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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Types of Freelance Clients You Should Avoid at All Costs

When you’re a freelancer (either full-time or on the side) it’s tempting to immediately agree to any project. I mean, money is money, right?


When you’ve ditched the 9-to-5, your time is a form of currency, and you have to use it wisely. So while you’re trying to reason with a difficult client or working on redo after redo for someone you can’t seem to please, you’re wasting time that you could be spending earning money from other projects.

To stay productive and fight freelance-related frustration, steer clear of the following four types of clients when choosing your next gig.

1. The “I Don’t Really Know What I’m Looking For”

Regardless of how good your work is, if the client doesn’t know what she wants (or does, but it’s not realistic), you’ll both end up feeling frustrated.

So, prior to taking on a freelance assignment, have a conversation with the client where you talk explicitly about her goals. Discuss her ultimate dreams, as well as some more realistic goals. What does she want done in the next week? What about the next year? These should be tangible aspirations on which you can focus. Also, find out how she measures success: An “increase in web traffic” may mean something very different to you than it does to her, so make sure to set measurable specifics.

As an additional note, once you’ve heard what she hopes to accomplish, make sure that you feel like you can deliver. For example, if your core ability is writing, there’s no shame in refusing a project that’s really focused more on social media. The client will appreciate your honesty, and may contact you if a writing project pops up in the future. However, if you try to fake it and end up seriously under-delivering, your reputation suffers.

2. The Houdini

This is the client who is slow to answer emails and at times seems to just disappear entirely, ignoring your voicemails and follow-up emails (even the ones marked “URGENT!”). While this may not seem like a huge deal, a client who tends to drop off the face of the Earth can significantly delay your progress and cause problems when it comes to important transactions—like being paid.

For example, I was thrilled to land a high-paying freelance job with an entrepreneur, but not as thrilled when I waited for days on end to get an answer to a quick question. I was even less pleased when I put in several hours of work only to find that my paycheck hadn’t come and that the client was nowhere to be found.

This is a trickier problem to catch from the start, but your first few interactions with the client can provide some insight into how he operates. If he takes a week to respond to a quick e-mail about the details of the assignment or your contract, he probably won’t have time to offer timely feedback. Or, you know, pay you.

3. The Useless Barterer

Swapping services can be a good way to partner with a new client, especially one who really needs the help but may not have the funds to pay your fee. But before trading, make sure you’re both benefiting from the deal.

For example, if you’re writing e-mail newsletters for a salon in exchange for free haircuts, it may be a fair swap. You’ll always need haircuts, right? But, if you’re being offered free baseball tickets for your logo design and you hate sports, you probably shouldn’t accept the trade. This kind of barter system only works if you’re saving money on something that you’d have to buy anyway, so either ask for payment in cash or turn down the project.

Before you begin, figure out exactly how you will determine payment. Will it be hourly? Per project? Never just say, “Oh, we’ll figure it out at the end.” Set a standard for payment ahead of time and stick with it. And do make sure that your trade is fair. A haircut for a newsletter swap is reasonable. A haircut to completely redo the entire company website? Not so much.

4. The Speed Dater

This is the client who has gone through many, many freelancers before landing on you. I know, I know: Just like pursuing the bad boy or the party girl, it’s easy to feel like you can be the one to change a client, even if others before you have failed.

I did, too: I recently took on a new gig, and was certain that I could deliver the blog posts this client wanted. Though he had warned me that he’d been through a number of freelance writers in the past, I wasn’t concerned. Turns out, I should have been—I ended up wasting time with a bunch of rewrites, with no real guidance about what the previous posts were lacking. It soon became clear that this client would just never be happy.

Before you sign on to work with someone, find out about his or her past experience with other professionals from your industry. Ask the potential client about his or her work with previous freelancers and, if you can, talk to a couple of those freelancers yourself to get their sides of the story. You can explain that you’d like to gain some insight into what worked and what didn’t so that you can plan your approach effectively.

If he’s not comfortable putting you in contact with his old flames, at least try to do a little research on them. If the past workers are all reputable professionals with strong backgrounds, the problem may not have been with the freelancers at all, but with the client. However, if it’s clear that the past concerns were due to the freelancers’ work ethic, that’s different.

While any good job is dependent on a work environment that allows you to be successful, it becomes especially important when you’re going at it alone as a freelancer. Don’t sell yourself short or set yourself up for failure by partnering with clients who are finicky, not willing to pay, or hard to reach. Instead, skip the frustration and hold out for clients with realistic goals and open lines of communication.