How to Spot a Nightmare Client: Look for These 5 Red Flags

Working as a freelancer can be a dream when you have a good client. But it can be an absolute nightmare when you have a bad client.

Here are 5 red flags to help you spot bad clients before you agree to a project:

Red Flag #1:
Client promises future work to lower your fee.

I remember the first time a potential client used this tactic on me. He told me there would be a boatload of work to come after the first project. “We’ll be able to keep you busy for months,” he said.

That’s pretty appealing to a freelancer just starting out.

But don’t fall for it. The promise of future work is just a red herring to get you to reduce your fee. And chances are, all that future work will never materialize.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that clients are notoriously fickle. They always have big dreams and plans — but often get distracted and move on to “the next big thing,” which probably doesn’t include you.

Furthermore, if that work does indeed materialize, you won’t be able to raise your fees. Your client will demand that you do the work for the reduced fee you agreed to at the beginning. And do you really want to work on the cheap for a stingy client?

Bottom line: Never bank on future work a new client promises. And never lower your fee based on the mere possibility of a future project. Focus on today’s project and get paid what today’s project is worth.

Red Flag #2:
Client says, “It should be really easy for you.”

If a client comes to you with a potential project, and then says, “It should be really easy for you,” be cautious.

This statement reveals that the client doesn’t value your hard-won talent. It also reveals he is trying to get you to quote a fee based on the time it will take you to complete the task instead of the value you’ll create.

Unfortunately, anytime you’re working on an hourly basis, there’s a penalty for experience and efficiency. The more experience you have, and the more efficient you are, the faster you’ll get things done.

Therefore, if you’re charging only based on the time it takes you to complete a task, you’ll get paid less and less per project, and you’ll have to increase your project volume just to maintain your income.

I personally recommend that you charge by the project. Charge for your services based on the value you bring to the table. And don’t let a potential client make you feel bad (or lower your fee) for your experience and efficiency.

Red Flag #3:
Client pushes for a complicated payment schedule.

If I take on a new client, I get full payment up front. With clients I trust, I’ll let them send payment during the project or 50% up front, 50% on completion.

But a 50/50 split is as far as I will ever go.

I once had a client who wanted to split up a project into three payments. I don’t remember the exact percentages now, but it was something like: 35% to get started, 35% upon submission of first draft, 30% upon completion of edits and client satisfaction.

Guess what? This client withheld the final payment, claiming he wasn’t “satisfied”… yet continued to use my copy to sell new clients into an expensive mentoring program for 2+ years.

Another client told me she couldn’t afford my fee and asked if I would accept a down payment plus three monthly payments after that. I agreed.

I got the down payment, but — no surprise — she never made a single payment after that. And this was after she had assured me her credit was good, that she would never think of not paying me, etc.

Anytime a client wants an unusual payment plan, walk away, ‘cuz you ain’t gettin’ paid. At least that’s been my experience. Get your entire fee up front, or get a 50/50 split. Any fee schedule that’s more fragmented than that and you’re asking for trouble.

Red Flag #4:
Multiple people involved in approving your work.

The best working relationships I have, I’m working with just one person. Anytime I write something, one person has the final say. This is the way it should be.

On the flip side, if more than one person is reviewing your work, and each person has an equal say, then you’re in big trouble. Because you can’t please everybody. It’s impossible.

I recently had an experience where I thought I was dealing with one person, then found out too late that I was actually dealing with 4-5 people.

In fact, there was at least one person I had never met or spoken with reviewing my work — and his feedback was given considerable weight. Did this person know anything about direct response advertising? Of course not.

I once remember John Carlton talking about how he stopped writing for the big mail houses because getting copy approved by the board was such a nightmare. Five years later, I know firsthand what he was talking about.

Try to determine in advance who is going to approve your work. Make sure you know who that person is. And make sure nobody else has an equal say. Too many chefs in the kitchen spoils the soup, if you get my drift.

If you find out that your work will be reviewed by three or four business partners, watch out. You may be destined to fail before you even begin.

Red Flag #5:
Client is a poor communicator.

I was recently hired by two different clients. During our initial conversations, it struck me that neither one was a good communicator. They had difficulty expressing what they were looking for.

Against my better judgment, I accepted the projects. Here’s what happened:

Client #1 (a female) asked me to write the copy blind. My client had been hired by another guy, and she was acting as a project manager. So her client was the real client. Anyway, her client was too busy to answer questions, so I had virtually nothing to go on.

I turned in the first draft, which they didn’t like. (Duh!) Garbage in, garbage out, folks. This project went from bad to worse, and they never paid the second payment, even though I rewrote the copy four times based on their anemic input.

Client #2 (a guy) contracted me to write some postcards. He provided almost zero guidance and didn’t have any print-ready photos for me to use, even though these postcards were supposed to promote a live event featuring a number of famous speakers.

I wrote the copy, twice got feedback from his team, but heard nothing from him. Got the postcard designed, twice got feedback from his team, but heard nothing from him.

Finally, he dropped an “email bomb” on me and his whole team saying how displeased he was. Well, he had four opportunities to say something, and he didn’t. Not only that, he wanted “world-class design,” but was only willing to pay the designer $50 per over-sized postcard.

The problem with Client #1 was poor communication and an unwillingness to follow protocol (“just write the copy”). The problem with Client #2 was poor communication and a poorly trained team, compounded by his out-of-control ego.

Whenever you’re speaking with a potential client, pay close attention to how they communicate. Does he or she strike you as a good communicator or a poor communicator? If the latter, listen to your gut and decline the project. Poor communicators usually make for bad clients.

It’s a Learning Process

Building a successful freelance business is a continuous learning process.

There’s no way you can avoid bad clients altogether, but hopefully the “red flags” I’ve shared here will help you avoid the worst of them.

And, of course, if you have any red flags you look out for, please share them below.

-Ryan M. Healy

P.S. Want to get your first client… or just get more clients? Check out my special report on How to Get Your First Real Copywriting Client in 14 Days or Less.

Ryan M. Healy

Ryan Healy is a financial copywriter and the author of Speed Writing for Nonfiction Writers. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like,, and

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