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Difficult Freelancer Clients: Red Flags and How to Deal With Them

How do you recognize problematic customers as early as possible? Here are the red flags for freelancer clients and tips for the right way to deal with them.

Dunja Reiber
Dunja Reiber

Jan 20, 2022

At the beginning, freelancers are happy about every job. But at some point it becomes clear that there are difficult clients who cost you a lot of time and nerves. Workloads get out of hand, invoices are not paid, respect is lacking and there are endless discussions about prices. Sometimes the best option is to end such cooperation. Of course, it's best if you recognize such problematic customers early on and don't start working for them in the first place. The following red flags for freelancer clients will show you that you are dealing with a difficult one. We also tell you what you can do if you are already working with such a client or are dependent on the job.

1. Poor payment practices

Unfortunately, you often notice this signal too late. The cooperation may have started well, and you receive positive feedback. But then the first invoice is written, and the payment deadline has passed without any money coming into your account. When you ask, you are told, "Oh, how could that happen? I'll check with accounting right now." Things can go missing anywhere, but if nothing happens even after you remember, your alarm bells should be ringing. Working with clients like this is frustrating in the long run, and it makes you feel very bad if you're constantly chasing your money.

What you can do

  • Make it clear that you expect timely payments in the future.
  • Stop working until the overdue invoice is paid.
  • In extreme cases, threaten legal action.

In order to recognize such difficult customers more quickly, you can agree on fixed prices for larger projects that a part of the sum is to be paid in advance. If you are working with a client for a longer period of time, you should not wait too long before sending the first invoice. That way, you will know as early as possible what the payment practices are like.

Here you can learn more about what to do if a client doesn't pay.

2. Free work samples or consultation

When a client hires you, they want to be able to trust you. That's understandable. For some clients, it takes a little more, they want to talk to you extensively and see samples of your previous work. That's fine, too. However, you should be wary of requests for customized free samples of your work. It should be enough if you submit existing project samples to show your quality of work. Anything else is often an attempt to get you to work for free.

Similarly, potential clients might want very specific advice from you in the first or second meeting. Questions like "What steps are part of a project for you?" or "How would you approach the topic?" are useful and give a picture of your potential collaboration. But if it gets more and more detailed, that's a red flag. The client might want to tap into your knowledge without hiring you later.

What you can do

  • Refer to your existing portfolio for samples of your work.
  • Make it clear that you provide individual consulting services only as part of a contract.
  • For such clients, be clear about the terms of your collaboration. They might try again and again to get free services from you.

3. Strong integration into the company

"We'll create your own email address with us, so we can work together better. We always have team meetings on Tuesdays, just join us there. And check in with our IT again for a security check." Statements like these show you that the customer would like to make you part of their team. They want you to always be available, implement tasks immediately, participate in internal meetings and use their tools. The client micromanages and demands frequent status updates from you. But you probably didn't become a freelancer to be a team member in several companies at the same time. Your flexibility is getting smaller and smaller.

This doesn't have to be malicious on your client's part. Maybe they just don't have much experience in working with freelancers. This development can even have legal consequences for the client if you are found to be a false self-employed person. This means: You are self-employed, but de facto treated like an employee. So it makes sense for several reasons to avoid such a strong involvement.

What you can do

  • Explain that you don't want to be involved in internal processes any more than necessary.
  • Point out the risk of false self-employment.
  • Find a way together with the customer how you can still work together efficiently.

4. Unclear expectations

The client wants to create a website and is looking for a developer or copywriter. Beyond that, however, everything is unclear to them. What are the goals, what is the schedule, and how does the project fit into the company's overall strategy? No idea. Such clients are problematic customers, because there is a particularly high risk that they will be dissatisfied later. They may not formulate clear expectations, but they are disappointed with the result because they had imagined it differently. At worst, they may later demand endless revisions or refuse to pay your bill.

What you can do

  • Before the project begins, ask for basic expectations that you agree on.
  • If it fits into your area of expertise, you can also provide strategic support to the client. However, this should be an appropriately remunerated assignment and not happen on the side.

5. Stinginess and lack of appreciation

This type of problem customer treats you with disrespect right from the start. They doubt your competence and do not perceive you as a partner at eye level. Often, they also try to push down your price. Arguments can be: "That's not so difficult. I could do it myself, but I don't have the time." Or, "I can easily find someone who can do it cheaper." As the project progresses, petty criticism comes, and you feel like you can never please the customer. This kind of collaboration is very demoralizing and chips away at your self-esteem. Dealing with such difficult clients probably costs you a lot of time and nerves.

What you can do

  • Stand by your prices and your skills. Don't let yourself be talked down to.
  • Address the issue with the customer and explain what bothers you.
  • If there is no basis of trust, it may be better to end the cooperation.

Listen to your gut when dealing with difficult customers

In addition to these five red flags for freelancer clients, there are many others that can be very individual for you. You know best what is important to you when working with a client and where the no-goes are. It's best to pay attention to your gut feeling as well as the concrete facts during the first meeting. Are you on the same wavelength as the potential client? Do you understand each other without long explanations? Do you leave the interview in a good mood? Or does something not feel right? You should investigate this impression and find out what the cause is.

The cooperation does not work despite several attempts, or you have a very bad feeling right at the beginning? Probably you better decide against it. Although it may hurt to turn down a job, especially at the beginning of your freelance career, you will be better off in the long run. This way, you only work with clients who are right for you, and you save your nerves and your resources. And this is crucial for having a good work-life balance as a freelancer.


Tired of depending on problematic clients? Check out 9am to find exciting projects more easily. Learn more.


Dunja Reiber

Dunja Reiber is a writer and content marketer specializing in Future of Work topics. She has worked in a content marketing agency and a software start-up before becoming a full-time freelancer.

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