6 Client Red Flags Freelancers Should Run From

When you’re starting up a business or establishing yourself as a freelancer, it’s easy to think that all potential clients are good clients. The customer is always right, after all.

This isn’t always the case. Sometimes you may not be a fit for a project. All freelancers will run into that at some point, and that’s not a big deal. There are also clients that will make your life a living hell.

There are some clients who will actively hold you back, taking up your time and preventing you from finding the great ones you are compatible with. These clients have big red flags that you should know about, and the second you see them, run hard and fast.

Let’s take a look at the 6 biggest client red flags that all freelancers should watch for.

1. Not Wanting to Sign a Contract

It’s common practice for freelancers and clients to both sign a contract that’s essentially a work agreement. If the client flat-out refuses to sign a contract (even if you’ve offered for them to supply one), don’t work for them. If someone isn’t willing to sign a document saying that they’ll pay you for the work you do, that’s not a good sign.

Another pro tip: if someone aggressively fights you over a reasonable late fee clause (like 5% interest if the client is 10 days overdue on the agreed upon pay period), that’s another warning sign. The people who argue over late fees are those who are most likely to pay late. That’s a stressor that you don’t need in your life.

2. Negotiating Way Below Your Rate

If someone comes to you and asks your rate, you say $200, and then they ask if you can do it for $25, take that as a warning sign. They very well could be a wonderful client to work for but in many cases, they’re not, and they’ll have high demands for someone paying so little.

They could be holding you back from finding higher-paying clients by sucking up your time. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills, and in 99% of cases, the people who swear by the exposure are the companies who aren’t big enough to actually get you exposure; if they could, they’d be able to afford to pay you.

Other clients will come along who see your value and are willing to pay your rate. Don’t be too busy to take it because your schedule is full of low-paying work.

3. Belittling You or The Work in Non-Productive Ways

Feedback is something that all freelancers should welcome. Clients will want different things done in different ways, and being able to accommodate that (within reason) and adapt can help your business.

Clients who are aggressive, abusive, or who actively belittle you are a different story. The difference between helpful criticism and belittlement often lies in how severe the language is and whether or not it’s productive. Instead of saying “We weren’t really happy with the project because we wanted more statistics,” they might say something like “This is a ridiculous excuse of a first draft.”

Sometimes you can spot this early on. It will typically come in the form of them criticizing you, your rates, or your business model before you even start working together, including a “Ha! You expect me to pay that? I can find somebody to do it at a quarter of the rate.”

4. Signs Of Micromanaging

Working to get the client their desired result is important. All clients will want varying degrees of oversight on their projects. That comes with the territory. The red flag to watch for here is micromanaging.

Hyper-controlling clients won’t only expect a good product, they might try to control how you do the work and even go as far as spending the entire time doing the work themselves to show you how they want it done.

These clients will waste your time and drive up your stress level. Nothing will be good enough for them because it’s now how they would have done it, and that is their (unattainable) vision of perfection.

5. Making Unreasonable Demands

Micromanagers and unreasonable clients sometimes go hand in hand. There will be clients you come across who think that they’re entitled to your time, your expertise, and your work because they happened to hire you for a project.

Unless you’re a staff member or you agree to it, a client can’t set your work schedule as long as you’re meeting the deadlines agreed upon. And yet some will still try to demand that you work between the hours of 10 and 2 three days a week. If you’re paid hourly, you should be charging for hourly phone calls, and clients don’t get to ring you up for expert advice for free because they hired you for something else.

A good way to filter out these clients is to do a paid trial project. If they aren’t up for this or put up a fight about paying you, run. Run far and fast and don’t look back.

6. Not Paying Up Front or Paying Late  

Payment problems is a red flag that’s sometimes hard to spot until you’re in the working relationship. Once you see it, it’s time to call it quits. As soon as you’re paid for any work done, of course.

One of the biggest challenges freelancers will experience is getting paid on time (if at all). As a result, many freelancers– like many businesses– require upfront payments or deposits, especially for substantial products or first-time clients.

If a client isn’t at least willing to meet you in the middle with a deposit, take heed. There’s a reason they won’t pay, and it likely has little to do with not trusting you. And if they’re consistently late in paying you, it’s time to move on. All the time you spend chasing down outstanding balances is taking you away from other work you could be doing, and from finding clients who happily pay on time and in advance.


Even if it doesn’t seem like it at first, there is a whole world of incredible clients out there waiting to find you. Don’t waste your time on the ones that will make your life so miserable you’re longing for the 9-to-5 you were blissfully happy to escape. As the owner of a transcription company who has both dealt with a large number of clients and hired a large number of freelancers myself, I can’t overstate the importance of this.

If you’re struggling to find great clients and aren’t sure where to start, you can look for agencies. Many agencies that work with big groups of freelancers (ours included) have policies in place to keep everyone on the same page and ensure that freelancers are treated well while getting good work.

This post was written by Mack, owner of Transcription Outsourcing.





One response
  1. Jennifer Avatar

    Also watch out for clients who think freelancers should not take vacation or be sick and should work on major holidays. For long term projects, ask up front “What happens when I take vacation?” I’ve had a client demand that I do edits/revisions immediately on Thanksgiving Day before….and it wasn’t like they were outside the US and forgot.

    Oh, another red flag: Demanding insanely fast turnaround, especially if they take their sweet time to tell you they want edits.

    Or expecting you to do three or four rounds of edits for no extra pay. My clients get one round of edits…after that they have to pay.

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