No matter how successful your career as a freelancer, no matter how high your agency is scaling, there are moments that you absolutely will not be able to avoid. Working with bad clients – or on bad projects with good clients – is one such situation. Nobody wants to go through the pain and hassle of wasted time, money, and effort that a bad project can entail. Not only this, but it can be embarrassing to admit to having had such an experience. At the end of the day, many aspects of bad projects are down to your inability to read the signs and get out from under a problem before things really go south.
So instead of pretending that you won't end up facing this, or ignoring it altogether, let's talk about some of the signs that you need to back away from work. It won't make the inevitable go away, but it will make it easier to recognize and a lot less daunting to deal with.
Client Communication Catastrophes
You'll learn very quickly that one of the pillars of every successful project, no matter the size or scope, is communication. If you are on the same page as your client, you are already winning. If you're not, you need to get on the same page quickly. Short of dealing with an outright menace or bully of a client, poor communication will be one of the first things that you should be on the lookout for.
But being bad at communication isn't just one catch-all situation, so you'll need to keep your eyes peeled.
This can look like lacklustre communication skills in general. Those people who don't have the skill of conveying what it is they mean or want. Sometimes you can bridge this gap; it doesn't always mean that a client isn't worth it or a project is unworkable. It's when this begins to impact the scope of the project overall – as well as your work hours – that this is a huge problem. This is when you hear the absurdly frustrating things like what is this, I didn't ask for that, or even oh, I was thinking of something else.
It can also be a simple lack in any form of communication at all – sending an email to your client and getting an out-of-office-for-the-next-month response. It sure would have been nice to know about that vacation beforehand.
Or it can just be a back and forth game of broken telephone (broken SMS? Broken Slack? Broken email?) that lacks any sort of foreseeable solution. Any of these are a huge drain on both your time and the project's feasibility. If you're finding that you are having to put so much effort into simply keeping in touch and up to speed with your client, maybe it just isn't worth it.
This problem is easy enough to spot. Clients looking to hire freelancers and agencies are doing so because they don't have the time or they just don't have the skills to pull off what they need. If it's the latter, then you may be coming up against the client's pure fantasy.
It is best to be patient and be able to explain what is and isn't possible. This requires research, knowledge, and experience; you better know what you're talking about, because that's on you. But sometimes you'll be able to tell when a client has a single idea in their head that just won't go away.
Maybe it's something that you know lies beyond the scope of this project. Maybe it's a misunderstanding of how the work is done – coding is a huge example of this, where the bigger tasks tend to be much smoother to complete and far less intricate than seemingly small tasks. It might even be that your client is imagining a complete fiction, and the task they give you just can't be done. If your explanations and stance isn't heeded and they keep pushing, cut the ties and walk away.
Ask the right questions, and get the right information. This can help you avoid scope creep. Remember, this process isn't just to outline the project, but for you to assess the overall fit for you. Having a solid client engagement agreement in place - something you can find here - will help you out immensely.
Wanting Deals, Deals, Deals
Something that is rampant among family, friends, and acquaintances is that niggling feeling that you should offer a discount. Don't give in to that; it leads nowhere but trouble – enough trouble that we'll talk about it in the future.
But price haggling isn't just a family and friends deal. Nope, it's everywhere. You'll hear it in multiple forms. Some clients will approach in the nice, innocent way and go for the sympathy card. Some will claim to have been given a better deal from you before. In many cases, you'll be faced with the lowest common denominator of I know a friend of a friend who will do this for a quarter of your budget, so you're obviously trying to gouge me. This may seem like a good idea to them. It may have even worked in the past. But you cannot afford to go down that road. If they are in any way unwilling to agree to your terms of payment, send them on their way.
You can always work with clients to reduce the cost and the scope, if you really want this project. But don't become a doormat. They'll only expect the same from you in the future.
It's Just a Bit of Fun
Is the project that you've been approached a main goal for your client? Is it their bread and butter, or a fun side hobby of theirs? What is the feel of this particular work? Asking questions like these can ensure that you have a good grasp on how your client is treating this whole project.
It can be fun to help out someone with a side project, and these kinds of challenges can be ridiculously rewarding – under the right circumstances. Unfortunately, if it isn't a project on your client's radar, you can be entering a no-win scenario leading to confusing project goals, terrible planning, and your work being treated as if it were not serious or somehow worth less than what you put into it.
And that's not even considering dropped projects that you won't be able to use in your portfolio, or the payment problems…
Vague Ideas of Compensation
The most fearful possibility: not getting paid for something you have thrown so much of yourself into. But it isn't always the case that this only comes up around payday.
Clients may ask you to work for free, because of any number of reasons. They may be broke, they may be devaluing your work. Either way, no, no, no. You need to stand your ground with this nonsense, because anything that takes up your time and effort and is producing value for the client deserves to be repaid in kind.
You may also get to hear the pitch of getting paid once everything comes together, or once a project gets itself off the ground. If this is what your client is saying, they might as well be throwing red flags at you. Once again, always be honest with yourself. If you really, really want to work on this project and you are in a position or willing to take the hit, sure, go for it. Otherwise you're left wide open for a big fat “sorry, we can't pay you”, and you'll have no one to blame but yourself.
Thanks, but No Thanks
With any of these warning signs, you need to take the realistic nature of a project and client into mind. Sometimes you're going to meet clients who are belligerent, terrible people and you'll know before you even get around to hearing their project that you wouldn't work for them in a million years. But once this is clear, you need your way out.
This can be difficult – be it through personal distaste at saying no, or having to tread a difficult line of maintaining the client relationship for future work while still declining present offers.
The key to saying no is to be firm and polite, but there is always, always the window of opportunity to refer. If this is the case, you should work on your partnerships, seeing what projects and clients can make you money without having to lift a finger after referring them in someone else's direction. The greatest thing about dodging a bad-project bullet is getting paid for jumping out of the way. Use your network to your advantage, and remember that a no doesn't necessarily have to mean no money.
It's a good idea to have a collection of message templates for these situations. A bunch of pre-written email messages or speeches that you can have at your disposal whenever you have to refuse a client. It'll help streamline the practice, but it will also feed into your brand image. Having consistent messaging will also help put clients at ease, as well as build a backlog of proof that you do the work you do for the price you say – no special cases or friends and family pricing.
You can start from scratch and build a nice personal portfolio of go-to messages, but sometimes you are too busy or – let's face it – just can't be bothered. No worries. We can set you up with a folder of pre-written messages of any number of situations. Check them out – it's a lot off your plate, and a great starting point.
Turning down work is going to happen - it's only a matter of time. Be prepared for when you have to say no, and you'll be able to spot the red flags before they become an insurmountable problem.