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Becoming a freelance consultant or service provider is easy, but turning a profit can be difficult.

One of the lessons learned through experience: profitability often has a lot more to do with avoiding the wrong clients than it does finding a never-ending stream of new clients.

Fortunately, the wrong clients typically come in several well-defined and easily identifiable shapes and sizes.

Here are the top five clients you should consider avoiding like the plague if you hope to be profitable.

The Fisherman

If you're a web designer or developer, chances are you've met The Fisherman. He often appears to be a serious client, and he may very well be one, but early on in your initial dialog it becomes clear: he's going to want a lot out of you before he's ready to officially move forward with paying work.

For instance, if you're a web developer, The Fisherman may come to you without a project spec, and without a clear idea of the technologies he should use. So he'll ask you to help him figure out what he needs, gratis, of course, so that he can do you the favor of moving ahead with the project after you've given him a four-course meal of your expertise.

Why You Should Avoid The Fisherman: Unless you can get him to pay for your expertise up front, you'll provide far more value to The Fisherman than you will likely be compensated for -- if he actually hires you to implement, which is always a big if.

The Mime Artist

Communication is a crucial part of any client relationship, and it's a two-way street. Clients should expect that their service providers are capable communicators, but clients should also understand that their ability to communicate is a prerequisite for project success too.

With The Mime Artist, communication is so difficult that you feel like you're trying to figure out what's going on sans the spoken or written word. As a result, you're unable to get a clear understanding of what the client needs and wants.

Why You Should Avoid The Mime Artist: Trying to communicate with a client that is unable to communicate effectively is one of the best ways to damage your head without banging it into a wall repeatedly. It's also a great way to spend time on a project that is likely to leave everyone disappointed in the end.

The Deluded

Many freelance web developers have seen The Deluded. He's the client who wants you to build a site that will combine the features of Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Napster and every other popular site ever built since 1998, to create a website design in exchange for equity because he's going to revolutionize an industry and sell his site for a lot of money within a year, etc.

In other words, The Deluded is usually completely out of touch with reality and wants you to become a part of his impossibility.

Why You Should Avoid The Deluded: Simply put, you can never deliver for The Deluded. Fortunately, this client is easy to spot and most experienced service providers do manage to avoid him.

The Spouse

Clients deserve a certain level of respect and attention, particularly when they're paying good money. But some -- The Spouses -- expect a little bit too much. You probably have some experience with these clients: they send emails for the sake of sending emails, like to phone you a few times a day just to see how things are going, and want you to meet frequently on-site because they 'like' interaction.

In some cases, you may even half expect to see them when you arrive at home because they find a way to make themselves a fixture in your life. Hence the name, The Spouse.

Why You Should Avoid The Spouse: There's a fine line between a client who needs a little bit of hand-holding and a client who isn't hugged enough. When you encounter the latter, it usually means that you'll spend an inordinate amount of time not getting work done, which can eventually harm your other client relationships.

The Cheapskate

Everybody loves bargains, and if you're a service provider, chances are clients and prospective clients will frequently ask you to provide them in some form or another. The Cheapskate takes bargain-hunting to another level, however, as he seeks to maximize how much he gets and minimize how much he pays you.

In many cases, The Cheapskate will try to change the terms of your engagement after they've been agreed upon. Particularly dangerous is The Cheapskate who has mastered the subtle art of scope creep, and who can sometimes make you feel guilty about not doing extra work for free when he requests it.

Why You Should Avoid The Cheapskate: Working with clients who want a 'great' price rather than a solid value is rarely a profitable exercise. 

See also: The five suppliers you should avoid like the plague

Photo credits:

Pink Sherbet Photography via Flickr.
radcarper via Flickr.
Ctd 2005 via Flickr.
CarlosMendozaPhoto via Flickr.
Bill Ward's Brickpile via Flickr.
greggoconnell via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 19 January, 2011 by Patricio Robles

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

2379 more posts from this author

Comments (32)

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Essex SEO

I'm dissappointment to say I've come across all but one of these. Thankfully I haven't had the Spouse show up YET. The good thing is I don't make the same mistake twice.

over 5 years ago

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Frank Reed

Seen them all and have learned to lay out the expectations in clear form right from the beginning. If there is any scope creep or indication of something going bad there is a pow wow and a determination of what's next. Otherwise, you will end up losing valuable time and money trying to make every type happy.

Honestly, if they knew what they were doing and had the bandwidth they should be doing it themselves anyway. If they look like they have this AND you have the luxury of some room simply fire them.

Easier said than done I know but we can all dream!

over 5 years ago

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Rene

Some inspired writing Patricio. What happens if you come across a potential client that has elements of all five? Run for the hills I guess.

over 5 years ago

Matthew Kelleher

Matthew Kelleher, Commercial Director at RedEyeEnterprise

You missed one out.

The Thankless.

Whatever you do, it is never good enough. They behave as if their parents had brought them up to be constantly critical and rude. It doesn't matter how successful you are, the very thought of saying 'thank you' or showing any sign of being pleased with your efforts never crosses their mind, and if it did you have a sneaking suspicion that their head would crumble like a pulverised rock. Meetings with them are purgatory. Advise is ignored or forwarded to 'an independent consultant' for review. Why you should avoid them? They bleed the very soul out of you until you question whether you really exist.

over 5 years ago

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Maureen Floris

Great creativity! Thankfully, i've only encountered one of these and when I tried to 'fire' her and suggested that she should probably higher someone else she instead chose to pay my highest rate that I quoted! Oh well, at least I'm making decent money now.

over 5 years ago

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Freelance Copywriter

The spouse! You've worked for him? He drove me mad. Thanks for the entertaining post. I'm reading a book titled "The Wealthy Freelancer", by Steve Slaunwhite, Pete Savage and Ed Gandia. Although they're all North American copywriters, I think most of their tips are still relevant to other types of freelancers working here in the UK.

over 5 years ago

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All Around Web Guy

The Client Designer You really missed a big one, the client that pulls from thin air a degree in design and insists on telling the designer exactly what to do. You will end up never pleasing them, creating a terrible site and of course won't even list the site in your portfolio.

over 5 years ago

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Anthony Taylor

Although I wasn't working freelance, I noticed a couple of these traits when I was working as an SEO Manager for a now defunct web design company. The most common was the cheapskate, though this was as much to do with the way the company positioned it's SEO offering and the types of people it targeted. I had one particularly intense client who phoned me almost everyday of their SEO campaign - I kept telling them that it might take Google a few weeks just to index their site! Anthony

over 5 years ago

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Deborah Sullivan

♥ I love the honesty.... ~Love and Light... ~Debbie:)

over 5 years ago

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Isle Of Wight Self Catering

May be Some one get inspired by writing Patricio, but What will happen if you deal with a potential client that have all five elements?

over 5 years ago

John Braithwaite

John Braithwaite, Managing Director at Ergo Digital

For me there are only two: - The Accountant, and - The Marketer The accountant always measures on cost. Therefore there's no point ever working with them because they don't value or understand the marketplace. Best to refer them to 'cheap-site-builder.com'. The marketer understands the importance of appropriate spend to achieve results. If the marketer behaves like any of the 'types' above, then it's about good client management more than anything else.

over 5 years ago

Chris Hoskin

Chris Hoskin, Chief Marketing Officer at Innoverne Limited

....I'm looking forward to a client-side rebuttal.  For the record I'm vendor side, and I'd question whether it's right to think about clients or potential clients within a framework like this...call it a high horse or moral high ground or whatever...

Maybe it's all tongue-in cheek and I've missed the point completely, but to me at least, there is something seriously wrong with freelancers or service providers setting out on a road where this 'mindset' gets in-grained in a company culture; whether they want to be profitable or not.

Here's a snapshot of a merchants culture (zappo's) that works, is scalable and drives revenue growth and profitability. 

  • Deliver WOW Through Service
  • Embrace and Drive Change
  • Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  • Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  • Pursue Growth and Learning
  • Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  • Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  • Do More With Less
  • Be Passionate and Determined
  • Be Humble
I don't see any scope for name calling in there.

over 5 years ago

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Mj

Chris Hoskin, looks like you have missed the point, judging by the amount of tweets that this column is getting. I agree with your snapshots, (this is the benchmark that most if not all designers/developers adhere to), but I believe that these cannot be applied to the scenarios written about. If we want to remain profitable/retain our sanity in this industry, which I'm sure we all do, why wouldn't we, these really are the people we must avoid.

over 5 years ago

Peter Leatherland

Peter Leatherland, Online Sales Manager at Ethical Superstore

Perhaps someone could do a list of 5 types of service providers to avoid?? There is always two sides to a story!

over 5 years ago

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Staffpoll

The spouse is one of most annoyed client types which i met.  The deluded can be effectively avoid in first email or his listing on freelance site. The fisherman actually ok for me, i can work with him

over 5 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Chris,

I'll be following up with a post soon about the types of consultants to avoid.

But to your point: I think it's okay to admit that there are clients you probably just shouldn't work with. Nobody would suggest that when you go out on a first date, you're obligated to see the person again if it's not a good fit, so why shouldn't you be able to politely say "no" when it comes to who you choose to continue "seeing" in your client relationships?

In my opinion, the notion that there's no such thing as a "bad fit" is naive and if you buy into it, you will inevitably find yourself working with clients that frustrate you, that you can't possibly satisfy, that cost you money, and that harm your relationships with other clients. Frankly, it's constraining to believe that you can and should try to work with everybody. Satisfaction as a contractor comes not only from profitability, but from working with people who you feel you can genuinely help.

There's a lot of great stuff we can all learn from Zappos, but let's not forget: Zappos is a merchant who sells shoes and other physical products. Being a service provider is very different in many key respects and how successful you are depends a lot on the quality of the relationships you forge with your clients.

over 5 years ago

Chris Hoskin

Chris Hoskin, Chief Marketing Officer at Innoverne Limited

To clarify, I am not saying for one second that there aren't clients that vendors should avoid due to a poor-fit - whether that's ascertained on the first date or at the end of a discovery phase or whenever.  And of course there is 'bad-fit' - I never said there wasn't.....I was talking about your list in the context of brand, culture and positivity.  

over 5 years ago

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Jeffory M. Urquhart

Entertaining article, good insight.

over 5 years ago

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Paul Wells

Excellent! This really made me laugh. Maybe we should run a competition and nominate candidates for each of these categories. The client who gets the most votes wins a prize - paid for by the cheapskate of course.

over 5 years ago

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SEO Bournemouth

Haha, i have learnt my lessons ten fold "he's going to want a lot out of you before he's ready to officially move forward with paying work." there are a lot of fishermen out there.... 

over 5 years ago

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Mark - Editor of ISPreview UK

It strikes me that some of the client descriptions, such as for the Fisherman, could pretty well describe almost any customer and should not be avoided like the plague. Just because you're contacted about something doesn't mean to say they will choose you.

The customer also runs a business and is quite right to fight for the best they can get, which means being competitive with your rivals. In a way, all customers are fishermen and if not then they're probably not doing enough to make the right calls.

As ever, the key to success is in the balance to which you handle the client and not how the client handles you.

over 5 years ago

Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay, Managing Director at 120 Feet

You need to add "winding up client" or "the client who doesn't pay". They're happy with your rate. They're happy with your service. They say there are no invoice issues. But they don't pay and after 7 months you need to tell them they will be a client with a winding up order unless the invoice(s) are paid in a week. Fortunately I have only ever had 3 clients like that in 10 years and they all paid eventually, but they're the most costly. (And I love my current clients.)

over 5 years ago

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Andrew McGovern, Regional Ecommerce Manager at Serif

I've met The Fisherman on more than one occasion, and I think they especially prey on newer companies, having been rebuffed by the more experienced ones first. They're awkward at first, especially when you're looking for jobs, because you don't want to turn anyone down. But they do suck your time big style. Best way to get around it is to charge for the initial spec, and think and treat it as a separate contract entirely.

over 5 years ago

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Kathy Lawrence

Impossible to please - the client who who knows exactly how they want their copy written, but they're not going to tell you.

Totally frustrating - the client who thinks it's honour enough that you're asked to work for them and the height of bad manners to expect your bill to be paid any time soon.

over 5 years ago

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Peter Cannon

There is another type. Champaign tastes Lemonade pockets they are very similar to the cheapskates but know they have no money yet still persist in securing your services.

over 5 years ago

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Bill Dueease

Really fun post that hit lots of nerves for everyone. Commenters added 2 others to the list. One is the constantly critical client, who always takes an adversarial position. The other is the client who knows everything and insists on telling you HOW to perform your job and then criticizes you when you do it wrong. (Their way)

Chris Hoskin has a point that there are two sides. But this post offers a way to poke fun and vent, which is always a good thing for all parties. Undoubtedly, clients could also make a similar list about vendorns. The comments show that the post was so well done that it converted a serious troublesome topic into a humorous one that made it easier to deal with.

over 5 years ago

John Courtney

John Courtney, CEO and Executive Chairman at Pay on Results SEO, Content Marketing, Social Media, Digital PR, PPC & CRO from Strategy Digital

Very droll...but very true. Pick clients you can work with, and stick with them!

over 5 years ago

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Joe Pelissier

I love this.

But they can all be put under the collective title of 'TIME VAMPIRES'.

They willingly suck up all your time and goodwill and leave you with nothing in return

This post tells you how to spot them and make alternative arrangements.

over 5 years ago

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Lisa Pretzel

Maureen Floris--
Perhaps she should 'hire' someone who can spell and spell-check! Everyone should--and if I'm paying top dollar for a consultant, they should at least be able to spell.

over 5 years ago

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Paul Higgins

Enjoyed this article - the link is a comment I made on how it relates to entrepreneurs, who I think come to evince a lot of these behaviours.

But isn't the issue for any service provider more to do with how you deal with these sorts of behaviours when (rather than if) they arise?

over 5 years ago

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julian wells

I have worked on both sides of the fence and have experienced these characteristics in clients and colleagues (usually bosses who see the marketing team and agencies as some form of magicians). Managed correctly they can actually lead to very rewarding relationships. Managed incorrectly or not at all, I agree they should be avoided like the plague as they will sink you in terms of time, money and confidence. Clients eh, who'd have em....

over 4 years ago

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Angela Bertone

Thank you for exposing the 5 plagues. I have found this to be true in all aspects of business. In the beginning of my business, I thought I needed every client. I quickly learned there are just some clients that you need to fire. Sorry, but that is the truth. If you are great at what you do, you will never run out of customers. They not only come back to you, but they tell everyone.

Thanks,
Angela Bertone

over 4 years ago

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