How to Spot New Client Red Flags

Navigating new client relationships is always a tricky matter, but it’s even tricker when you’ve got that gut feeling that this new potential client might be more trouble than they’re worth. Our goal is to help make every Freelancer-Client relationship transparent and productive, and the truth of the matter is, sometimes the best way to do that is to simply say “no” to challenging clients before the relationship begins. We’ve been in the freelancing game long enough to know what to look for.

Here are a few red flags we’ve encountered plus some tips on how to handle them. The good news is that some red flags might make it seem like the relationship is a non-starter, but when you look more closely, they’re less red and really more red-orange… they can be mitigated with proper communications techniques, standards, and relationship guidelines in place!

  1. The Client Goes Quiet

    How to Spot It: A potential client was super responsive at the beginning of the relationship, then all of a sudden goes quiet for weeks at a time with no explanation. This is a red-orange flag - proceed with caution. It's an indicator that they won’t be a good communicator and collaborator throughout the project. If they make a habit out of not responding, the project may drag on for weeks or months, preventing you from taking on new work and/or managing your time with other projects.

    What to do about It: First, think about context. Did they go quiet right after you send over your budget for the project as scoped? If so, this is an excellent indicator that the client can’t afford you. Don’t jump to any conclusions, but pay extra attention in subsequent conversations, and above all, trust your gut. It’s also possible that the client has a reasonable excuse for being suddenly unresponsive- they just came up against an unexpected deadline or forgot to mention they would be out of office for a few days. If this is the case, you can count your experience as a one-off scenario and move forward as you see fit.

    Our Opinion? This flag is red-orange, meaning that it doesn’t automatically make the client a bad fit. Hear them out, but if they make a pattern of being uncommunicative, be prepared to end the relationship early, and have an exit plan in mind. If you work with Ditto, you’ll break projects down into bite-sized phases so you can cut and run at the conclusion of any phase if your client communication isn’t working out.

  1. Lack of Transparency About Budget|

    How to Spot It: We always recommend asking about client budgets before you get too far into your pitching and proposal process. It just saves everyone time and hassle if you’re not well-aligned where budget is concerned. If the client is unnecessarily guarded or vague about budget, especially after you share your typical price point, this is a red flag - run, don’t walk away. This is a sign you’ll have issues collecting on invoices, and that the client might not be able to afford the work.

    What to do about It: Our recommendation is to walk - if they don’t value the work enough to pay you what you’re worth, it’s not a relationship worth entering into. However, in this economic climate, we know saying “no” to potential work is difficult, so if you want to proceed with a budget-sketchy client, don’t assume any of the risk. When you work with Ditto, we take funds for each phase of work up front and hold them in escrow while you work, releasing them to you promptly at the end of each phase. This ensures your work will never go unpaid, and you’ll never have to bite your nails waiting for clients to scramble to find budget to pay you.

    Our Opinion? This is a hard red-flag. Don’t accept any payment risks associated with this client. Let them know you must be paid up front, even if just incrementally. If they hesitate to work within these terms, don’t give them a second thought.  

  2. Bad Glassdoor Reviews

    How to Spot It: This one is tricky for freelancers who work with small businesses who may not have a presence on Glassdoor, so this one’s for the agency/ medium client freelancers. If a client has a pattern of bad reviews from previous employees, it’s a good sign that their internal culture is unwelcoming at best, or completely toxic at worst. As a freelancer who’s not entirely engrained with the internal culture of your clients’ companies, this may not be a non-starter for you, but it may be a good sign that this client won’t make it on your long-term retainer client list.

    What to do about It: See if you can track down the email addresses or social profiles of people who’ve worked there and ask them first hand how bad their experience with this client was. Take all opinions with a grain of salt- culture fits go two ways. This will help you determine if it’s a relationship worth pursuing, or if you should walk away from this client.

    Our Opinion? This one’s really a personal choice that has to do with how you want to structure your client relationships. If you’re the type of freelancer who doesn’t internalize client feedback and lets negativity in the workplace roll off your back, more power to ya! Go for it. If you know that you need positivity, support, and deep relationship building to be happy where you work, maybe this client isn’t the one for you.

  1. Unprofessional Talk about Previous Vendors

    How to Spot It: Listen closely on your initial sales calls with potential clients. Chances are clients are looking for new partners because their previous one didn’t work out. How they dictate those failures are so important. Listen for overt statements, but also for subtle cues like tone and deeper meaning behind what they’re saying about these past relationships. If clients are being rude and unfair about previous vendor output, chances are they will be rude and unfair when working with you.

    What to do about It: Remember that you only have one side of the story and you’ve gotta take it with a grain of salt. Consider what the clients aren’t telling you about the role they played in the relationship not working out. If you can get them to speak candidly about their areas for improvement, that’s a good sign. If they double down on bashing their previous vendor, chances are they’ll be a difficult, inflexible client to work with.

    Our Opinion? Not a total red flag, but proceed with caution. We only get into business with people we think we’d like outside of work. Does your potential client meet your friendship standards test?

  1. Unreceptive to New Ideas

    How to Spot It: Chances are, you’re coming to new client calls with lots of great ideas for moving the business forward. Realize that they know their audience and product better than anyone, but also realize that your fresh set of eyes lends critical insight. How is your potential client responding? Do they seem open to learning and trying new things? If so, that’s a great sign – Green flag all the way. If they shut down every idea you brainstorm, chances are your work won’t net the results you and your client are looking for.  

    What to do about It: If a client isn’t willing to test and learn, there’s almost no way you can help them accomplish their goals. Be honest about your reservations and see how they respond. Your intuition will tell you what to do.

    Our Opinion? An unreceptive client may just be a scared client - they may require a little coaxing and extra rationale before trying new things. If you’re down for that, this client is a go.

  2. A Scope Creeper

    How to Spot It: If your client has difficulty succinctly nailing the project scope, chances are they’re a scope creeper. They may not know what they want, or they may want it all (without paying for it all). It’s your job to determine what your client’s intentions are.

    What to do about It:  Ask pointed questions to try to nail down a clear scope. Tell your client you are willing to work with them to determine the scope, but it must be clearly defined before you start working so you know how to prioritize your time with limited devoted working hours.

    Our Opinion? If your client can’t (or won’t) define a clear scope before you start your project, proceed with caution. This could be a sign that they don’t quite know how to solve their problem, or it could mean they’re going to squeeze you for everything you have then come back and ask for more. Scope predictability is too important for ensuring the predictability and longevity of your business. If you get the sense that you’re client’s a scope creeper run and don’t look back

  1. Multiple Masters

    How to Spot It: if there’s no clarity about who you’re reporting to, you may end up getting disjointed and mixed messages from various members of your client’s internal team. This makes it very difficult to get anything done. On your intake call, note how many people are on the call, and how many differing opinions you hear during your session.

    What to do about It: Ask yourself if you have the time and capacity to play middle man with a client(s) who may need a little extra love. More importantly, remember to build the time to give this client a little extra attention into your fee.

    Our Opinion? This isn’t a hard no-go, but it takes a special person to have the patience to wrangle many masters. Are you up to the challenge?

Parting thoughts? Trust your gut. It’s gotten you this far, and there’s no reason to suggest it will start failing you now. Sometimes red flags are hard and fast reasons to stop new client conversations, and sometimes they are just a fluke. The important thing is to be prepared and have an action plan for how to handle them when you see them - both while you’re pitching, and while you’re actually working with the client. Ditto helps make client relationships smooth and streamlined from proposal to final payment. Click here to explore how we can help you navigate client relationships seamlessly, while stopping red flags in their tracks so you can work with confidence.