Three Freelance Clients You Need To Steer Clear Of

Here’s how to stop the types of mind-set that nightmare clients bring to the table.

Three Freelance Clients You Need To Steer Clear Of
[Photo: Flickr user Teresa Alexander-Arab]

It’s only a matter of time before every freelancer encounters bad clients. A few are just irritating, while others can be downright damaging to your business. Sometimes the project is to blame, but other times it’s actually the client’s attitude—and that’s the real problem. While projects can change, a bad client’s mind-set isn’t likely to. So even if the work is ideal, the way a client treats you project after project can become (and remain) unbearable.


In fact, I’ve actually learned to shy away from the term “freelancer,” since it tends to evoke the image of a cheap fixer-upper in the minds of even well-meaning clients, rather than the strategic partner you want to be treated as. Lots of consultants and independent workers enter the world of self-employment still thinking like employees, which opens the door for all kinds of mistreatment, willful or otherwise.

Then again, there are still plenty of clients who’ll treat you badly no matter what you do. Here are three client mind-sets you should be wary of, along with warning signs to help you avoid them in the first place.

1. The Know-It-All

There’s always a gap between what the client thinks they know and what they really understand. When pushed, some clients will readily admit they lack expertise, but know-it-alls insist they know better. If you take on this type of client, they’ll eschew your advice and demand that you do things their way.

The problem usually isn’t ego, though—it’s a lack of self-awareness. Know-it-all clients are typically self-taught, taking pride in their ability to bootstrap their business. But in certain subject areas they simply lack the competence they think they possess; they often actually have even less knowledge than they think they do.

In other words, they’ve fallen victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a common cognitive bias that leads people to overestimate their abilities. We’re all unaware of our blind spots and biases, but some people are more so than others—to the point that they believe they’re far better than the real experts. Some clients talk a good game and give off an air of mastery, but the more you learn the clearer it becomes that they’re really just a beginner. You might even start to wonder why they thought they needed you at all.

How to spot a know-it-all client: This type of client often cites for hiring you is their lack of time rather than their lack of skill. They sprinkle terms that suggest domain knowledge throughout your conversations. They come to the project with a detailed plan. At first, this sounds like somebody who’s got a good handle on things—great. But later, when you try to dissuade them from anything they suggest, they push back. Their lack of self-awareness starts peeking through, and eventually it costs you a lot of extra time and plenty of unneeded stress.


2. The Scrappy Underdog

Every client wants a great price, and many will try to negotiate down your rates. Wanting to get the best price is one thing, but then there are bargain-hunters with outsize ambitions. This kind of freelance client wants to create something legendary—for less. Woefully underfunded, they see themselves as the scrappy underdog who will defeat the giant. That leads this type of client to ignore conventional wisdom despite the odds; they just know they’ll be successful no matter the conditions, and they want you to help prove them right.

The biggest problem with scrappy-underdog clients is that they couple unrealistic optimism with under-spending. Rather than seeing themselves as skillful, know-it-alls do, this misperception is more about unrealistic optimism; they believe they’ll succeed where others haven’t. But when you look at their requirements and the budget, you know it’ll take a miracle to do this project at their quoted price. If you take on this project, you assume the risk of failing to pull it off.

How to spot a scrappy-underdog client: They use phrases like “disrupt the industry,” or “never been done.” Another warning sign is asking you to take equity in lieu of pay, or proposing a heavily discounted fee in exchange for “exposure.” Only take on this kind of client if it’s a project you’re equally passionate about and you’re able to take a financial risk.

3. The Helicopter Client

Most clients are deeply engaged in a project under their direction, but some act more like a boss. They check in frequently, outline long to-do lists in Trello, or send epic daily emails detailing what needs to get done. It’s exhausting.

Not only that, but this type of client usually expects you to be at all the meetings, wants you to record your time down to the minute, and may even ask you to submit a timesheet. Helicopter clients tend to request detailed daily status reports, and once you give an estimated timeline for a task they’ll pester you until it’s done. Maybe they’re just trying to be helpful, but there’s a bigger problem lurking: a need for control.

This type of client feels disconnected and uncomfortable when the work is out of their hands. Full of self-doubt, they have serious control issues. With a helicopter client, you’ll begin to feel like you have a boss again, rather than working for yourself.


How to spot a helicopter client: They’ll bring detailed notes to your initial discussions. Maybe they’ll ask for several references and if they can’t reach them all, will ask for more. The intensive vetting usually doesn’t end there. They might also ask for numerous work samples or want to have you do a small project for free. Unless you like structure to the point of micromanagement, you should avoid working with a helicopter client.

Why? Because there are plenty of good clients out there. You should never feel like you have to put up with bad client behavior. By asking good questions and picking up on any early red flags during the negotiation phase, you’ll be able to spot these three types of mind-set before you’ve got a nightmare client on your hands.