10 Bad Clients Red Flags & Warning Signs

Chances are you’ve probably had some bad clients experiences in the past—and that’s OK—we all have when we first started out in our web design journey. In this post, I’ll go over some of the red flags we look for when talking to prospective clients.

1. They tell you they’ve had a bad experience with every person/company they hired in the past

If a prospective client comes out in the first couple interactions saying something like “The last guy I hired didn’t know what he was doing” OR “I couldn’t stand the project manager at the last company so I just went around her to talk directly to the developer instead” this is usually indicative of a difficult client. Especially if it’s happened more than once. And especially if they have no trouble immediately trash-talking the previous person/company to you.

They probably really believe the problem was the people they hired and likely have no idea they are the issue. If you bring someone like this on as a client, they WILL think the same of you at some point. And the last thing you need is someone going around trash-talking your business and ignoring your processes.

We had a client like this once and they actually contacted the previous developer to tell us how to do our job. The previous dev was great and brought it to our attention (and no he did not tell us how to do our job) and expressed to us the challenges he faced with this client.

2. They haggle on price

This type of person asks for a quote or a ballpark estimate, then tries to haggle on the price. Often times they are vague on what they want and won’t give you their budget so you can manage expectations.

They ask:
Why you are so expensive?
What is your hourly rate for this?
What if we don’t do discovery? Can you lower the price?
How come my last developer charged way less than you? (You know, the same developer they also said didn’t know what he was doing).
They may even try to get you to work for trade or ‘volunteer’ your time. They’ll tell you that it’s a ‘tax write-off’ because they are a non-profit. (And no, volunteering time is not a legitimate tax write-off.)

In one case, we actually had someone—after questioning the cost for a web design project and then asking us to volunteer time for a tax-write off—then ask for me to become an employee instead and how much salary I would expect.

Obviously the answer was NO. As a business owner it was very insulting for this client to so clearly not value my expertise or my business.

3. They want to control the process

These clients are micro-managers. These are people who tell you what to do and how to do it. They may even go so far as scheduling meetings for you and telling you what method to use (eg Zoom), regardless of how you say you will communicate.

For example, we specify on our site and in our contract how we communicate. For clients who are in active projects we will communicate by email and/or scheduled phone calls. For clients who are on a maintenance plan or retainer, they can use their support time however they want—brainstorming, advice, updating content, etc…

We had a client who was not in an active project—maintenance only and not paying for support time—who frequently wanted phone calls to brainstorm and would set the time and send Zoom links. We constantly had to remind them that they are not paying for consulting and/or support time. If they’d like to do so, WE would schedule a time for a call and send an invoice.

This doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, but if you give an inch they’ll take a mile.

It really comes down to them not respecting you, your process, or your boundaries.

4. Unreasonable expectations and clear lack of boundaries

This client expects you to work 24/7 and answer emails all hours of the day.

They have no boundaries and their expectations are unreasonable. They might send emails many times a week that are all ‘Urgent’ or call you without scheduling first. In some cases they may start texting you at all hours with ‘a quick question.’

This is especially troublesome if they aren’t in an active project with you (like a website re-design) and are trying to get free consulting time or advice. If you warn them about this behavior, and they continue, it’s time to let them go.

It’s not fair to clients who are paying for your time and expertise to give free time to non-paying clients.

5. They ignore your expertise

These clients don’t respect or trust you. They will question everything you do and ignore your advice.

For example, we had a prospect come to us about fixing some issues on their site. After doing a paid audit we discovered the site was built very poorly and our advice was to rebuild. We explained in depth the reasons for this and that it would ultimately save them time and money in the long run. The client balked at this and ignored our advice.

We settled on getting them on a retainer and fixing what we could within the support hours they were paying for each month. Which wasn’t much. It would take months to get through things on such a small retainer, but they didn’t have the budget for more (red flag alert!).

Every month this client came back complaining that we were blowing through hours and don’t have time to add the new shiny features they wanted.

We had to remind them they were not paying for that—they were paying for us to fix what we identified in the audit—and again—that a full rebuild was the best option for them in the long run.

If you push back on something and the client ignores your advice time and time again, this is a sign that they just don’t trust you.

6. They have shiny object syndrome

Shiny object syndrome is where people focus all attention on something that is current and trendy, then drop it as soon as something new takes its place.

I also call this the ‘Squirrel’ CEO and the gif below sums it up nicely.

dog squirrel

This is the type of person who will come in saying ‘this is what I want…’ then run off. They are easily distracted by new features to add to the website, or new platforms that they could integrate with. They change their mind every 5 seconds. The Squirrel CEO is the epitome of shiny object syndrome.

This is how a scope balloons out of control if you aren’t specific in the beginning and in your contract. For larger projects we always do in-depth discovery to nail down the scope. It helps to avoid this type of behavior since we have a document refer to that outlines what we agreed on at the start.

7. They critique all your work and give obscure feedback

‘I’ll know it when I’ll see it.’

We’ve all heard this line before, especially when first starting out in our careers. These clients will usually say something like ‘I don’t like this or this…or that.’ They spend all their time giving negative feedback but don’t give any positive direction about what they want.

It’s hard to contribute to a project in a meaningful way with clients like this, so it’s best to avoid all-together. You’ll end up turning off your brain and becoming a mouse monkey or a pixel-pusher just making this bigger, and making that text more blue just to satisfy the client or to get them off your hands

8. They are indecisive

Clients who are indecisive solicit feedback from lots of people. They poll their neighbor, their PTA association, their mother, and their dog on what they think about the new website design or the logo you developed. This is indicative that they don’t know what they want and they don’t trust your expertise.

Sometimes you may even have a client who is asking YOU what you think of a logo another designer created. I’ve had this happen on a couple occasions. I usually respond that I don’t comment on other designers work. I do tell them in general what makes a good logo.

9. They think everything is easy

These clients will often ask you ‘how hard would it be to do this? What about that….and this other thing?’ and they needle you through revision after revision because you say it’s not hard to to do. So you trap yourself into them saying ‘well if it’s not hard to do, why can’t you just do it.’

They might even go to others and ask them if they think what you quoted them for work is fair.

I’ve had people ask this very question.

My answer: If you need it done and can’t do it yourself, then yes whatever the designer quoted you is fair.

10. They are time vampires

When they don’t value their time, they won’t value yours. These clients don’t pay attention to what you say in emails and it’s usually obvious because their follow up email will show you they didn’t read anything.

These are also the people who constantly say ‘hey can we just jump on a call? I just want to brainstorm and pick your brain.’

People who have time to just sit around picking someone’s brain are not busy people and usually that’s a sign that what they really want is validation from an expert. They want someone to say they are so smart and have a great plan. These people are really just looking for validation and not advice.

Sometimes they may be looking for advice and help so they know what they need to hire someone else or to do it themselves.  At the very least, charge for consulting time like this. After all it is your time and expertise they need. Don’t give it away for free.

Conclusion

We’ve touched on some of the red flags we watch out for when bringing someone on as a client. These may not be red flags for everyone but it’s good to be aware of possible problems before bringing someone on board.

Sometimes a prospective client could have ALL of these red flags, sometimes it may only be one or two. It’s up to you what you will and will not put up with—and remember you do not have to put up with bad clients.

If you find yourself resenting having to work with someone, that is a good sign you are not charging enough to make it worth your time. So charge more! Charge enough that it makes it worth your while. For every red flag, raise your rate by 10% until you no longer resent working with them.

And remember the saying:
The clients who pay the least, expect the most.

It’s true.

So what makes a good client?

The best clients are those who pick vendors that they trust and know they are experts and let them do their job. These are the clients we all want as agency owners and treat like gold. These are usually the low-maintenance clients that take up little of your time, always pay on time, and will stick with you for years.

A great client will trust you and your advice. They don’t bait you into conversations only to pull back at the last minute.

Are you a freelancer or a new business owner who has experience with bad clients? What are the red flags you look for?

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