Is That Client Legit or Just a Tire Kicker?

When you’re first starting out as a freelancer it’s very tempting to spend a ton of time with each potential client that shows you some interest. After all, you don’t have much work, so it’s important that you try to get every client you can.

However, when you move past the beginning stage of freelancing, it’s important that you don’t waste time with the clients who aren’t serious about using your services, because that means lost time and productivity.

These kinds of clients are called tire kickers because they contact us knowing full well they don’t intend to use our services. Why do they do this? I don’t believe they really intend to waste our time, but are just sending out “maybe-kinda feelers.” As in, “I maybe-kinda want to do this project and if the price is super cheap, I maybe-kinda will buy.”

How Tire Kickers Affect Your Freelancing Business

A few months back, I started to realize how much time I was wasting by emailing these tire kickers. I was probably spending half a day emailing a client back and forth who’d never intended on purchasing. Couple that with five to six different tire kicker emails a day, and you’ve got a lot of wasted time.

So how do you tell if that potential client is legit or not? It’s almost always easy to tell in the first email they send you. Here are some common tire kicker emails:

  • I want a website, how much does that cost? Any serious client would send you a detailed email of what they wanted, because they would know that every site isn’t the same.
  • I don’t have a budget, but…. Stay far away from these ones, even if they did intend to buy, it would only be if you discounted your services to slave labor wages.
  • I have 300 other projects to give you… They never do, I promise.
  • I’m shopping around with 10 other developers/designers/whatever. These people NEVER purchase, because they normally purchase solely on price and they end up wanting a ton more of work than the higher paying clients.
  • I want a website, can we have a meeting? I don’t know what it is about these kind of tire kickers, but these really do intend to waste your time. It seems that clients who ask for some kind of meeting right away never purchase and are always a waste of time.

What to Do with These Emails

While I think we shouldn’t waste time dealing with clients who don’t intend to buy, I don’t think we should completely ignore them either. You never know when it could really be a client who wants to purchase, but who just doesn’t have an idea of the way websites work. We don’t want to lose those guys!

My goal with these clients is to spend the least amount of time as possible with them, but still answer them politely and quickly–just in case they might actually be serious. I also try to be proactive in reducing these kind of requests before they even begin.

  • Place a set of standards on your contact page. Since I’ve done this, I’ve had almost NO tire kickers contact me. I’ve done this by placing a list of polite, but firm specifications on my contact page. These include: a minimum price of accepted projects, the kinds of clients I only work with, and that I DONT do design work (I got five to six emails a day asking for design!)
  • Send one sentence emails back to them. If they ask for a price, ask them for details. If they say they don’t have a budget, give them the minimum project rates you have, or tell them your work ranges from $xxx-$xxxx.
  • Refer them to someone else if you’re sure they aren’t a fit for you (like asking for services you don’t offer).

Turning Clients Down without Being Snooty

I want to give my clients the best service ever so I try to answer emails as quickly and thoroughly as possible. But, I have to make sure I’m spending time as wisely as possible. So I’m not telling you to be elitist or snooty in manner to these potential clients, I’m just letting you in on the sad fact–there are thousands of tire kickers out there and they will take a lot of your time if you let them.

Your Thoughts

How have you been able to spot and deal with tire kicker clients?

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  1. says

    No need to waste money or time on almost prospective clients. I have found that clients who do not have a clear goal or objective in mind are usually out chasing tails or gathering some sort of intel.

  2. says

    I use a proactive approach as well – my basic fees are listed on my site (with a disclaimer that the prices may go up based on what they need); however, I still get a few tire-kickers… but I know right off the bat because they’ll ask how much it costs for ___ – which is clearly listed on the site.

    Some of them do turn into legit clients, though, so I always send an email back asking for specific details and tell them I’ll be able to give them a detailed quote. Two lines is sufficient… one that asks for details and one which says, “I hope you’ve had time to go through my site to ensure we’ll be a good fit” with a link.

    Usually weeds ‘em out pretty well!

  3. says

    “I don’t have enough right now but your money will be sent in at most 4 days.” Most tiring days of your lifes until getting your money. And after sending the money, they immediately became the right one as though he waited you.

  4. says

    Great advice Amber, I think you pretty much cover all the best approaches.

    If you use Gmail/Google Apps, you can make your “boiler plate” responses even easier by saving Canned Responses which are then easy to send to anyone with a couple of clicks, or even automate on a filter. Enable them in the Labs part of Gmail.

  5. says

    I respond to all demands by email, even if they ask for an estimate with just “I want a website, how much does that cost?”. But I tell them that a web project needs a lot of informations in order to be precisly calculated. And it don’t take me a lot of time, I have already some pre-wrote emails for those clients.

  6. says

    Great list Amber! I especially like the list of standards on your contact page… I may steal that idea ;-)

    However, I disagree that people who ask about price are generally “tire kickers”. I have found that the majority of people asking about price (without sending details) respond well to a 5 minute phone conversation where I get a high-level concept for their needs. Assuming they are actually serious, I setup an in-person meeting; if they’re kicking the tires, I politely tell them to contact me when they’re ready to move forward.

    In my opinion, freelancers really need to do more pro-active selling… not just letting their website passively gather leads. The sales process weeds people out quickly, leaving you with only serious clients.

  7. says

    You have pretty much hit the nail on the head there, Amber.

    If someone emails you and tries to dodge telling you their budget then you know they could be a problem. The most frustrating one for me would be that one “we are pricing around other designers…” because like you said it implies that they are out for a bargain.

    Still having a chuckle to myself about the name “tyre kickers” though Lol! :-)

  8. says

    @Arhtur: I think you have to look at other factors too. If it’s a one line enquiry, with poor written skills and no useful contact info attached, in my experience that’s a good sign that the client doesn’t care about quality and just wants the cheapest possible deal.

    However, a one line enquiry from the CEO of Nike would be quite different :-)

  9. says

    I think you have missed out on an important point and that is sometimes designers tend to play the part of a prospect, trying to see if their prices are on par with their competitors.

  10. says

    Interesting thoughts, and advice for trying to maintain enough discourse with the prospective client without investing to much time that will never make a return. The advice is very diplomatic, and could save people loads of time.

  11. says

    GREAT ARTICLE! Hope my thoughts below help add some more perspective…

    I used to be guilty of writing a novel back to nearly every lead that came in. Now I take the approach of the 1-2 line responses to get bits of info back from the client, but each response from them comes with “so how much will this cost?”

    [aside: to be honest, even with existing clients this is a better approach because it’s going to be too overwhelming anyway to drudge through a 2-page explanation of your capabilities, pricing, etc]

    I’ve found the best solution is to politely respond to the price request with what many of you have already said…”there are a bunch of variables that go into pricing”, and to keep pounding away at the easy-to-answer questions that take you 2 seconds to write and give you more touchpoints to see if the prospect has any red flags that pop up. Don’t forget to emphasize what you’re trying to do: gain as much info as possible via email so you can keep their costs down and prepare a complete scope and fair proposal.

    RE: “We’re looking at 10 other people” — baloney. Unless it’s a public institution the likelihood of 3-5 proposals spread out on a conference table is slim to none.

    RE: “I don’t have a budget, but” — they have a budget, don’t kid yourself, and it might just be a figure in their head that corresponds with the VALUE they place on the project. They don’t want to overpay. But they might also need to know how to allocate funds, so call them out on it. “So you’re saying that this is for next year’s marketing budget?” Now you’re telling them you aren’t going to jump through hoops to get the job, so they should just man-up and tell you what they expect to pay.

    RE: “I have 300 other projects for you” — tooooooo truuuuuue

    RE: “Can we have a meeting” — I don’t personally see anything wrong with this, but you should explain that you have a policy [insert policy here] for travel and in-person consultations, and that video conferencing, a WebEx meeting or some other forms of communication might be more appropriate up front, and when you have a signed contract in place you’ll be happy to incorporate some face-time to get to know them even better. I’ve also made it plainly clear when I see the tire-kicker type coming that I prefer email communication (I’ll even deliberately respond to voicemails via email).

    Control the relationship, no matter what.

  12. says

    When the warning bells that Amber mentions start to ring, I usually decline the project. Those kind of clients are always a problem right from the word ‘go’ and life’s too short for such hassles.

    I just watched this YouTube animation a few minutes ago and it pretty well sums up these kind of clients.

    (There’s a fair bit of swearing, so make sure your headphones are on if anyone around you might get offended).

  13. says

    Great article! Certainly some really good points and advice here.

    I have learned after several of these experiences exactly how to pick the “Tire Kicker” clients out of the bunch. I now always be very brief, try to get straight to the point as far as pricing, what they want, and how serious they are about moving forward on a project.

    I used to be really bad about responding to leads with too much info and time and 90% of the time, it was all for not. I would never hear back from them or when I followed up, they gave me the runaround about their situation.

    I actually sat down and thought about how often I say NO to a project and it was quite interesting when I really looked at it. I say NO to projects almost 60% of the time. In doing that, I have been able to pick and work on some really great projects and I now have several really great clients that I love to work for!

  14. says

    “I don’t have a budget, but” is one of the most common phrases I hear when I talk to someone that needs a website.
    Last week I met this person who owns a professional paint company, he asked me how much a website cost and I told him I need a detail description in order to give him a price. He then told me that if I were a professional I would be able to give him a price anyways.
    Then I asked him how much would he charge to paint a house, he told me that depends on many factors and I laughed at him.
    Because he doesn’t understand how much work it takes to design/code a website he thought he had the rights to criticize me.
    In the end I told him that I would not do business with him even if he agreed to pay me whatever I ask him upfront.

  15. says


    I think it’s essential to have a good eye and spot them. Still, being supportive may prove of value on the long run. Some of them may come back at later stages improving your credibility and your marketing all together.

    Lloyd Burrell

  16. says

    Sad but true – there are a lot of kickers ‘kicking’ about out there. Its a fine line of being polite and cold blooded to clients. I get a lot of half arsed enquiries and you end up wasting so much time, politely replying to emails. Try to keep it short and sweet, if they are genuinely interested there will be more correspondance from them. Great article for all web designers.

  17. says

    I don’t know if it’s just me and my lack of clients on the list but I don’t find it too tiring and time-wasting to reply even to tire kickers. I prefer to be friendly and polite even if I know they’re just going to waste my time and keep me hanging for days.

    So yeah, definitely it’ll be impossible for me to come up with a one-liner but maybe 2-3 sentences is enough to answer their questions.

  18. says

    You are right about tire kickers but in my experience, dealing correctly with these tire kickers is very important.

    May be they dont have a project right now, but they may have a project down the road. So if you turn them away without treating them properly, you have lost a future sales.

    But yes, we should avoid wasting a lot of time on them. A polite and professional response to explain why you wont be able to work for them this time should do.

  19. says

    haha, good title and good comparison as well. I totally agree with @ShopHTML, sometimes no matter how difficult it can be, we need to learn how to deal with the “tire kickers” and that involves a lot of experience and patience…but it is possible.

    Great post, thanks for sharing.

  20. says

    If my security app tells me that the contacting website or company isn’t safe,
    I don’t investigate anymore and just make excuses.
    The client might be legit but I won’t let his site infect me with malware.
    Saves you a lot of time.

  21. says

    I agree with Paul. I do the same thing. I simply email them a questionnare asking for detailed requirements (including their estimated budget). The ones who are serious will take the time and effort to complete it in detail and get back to me. Only once I know what they expect to spend and what their basic requirements are will I setup a meeting or put a proper costing together.

  22. says

    Great post. Except that I prefer to be contacted by phone so that way I can keep the dialogue open and it is easier to answer any concerns quickly. It is also easier to establish how genuine they are. I prefer to keep the email communication down to a minimum if possible.

  23. says

    These are some great points to avoid tire kickers, it sounds like a great majority of us get those! The details/specs on your contact page are brilliant, I’ve been toying with a way to do something similar without sounding snooty or offstandish and I think yours is a great example!

    Regarding the “what does this cost?” emails, I usually have a “stock” response saved on my google docs (one for web, one for packaging, one for branding), which states clearly the type of information that I need from the client in order to provide a quote. Nothing huge, just a small paragraph and bulleted list of details. I use them as a base and they save me having to keep rewriting the same email each time. I’ve actually gotten a few projects from clients I thought would turn out to be tire kickers, but like you said, sometimes they just don’t know what to ask or what protocol is in requesting a quote.

    Great article as always!

  24. says

    Loved the post. I’m a photographer by profession and every time I get a client who asks about nothing but my prices I never hear from again in all the times I’ve responded to them.

  25. says

    Hi Amber,

    love this topic as its on my mind a lot the busier I get the more I need to manage my time more effectively and tire kickers can delay real jobs very easily. Got so much out of it I tweeted and ‘dug’ it!

    I use Paul’s approach and have a lengthy contact form (you need to select ‘Need a website built’ to see the full form) on my website to:

    a) tell me how prepared they are and
    b) if they can use online tools, internet literacy is a big indicator of how easy clients will be to work with.

    I ask what their budget is but its not a mandatory field/

    Thanks again for the post.

  26. says

    The saddest and frustrating part of a freelancer is “not being paid” for an accomplished project. I had 2 recent experiences and I named my 2 dogs after them, Amanda and Beary.

    My dogs are cute but the people aren’t.

  27. Patrick says

    While I see everyone’s point, you should also understand that to most people, website designers and their like are a dime a dozen. You can get as snooty as you want, but in my experience, there’s a dozen free-lance programmers and designers lined up to bid for every one project available. Taking anyone’s initial asking price without shopping around is just silly.

  28. says

    “I want a website, can we have a meeting? I don’t know what it is about these kind of tire kickers, but these really do intend to waste your time. It seems that clients who ask for some kind of meeting right away never purchase and are always a waste of time.”

    yes indeed now that you mention it these usually have a sibling, brother in law or their partners, business partners son, who do design. Though by the time I’ve received this detail the time has passed, they are in the studio. Most often they are fishing for prices, job outline or some detail for that other.

    Yet the professional must always be polite, they will always tell a friend & you want that to be a good story. Some may come back in the future with a real job after their experience with their in-law etc.

    Nice advice.
    thak you


  29. says

    I am currently rebuilding my business site and was asking myself the same thing over and over. “What is the best way to weed out these types of potential clients?”, because I get them all the time. My approach is to have a simple contact form that asks initially for a budget range and a timeframe for completion (when they choose the “quote request” form option) on top of the general contact info. When they submit the form they will be emailed a conformation that includes a link to download my project planner. This asks some very detailed questions about their project, work habits/philosophy, etc. My thought on this is the following:

    If they are serious enough about their project they will have absolutely no issue filling out this qestionnaire, and if not, then I’ll await a potential client that does. If they have thought about their project enough they won’t have any trouble answering all the questions I ask.

    I’m hoping this works so that it’s enough of a roadblock to keep out the tire kickers. If you’re interested in viewing it, you can do so here…

  30. says

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