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I recently started freelancing and found myself in a situation where I wish I would have turned the job down initially. In my situation the client wanted to change the functionality multiple times, which should have thrown a red flag for me.

When dealing with a prospective client, what are the red flags that would cause you to turn down their business?

  • 1
    Although I think this is a great question, I feel it needs to be reworded slightly to avoid being a list question, which could be closed as Not Constructive. I hope others don't feel the same, as I would love to see more answers, but it feels dangerously close to that point to me – Canadian Luke REINSTATE MONICA May 24 '13 at 5:33
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Believe it or not, I often find if a client is overly prepared they might be difficult to deal with. I have to remind those clients that I do this for a living, and they are in a completely different industry which has nothing to do with building websites.

This is pretty subjective but some other red flags I see often are:

  • "I think this should take about X hours"
  • "I needed this yesterday" - unless you can actually devote the time to a rush project avoid this one like the plague.

But past all that the real problem here lies with you, the freelancer. If they are changing scope and functionality, then you either need to bill them appropriately or assess if you built the scope out correctly.

It happens to all of us from time to time.. we think we have a solid grip on what they want built and end up being off target. No shame in it, just gotta deal with accordingly.

  • +1 for "we think we have a solid grip on what they want built and end up being off target." I have had this happen. Also though, very occasionally, the customer thinks they have everything spec'd out and they are off target. I did a fixed asset system once and had to change the depreciation calculations last minute because we got it into testing and the client was using different conventions than they thought (I implemented actual days, and their current software was using 30/360). – Chris Travers May 23 '13 at 2:48
  • (I ultimately changed it free of charge for the customer, because they were generally a pleasure to work with and I wanted to keep them happy, but had they not been generally one of the good customers, I would have billed them extra.) – Chris Travers May 23 '13 at 2:52
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I have limited experience but going through something similar at the moment.

Any new clients I receive will be politely asked if they know exactly what they want and if the have a relatively detailed requirement spec and concerns as to how things will work. It is important to see if they have any concerns because this highlights the fact they have thought about it in detail.

So for me, the main red flag is whether or not somebody knows what they want.

If they don't know what they want, fine by me, don't turn down the business just yet. Tell them you will help them, as a consultant, to figure out exactly what they want and build a specification for the project. Then once it is clear what they require, create a proposal to build the project for them.

Be careful with this initial "consulting work", require a retainer fee, which should cover a substantial amount of the consultation so they don't just run off after getting your expert advice to which you cannot be paid for.

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In general, the biggest flags I look for are:

  1. Is this a business that can't succeed? and
  2. Drama with customers during the bidding process.

If a customer doesn't respect you or your opinion when you are sending in a bid, they are not going to respect you when you are doing the work or coming in for payment. If the business is of dubious viability, you may not get paid when you are done.

When I used to work in tech support, I had a saying, "If the customer was always right we would be out of a job." Customers can be expected to be the regular expert with regard to their needs, but when they expect to be an expert with regard to your work, it is entirely appropriate to suggest that they do it themselves instead.

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You should always aggree on the scope of work (what is in the scope and even more importantly - explicitly describe what is not in the scope). This benefits both you and the client. The first red flag is when client is trying to avoid commitment to agreed scope, trying to change it or trying to have it only as verbal agreement (not part of the contract). If you can't get him sign anything, assume your final stance and don't back off. The client will either come to his senses or lose interest.

When something like that happens in the middle of project, ask yourself: "Is this worth the money I am getting?". You are freelancing for a reason - you want freedom and happiness. If the project prevents this, force the contract into closure. If there are no penalties for termination, just do it and find yourself better client. If there are fines, just work only as hard as the pay justifies.

If you get silly demands, just reject them politely. If you get stressed by communication, say it to the client and ask him/her to call you when he/she made up his mind. The client won't like it much, but in my experience, people like that will always find a reason why they shouldn't be satisfied. Only thing you can influence is your own sense of standing up to your own standards - being profesional, polite and deliver work you are paid for in high quality.

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As weird as it may seem (and nonconstructive): the biggest tip off is your gut feeling. Trust it, and you are usually good.

But what about only email correspondence? It's harder to get a gut feeling about this. What I would do for projects is to try to do a dry run in my head and on paper. I used to make diagrams, even for network layouts and programs, that would help me gauge the time and potential for change. The above tips are excellent as well, but it may be too late for some of them.

As a freelancer, do not be afraid to ask other professionals in your area what it's like to work for the company. Ask questions such as "Was it easy communicating with Mr X?", "Was there ever a problem getting through a project with Ms Y?". Word travels fast between contractors if you build yourself a little network of people you trust. There is nothing wrong with working with other people in your industry too, as long as you aren't stepping on each other's toes.

Now, what about new companies asking for work to be done? This is the most dangerous, but you could also be setting up a reputation for them, as well as for yourself. Take it with a grain of salt, but also protect yourself. The scope of work will be your friend, especially once it's signed. Check other questions on this site for how to write one or where to download sample contracts that you can tweak to your needs.

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You need to discuss in details how the end result of the work should be.

If you see a sign of those, you should turn down the work, unless you plan to be allot lenient and easy going:

  1. When the employer tries to micro-manage, and make you do something in a way you are not comfortable with.
  2. When the employer tries to make you do bits of work without discussing in details what the end result he wants would be. Example to this is, if the employer keeps adding requirements, and you realize that some new requirements would contradict with some earlier work done on previous requirements.

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