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Recently, I wrote about several things clients say that drive freelancers nuts. Some of these things are annoying, but can be addressed.

There are, however, certain types of prospective clients that freelancers should avoid at all costs.

Without further ado, avoid the client who...

  • Asks you to first work on spec. While amateurs and those who are desperate for work will often agree to take on spec work in the hopes that it will lead to a paying gig, a prospective client who would ask you to perform services without pay is almost certainly not worthy of being your client.
  • Expects a firm price quote before deliverables are finalized. It should go without saying, but it's kind of hard to agree to perform work at a certain cost when you don't know what that work is. Yet some clients will expect precisely this. Sometimes freelancers are tempted to go along, especially when dealing with a large project budget, but agreeing to do work on a fixed cost basis before you know what you're going to have to deliver usually doesn't end well for the freelancer.
  • Wants you to make all of the decisions. It's nice to have clients that trust you to make certain decisions, but be very careful about clients who want you to make all of the big, tough decisions. Nine times out of 10, these types of clients will decide after the fact that they really want the opposite of what you decided. As such, it's best to avoid clients who are too lazy to help you help them.
  • Has a bad reputation. If a potential client has a legitimately bad reputation (eg. is notorious for not paying on time, has acted dishonestly in the past, etc.), run, don't walk, away. Zebras don't change their stripes.
  • Is rude. Some clients are difficult. But there's a difference between a client who is difficult and a client who is downright rude. It all boils down to personal respect. A client can be demanding and business-like to the extreme. That's fine. Your clients are paying you to deliver the goods, not to be a friend. But when a client is insulting and treats you like trash, it's my opinion that you will always come out feeling like a loser. Your dignity and happiness doesn't have a price tag.

Acquiring clients can be hard work, so it's often difficult to turn a prospective client away. But problem clients end up hurting your bottom line and reducing your ability to deliver for the good ones, so if you want to succeed as a freelancer, focus on building a roster of quality clients and avoiding impostors.

Photo credit: Totoro! via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 23 February, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Ann Crome

This is really good advice. It can be easy to agree to things that are not good value for you, when you want the work.

almost 7 years ago

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Matthew Treagus, Managing Director at rtobjects

To offer a client perspective on your second point:

Insisting the client carries all the risk for the project makes you harder to work with.

I would not dismiss fixed-fee projects out of hand. With a fixed-fee everyone knows what the budget is. Instead of negotiating about money, we negotiate about scope. Clients have budgets that need to work, if they can fix a part of it for the project you might even get more from them.

It should also be noted that some (not all!) freelancers are very good at their subject matter but not necessarily very organised with the financials or their project tasks. A fixed-fee makes this their problem rather than the clients. Focuses the mind on the task. And if the mind doesn’t focus it’s the freelancers problem.

Work through the project end-to-end with the client. If the tasks are clear then provide an estimate and perhaps provide a separate, higher, price for a fixed-fee. If you can't do so for the whole project then chunk it up into fixed-fee lumps.

If you think your client will abuse this arrangement and try to pile unspecified work into it then it may be something to avoid but you'll ended up having the same arguments

almost 7 years ago

Jonathan Moody

Jonathan Moody, Freelance at Language4Communications

Excellent post and one to which I would add the following:

Using RFPs / pitch processes for getting ideas and free consulting.

almost 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Matthew,

Fixed-fee projects are fine. The problem noted here is that you shouldn't agree to work on a fixed-fee basis when the client hasn't finalized the deliverables he or she is asking you to produce.

almost 7 years ago

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Matthew Treagus, Managing Director at rtobjects

Fix the deliverable up-front if you can but the reality is in the bigger more exciting projects that requirement changes. Share that uncertainty with the client.

almost 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Matthew,

Sure, it's unreasonable to expect that a project's requirements are 110% static. Projects are invariably fluid to some degree. But a solid client agreement requires that out of scope requests that increase the freelancer's obligations be paid for by the client.

A restaurant wouldn't agree to cater an event at one price, and then charge the same price when the customer requests that dessert and an open bar be includecd. But I've seen way too many freelancers who, for one reason or another, do essentially that.

Feelancers need to be vigilant about project scope; their profitability and sustainability depends on it.

almost 7 years ago

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Matthew Treagus, Managing Director at rtobjects

Which is why customers love 'as-much-as-you-can-eat' buffets.

I can see this analogy will get out of hand already.

You are right of course. We can agree a fix fee for a main meal and a glass of wine without knowing which main meal and what wine. Complimentary after dinner mints we're happy to provide. If you want dessert its extra.

My over-arching point is 'don't make the client carry all the risk'.

I guess the test here is 'is the client just a bit random and he's making it as he goes along and now he's making it your problem' which is bad and to be avoided.

Or 'does the client know that he doesn't know and can explain the bits he doesn't know' and you can both take a view on them and share the risk. Working with this is fine.

Whatever the freelancer does next he needs to be careful that what he says isn't heard as "Give me a call back when you've got yourself organised.".

almost 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Matthew,

I think a lot depends on the degree to which the client needs assistance in being project-ready.

A client who knows nothing of what he or she wants and expects you to make all of the big decisions and determine all the details around deliverables should be prepared to pay for that work. In the development context, for instance, there are cases where the development of a functional spec could reasonably take longer (and be more complicated) than the development itself. In this type of situation, a freelancer should definitely refuse the project and invite the client to come back once he has what's needed if the client is not willing to pay for the journey.

Obviously, there will almost always be a number of minor clarifications needed when scoping out a new project, even if the client has a detailed RFP or spec. Trying to nickel and dime in these cases is definitely penny wise, pound foolish.

Good discussion!

almost 7 years ago

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