Eight signs you need to fire a client

Do you have a client you dread working for? Or have you been approached by someone you have a bad feeling about? Discover the eight warning signs of a difficult client.

When it comes to managing client relationships as a freelancer or business owner, dealing with the various personalities and expectations can be overwhelming, especially when you have clients that are not easy to work with. 

But how can you tell if a client might be tricky? Or when you’d be better off turning down work or walking away from a client relationship? To help you, Nicole Magelssen, the founder and CEO of Alpine Virtual Assistants, reveals the eight red flags of a difficult client – and how to deal with them.

1) They have a high turnover rate

Sometimes a new client will approach you with tales of all the businesses or freelancers who have ripped them off or produced sub-standard work. Before you get sucked into feeling sorry for their run of bad luck, and promise them you’ll help them, ask yourself why they are in this position.

Bad mouthing other businesses and freelancers is a significant red flag. It’s often a sign that a client has underlying issues in management, unreasonable expectations, or just doesn’t know what they want. And if you do take on the work, you can risk not getting paid, losing confidence in your work after having it packed apart by an unpleasable client, or even being run down by the client to the next business they approach.

So if a potential client talks down other businesses or freelancers, be very wary! And if you do work with them and it goes wrong, don’t blame yourself. You probably had no chance of making them happy.

2) They don’t communicate what they want

In order to do a good job for a client, you need a clear brief. If a client is unable to provide you with one, gives you vague instructions or cannot answer questions you ask, then it might be wise to turn down the work.

When a client fails to adequately communicate what they want, it’s a clue that they don’t know themselves. And this is a path to frustration and disappointment for you. These kind of clients only know what they don’t want when they see it, leaving you blundering around in the dark trying to guess what’s in their head, and doing more work than you need in an effort to please them.

So if you aren’t 100% confident you understand the brief given to you for a project, and the client is unable to clarify it for you in writing, do yourself a favour and walk away.

3) They scope creep

Scope creep (also known as service creep) is when a project starts small, but gradually gets bigger – usually without any extra budget added. Clients might innocently assume it won’t take much effort for you to do a bit more, or they may use this as a strategy to get free work out of you.

Either way, it smacks of a lack of respect and appreciation of your work, and can lead to you earning less than you should, feeling under appreciated, and even at risk of burnout. So if a client sneakily adds more work into an already-agreed project, politely push back. Remind them of the scope you initially quoted for, and let them know how much the extra work will cost.

If they don’t agree to pay you more, it’s a clear sign they don’t value you, and aren’t the right client for you.

4) They won’t sign a contract

Contracts protect both parties and set clear expectations. Importantly, they give you protection that you are both clear about what they have hired you to do, and what they will pay you for it. A client’s refusal to sign may indicate potential issues down the line. For example, will they query the scope of work, or how much they will pay you?

There’s no reason not to sign if they are planning to abide by the terms of a contract. So if they won’t sign, don’t take on the project.

5) They always need things NOW

While every client may occasionally need a job completed urgently, if they continually expect you to work to unreasonable timelines it’s a sign they are either bad at planning, or don’t respect you enough to give you enough time to do your work. And either way, that makes them a difficult client to work for.

You deserve to have proper notice of projects, and to be able to plan them around your other clients and personal life. And to have the time and space to do your best work and not feel pushed.

If a client often makes you feel stressed, or you need to rush work, work late or push other work back for them, then maybe it’s time for an urgent breakup.

6) They don’t respect you

Respect is non-negotiable. Saying anything like, “I expect perfection” or “There is no room for error” is unacceptable – you aren’t a naughty school child! If a client consistently disregards your expertise or boundaries, it’s time to reconsider the relationship.

If they don’t respect you, why are they working with you? They should appreciate your professionalism and trust you now more about what you do than they do; after all that is why thy hired you! A client who doesn’t see you as an equal professional is not worth keeping on your books. Long term, this kind of client can damage your confidence in your ability to do a good job.

7) They want to get started straight away

In romantic relationships, someone wanting to get too serious too fast is a big red flag, and the same applies to professional relationships.

A new client should want to check you out thoroughly before trusting you with their project. They should want to find out your terms, learn about what kind of work you have done in the past, and get to know you and the way you work. And they should expect you to have questions for them too.

This way you can both enter a working relationship with a clear idea of what each other expects and can do, and a reasonable amount of confidence that you can work together well.

Rushing this process can lead to a mismatch in expectations and capabilities. And if a client is keen to shortcut this process there might be something else going on.

8) They micromanage you

Micromanaging can hinder productivity and damage trust. If the client is over-concerned with how you spend your time, it isn’t worth keeping them on. They might also need lots of meetings (hand-holding) rather than delegating tasks, which signals a red flag.

An ideal client hires you because they recognise and value your expertise, and trust you to do your work and produce results. A micromanager lacks confidence in their own decision making, and as a result need to control every aspect of a job.

You can’t do your best work in these circumstances, and the chances are you won’t please the client. So if a client is too hands-on, or wants too much visibility or too many meetings or check-ins, politely let them know you’re not the person for them.

Bad client cost you time, money and confidence

Most freelancers and small businesses have been bruised by a bad client experience. And a one-off experience won’t do you too much damage – you’ll have a valuable business lesson and perhaps a funny story to tell.

But sticking with a bad client long-term can be damaging. It can erode your confidence and self-worth. So don’t let a toxic client cross your boundaries and abuse you. Politely let them know you no longer wish to work with them, and make yourself available to clients who do respect you.