6 Warning Signs of a Problem Client

Have you ever had a project that turned out to cause way more stress that it was worth? Of course you have. We all have. Most of the time you’re left saying “Why didn’t I see this coming?”

Here are some early warning signs of a problem project and some tips for upgrading them from hopeless to profitable.

1. “I tried doing it myself, but…”

This is a sign of the frustrated artist. They fancy themselves creative, and have given it their best shot, but found that their skills fell short. Now they are turning to you, the consummate professional, to pick up the pieces.

Whether they are willing to tell you or not, this client has a vision in their head of what they want, and are unlikely to be satisfied with anything else. You may have trouble hiding your opinions on their bad ideas, and you probably won’t feel any pride in the finished product because you had no control.

The Solution: Some may avoid these clients all together, but there is a chance to really shine here. If you keep them happy they will gladly talk you up to everyone they know because you succeeded where they could not. If you choose to take on this project, get them to be completely explicit about what they want. Some clients in this situation are reluctant to tell you their ideas, so you may have to really coax it out of them. It is worth the effort though, because the alternative is a long process of trial and error until you stumble upon what they wanted all along.

2. There’s No Real Deadline

At first glance, a project with a loose deadline can seem great and stress-free. Be wary, though, because this is often a sign that the client lacks real commitment to the project and a client that won’t return your phone calls or reply to your emails is actually worse than one that is constantly breathing down your neck. In some cases, it can lead to the client giving up on the project all together (and possibly even stiffing you on the bill).

If the client is committed to the project but not worried about the deadline it’s OK though, right? Well, not necessarily. A loose deadline means they can change their mind freely without too much concern. This can lead to an end endless loop of revisions putting you way over budget and editing your work into oblivion.

The Solution: If the client isn’t committed to the project, then step lightly. In some cases it may be best to turn this job down. If they are committed, but the timeline is loose then make them set a specific deadline. Do it nicely, but be firm on it. It’s for their own good.

3. “Somebody Told Me I Should…”

Be wary of this phrase, as in “My friend told me I should have a designer do a branding package.” This may seem harmless, and often it is, but it can also be a sign that they don’t really know what they are asking you to do, and may not actually want it. This can lead to disinterest in the project on their behalf (see above about the client that won’t respond), or half-way through the branding process you may discover that they really just wanted you to choose a fancy font for their name. If they are using industry lingo, don’t presume they are using it correctly.

The Solution: The answer here is plenty of client education and probing questions. Lay out in detail exactly what you are going to be doing for them, the process you will take to do it, and what they need to do to make it happen. Then, get as much info out of them as possible about what they are looking for. If you can lead them successfully through the project, you can build a lifelong client who will give you plenty of creative freedom.

4. Multiple Points Of Contact

This problem is common with big corporate clients and government contracts. There are many stakeholders in the project and they all have direct access to give you feedback. Often the multiple stakeholders will not talk to each other, leaving you in the middle of a political minefield and getting conflicting information. They may have a big budget for your project, but they will use it up by ongoing revisions and going back on previous decisions.

The Solution: Make them appoint a gatekeeper who will be the only one allowed to contact you. This can be hard to ask for, but it is worth it. Be confident and direct and couch the request in a tone of experience. With a little luck, a well placed “In my experience with this kind of project, the best approach is…” will do the trick. Let them argue about revisions before they contact you.

5. “Trust Me, This Is Going To Be Huge!”

This can often be a sign that the client hasn’t realistically looked at the obstacles in their way. Clients with this mentality often budget with money they don’t have, relying on future revenue to pay your bill. This can lead to you not getting paid, or in some cases, them blaming you if the project fails. This client is likely to ask for discounts up front, dangling a carrot of big budgets down the road in front of you.

The Solution: This type of client can be convincing and may exaggerate their previous successes to get you on their side. Don’t be sucked in. Be firm with your budget and your billing schedule, and make sure you get a solid deposit from them. The good news is that these clients are often willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, giving you plenty of work.

6. Repeated Meeting Cancellations

This is sign that the project is low on their priority list, and that they possibly aren’t completely committed to it. You can expect that this will be a recurring theme in your relationship with them and that the project may drag on because of it. In some cases you may get the same treatment when it is time for them to pay.

The Solution: Be timely when delivering your work and follow up promptly if they don’t respond. It’s better to let the project age on their desk than yours. Because the project is low priority for them, you need to keep them on track and hold them accountable for their end of the deal. A well-tracked timeline can do wonders here.


We’re always going to have the occasional problem project. The important thing is not to let them get you down. Remember why you’re freelancing in the first place and chalk them up as experience. When a project goes awry, make note of what happened and how you could have handled it better, or avoided the problem all together. Keep a careful eye out for the red flag warnings and things will go much smoother.

By: Mark Garrison