Watching Out for Red Flags with New Clients

If I were to list all the clients I’ve worked with during my freelancing career, I’d say that 99.5% of them were a pleasure to work with.  They gave clear instructions, sent constructive feedback, and paid me on time.  I love working with these clients over and over again.

Then there’s that 0.5% that I wish I never worked with.  They scammed me out of my work, never paid, and tried to get away with it.  After taking advantage of me, they repeat the same process with the next freelancer, and the next, and the next, until threads about their scamming ways start appearing in message boards.  Does this sound familiar to you?  If not, count yourself lucky.

It’s a good thing that this hasn’t happened to me in the last three years.  I probably owe this to the fact that I pay attention to any red flags or hunches I get when negotiating with new clients.

Things to watch out for

Of course, the first place where you can spot any red flags is the first email you receive from a prospective client, or the ad they place.  Previously, I talked about dissecting online job placement ads.  One of the points I raised was that the way an ad is written often reflects the communication style of the business.  If the ad is very detailed and well written, it usually indicates professionalism.  It’s alright for potential clients to have grammar or spelling mistakes, but when the sentences are too vague or hardly make sense, future communication might be such a hassle.  The same could be said for the first exchange of emails.

Watch out for ads with a defensive tone, such as “Don’t send an outrageous quote, as I can get my neighbor’s son to do this” or “This shouldn’t cost/take more than….”  This just goes to show the small value they’ll be placing on you and your work.

The number one thing that makes me nervous about a potential client is when they’re hesitant to sign a contract.  Not because of anything in the contract per se, they just don’t like contracts, period.  I’ve yet to hear a solid argument against a contract, but here are some of what I’ve heard so far:

  • “But it’s only for 3 articles! Surely, you don’t need a contract for a job this small.”
  • “I never had to sign a contract with a freelancer before, why should you be the exception?”
  • “What for?  I trust that you’ll deliver your end of the deal.  Don’t you think it’s unfair that you don’t trust me?”

Here’s why no argument ever works: the contract is there to protect the rights of both the freelancer and the client.  It defines who owns the work, the scope of the project, and the details of the payment.  It sets clear expectations on both sides, with each party feeling confident that he or she won’t be messed around with.  Honest clients usually understand and appreciate having a contract, even if you’re the first freelancer to send them one.

Another thing that raises my doubts is when the new client wants to pay only when you’ve sent the entire project to them.  They don’t want to make down payments, and they don’t want to pay you after each project milestone.  You’re supposed to fulfill your end of the deal first, and then get paid.  After all, how can they trust you when they only met you online?

Agreeing to this kind of payment scheme is like leaving your laptop unguarded in a busy coffee shop, with your PayPal username and password as the desktop wallpaper, to boot.  You’re setting yourself up to be robbed.  True, your client might have made an honest mistake, but if they can’t see how this kind of arrangement is grossly unfair to you, then the project isn’t worth the risk.

It’s also important to pay attention to what comes up when you’re profiling your client.  You’re bound to research your new client anyway, especially for big projects.  What comes up when you enter his name or the company name into a search engine?  Are there any negative results?  How does he answer the client questionnaire you sent?  Is he evading questions that are integral to the project?

What to do when a red flag goes up

Like I said earlier, a red flag is sometimes an honest mistake.  But this doesn’t mean that you should spend hours of your time trying to convince your client to agree to the conditions you want to set.  If you’ve sent the email or made the phone call that explains your side, that should be enough.  Otherwise, you’ll just be wasting your time and energy with a person or business that doesn’t respect the work that you do.

Were you ever scammed by a client?  How did it happen?  Was there anything that raised your doubts from the start?

Image by Simon Cataudo from

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