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9 Signs Your Client Plans to Screw You Over


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Entrepreneurs often hate to admit it, but there IS such a thing as a bad client. Here are nine types of clients that should make you seriously consider walking away. 

1. They aggressively negotiate your standard (fair!) fee structure.

Or, even more problematic, they ask you to waive the downpayment entirely. Here’s the thing, if they don’t have some skin in the game, then you are the only one who is committed to the creative process. If they don’t want to pay at the beginning, odds are they won’t want to pay you at the end, either. No downpayment means a capricious client can bail halfway through and you’ll never see a penny. Unless you have a really scary lawyer. Or your uncle is in the mob.

Committing financially up-front changes a client’s way of looking at you. You now have tangible worth. You are valuable. Because you value yourself enough to not work for free. Even narcissists grasp that.

2. You wait forever to get feedback on drafts or milestones.

But, of course, if you don’t reply to their texts or emails within 5 minutes they imply you must not be doing your job.

A healthy creative relationship needs to go both ways. You respect the client’s time and investment, they respect your skill and contributions. That includes responding in a timely way so you can keep the project rolling forward. If they consistently take days or weeks to reply, consider yourself warned.

3. They won’t provide written criteria or agree to project guidelines.

Sometimes a client truly has no idea, and that’s okay. But often, it’s because they’d rather be free to nitpick you to death. Written guidelines aren’t just helpful for you, they also provide a tether for your client. It means they can’t float off into creative fairyland without you charging them more.

If you start a job without providing written deliverables, or agree to perform a technical job without any written criteria to define what makes the job “complete”, then any client without a conscience can just feign ongoing dissatisfaction as a strategy to withhold payment. Which means you keep working because you really do want to get paid at some point. Until you snap and call up Uncle Vinnie.

4. They always “forget” to put change requests or draft approval in writing.

Keep a paper trail. Emails, texts, however you typically communicate. Save them all. Every change to your deliverables, and every approval of a milestone should be in writing. That way, when a sociopathic client suddenly gets a case of selective amnesia about what they already approved, you have some backup.

5. They won’t sign your contract, or they negotiate clauses to make it less binding.

This goes back to the whole “skin in the game” concept. Anyone who balks at signing a contract either isn’t serious about hiring you or prefers to keep things casual so they can exploit your services. You don’t need either type. Don’t even start making brainstorming notes on their project until you have a signed contract in hand.

Get a good contract tailored to your line of business. Even if it costs. The peace of mind brought by a binding agreement is well worth it. My contract cost $5000 and paid for itself in my first year of business. Granted, that year I had a client or two who heavily inspired this blog series…

6. They try to sell you on the “vision” of their project to guilt you into cutting rates.

A client without a conscience will deftly manipulate your sense of obligation to their vision in order to get additional work for free, often while underpaying your normal rate in the first place. Your client’s passion is nice, but it’s not an acceptable reason to weasel out of fair payment or treat you like junk.

Not long ago, I needed someone’s creative help on a passion project of mine. So I called the guy, and told him straight up. “I have a project I can’t do alone. I respect that your time and skills are valuable. It’s for a good cause, but there’s no budget. If this is something you are willing to do pro bono or on spec, I’d be thrilled. If not, that’s okay too.” He loved the idea and we’re moving forward. If he hadn’t, we’d still work together on budgeted projects.

There’s a right and wrong way to solicit someone’s help pro bono. Direct, transparent requests, where you are free to say no, is perfectly fine. Hanging their good cause over your head? Not a good way to start a job. It’s really okay to say “Sorry, my pro bono plate is full right now.”

7. They “just want it to go viral”.

As Jon Acuff once said, when you hear those words from a client, “it’s time to stop, drop, and roll right out of the room”.

Perhaps it doesn’t mean your client is without a conscience. But assumption that anyone can arbitrarily create viral content shows woeful ignorance of how social media works, and what they can expect from your services. For them, anything less than viral will mean you failed.

That won’t be just a headache, it’ll feel like an aneurysm.

8. They refuse to be educated on your process.

When a client doesn’t want to hear about the process, be wary. Unless of course, it’s Coca Cola or they paid 100% up front. This doesn’t mean they have to comprehend every step. But a good client will want to know how much work goes into the various phases, not only to validate their investment, but also to grasp what you’re really doing for them.

When they haven’t got a clue, they won’t grasp your hesitation to “change this one little thing” when you know it means a full day of animation plus 18 hours of rendering. And they won’t be forgiving when they don’t have a new draft in hand by end of business today.

9. They act like their little bit of knowledge about your field means they can dictate your process.

This is the other extreme from the guy who prefers to maintain ignorance. Remember, if they could do what you do, as well as you do it, they wouldn’t need you in the first place. A little knowledge can be more dangerous than none, if it’s accompanied by lack of conscience. When a client knows they have no idea, at least they’re willing to learn.

This is especially dangerous when added to a refusal to put expectations in writing, hesitancy to sign a contract, and negotiation of your rates. Any client who combines several of these warning signs is going to cause you grief, either on purpose or by negligence. Most likely on purpose.

You’re better off without the headache. Extricate yourself gracefully. Go get a good client (or three!)

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