We have all heard, and most of us would agree, that we should do the work we love for people that we enjoy working with, right?

Well, when I first got started in business, I never considered that there would be such a thing as a “bad client” or “client remorse.” After all, a paying client is a paying client!

Yes, you can laugh at my total naiveté. I won’t be offended.

Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to learn that there are clients who are a great fit to work with… and those who just aren’t.

Like any bad relationship, not being a “fit” for one another doesn’t make either person “bad,” it just means that it is not a match.

We are all mostly good people, but not everyone is meant to work together and certainly not everyone is a fantastic client.

About the time I took my 5th client, I had learned the hard lesson that being discerning when it comes to who my company works with is not only smart, but it is actually a thoughtful act of kindness for all involved: for your business, for yourself, and even for that client, who also deserves to work with a company well-suited to their desires, personality, and goals.

“Sounds reasonable,” you say, “but how do I spot a bad client before they BECOME a bad client and I’m stuck seeing the job through to the bitter, smothering end?”

That’s a hard thing to recognize at first, which is why I’ve compiled the following 7 early warning signs (gleaned from my own experiences in the wild, wild west that is business ownership.) I’ve also offered a couple of word-for-word scripts you can use to say “no” to potential work that exhibits these — or any other — red flags.

Before you take on a new client, run through this list first. It will help!


1) The potential client demonstrates wild, poor, or inconsistent communication.

Most of us in the business world have experienced this: one day the client is all excited and everything is wonderful, the next day everything is an emergency and needs your urgent attention. Like a romantic relationship, bad communication in the beginning will not become better with time. Often when you take on these clients, you will find that what should have only taken a couple of days, or a week at most, ends up dragging out for so… many… months… with no end in sight. And often these clients will find a way to blame you for the slow movement of things, in spite of their lack of communication.

If you take on a client who is simply unable to maintain regular, reasonable, and clear communication, chances are that the ensuing delays will cost you both needed income + precious sanity. Instead, use this script to set them free:

Hi (insert potential client’s name),

Thank you for the opportunity to examine the possibility of working together on your (insert the kind of service they want done here). However, after some further consideration, we’ve come to realize that we’re not the best (agency, designer, photographer, chef, artist, etc.) for your specific project/needs.

I’d love to help you find the right person for this important (project, event, etc.) Below, I’ve provided a list of some respected (designers, photographers, chefs, artists, etc.) that I recommend.

(insert list of referral names + contact info here)

Again, thank you for considering us (insert potential client’s name).


(insert your name/Company Name here)

2) The potential client wants you to work for free or “on spec.”

It is a harsh truth that many “creatives” are not treated in the same manner as people who work in more “tangible” fields. It took me a bit to realize that there’s a whole group of people out there who think that because you’re in the creative world, you don’t need to be paid for your time + talents until you “prove” yourself… whatever that means.

If you come across a person like this, they’ll probably say something along the lines of: “We can’t compensate you for this specific project; however, we’re convinced that it would be perfect for your portfolio. And of course, if things go well, there’s the opportunity for lucrative future work… (hint, hint, wink, wink.)”

Others will ask you to give them spec work, meaning that you provide your service to them up front — at no cost — with no guarantee of eventual payment. (“If I like it, I’ll pay you!”)

They all offer promises that rarely see realization, at the same time offering plenty of headache, heartache, and hobbling bank accounts.

Listen, repeat after me: YOU ARE RUNNING A BUSINESS!
In order to run a successful business for the long term, it will require, at a minimum, fair payment.dollar-941246_1920

Don’t be afraid to insist on payment, or simply say, “No thank you.” That’s it. No one goes into Saks and says, “Let me wear the clothes, and if I like them, I will pay you.” You deserve the same respect, and you shouldn’t feel bad about demanding it.

3) The potential client expects you to be available 24/7.

The person who wants your immediate, undivided attention any time of day — all days of the week, no matter the time, scope, if it’s outside business hours, or on a holiday — is a dangerous person to add to your clientele! (Unless, of course, that client happens to be Channing Tatum, in which case I will let you decide if he is worth the exception.)

This person can be spotted by the flood of increasingly frantic Facebook messages between 8 p.m. and midnight, or Sunday morning Instagram DMs, all leading up to a post on your Facebook wall (since you have not answered in the last minute and half) asking, “Did you get my email I sent last night??”

They might also pressure you for 1 a.m. phone sessions, twice-daily Hangouts, or daily “progress reports.”

They may text you incessantly with questions. Thoughts. Epiphanies.

If they’re local, this person will call you at 10 a.m. wanting you to meet them somewhere “real quick,” at no later than 11 a.m.

Or, if they’re part of an organization, they will request that in addition to your regular work, you also attend all of their weekly or monthly meetings/parties/planning sessions “just so you can get to know us.” (And will you be compensated for this extra time? Nope.)

When you see signs of this kind of behavior before you enter into a work agreement, don’t hesitate: educate (or re-educate) them ASAP about your availability policy.

Outline what kind of contact methods are appropriate, your working hours (be strict with them!), etc.

Be explicit and leave no room for interpretation.

For example: “I won’t be attending any weekly planning sessions.”

“I only accept text messages for business if there is an emergency. For the purposes of my business, an emergency is: ___________.”

“I respond to emails every Monday – Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. ET.”

Include all of this in your contract. Make sure they see it…again.

If you still don’t sense that they “get it” — or they complain about it — it’s risky to go any further.

Once you have their money, these types of people tend to act even more entitled to every spare second of your life. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?

4) The potential client pressures you to start work without a contract.

A contract is the only thing that stands between you and the dark disasters characteristic to doing business with imperfect human beings. Most people understand that a contract is a vital piece to doing good business, but you’re sure to come across a few who want to overlook this “minor” detail eventually.

“Let’s just start and I’ll get the contract signed when I get back from traveling next week…”

“You don’t have to worry about the contract, I’ll get it to you! Let’s just get started!” they promise.

You will probably feel pressure to give in (just this once!), particularly if this new prospect represents a big connection or an opportunity for a huge payday, or worse, they are someone you know.

Don’t do it, though. There is a reason that you can’t get work done on your car, work with an attorney, counselor, or even a locksmith without an agreement. It is the only thing that protects YOU!

Most potential clients just need a little firmness and guidance. Most will respond well to an upbeat but stern, “I’m excited to get started! But I will need to get your signature on the contract before I can begin any work. As soon as I get that, we can dive right in. Thanks!”

(If they become insulting or otherwise offensive at this reminder, be alarmed. Use the script in point #1 to bow out quickly.)

5) The potential client complains about others they’ve worked with.

In my experience, this happens more frequently than most of the others that we have discussed. Fortunately, it’s easy to spot early on, which is good because it allows you to pass on the work without getting too invested in the potential client or the project.

From the moment you start communicating with this potential client, they’ll usually make remarks like:

“I’m so glad I found you! The last two big name agencies I’ve worked with left A LOT to be desired. I seem to have very bad luck finding people who really have the expertise that they claim…”

“I’ve run through 5 different social media managers in the last 6 months because nobody seems to know what they’re actually doing.”

Be careful here. It’s so incredibly tempting to take on the role of being the “hero” in this person’s business. With all these horrible experiences, it’s easy to believe that surely you can step in and save the day.


That so rarely happens.

The truth is, people who say these kinds of things in a professional setting either thrive on never-ending drama or secretly pride themselves on being hard to please. (Sometimes both.) For a while you will play their savior, but when the time is right, you’ll soon be transferred to the inevitable role of The Incompetent — and your name will be smeared with all the rest of them.

Your best option when greeted with a dissatisfied, gossiping individual who wants to hire you?
Get far away while you still can.

6) You’re Not Being Treated with Respect.

Any client you work with should treat you with respect. Read that again, slowly.

Respect forms the foundation for an equal, honest, and open working relationship. When you first start out in business, it can take a while to change your mindset from employee to business owner, and as a result there can be uncertainty in how you expect your client to behave.

There is no excuse for your client treating you poorly.

If a client is disrespectful, rude, or overly-critical of your work (“This is terrible,” with no insight as to why or how to fix it), then it’s time to cut your losses and terminate your contract agreement. (Use the script in #1 to do this.)

You may worry about damaging your reputation, but the truth is, if you are unhappy and/or being treated unfairly, this will absolutely affect the quality of your work, which will ultimately lead to the loss of clients anyway.

7) The potential client gives you the heebie jeebies, or any kind of bad “gut feeling.”

Here I am referring to those people who just make you feel like hiding, shrinking, or squirming inside.

Often times, by all outwards appearances, it seems they would be perfectly fine to work with. They are polite, professional, and responsive. They’re not knocking every other expert they have ever worked with, and they’re willing to pay your going rate.

Usually, they leave you feeling like you SHOULD work with them. You really have no reason not to.

Except for that nagging, uncomfortable feeling in your gut.

There are some that would tell you to ignore it and “be a man.” They might even break into a cute, inspiring Disney song, like this one.


They’re wrong! I’m here to assure you that it’s okay to listen to your intuition.

It’s there for a reason.

Our minds are extraordinary at recognizing inconsistencies and actions or words that are ever-so-slightly off. In my experiences, I have found that sometimes people are so successful at being manipulative that they can slip past people’s radar screens. Listen to your gut!

If you don’t dismiss that subtle “alarm,” you can save yourself a world of trouble. Please take my word on this, and don’t ever feel bad for passing on work that, for whatever reason, seems wrong.

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Kristi Brown

Creativity Consultant, Sales & Marketing Strategist
/krēāˈtivədē/ /kuh n-suhl-tnt/
Noun: An energetic native Floridian with a passion for smart, authentic, imaginative, effective marketing strategies and original ideas.
Synonyms: Netflix Junkie, Cockapoo mom, crazy aunt, world traveler, foodie.
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