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How to Avoid Client Regret: 9 Signs That You Should Pass on Work

  |   Business Tips   |   42 Comments

How do you avoid bad clients (and the resulting project headaches + lost income) when you're a freelancer or small business owner? There are some specific early warning signs you should look out for -- read the post to see what they are!


When I started doing graphic + web design work full-time as a freelancer, it never occurred to me that there was such a thing as “client regret.”


Avoid bad clients? Nah. There’s no such thing, right?!


Money, after all, is money.


(Oh yes, go on. Laugh at my naïveté. I won’t be offended.)


Perhaps I can redeem myself by admitting that it didn’t take me long to wake me up from my rose-colored world where business owner and client skipped merrily along down the path to glorious pastures of perfectly completed projects, timely payments, and goodwill toward all.


About my third or fourth client in, it was then that I realized: being selective when it comes to clientele is not only perfectly acceptable…it’s an act of profound kindness. For yourself and your business, of course, but even for the other person (who deserves to work with somebody fitted toward their unique wants + personality).


We are all pretty good people. I firmly believe that. But not everyone is meant to work together, and not everyone is a fabulous client.


“Sounds reasonable,” you say. “But how do I spot a bad client before they BECOME a bad client and I have to see the job through to the bitter, smothering end?”


That’s a hard thing to recognize at first, which is why I’ve compiled the following 9 early warning signs (gleaned from my own experiences in the wild wild west that is solo business ownership). I’ve also included a couple of word-for-word scripts you can use to say “no” to potential work that exhibits these — or any other — red flags.


Before you take on a new client, run through this list first. It helps!




1. The potential client demonstrates wildly inconsistent communication


Years ago, when I was still in the destructive freelance mindset of “I have to say yes to everyone or I’m just a lazy bum,” I let a potential graphic design client lead me around for months with promises of work.


One week everything was an urgent mess (“we need to meet for lunch like NOW and, oh, we want your proposal in 24 hours tops”), then I wouldn’t hear from them for a month (“we’re still talking about what we want to do…”).


Four months later we finally signed a contract, but the inconsistent communication continued. Sign off approvals on my work were excruciatingly slow in coming, and what should have only taken a couple of weeks ended up dragging out for so. many. months.


It wasn’t just obnoxious — though it was certainly that! — having extended delays in the creative design process prevented me from doing my best work. (The client was happy, but I was not.)


If you take on a client who can’t maintain regular, reasonable communication, chances are that the ensuing delays will cost you both needed income + precious sanity. Instead, use this script to set them free:


Hi (insert potential client’s name),


Thank you so much for the opportunity to explore working on your (insert the kind of project/service they want done here) together. Regrettably, after some further consideration I’ve come to realize I’m not the best (designer, photographer, chef, artist, etc) suitable for your particular project/needs. However, I’d love to help you find the right person for this important (project/event/…). Below I’ve provided a list of some respected (designers, photographers, chefs, artists, etc) that I recommend.


(insert list of referral names + contact info here)


Again, thank you for considering me (insert potential client’s name). I wish you (much success with your new website/a beautiful wedding/…)!




(insert your name here)


2. The potential client belittles and/or rudely challenges you about your fee


In business it’s normal for price to be a sticking point for some people. Yet, there’s a vast difference between the potential client who says, “I’m not prepared to spend that much right now — what could you do for me at X?” — or, “Who could you refer me to that’s within my budget of Y?” — and the person who retorts with something like this:


“Wow. You must think you’re pretty special.”


Or, “I know a neighbor’s co-worker’s second cousin thrice removed who charges HALF that. So I know it’s definitely not worth what you’re saying it is.”


Or, “You can’t be serious. Get back to me with something reasonable and maybe then we can talk about this.”


You can be sure that if a person has so little respect for you, a working relationship is not going to be a rewarding, successful one. You’ll be bullied throughout the entire process, leaving you with a perpetual feeling of resentment or fear. Here’s how to politely (because you’re a professional like that) remove yourself from the situation:


Dear (insert potential client’s name),


I understand that my (fee/rate/…) is not for everyone. Since it sounds like you need something at a lower price point, I’m going to refer you to (insert list of referral names + contact info here). They are all excellent (copywriters/developers/coaches/…) and I recommend them without hesitation.


I wish you much success (with your e-book/going forward/…).


All the best,


(insert your name here)


3. The potential client wants you to work for free or “on spec”


It pains me to admit this reality, but there’s a group of people out there that think that because you work for yourself, you don’t need to be paid for your time + talents.


If you meet a person like this, they’ll likely say something like, “We’re not in a position to compensate you for this particular project, however we’re convinced that it would be perfect for your portfolio. And of course if things go well, there’s the opportunity for lucrative future work. (hint hint, wink wink)”


If it’s a friend or family member, they might say, “I just need this so bad, but I totally have no money. If you do this for me I promise I’ll recommend you to EVERYBODY I know!”


And others will ask you to give them spec work, meaning that you provide your service to them up front — at no cost — with no guarantee of eventual payment. (“If I like it, I’ll pay you!”)


All offer promises that rarely see realization, though they do offer plenty of headache, heartache, + hobbling bank accounts.


To run a successful business for the long term requires, at minimum, fair payment. Don’t be afraid to insist on it or say “no thank you.”


4. The potential client pressures you to start work without a contract


A contract is the one thing that stands between you + the lurking disasters inherent to doing business with flawed humans. Most people respect this. They understand that no contract equals no work.


But if you work independently for long enough, you’re sure to come across a few who want to overlook this “minor” detail.


“Let’s just start and I’ll get the contract signed when I get back into town next week…” they say.


“I really want to stay on schedule with this project, so why don’t you do A, B, and C. You don’t have to worry about the contract, I’ll get it to you!” they promise.


You may feel pressured to cave (just this once!), particularly if said person represents an opportunity for huge income and/or prestige, is someone you know, or seems oh-so-sweet. Don’t do it, though. If an attorney, counselor, or key smith won’t do work without an agreement, either should you.


The good news is that, in this situation, you rarely have to walk away from the job entirely. Many potential clients will respond well to an upbeat but firm, “I’m as excited as you to get started! I will need to get your signature on the contract before I can begin any work, however. As soon as I get that, we can dive right in. Thanks!”


(If they get insulting or otherwise offensive at this reminder, be alarmed. Use the script in point #1 to bow out quickly.)




5. The potential client expects you to be available 24/7


Unless we’re talking about Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the individual who wants your immediate attention any time of day — all days of the week, no matter if it’s outside business hours or on a holiday — is a dangerous person to add to your clientele.


This person can be spotted by their flood of increasingly hyper Facebook messages between 8 p.m. and midnight or the Sunday morning Twitter DMs asking, “Did you get my email I sent last night??”


They might also pressure you for 4 a.m. Skype sessions, twice-daily Hangouts, or daily “progress reports.”


They may text you incessantly with questions. Thoughts. Epiphanies.


If they’re local, this person will call you at 10 a.m., wanting you to meet them somewhere (“real quick”) at no later than 11 a.m. Or, if they’re part of an organization, they will request that in addition to your work for them, you also attend all of their weekly or monthly meetings/luncheons/parties “just so you can get to know us.” (Will you be compensated for this extra time? No ma’am.)


If you see signs of this kind of behavior before you enter into a work agreement, don’t hesitate: educate (or re-educate) them ASAP about your availability policy. Outline what kind of contact methods are appropriate, your strict working hours, etc. Be explicit and leave no room for interpretation.


“I won’t be attending any weekly luncheons.”


“I accept text messages if there is an emergency only. For the purposes of my business, an emergency is: ___________.”


“I respond to emails every Monday - Thursday from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. ET.”


Include all of this in your contract. Make sure they see it…again.


If you still don’t sense that they “get it” — or they give you grief about it — it’s risky to go any further. Once you have their money in hand, they will act even more entitled to every spare second of your life. Not a pleasant thought, is it?


The top 9 unmistakable early warning signs that you should pass on client work. Use this list for your small business to spot & avoid bad clients...and preserve your sanity! You can read all the details + get a few perfect email scripts to help you turn down work at


6. The potential client won’t fully participate in your initial discovery questions


This was a business lesson I learned almost immediately. In exploring a design project for one of my first “big” potential clients, I came upon their curious tendency to hedge around almost all of my specific questions regarding their goals, ideas, likes, + dislikes.


I was a bit frustrated, but the lure of a paycheck led me to believe it was no big deal. I could handle it…right?




Later, after the contract was already signed, I sent a more detailed questionnaire. It was grudgingly sent back over a week later. Many of the responses went like this:


“It’s up to you.”


“I don’t really have any examples of things I like.”


“I’m not sure why that’s important.”


“The style I like is… Well, I just want it to POP. You know?”


You might think this kind of client is more open than most to your own creative ideas, but alas: it’s often the opposite. In my case I found out (well over a month later) that this client in fact knew EXACTLY what they wanted — and had their ideas in mind all along — but didn’t think it important to share it with me up front when I had asked.


I wasted a shocking number of hours doing work for them that had to be totally scrapped.


Naturally, if they had taken some time to cooperate with my initial questions, the situation would have been a whole lot different!


Unless they can be persuaded to the importance of their thorough, thoughtful input beforehand, don’t take on a client who is uncooperative + inarticulate. It shows a profound lack of respect towards you, plus it only sets you up for failure down the road.


7. The potential client wants you to (essentially) copy another’s work


This doesn’t happen a whole lot (thankfully!), but when it does? It’s a deal breaker.


“I want my logo to look just like __________’s logo, but with my biz name and maybe a slightly different color.”


“I just love ___________’s website copy — it’s perfect. I want mine to say nearly the exact same thing. Just with a few of your personal flourishes here and there, of course.”


“I want the same ebook cover photo and font as ____________. Can you just copy it?”


This sketchy situation is hard to catch before you both sign on the dotted line, but from time to time you do get lucky. (It helps if you’re diligent with asking exploratory questions early on.)


When you do find out their intentions, your next step is to educate this person about A) your ethical standards, B) copyright law, and C) how they’re paying for your skills + expertise in creating something uniquely for them — and that will represent them in the best possible light. Try to get your potential client to look past the idea of copying the object of their desire and instead explore what about it can be used for inspiration in creating something completely new.


If they still won’t budge, don’t sacrifice your reputation, creativity, and (potentially) your business itself in order to appease them. Explain that while you’d love to help them, you can’t take on that kind of risk. Then take your clear conscience and walk away.


8. The potential client complains about others they’ve worked with


This is an easy situation to spot, which is good…because then it makes it easy for you to pass on the work without getting too invested in the person or the project. From the moment you start communicating with a potential client like this, they’ll usually clue you in fast with remarks like:


“Oh gosh, I’m so glad I found you! The last two big name coaches I’ve worked with left A LOT to be desired. I just seem to have bad luck finding people who really have the skills they advertise…”


“I had to fire my last sales page designer because she (insert anywhere between 3-99 different reasons as to why the person was egregious at her job). It was devastating! And she came so well-recommended, too…”


“I’ve run through 5 different social media managers in the last 6 months because nobody seems to know what they’re doing.”


“We’re working with someone on a different project right now and having quite a few problems with them… We just don’t know what we’re going to do. Have you heard anything about them by chance? Their name is ___________.”


What’s hardest about avoiding a bad client like this is that it’s so freaking tempting to take on the role of being the “business hero” in this person’s life. With all these horrible experiences, it’s easy to believe that surely you can step in and save the day.


But oh, my friend.


That so rarely happens.


The fact of the matter is, people who say things like the above in a professional setting either thrive on perpetual drama or secretly pride themselves on being hard to please. (Sometimes both.) For awhile you will play their savior, but when the time is right, you’ll soon be transferred to the inevitable role of The Incompetent Biz Owner — and your name will be besmirched with all the rest of them.


Your best bet when meeting a dissatisfied, gossiping individual who wants to hire you? Get far away while you still can.


9. The potential client gives you the heebie jeebies, whirly willies, or any other sort of bad “gut feeling”

I don’t know what whirly willies are, actually. (I hope not something super inappropriate. I’m a little too frightened to Google it.) But you get what I’m aiming for, right? Those people who just make you feel like…shrinking, squirming, or slithering inside.


What makes it hard on you as a business owner is that these people are those who, by all appearances, would be perfectly fine to work with. They seem polite + responsive. They’re not knocking every other expert in your niche. They’re willing to pay your going rate. They’re clear on what they want.


You feel you SHOULD work with them. You really have no objective reason not to.


Except for that nagging, uncomfortable feeling in your stomach.


There are some that would tell you to ignore it and “be a man.” They might even break into a catchy little Disney song, like this one. But I’m not one of those people, and I’m here to assure you that it’s okay to listen to your intuition.


It’s there for a reason.


Sometimes very unwell people are so successful at being manipulative that they can slip past people’s radar screens. They know how to act the part so that no one can accuse them of anything too obvious.


But our human brains are still extraordinary at recognizing inconsistencies and actions or words that are ever-so-slightly off. If you don’t dismiss its subtle “alarm,” you can save yourself a world of trouble. Please take my word on that, and don’t ever feel bad for passing on work that, for whatever reason, seems wrong.






Do you have any red flags that you watch for when considering working with someone? Have you encountered any of the situations above? Do you feel comfortable turning down work? Tell me about in the comments below.



Erika Madden

(Chief Olyvia)



You may also like these posts:


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The ‘Secret’ Trick to Delivering Consistent Customer Service as an Online Biz Owner


How to Handle Negative Comments Online (Like a Pro)


Delight: The Digital Biz Owner’s Guide to Creating a Pro Client + Customer Service Plan


How to Get Clients to Pay (for Sensitive Business Owners)




  • Um, can I just say that this is amazing?

    I have absolutely dealt with these clients before and promised myself in 2016 I would be much more selective with who I take on. I love how you have described all of these tell-tale signs - so accurate; couldn’t have said it better myself!


    • You’re so kind, Anna. Thank you for your comment! I can honestly say I’ve never regretted being selective about clientele. Once I was, I began working with such great people. So much more rewarding!

  • So glad to see this topic. I found your blog through Arts & Classy. I’ve written about avoiding difficult clients as well, although from a different industry:

    I think #9 is a very important point that may be the easiest to overlook when being very driven to get the job.

    • Oh I’m LOLing over here at your (very accurate) classifications of difficult clients. “Champagne taste with a beer budget.” Hilarious.

      I completely agree — #9 is the easiest to ignore, but probably by far the most dangerous.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Patricia. 🙂 I love the Arts & Classy blog — Meredith is so kind + talented.

  • A thousand times yes! Filtering my clients is something that I wished I had learned earlier on in my business. It’s hard to feel like you should be selective! Ultimately, it’s for the best of EVERYONE.

    Thank you for bringing up this super topic!

    • Ahhh, yes, it IS SO DIFFICULT, Bev. Between feeling like you need it for the money to feeling like if you don’t take the job you’re just being lazy, being selective is probably one of the most difficult things to do as service provider. I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggled with that!

  • This post was fab, as always.
    No reason to take on difficult clients that are just gonna stress you out.
    xoxo, Jenny

  • Nicole Leith

    Such a great list! Working the medical field we had some patients who refused to listen to the doctor and just basically wanted access to a Rx pad (and not always for narcotics). As much as people hate to hear it, client relationships are a team effort.

    • Isn’t that funny? I used to work in the medical field, too, and I totally get what you’re saying here. I saw it all the time. “I don’t need to see anyone, I just want X, Y, and Z done my way. Pronto.” It took a lot of tact to get people to see the wisdom of listening to a professional.

  • Heather Serra

    “You think you’re pretty special” *gasp* People have actually been that rude?! I love your wording for peacefully…how we say, sending them on their way. Good for you- and great read!

    • Thank you, Heather. 🙂 No one said that to me personally (thank GOODNESS), but unfortunately I have heard about it being said to others. 🙁

  • This is such good advice! There are some things I’ve never thought about but after reading it — woah! Thank you!

  • Thank you so much for this Erika! I so need this right now. I often find myself struggle in dealing with difficult clients! I love everything about your site! Such a great resource for newbies like me who is trying to establish their brand online. And ohh so many pinnable posts!! I’ll definitely be coming back often here..

    • Aw, you are so kind, Tisha! I’m really just so happy that you find helpful advice here. That makes it all worth it. 🙂 Thank you for support, and for taking the time to read through these posts. Please let me know if I can help you find something specific!

  • YES to this. All of it. I do very basic graphic design and I have had my share of both. IT can be so frustrating, and sometimes it’s not even worth it.

    • You’re right, it’s incredibly frustrating. I think it’s hard to know where to draw the line and say “this ISN’T worth it,” which was why I was inspired to write this post. I believe everyone should know it’s OK to say ‘no’ every now and then!

  • Love the link to Jonathan Rhys Meyers images. 🙂 I’ve experienced most of these warning signs. When it comes to turning down work, I’ve have gotten much better about not taking on projects when I see *certain* warning signs. In my years as a designer, I’ve learned that not everything I see as a warning sign, is cause for avoiding a client. Sometimes I’ll get a bad feeling about a project, and the client turns out to be one of my most loyal and enjoyable clients.

    I’ve learned that for the most part, people don’t have ill intentions. For example, a client may expect you to be around 24/7 but that usually happens when people don’t set boundaries. I have boundaries set, and I let my clients know about those boundaries from the beginning. I find that usually, if you’re upfront from the beginning, some things never become an issue.

  • As always fantastic article Erika!! This one is seriously awesome!

  • Sussie

    Love your kind (and not “icky”-polite) way of telling people what could come out way to hard. Also, i should print put the last two paragraphs and hang it somewhere. You are absolutely right about the “under the radar” point!

  • Great, Great, read, loved it and hilarious.

  • Whew. Yes this. I mean, sometimes it’s hard to hear that we need to let clients go but it really does need to happen.

    Feels like I learned this the hard way but whatever. haha.

    It’s nice reading that others have gone through similar experiences and it’s absolutely ok to say “no” sometimes.

  • Lori Widmer

    Yes. This. All of it.

    As I read this, I found myself saying “Yep, that’s happened to me.” So as I got to the bottom of the list, I realized my career is the poster child of this post (would that be Post-er Child?). I have had every single one of these clients in front of me at some point in the last 16 years.

    #1: She scheduled 13 conference calls and missed all but one.
    #2: He told me (just last year) “Your pricing is outrageous.”
    #3: He said, “Just help us out for three days (unpaid) and you can rub shoulders with potential clients!”
    #4: He said indignantly “In my ten years of publishing I’ve never had any writer require a contract.”
    #5: She called me during my daughter’s graduation party, pissed that I wasn’t around to answer questions on copy she’d received three weeks prior. “I wish you’d give me your cell phone number.”
    #6: He said, “Read this article written by a client. It will tell you everything about my business.” It didn’t.
    #7: She wanted me to “rework to 80% original” two different published articles (not hers) into one.

    #8: She said “You’re the fifth writer, and expectations are high because the others didn’t know what they were doing.”
    #9: He was nice at first, then launched into his book idea about almost being murdered on his Navy ship, living for three years as a woman, and how conspirators are constantly targeting him.

    You’re so right — you have to have the radar on, the station tuned to Batshit Crazy, and your instincts on high alert.

  • Katharine Paljug

    Yes, all these points, so true!

    I think 2 and 6 are the ones I’ve encountered the most. And while I understand 2 (I don’t like it, I don’t think there’s a good reason for it, but I understand where it comes from) I just DO NOT GET number 6.

    Why would you make it harder for someone to give you what you want?

    But it happens, and it is so frustrating!

  • Melinda Lawson Pollard

    Love this!! I have had clients like these- I also get the discount question up front or the client that emails me constantly or wants to hop on the phone with me even after we’ve had a clear discussion and they still want to chat more! I have personally found that the ones that don’t want to pay for your value or want a discount are the ones you definitely need to avoid! Great blog post!!

  • Bay

    This is so useful! Thanks for taking the time to put it all together.

  • Wish I’d read this before experiencing #6 w/a client a few weeks ago. We’d worked together before (and “know” each other) and I winded up doing an extra FOUR hours of work that I realized that they felt entitled to bc there was a misunderstanding of what I being hired for (photography) and what was expected (photography AND styling). Only realized it bc there was an additional payment made (that I thought was to offset some of the extra time; forgot to include overage rates in my agreement). Needless to say, I know we won’t be working together again, and now there will always be an awkwardness between us because of this. Totally revamped my agreement template and will be turning away clients that aren’t ideal. The money is NOT worth it!


  • Yes yes yes great points listed out!

  • Another one to add on to this list is that the potential client has a knack for baiting and switching then getting mad when you won’t do the extra work without additional fees. I find that if the client gives you hassle as soon as you try to discuss rates for additional work, it’s usually a sign that you should refer to a designer that can fit within their budget while collecting a referral fee on the backend.

    Another thing I’d like to add are clients that are not willing to learn how to use their site. Alot of freelancers don’t like to deal with site management and for a client not willing to learn how to upload products to an ecommerce site can be a huge headache later on down the line. I think that its important for every designer to spell out what they ARENT willing to do in the beginning and always have a back up referral for maintenance and troubleshooting.

    • I actually offer monthly maintenance plans. It’s a great way to get a recurring monthly income, which is very important for freelancers since much of our income is not on a regular basis otherwise.

      • Yeah I think monthly maintenance plans are definitely the way to go if you and the client have a good relationship. Graphic Design used to be my main service, but after I got involved more with marketing / advertising, I started adding Graphic Design as an extension to my marketing services (where I’m actually retained on a monthly basis). I love design, but I found I stopped loving it when I started designing at mass rates. Now I only offer design services for projects I really and truly love.

  • Jubilee Jones

    I’ve dealt with all these types over the years and I have definitely learned to fire clients with no regret. Just fired a client a few days ago who was misleading about their project. After finishing the design in “portrait” and sending several copies to be revised before the final was sent, the client said she wanted it in landscape which meant redesigning the whole project on a fixed price project! (I agreed to a fixed price over hourly because she had a sob story about her ministry budget. Red flag right there!) I said “No thanks. I will cut my losses at this point. Have you tried Fiverr yet?”. PS- Fixed price over hourly fee is another story!

  • anytairons

    Love it and sooo true! Thanks so much for sharing hun!

  • Savanna HR

    All of these are so true. I’d also add one that I heard recently and would’ve never thought of: if they don’t use your name in the initial inquiry. If they don’t even care enough to address you, they probably won’t respect you much down the line.

  • This is such a great post! We’ve all been there in accepting work that we don’t *really* want because you have bills to pay/ you feel sorry for the person/ you think you can be the one who tames the client… but ultimately it’s miles better off to politely decline before you’re committed!

  • gratatt

    I was looking for this topic because I just had someone offer me work she was outsourcing to me from her client. First, she wanted too much for the money, but what really got me was that she refused to sign a contract, saying I was her “subcontractor” so she didn’t need a contract.

    When I first started freelancing, a very experienced freelancer told me to NEVER EVER EVER EVER do work without a contract. Not one word. Not one phone call. Nothing. I’m sure this person has a contract with her client, but since she does not want to let me protect myself, I’m pretty sure she won’t pay me.

    I just put a link to your article up on my writer’s forum. We have a lot of content mill people looking to move into private client work, so I thought this would be valuable for them. Thanks!

  • Shawn Jenkins

    This is just excellent! I literally just dealt with this for 10 days- that gut thing is real!

  • Great stuff! As far as #2 goes, I personally would just not reply back tot hem, though.

  • Wish I found this earlier! Got a PITA client that hits most these points!! 🙁 Lesson learned.

  • This post was fab, as always. thanks for share with us

  • Express diagnostics

    This post was fab, as always.
    No reason to take on difficult clients that are just gonna stress you out.Amazing….

  • andrew lipman

    Thank you! Excellent and this article “reads me” and validates.