In this post, I look back on all the clients I said no to and those I should’ve said no to. The thing about bad clients is that sometimes things only take a turn for the worst once you start working together. Whether you notice the warning signs from the get go, or they reveal their true colours later on, all that matter is that as soon as you do it’s time to get out.
My favourite way to acquire new clients is through referrals. There’s an instant layer of added trust on both sides. Unless of course that introduction has a hidden message when you read between the lines. Even though they don’t mention anything negative outright, you can tell this potential client is bad. Maybe it’s an introduction from another client that thinks work is work, or maybe it’s from a friend that doesn’t recognize the warning signs. Whether they have have no standards or clue, you do. Explain to them who you’re interested in working with, or stop taking referrals from these people.
Then there’s the client that seems fine, but is complained about by others. Shared contacts start mentioning how the client doesn’t deliver on promises, and that they tend to disappear for weeks. They are hoping to bond over venting, but you just politely nod as you slowly realize how blinded you were. In hindsight, things weren’t going great and it was just a matter of time before you would have a horror story of your own. Now that you see the whole picture, it’s time to leave. Don’t endure a bad client just because others choose to.
The easiest way to avoid this type of client is with proper vetting. You’ll discover if the client has a bad reputation and confirm that it’s based on fact.
Back and Forth Scheduling
When you have trouble scheduling a meeting with a potential client, it’s an indicator of future problems. Does this sound familiar?
Monday – 10am
Client: Let’s meet to chat over the details.
You: How’s Tuesday at 9am over Google Hangouts? I’m also available Tuesday between 2pm – 4pm, Thursday between 9am-11am, and all day Friday.
Client: Let’s do Wednesday at 3pm.
You: Ok, see you then.
Client: Sounds good.
Wednesday – 3:15pm
You: Hey, are we still meeting?
These people are the reason there’s a new scheduling app every six months.
This seems insignificant, but if they can’t schedule a simple meeting, how can you expect them to communicate properly when you work together? It’s unbelievable how common this is. These clients also always seem to have tech problems. If the stars align, and somehow you finally meet, their mic will suddenly be broken. Or you’ll wish it was after 5 minutes of listening to: “Can you hear me now?”
Money Over Product
As startups became mainstream, I’ve noticed new grads are turning down jobs to build their own company. As an entrepreneurship major and career-long freelancer, I loved the trend. That is of course until I met with a few of these clients. It seems they didn’t have a burning passion to change the world, they just wanted a slice of the pie. They turned down valuable learning opportunities at other startups because they thought they could make a boat load of money being the boss.
When your client is motivated by money over product, they won’t invest the resources needed to build a sustainable business. They might disguise it as optimizing for profits, but their selfish desires keep them from creating a product that actually solves a problem or adds value. There’s no future working with them, so get out before they start making excuses why your payment is late.
Sometimes you realize payment is going to be an issue before you even start working with the client. Because I blog about consulting, potential clients often reach out with more specific questions. I love learning about their companies and chatting about possible solutions, but some clients take advantage. These clients are typically the ones that go out of their way to reassure you that they are definitely interested in hiring you. They make it seem like they are qualifying you, but in reality they are only interested in getting free advice. If you suspect this is the case, then it’s up to you to move the conversation forward. Let them know you’d be happy to work with them to address their latest batch of questions, and then clearly state the next steps.
Then there are clients that manipulate you into starting work without any intention to pay. In the beginning of the project, both sides agree to the terms. Once you’re done the work you send over the invoice. The payment is late, but you think it’s an honest mistake. After you send a reminder, the client proudly declares that they aren’t going to pay. Whichever loophole they use to justify their awful behaviour proves that they never intended to pay. They’ll try and convince you that it’s your fault, and even suggest you continue working together. If you believe that most people are good, know that this client isn’t. Walk away, and warn others.
Despite these experiences, I try not to be hard on clients that are late with invoices. It can happen unintentionally, and I plan accordingly. The trouble isn’t with consistently late payment, it’s with increasingly late payment. The first time a bad client is late, they may profusely apologize. The more it happens, the more outlandish the excuses become. If you don’t want to wake up one day and realize you haven’t been paid for 6 months, you need to address the situation as soon as it happens. When a client stops paying, you need to stop working. It sounds logical, but it can difficult to do when you care too much about a project. However, all of your hard work won’t be appreciated because when a client doesn’t pay you it means they don’t value you.
Poor Data Quality
When a client doesn’t share the data with you, they are setting you up for failure. Remember when they bragged about their 1 million app downloads? Well, the reality is that the number is irrelevant because they only have a handful of daily active users left. It’s impossible to develop an effective strategy when it’s based on incomplete or poor data. Avoid confusion by first finding out if they are being intentionally dishonest or have trust issues. This way you’ll know if it’s worth moving forward with the client.
Some clients are legitimately unaware of the importance of key performance indicators. They can’t figure out how to set up Google Analytics, and instead rely on their gut instinct. Try to explain to them the value of accurately measuring your progress. If the client refuses to prioritize proper tracking, then don’t be surprised when they don’t appreciate your hard work. Not only will they dismiss your success, they might also hold you accountable for any of the company’s failures.
Lack of Dedication
There’s no shame in working a day job to support your own business, but beware of clients who struggle to balance the two. If the client is constantly distracted by their demanding day job, they will end up being too burnt out to manage their company. At first they’ll take longer to respond to you, but soon you’ll have to work overtime to correct their mistakes. If the overworked client then accepts a promotion, it’s a clue that they are just happier working for someone else. They might not admit it, but you’ll know it’s time to move on.
Then there’s clients that appear to care about work-life balance, but the truth is they don’t understand the hard work needed to run a business. After you’ve spent months planning and working towards a relaunch, the client casually mentions they won’t be around. No, this isn’t because of a family emergency, or a once in a lifetime opportunity. Instead of responding to customers, fixing bugs, and celebrating milestones together, the client made plans to hang out with friends. Either they don’t have strong work ethic or they don’t care. Don’t stick around to find out which one.
The abusive client is reminiscent of a bad ex boyfriend or relative, and once again you can’t help but focus on the good and make excuses for the bad. They only humiliated you in front of their friends because you made a mistake. They only lost their temper because they have been working overtime. This is obviously a deal breaker, yet it’s hard to recognize when it happens to you. Even if you’re convinced they have good intentions, you don’t deserve to be treated this way. If you’re unsure if you’re being abused, imagine how you would react if this happened to your friend. Better yet, share the incidents with a friend to get an objective opinion. Their support will help you banish this recurring character from your life.
You’ve got to surround yourself with good people to thrive, so avoid bad clients by paying attention to these warning signs.
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