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.


  1. says

    “They question or try to rewrite terms of your contract.”
    This is not necessarily something bad. This means that as the developer is trying to protect himself, the client is also trying to achieve that. If the contract is to harsh from the client standpoint you’re lucky if they try to change the contract. I think most potential clients wouldn’t bother and simply go somewhere else.

  2. says

    I’ve learned the hard way that a potential client who aggressively negotiate my hourly rate or standard project fees is a big red flag. That type of personality is a slippery slope and before you know it they’re trying to add services for free, wanting to cut corners, and generally grinding you down on a daily basis.

    Also, mention of wanting daily phone conferences (or several times a week) is a huge warning sign for me. Overused phone conferences are a big time suck and those kinds of clients tend to have a problem with project scope.

  3. says

    I can relate to a few of these, it’s a good list. :)

    Asking questions about a contract is fine, in fact, they should be asking questions so that they know what they’re getting into.

    Trying to change it….seems like an awfully big flag. What makes you think they won’t try to change a whole lot of other things during the actual building process? To me, that’s the most frustrating part. lol

  4. says

    Sorry, but I’m not going to allow myself to get hustled anymore. xD

    @Jami: People do that in stores where products are sold as well, but you shouldn’t undervalue your service and you don’t want clients who can’t see the value of your knowledge. Charge what you’re worth and do not back down.

    If you go to a doctor you’d want a good one, not a cheap one. The same should go for any other service, but it seems the “instant gratifying” nature of the web may be conditioning people.

  5. says

    @Brogdan – Yes, talking thru and even questioning points of a contract is not necessarily bad. But, when a client red-lines pertinent items in the contract (such as who is responsible for what and payment terms they’d rather use), it’s a big red flag.

    It’s like @Jami and @Daquan stated in their comments, it’s a slippery slope to start out on and lets me belive the’ll continue to change terms or scope throughout the project. Of course, you have to evaluate those types of things on a case-by-case basis too. Like I wrote, go with your gut!

    And Jami, yes, a client who wants meeting after meeting is another big flag for me. Constant phone conferences really cut into work time and can easily delay project deliverables.

  6. says

    While I can understand the need to reach the developer of a website that just crashed, I can’t think of many emergencies that can occur when you’re creating basic copy or content for a client (short of a surprise review in the NY Times or topping the charts at Digg). The few clients of mine who asked about emergency weekend calls inevitably contacted me on the weekend — each time with something less than an emergency. So, while I strive to make myself available as much as possible for my clients, questions about weekend reachability during negotiations kinda makes me skittish.

  7. says

    Yes, go with your gut feel – every time!

    I write a fair bit for law firms but I probably turn down as many projects as I accept. And I don’t even have to go on gut feeling – they come out with comments such as: “I don’t have time to brief you” or “We need this turned round urgently and can you reduce your rate”.

    So, as you can see, pretty easy to turn those jobs down!

  8. says

    Thanks for sharing this post
    i like your site and like to visit daily :)

    Hope ,you will l success in your work.

    Thank you very much for the good website content

    Webmaster of Few Websites

  9. says

    “They’re ready for you to start the project and need it completed ASAP, but they aren’t really sure what they want yet.”

    This is the one thing on the list I run into most often. I try to vet this issue out by sending them a questionnaire that will let me (and them) know that they’ll need to invest some time and effort into the planning process before they contact me. I find that this guy typically ends up being what I refer to as a “tire kicker” as opposed to a serious prospect.

  10. says

    Wow, fantastic post that every freelance needs to read then print out and mount on their wall!

    Yes, always trust your gut instinct! The last time I didn’t, it was a nightmare. I need to leave out the gritty details to protect privacy, but my recent situation hits on your fourth red flag exactly!

    We had a meeting and got some general ideas as to what the client wanted for his website design. We agreed on terms and deliverables and got our contract signed and 50% of the estimate up front. We asked for links to other websites that the client liked and sent our typical questionaire asking about target audience, etc.

    The client didn’t send any websites, didn’t send back the questions and basically said “I’ll know what I want when I see it.” Oh boy… We asked for more clarification and met with the clients associate who gave us some graphics. After about two days, the client called desparate, “I need the website done ASAP! I need the Facebook page live, matching the website.” We told him we’d be happy to try and quickly create the site to meet his deadline but without any input, should he want revisions it would cost extra. He said, “no problem, just get it done.”

    Against my instincts, I worked hard and fast to just get something live. I submitted to the client and he loved it. We didn’t hear anything for a week. Then things went all wibbly-wobbly. The client called and said that we needed to rework the entire look of the site and make it look like some furnishings they’d bought for their new location. I emailed back and reminded him that while we could certainly do this, but it would require an additional cost. The client then called us very upset, “I never approved your firm having full creative control.” He terminated the contract and we kept the deposit for the time we spent.

    Unfortunately, this client then went on to have one of his staff create a boring, lifeless template site free from their web host. They’re trying to launch without any marketing assistance. However, it could have been much worse for us.

    So, please trust your gut! It will relate proportionately to the quality and integrity of your client base and make your life much, much easier.

    Thanks again for a terrific blog! I really enjoy reading your posts!

  11. says

    Indeed when a client red-lines pertinent items in the contract such as who is responsible for what, who has copyright ownership and author ownership or payment terms you should think a couple times before going on with it.

  12. says

    @Ria – I get a lot of those “tire kickers” too. One way I weed them out is to send them my standard project questionnaire. I can oftentimes tell by their answers or by the speed (or lack thereof) in which they return the questionnaire.

  13. says

    @Freelance Fact File – Definitely easy to vet those types of clients. The “reduce your rate” comment is my favorite because it’s so simple to spot :)

  14. says

    @Cheryl – The “I’ll know what I want when I see it” is so common, and so frustrating. Sorry to hear about your project situation. That’s hard to deal with. Glad you got a deposit up front to cover some of your time spent.

  15. Leigh Choate says

    I think another good question to ask when you’re evaluating whether to take on a client is, “Do I want more clients like this?”

    For example, I was talking with a friend who has a start-up, and is doing a project for a small client at a very low price. While it may feel good to do someone a favor, you have to ask, “Is doing stuff like this really going to build my business? Do I want more clients like this?”

    It’s also a good question to ask when you may be dealing with a difficult client. At least we can say that, when we work with difficult clients, we at least (with luck) learn what to look for the next time.

    Great tips!

  16. says

    This is a great checklist. I’d add to it, “How soon did they get back to you about your proposal? Did they respond to your emails, or blow you off?”

    I’ve had a few clients take several weeks to evaluate proposals and make a decision, but the good ones have responded every time I called or emailed to see how the process was going. It’s when they don’t respond that you know you have a problem.

    Also agree with those who badmouth others. Did a proposal for a guy who was furious with his previous designer for not responding quickly enough to his emails and voice mails, especially over the weekend. But after I met with him and gave him a proposal, he did not respond to a single one of my emails or voice mails. The only time I got to talk to him was when I called and was able to reach him directly.

    This also was the same guy who wanted a full-merchandise Web site with shopping cart in six weeks or less, and wanted to have an internationally recognized brand within a year — with no staff or marketing budget! But a year later, his Web site’s only page still says “coming soon”.

  17. says

    When I roll out some changes to my site and get things going….I’m definitely going to have to put into my contract: “If you increase the scope of the work, a fee will be charged accordingly.”

  18. says

    Francesco Consultancy is now offering a Free SEO Report website check; this gives anyone with a website the chance to see how SEO friendly their website is.
    SEO can make the content of your web pages more relevant, more attractive, and more easily read by search engines and their crawling and indexing software.
    Why would this be of great importance to you? Would it be important to you if customers were unable to find your telephone number or find the address of your business? I do not think that many businesses could survive for very long in this situation.
    This situation could apply to a web site. Can potential customers locate your current web site easily? Traffic to your web site could be extremely low. Potential customers might not even know that your site exists.
    It’s FREE and could point out some really simple mistakes you have made.

  19. says

    Good post, Melissa. I’ve recently been wishing I’d listened to my gut instinct about a potential client. We never actually reached the point of contractual work, but what this individual was all about was milking my knowledge and experience.

    His initial contact had ‘unprofessional’ written all over it but I attended a meeting and shared my insights into marketing plans and his website. This led to no work but he contacted me several months later about a project that matched my previous experience perfectly. Against my better judgement I agreed to a second free meeting on the promise of copywriting work but it soon became clear I was there only to give the benefit of my knowledge to generate a marketing plan for nothing.

    So, my addition to your advice: as well as trusting your gut instincts be aware of how much you’re giving away for free and know where to draw the line!

  20. says

    @Leigh and @TLC, great tips as well! Good things to add to my checklist!

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Some really good insights and different things to think about when starting out on projects!

  21. says

    @Daquan Wright – A good way to word that is “This contract covers the development of XYZ. Any other items outside the scope of this contract will be priced separately”. That way, the client knows right up front that what they see is what they get, and anything else costs more.

  22. says

    Being a developer one big red flag for me is one a client is light on details. Such we’ll figure out how that will work later. That translates too more work for me later.

    @Brad – I can definitely give an example of a content Emergency. I had a client send me a content update for a VERY High Profile and VERY High trafficked site. After I had made the change a day or so later I got a call from the president of the company. Asking me why I put a phone number to a Sex line on their homepage. I’d rather get a call at midnight from my contact rather than wait till the next day and get a call from the president. Turns out my contact transposed a digit of the phone number. Funny now. Not so funny then.

    @Melissa – Great posting and discussion. Keep it up!

  23. says

    @John – light content is definitely a big flag. Kind of like “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.” UGGH! :)

    Thanks for your comment!

  24. says

    Ugggh…. been there a lot. Sometimes, it makes you wish you can read people’s minds but then, there’ll be no fun. I remember having a client who’s a major pain and that client seemed nice to work with when we’re initiating the project. So, I just came up clean and honest that I’m about to quit because I don’t like being micromanaged and wow, the client never realized it really. Now, if fairy tales have happy endings, so did we. We simply sort out our differences and are now working much even better. The client even got me other clients as well. So, I guess honesty and tact and do wonders.

  25. says

    Hello Melissa,

    Great post, congrats you. I love most of the part but specially ” How to Keep a Difficult Client Under Control” . This is awesome.

    Best Wishes & Regards


  26. says

    By just the up-front fee alone, it hints your guts. A friend of mine once worked with a client who wanted to tweak the whole site into something not-so-serious. When the projects done and payments made, days after the launching, the client decided to make a change, and its not just a small portion but a site overhaul. What my friend did was a professional approach on referring the client to another web designer.

  27. says

    Great advice.

    “I’ll know what I want when I see it”
    @Melissa, @Cheryl

    I know the feeling. Biggest gripe and red flag is a client who simply doesn’t know what they want. That, plus a client who attempts to hijack every process of the project, to the point where the end product has become a total mutation of your original design. The Oatmeal had a funny comic about it that was, um, truthful and emotionally validating to say the least. Heh.

  28. says

    This is such a great checklist. I needed this a few months ago, but at least I can keep it handy for future potential projects. I had a few of these happen with a nightmare client, and I didn’t even see it as anything wrong. Big mistake. It’s nice to know what the red flags are so you can pay more attention to the situation and make a clear judgement.

  29. says

    That fact remains that when there is a deliverable involved, such as a software manual and the client after getting it refuses to pay saying its not good enough! there is hardly anything I can do :(
    any suggestions for dealing with that?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>