The Freelancer’s Guide To Avoiding Nightmare Clients

Some of the people who approach you really do want to talk business. Others are aimlessly shopping around (or worse).

The Freelancer’s Guide To Avoiding Nightmare Clients
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

Have you ever gotten an email from a prospect who asks question after question, only to decide they’re not interested?


Freelancers have limited time to sort out which projects to take on and which to dismiss. In an ideal world, you’d be able to tell a hot prospect from a dud. Unfortunately, things are rarely so simple. But whenever I’m approached for help by prospective clients, there are usually a few warning signs that tell me who’s seriously looking for help and who’s just looking around without really knowing what they want or who prioritize the wrong things.

Here are three strategies freelancers can use in order to manage those conversations efficiently, identify core clients, and minimize contact with everyone else.

1. Budget Your Time With Prospects

If someone takes up a lot of your time during initial discussions (writing long emails, asking lots of questions), chances are, things won’t get better after you’ve signed them on–and that’s if they decide to go with you. A prospect might ask repeatedly for advice without talking about the terms of a project.

Sometimes it might feel like providing enough value to the other person will encourage them to actually work with you. But I’ve found that this often isn’t the case. Ultimately, your advice and expertise aren’t free. Even if you don’t execute a certain job, you can charge for the consultation. After all, if someone’s getting all the help and advice they need, where’s the incentive to sign on as a client?

Give just enough attention and advice to a prospect to show how knowledgable you are and reassure them that they’ll be in good hands if they strike a deal with you. But if you spend a lot of energy helping someone over and over–even in ways that seem small–they’ll be conditioned to expect it while getting your attention and expertise for free.

So try limiting the exchange to a few emails before progressing to a bigger commitment, like a phone call, meeting, or smaller project that contributes towards the potential client’s larger goal. That forces your prospect to think more seriously about whether to work together.


2. Distinguish Between “Cost” And “Value” Clients

If you’ve been speaking with a prospect about your services, money will come up eventually, which is usually a good thing–you want to get paid. The question is how and when that conversation takes place.

In my experience, there are generally two types of clients: the “cost” client and the “value” client. The former focuses on getting work done at the lowest price possible, with quality more of an afterthought. The “value” client, on the other hand, wants the work done right and is interested in the value you can provide. Cost is secondary, as long as you provide high-quality work.

Most freelancers generally prefer to have value-driven clients. If that’s you, here are some phrases to look out for in your earliest exchanges, which could signal a client who’s more focused on cost:

  • “$200? I could get that from someone else for $20.”
  • “I’m poor and don’t have any money.” (I’ve heard this from people who are multi-millionaires.)
  • The very first question is, “How much will that cost?”

Despite your best efforts, some people will focus only on cost and not on the value you provide. If that happens, it may be time to walk away–those can quickly become nightmare clients. Not every prospect you speak with will wind up working with you, and that’s okay.

3. Decide What Each Client Is Worth

According to the well-known Pareto principle, 20% of your efforts can lead to 80% of your outcomes. That’s a helpful rule of thumb for any freelancer in sorting out where to devote their energy.

Start by looking at your clients and assessing the amount of support (i.e., time) they require relative to the revenue they generate. You can use a value quadrant like this one to determine which of your clients fall where:

Image: courtesy of Melissa Chu

Your most valuable customers are in the top left quadrant–high revenue with little support. I’ve found that the most lucrative projects I’ve worked on actually come from clients who make fewer demands overall.

Once you’ve identified the clients who fit into the top left quadrant, take some time to learn more about them. Are there common demographic factors–age, occupation, geographical location, type of projects requested, etc.? You’re basically doing market research: Find out what these clients have in common, where they congregate, and what their needs are. It’s as simple as talking to them to find out. The more you know, the better you can go after high-revenue, low-support prospects in a focused way.

Sometimes, the simplest explanation is the best explanation. The more time you can spend working with clients that can provide the highest revenue for the least amount of effort, the less likely you’ll be to waste time trading emails with needy, difficult prospects who might not pay you anyways.

Melissa Chu writes at, where she helps entrepreneurs and freelancers get more done in less time and achieve their goals.