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6 early warning signs of a bad freelance client (and what to do when you have one)

(Art Credit: Andrea Hernandez "Lunch for Three")

Freelance work is a great way to make money. The global average freelance rate in 2021 stands at $21/hour according to Payoneer's 2020 Freelancer Income Report, which means the average freelancer makes around $40K per year, and if you live in the US, Canada, or the UK, the average rates are even higher.

However, freelancing can also be a minefield. Not all freelance jobs are created equal, and some freelance clients are downright awful. If you're not careful, you might end up working for someone who takes advantage of your time, pays unfairly, or simply gives you a hard time about everything.

Here are six early warning signs to look out for that may indicate a bad client and key tips on avoiding them.

Early Warning Signs of a Bad Freelance Client in the Making

1. They don’t respect your time

If you're in very different time zones and they're offering to pay you significantly more than your other clients, it makes sense to stretch your business hours on occasion for certain prospective clients. However, burnout caused by working these long hours has been reported as a part of the emotional overhead of working as a freelancer. If a client demands that you be available 24/7, they do not appreciate you or your time. This lack of empathy and respect is something you should steer clear of.

2. They downplay your skills and experience

It's not uncommon to find clients who act as if they could do what you do, but they just don't have the time. These types of clients who think they know it all will usually downplay your worth as a freelancer and the value of the work you do. This can bring all sorts of issues that go from not wanting to pay you on time or what you deserve to criticizing every aspect of your work and requesting multiple revisions for irrelevant aspects of the deliverable.

3. They’re bad communicators

Communication is one of the most important aspects of your freelancing career, especially if you're working remotely. Studies have shown communication to be the number one competency recruiters look for when hiring new talent, and it's also one of the skills that most candidates lack.

This happens to work both ways, and it should also be something you look for in a client, which is why things like responsiveness, setting clear and precise expectations, and providing clear feedback are essential to a successful and productive working relationship. Good clients know this; bad ones either don't, or they choose to ignore it.

Picture this: you find a job as a developer to build a crypto exchange app, and the job description seems to suggest that it should also function as a digital wallet, but it's unclear. You ask the client about it, and two weeks later, you get an ambiguous response that doesn't answer your question.

This type of scenario is very common and is dangerous territory because if you accept an unclear contract, your client may demand extra work without paying you extra, arguing that it was included in the original contract.

4. They question your rates multiple times

If a client seems unsatisfied with your rates and keeps questioning them repeatedly, this is another sign that they might not be the best client for you. It's normal for clients to negotiate rates but pushing too much for a lower rate is both rude and unbecoming of a good client.

According to the most recent Upwork Freelance Forward Report (September 2020), 57% of freelancers set their own rates, and all reputable employers know it. If you're sure that your work is worth your rate, there's no reason to lower it just because someone doesn't like it.

5. They have unrealistic expectations about outcomes and deadlines

Another way a client will indirectly downplay your worth is by asking for too much work in exchange for the same rate or by demanding an unrealistic turnaround time. Accepting a client under these conditions means setting yourself up for failure.

Once you're unable to deliver, your client will have the upper hand and will likely use it to either offer you a lower rate or, in the worst of cases, refuse to pay entirely.

6. They try to wiggle out of signing a contract

One of the biggest red flags you can find is a client unwilling to put it all in black and white. Contracts exist for a reason: to protect both sides. If a client doesn't want to put your agreement in writing, it's most likely because they don't plan on honoring the agreement in the first place.

The same applies when looking for clients in big freelance sites like Upwork or Workana. Some clients will offer to do without the platform's contract and work directly with one another. This isn't only unethical since you're violating the terms and conditions of the said platforms, but it also shows that the client is unwilling to pay fees or to guarantee your payment through an escrow.

Tips on How to Avoid Bad Freelance Clients

Raise your rates

The first tip is to avoid charging the bare minimum since doing so only attracts the worst possible clients. If you think this will drive away good clients, think again. It's a fact that good clients who are looking for good freelancers for their projects will steer clear of freelancers who charge the lowest rates.

Additionally, Upwork reports that over 40% of skilled freelancers have raised their rates between 2019 and 2020, so it won’t be unreasonable for you to do the same.

Underpromise and overdeliver

This is a great tip for a successful freelance career. By underpromising, you're setting yourself up for success, and by overdelivering, you're ensuring a happy client.

Ask all the necessary questions

Don't jump into contracts before being 100% satisfied with your client's expectations and the rate you proposed to them. If there's even one thing that seems amiss, make sure to always ask.

Having clarity from the beginning on issues like these will help avoid unnecessary problems later on.

Look at past reviews from other freelancers

If your client comes from a reputable freelance site like the ones mentioned above, don't miss the opportunity to check out their history on the platform. Ratings and comments from other freelancers are a rich source of information that may end up tilting the balance in either direction.

Trust your instincts

The warning signs we covered before are only that: warnings, something meant to alert your senses. However, in the end, you should weigh everything you discuss with a client during interviews, in messages and trust what your gut tells you before deciding if it's worth the shot.

The bottom line

Freelancing can be a great way to make money, but it's important not to let your guard down and take all clients indiscriminately. The difference between an excellent freelancer and one struggling with bad freelance clients may come down to the early warning signs we discussed in this article. By identifying these red flags upfront, you'll avoid getting into sticky situations that could cost you time or reputation later on when dealing with difficult clients.

Wesley Cherisien Wesley Cherisien is a speaker, trainer, entrepreneur, and tech investor who has written articles, books, and training guides for Fortune 500 companies, consultants, and authors in multiple industries.

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