5 Red Flags to Watch for with Potential New Clients

As freelancers, we hesitate to say no to a gig, but some clients will derail your work rather than boost your career

Maybe you’re great at saying no to that second helping of dessert your mom likes to push on you at holidays. Perhaps you’re a champ at saying you’re not available when your friends ask you to help them move for the sixth time. But when it comes to saying no or that you’re not available to potential clients, you can’t bring yourself to do it. Why? When you’re an independent contractor, every new client feels like a gift. Because a new client means a fresh source of income. Right? And why would you say no to that?

Well, unfortunately, sometimes new clients raise red flags all over the place that indicate they might pay you late (or not at all), might create unnecessary scope creep, or might just be an overall pain in the neck. Here’s what to watch for.

1. Your potential client is condescending, harassing, or rude.
Any potential new client relationship begins with early emails or initial phone calls. Often you may feel as if you’re interviewing to get the gig. But this is also a time for you to gauge whether your client knows how to behave and if you even want the gig. These first communications will set the tone for the ongoing relationship. If the client talks down to you about your processes, says something inappropriate, or insults you in any way, walk away from the project before it begins. Read more about why rude prospects just aren’t worth it in this Inc. piece.

2. Your potential client is disorganized or unreliable.
Maybe those initial talks go well, but then things get hinky in the days afterwards. If your client is late sending you certain project assets or other items you need for building your estimate or putting together a contract, that could be a red flag. Additionally, if your client frequently reschedules calls last minute or flakes on meetings, that’s a concern. These things all show a lack of respect for your time, and the issue will likely get worse once you begin the work. Often, your success at a project will depend on a client’s communication and participation. This Forbes article lists unresponsiveness as one of the six reasons to fire a client. Take early signs of unreliability as a warning sign that things may not go well.

3. Your potential client has urgent needs that are unrealistic.
Yes, sometimes projects call for fast action. And in many cases, you can charge a rush fee. Reasonable and fair clients will be happy to pay it because they know they’re asking you to perform a near miracle. The red flag here is when a client has a deadline that’s so unrealistic it’s not attainable and they’re not willing to listen to reason. Run away. Fast! Check out this FreshBooks blog on how to avoid unrealistic situations.

4. Your potential client wants “test” work done for free.
In some industries, it’s customary for a freelancer to perform a test as part of their initial consultation. Book editors, for example, often provide authors with a sample edit of a few pages of their specific manuscript to see if both the editor and author jive. But if you have a potential client asking for freebies as a “test” that go beyond what is customary in your line of work, that’s a sign the person may be trying to take advantage. Generally, a portfolio can serve as a testament to your talent and credibility.

5. Your potential client balks at signing a contract.
If initial talks have gone well, someone likes your work, and they’re eager to get going on a project or gig with you, then it’s time to pull the trigger on a contract and a deposit. After you present your client with a contract, if they want to have more meetings or spend a lot of time reworking your terms, then it might be time to reconsider working with them. A client who won’t sign a contract or who endlessly delays the process yet wants more of your time without paying for it is not worth your effort. If someone won’t consider a project percentage as a deposit, that’s also a red flag that they may not be willing to pay at all. And anyone who misses the due date for the deposit likely will miss future payments too, leaving you empty-handed.