Articles - 19th February 2021

Client red flags to look out for – and how to just say ‘no’

Words by James McLoughlin
Illustration by Jon McCormack

“We’re looking at a payment pie model, where everyone gets a slice of the profits once this thing takes off.’

Oh no. Oh dear.

As a freelancer, you’re bound to come across similar clients if you haven’t already. While going it alone can give you the freedom to pick and choose the work you do and who you do it for, it also means that the responsibility to filter out dodgy clients rests with you, too. And there are plenty of hucksters out there, so vigilance is key.

Thankfully, unless your client comes up with some galaxy-brain level of skullduggery, you won’t be the first to experience it. There are some common red flags to look out for when deciding whether or not to take on work.

1. Bad briefing

Problems can usually be identified right away in the briefing stage. I spoke to a fellow freelance copywriter who’s been in the game longer than I have who told me, “I start to worry if the client can’t brief effectively. If they don’t know what they want, or can’t articulate it, there will probably be trouble further down the line.”

Good copywriting is not an entirely individual pursuit, and the same goes for most forms of freelance work. You’re going to have to collaborate if you want to create something worthwhile, and if your client is either unwilling or unable to do their part, you’re going to struggle. You’ll end up doing extra leg-work, unnecessary revisions and generally pulling your hair out wondering how these people got into business in the first place if they can’t explain the basic premise of a project.

Sometimes it can feel like you’re pushing your luck to push back on things like this, especially if you’re just starting out or in need of any work you can get. Just sucking it up so you can keep the money rolling in might seem like a good idea at the time, but it can tie you up in nightmarish projects that drain your enthusiasm for work and prevent you from taking on more rewarding projects that might come along shortly after.

The key here, if you absolutely need to take a job with a red flag like this, is to communicate your issues from the start. Be polite but firm. Let the client know you need more information in order to give them what they want, and perhaps draft a template briefing document you can use with all clients that collects all the relevant information that makes your work tick. Alternatively, don’t be afraid to negotiate on price: if there’s less of a brief to work from, it’s going to take longer. And your time is money.

2. The “trial piece”

“Another red flag is when a client asks for a ‘trial piece’ before deciding whether to hire you. My portfolio, bylines, and client list should be enough for you to make a decision about me. Often it’s just a touch of ignorance on the part of the client about what they can ask of freelancers but sometimes it’s the client trying to get something for nothing, where they use the ‘sample’ or ‘trial’ piece – and don’t pay you properly for it.”

This particular red flag is so prevalent it’s been normalised. And what’s normal often passes for acceptable. But think about it – they’re asking you to work for free. If that doesn’t start the alarm bells ringing, I’m not sure what will. It’s easier to say no to this when it comes from a client you have no connection to, but for creative freelancers, it can often come from closer quarters. As a friend in graphic design told me:

The main red flag I have experienced three whole times now is when a friend approaches you with what is essentially a passion project and offers to pay you ‘once they start making money’. Inevitably the money never comes and the project dwindles shortly after the weeks of design work has been done and they are unsure how to actually carry out their vision.”

As my friend goes on to say, this is all well and good if you’re happy to be along for the ride with a good friend. But if you’re hoping it’ll lead to a good body of work to add to your portfolio – or if you need the cash – it can be a major letdown. It can also lead to friction between friends, which is never really worth it, no matter how passionate you are about a project.

3. Bad reviews

My graphic design pal continues: “Another red flag in a more professional context, would be if you see negative mentions of your client from other people in our industry on Twitter or other social media. Be it discriminatory practices, not paying properly, bad attitudes or exploitative conditions. A lot of people don’t always want to call out bad practices from their clients publicly, so whenever someone does, you can be pretty sure they’re a bad egg.”

Thankfully, this is a red flag that’s easier to see and act on. As a freelancer, you should always try to gauge the vibe of the client you’re taking on work for (if you can), whether that’s from reviews posted online or a visit to their offices. And if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

It’s important to pay attention to these red flags, whether you’re a seasoned freelancer or just starting out on your own. At best, they can ruin your appetite for work, and at worst they can cost you a great deal of money. Or both. As my freelance copywriter friend puts it, quite succinctly: “There’s a temptation as a freelancer to accept every job that comes in – but some are ultimately more trouble than they are worth.”

Learn to recognise these red flags, and when to walk away, and you’ll be on the path to a much more satisfying career as a freelancer.

What do you think? If there are any red flags or warning signs you’ve come to recognise, let us know, and share your thoughts so we can steer our freelancers-in-arms away from the pitfalls of dodgy clients, rubbish briefs, and payment pies.

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

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