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Watching Out for Red Flags with New Clients

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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

10 Responses to “Watching Out for Red Flags with New Clients”

  1. I’m fortunate that most of my work these days is with long-term clients. In my early days, this certainly was not the case.

    As a software developer (FileMaker Pro), I usually meet my clients face to face.

    My addition: The few times that I walked in to meet the client for the first time and my gut told me to get out of there, I should have done that.

    That gut feeling is a red flag.

  2. How about those clients that want you to clone Amazon, eBay, or YouTube with a budget of $500? What are they thinking? You should also avoid any project for charity or a good cause that the client is doing without any expectation of making a profit because he will expect you to donate your time as well.

  3. Such wisdom! It’s so obvious when our gut tells us that something doesn’t feel right yet we want to provide support to the client and are inclined to jump in. I’ve not been burned yet but have heard a few of these lines. I’m thankful that I discovered where 10,000+ virtual assistants meet and share experiences. This topic, informally, has been shared and we’ve learned to be smart about how we conduct business. Working online brings a new level to being business smart.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks for sharing your post, David. I’m sorry to say that when I was more naive, I’ve heard some of those lines from potential clients and didn’t recognize them as red flags.

    I find that “We have all this work in the future” is usually a line used to get contractors to agree to lower prices.

  5. What a timely post! We just posted a similiar one on the Red Flags of New Clients.

    In a nutshell, look out for clients that say

    I need you to start today.
    My word is my honor.
    My other vendor stiffed me.
    My other vendor was late.
    My assistant will sign the approval form.
    Sorry I’m late for the meeting.
    We have all this work in the future.

  6. I’ve always said that if I could invent a “crazy” detector, I could make big money selling it to other consultants so that they could sniff out in advance who will be a problem to work with. Now, conveniently, this article does just that.

    I won’t make big money, but it will help me to avoid problem clients. Great post!