients.


What Does Your Gut Say?

How many times have you gotten that little negative gut feeling about a client then went against that feeling and worked with the client anyway? Almost 99% of the time I’ve done that, I’ve eventually regretted the decision to ignore my gut.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book, Blink, that “your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions” about people or situations.

So, don’t discount that ‘iffy’ feeling you get when you first start discussing a project with a client. That ‘feeling’ is your gut telling you to pay attention. If you get that uneasy feeling, jot down why you feel that way and see if they add up to a strong reason NOT to take the project.

A Few Easy-to-Spot Red Flags

Here are a few things to look for during initial discussions with a client that can help you determine their potential for difficulty:

  • They question or try to rewrite terms of your contract.
  • They ask how easy you’ll be to reach on weekends or in case of an emergency.
  • They talk about how their last five or six writers/designers just didn’t seem to be able to meet their standards, or they bad-mouth their past writers/designers.
  • They’re ready for you to start the project and need it completed ASAP, but they aren’t really sure what they want yet.
  • They take days or even a week to reply to an email.
  • They seem to need a lot of explanation and hand-holding.
  • They say they don’t have much money now, but the potential for profit will come down the road and you’ll be getting in on the ‘ground floor.’
  • They don’t want to sign a contract or pay your required up-front fee.

Now that we’ve discussed some red flags that you can use to evaluate new clients, let’s look at your current clients.

Checklist to See Whether You Should Keep a Client

Sometimes even a difficult-to-work-with client has benefits for you. Before rejecting the client solely based on a not-so great attitude or eccentricities, be sure to consider these intangible aspects of the project as well:

  • Will this project add value to your portfolio either thru a new technology or big client name?
  • Is the project fun, interesting, creative or something you’ve wanted to learn?
  • Are they paying your full rate and in your terms?
  • If you’ve worked with them before, do they pay on time?
  • Are they a possible source of more work (for example, is this client an agency or someone with a lot of connections for future projects)?
  • Will they give you a good testimonial or recommend clients to you?
  • Did a current client or friend refer them to you?
  • Is it a ‘good cause’ project that you want to support?

Are you already working with a difficult client? I have some tips for that situation too.

How to Keep a Difficult Client Under Control

If you’ve gone thru the checklists and decide to take on a difficult client anyway, there are a few easy things you can do to minimize potential problems during the project:

  • Get a signed contract that spells out exactly what you are going to provide and what you require of the client.
  • Let the client know how you handle new items they want to add to the project that weren’t included in the initial scope.
  • Spell out your payment terms clearly. Include up front and end-of-project payments, who owns the files upon project completion, and how you accept payment.
  • Create a timeline outlining deliverables and payment dates to keep the project on track.
  • Let the client know up front what your business hours are, especially if you and the client are in different time zones.
  • If you only take work requests in writing or via email, denote that in the contract.
  • Get a partial payment before beginning work so the client has some skin in the game.

Taking a little time up front to evaluate the client and make a list of pros and cons can save you hours of work and headaches down the road….hours that can be used to find better clients that enhance rather than hinder your business.

Your Turn

How do you cope with difficult clients?

Share your experiences (without identifying the client) in the comments.