Filtering Out Red Flag Clients

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Tl;tbtr (too long; too busy to read):

If you’re trying to research handling red flag clients, but the school called and you have to go pick up a kid with pink eye, here you go:

  • Keep a personal list of red flags – warning signs that a client won’t work out. Add to it as you gain more experience.
  • Use your qualification process to filter those out.
  • When a red flag shows up mid-project, call it out right then and there. With a little client education, you might be able to turn things around. If not, gracefully end the project. It’s not worth the headache to push ahead.

I had just wrapped up my very first freelance web design job and I’d nailed it! So I felt awesome. I hopped on the phone with a lead for job #2 and started to get excited as he talked about cool functionality and cutting edge design. And then, he told me that he had started the project with another designer and it wasn’t going so great. Hmmm, I thought to myself, poor client, that shouldn’t happen. And then he told me he wasn’t going to pay the previous designer, so he still had some budget to pay for me.


Thank the Lord I had the sense to recognize that second red flag (the first being that it wasn’t going well – he either was a tough client or he hired poorly which can also be a red flag). 

I ended things with a concise, “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’d be a good fit.”

With just a quick Googling of the Internets, you can find hundreds of client red flag lists. It’s a fun topic to dig through and will always stir up a group of entrepreneurs. Most of these get pretty negative and snarky, so that makes for a fun read. But it’s not always constructive. Here I want to have a positive discussion about how to avoid and handle red flags when you see them.

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Why can’t you just take on all the clients who call you up?

Just like the clients that are wrong for you will suck your time, red flag clients waste time and energy that you can’t spare. Ultra-challenging clients will cause you so much trouble. They will cause you to deviate from your process and will ghost you without paying their bills. They will demand all of your time and will text you at 3:00am.

If you don’t filter out these clients, then you’re in for frustration and despair. You’ll spend evening- and weekend-time trying to wrap up their projects and just get them gone. And perversely, they’ll be the clients that demand 42 thousand revisions and just one more thing. You’ll be trying to head up to the school for the music program and answering scream-y texts at the same time.

“Red flags are like roaches. For every one you see, there are 50 you don’t.” Sean McCabe

What are the client red flags anyway?

Client red flags are going to be different for each business, so it’s nearly impossible to create a comprehensive list. But I’ll give you some of my top red flags. 

Keep in mind that a characteristic that is a red flag for your business might be the ideal client for someone else, so it’s not always a negative. A good example of that would be DIYers. Matthew Rodela, owner of Tech Site Builder, loves DIYers – they’re a great fit for his turnkey tech services website product. But someone who has built a business on building websites and then selling recurring care plans doesn’t want a DIYer who won’t buy the care plan, but wants to come back to them when things go wrong.

Some of the more universal red flags:

  • When a client tells you he hasn’t paid other service providers
  • Refusing to follow your qualification or intake process from the very beginning 
  • Disrespecting your skill set or presuming to know your skill set better than you do
  • Rude or violent language directed at you. Yes, this really happens. 
  • Promising great exposure or more work in the future (in lieu of appropriate payment)
  • Slow to respond from the start, and then hoping for immediate turn-around from you.

You’ll come across new red flags all the time – the ones that you & your business don’t want. Hopefully you’ll see them before you take on the client. But sometimes it will be after.

I recommend keeping your own list of red flags and adding to it over time. Keep it near when you have initial calls with potential clients so you don’t let a red flag client slip through.

How can you prevent dealing with red flag clients?

You’ll want to filter these clients out before they even get on the phone with you if you can!

You add questions to your qualification form/process to make sure clients have what you need them to have for a successful project, right? Add some questions to make sure they don’t have characteristics that would take a project. You need to do this or these clients will claim time that should be for you and your family.

The easiest to filter out is the lead who won’t follow your qualification process and just wants to hop on the phone “real quick.” Just stay strong and decline politely. Let them know you’ve honed your process over time to ensure the best results for clients. If they still balk, use the “not a good fit” line and see if you can refer them to someone.

I ask budget questions on my project planning worksheet not only to get a good idea about a lead’s budget, but also to discourage folks who are looking for the cheapest solution rather than the most helpful.

Most of my personal client red flags reveal themselves on the first phone call. I don’t work with anyone who’s rude or disrespectful. If they’re not respectful at the beginning of the relationship, they never will be! Let these folks move on.

I love the idea of exposure and referrals, but not instead of a proper paycheck. If a polite decline doesn’t turn this around, we’re not a good fit, and I don’t refer these folks on.

While I do follow up with leads, I don’t chase them. If they’re slow to respond (or never respond) before they hire me, they’ll be slow after. Just let them go!

So how do you deal with client red flags that show up during a project?

First, you need to really spell out in your contract what happens if either party cancels the project. You want to be free to halt things if the client becomes too challenging to work with. You want this to be fair to both parties too, not punitive to either side. 

Knowing you’re protected, take a deep breath and maybe a moment to read a story or two from clients from hell and realize that you’re well ahead of most of those folks who are writing in. It makes me feel better at least! And the advice you yell in your head to the story writer is probably advice you need for your own situation.

Some red flags can be fixed with a little client education. Don’t immediately just to the worst-case scenario. Give them the benefit of the doubt on the first offense. Pick up the phone and talk with them to work out the red flag or conflict.

If they’re not following your process, maybe you didn’t tell them what they needed to do (or not do!), or maybe you just need to remind them. Often that’s enough. But if it’s not, you will have to let them go – they will take up all of your time.

If they are slow to email you back, you can first try picking up the phone. And if that doesn’t work, use the magic email from Kai Davis. Short and sweet, it’s designed to get a response. 

If the red flag is any sort of abuse or extreme disrespect, though, it’s probably best to just move on. Don’t continue to take it, you never deserve that.

Next steps

Start writing out your own list of red flags and keep it near you, especially as you talk with potential clients. If you can keep red flag clients out of your life, you will have hours more time each week.

Filtering out red flag clients before they waste your time.

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