As a freelancer, you want clients that respect your time and expertise. This is how you build a profitable freelance business.
However, having worked as a freelance instructional designer and eLearning consultant for several years now, I’ve learned how to identify “problem clients” the hard way. These clients hurt your bottom line by demanding more work for less pay, and you want to identify them before you start working with them.
In this article, we’ll take a look at common red flags. By watching out for these warning signs, you can avoid working with clients who do not respect your time and expertise.
Some potential clients ask applicants to design and develop a “sample project” in response to a prompt. They do not pay you for this work — they ask you to complete it so that they can evaluate your skills. This is known as “spec work.”
When a potential client comes out of the gate asking you to produce work for free, it’s rarely a good sign.
The client may mean well — they want to hire the right person for the job. And what better way to do that than to have every applicant respond to the same prompt? This would let the client compare each project side-by-side to determine which freelancer is the best fit.
These intentions make sense, but the request sends the message that the client’s time is more important than the freelancer’s. The freelancer must spend hours or days creating a project to save the client the hour or two that it would take to evaluate a portfolio.
With that being said, if you’re a freelancer, then it is your responsibility to have a portfolio. The portfolio should represent the work that you do, and each project should have a write-up that outlines your role, responsibilities, and process.
So, if you do have a strong portfolio and the client is still requesting spec work, I recommend gently pushing back on the request. Direct the client to your portfolio and mention which projects are the most similar to the client’s project.
If they insist that you complete the spec work anyway, I suggest you either 1) provide a quote for the work that they’re requesting, or 2) walk away.
This is important because, sometimes, clients want you to produce spec work that they will use in production (with no intention of hiring anyone). I’m 95% sure that “spec work” I produced for a client early in my career was combined with spec work from many other freelancers to create an end product — and the “client” did not spend a dime.
So, the takeaway here is to ensure that your portfolio is in good shape. If it is (and if you explain your role thoroughly in all of the projects that you display), then you should not feel compelled to produce spec work. If the client values your time and expertise, then a portfolio will be sufficient.
If a potential client tells you how long it will take for YOU to complete the project, then it’s a red flag.
They may have decades of project experience and they say how long it would take them to complete the project. That’s fine, but as soon as they tell you how long it will take you, it should ring some alarm bells. You are the only one who can accurately estimate how long you will need to complete a deliverable.
Some clients will say “Oh, this will only take a few hours!” or “It’s a really easy project...you could finish it up in less than a week.” This is often a sign that they’re priming you for a low budget, or it’s an indication that they do not understand the complexity involved in the work that you do.
To give an example that’s a bit more close to home, some clients may tell you that it will take you 15-20 hours per week to complete the deliverables for a year-long contract. You don’t find out until after signing a vague contract that they were basically expecting a full-time employee.
In other words, don’t trust a client’s estimate for how long it will take you to complete a project. It’s on you to do your due diligence to scope the project and give an accurate quote. From there, you need to make sure that the scope is clearly defined in a contract or statement of work.
If a potential client tells you how long it will take you to complete a project, I suggest you stop them there and ask your necessary scoping questions. Tell them how long it will take based on the answers to your questions — not based on their estimate.
Some potential clients look for free deliverables from applicants, but others look for free guidance and advice. Your level of comfort with sharing your knowledge for free may vary, but either way, you should be aware of your potential client’s intentions.
I've had a discovery call for instructional design work where the client started the call by describing their needs and asking for specific LMS recommendations. I’ve also been on an eLearning development discovery call where the client wanted a free 1-on-1 Articulate Storyline tutoring session. And the list goes on.
Discovery calls are to determine if you’re a good fit for the client’s project (and if the client is a good fit for you). They’re not opportunities for the client to rack your brain about anything and everything, especially if you have paid offerings where you provide that type of coaching.
Again, you want clients who respect your time, knowledge, and skills. It’s okay to provide knowledge for free and share what you know with others, but it should be on your terms — not theirs. When clients come into a call expecting you to tell them everything you know without payment, it signals that they may not value your expertise.
Dealing with contracts and their associated red flags is a big topic. I am not a lawyer, and I recommend running your contracts by lawyers to get real legal advice.
However, here’s the biggest thing I’ve learned about contracting: they should be balanced. You want to sign contracts that are fair to both parties. For example, it’s usually a red flag when you see some or all of the following in the contract:
Some of these clauses are mandated by the company and in all of their vendor contracts, but it doesn’t hurt to push back on these one-sided clauses. The worst that can happen is that they cannot change it. If that’s the case, then don’t be afraid to negotiate on other fronts, such as price.
Overall, I highly recommend proceeding with caution if you see the red flags above in a contract, especially those regarding exits and legal fees. If things go wrong, you don’t want to feel too intimidated to sue the client because of the language in the contract, and you don’t want to get stuck in a project that’s draining your resources without adequate pay.
Some clients expect you to work with an unrealistically low budget, tight timeline, or high production value. Unrealistic expectations surrounding price, timeline, or deliverables are big red flags.
It signifies that the client may be new to this kind of work. This is okay, and if you’re comfortable working with clients new to your field and helping them learn the ropes along the way, then this could work for you (as long as they’re willing to adjust based on your advice and recommendations...and if they pay you accordingly).
Unrealistic expectations become a problem when the client stands by their expectations, despite them being unrealistic. Most people are familiar with the trifecta of project work; the work can be 2 of the following: cheap, fast, and good.
For example, you can complete the project:
It’s up to you which combinations of the above you’re comfortable working with, but if you have a client who expects all three, then I suggest running away.
Likewise, some expectations are too unrealistic even if you’re picking just two of the above qualities. For example, I received an inquiry to produce 40 hours of eLearning within six months. As an independent consultant with a small handful of talent that I can contract out to, there’s no way that I would feel comfortable producing that volume of work on such a short timeline.
Hourly pricing in and of itself is not a red flag, but it is often associated with lower-quality projects and clients who view you as a commodity (as opposed to a value-producing expert).
Hourly pricing is good for you when newer to the field and not very efficient, but it punishes you as you become more skilled and efficient.
For example, there are some complex eLearning interactions that would have taken me 10 hours to develop at the beginning of my career, but I can develop them in one hour now. If I was charging $60 per hour during my first year, I would have made $600 on that interaction. Even if I charge $200 per hour now, I’d still be making significantly less money on that same interaction since it takes me so much less time.
I’ve found that project or value-based pricing is often best for all parties involved. I’ll discuss this further in a future article.
If you see a red flag outlined in this article, then that doesn’t mean that you need to instantly drop the potential client. However, you should keep an eye out for red flags and use your judgment. Negotiate on items that put you in a compromising position, and if you’re able to, turn away clients who make it clear that they do not respect your time or expertise.
Reading articles like this will help you know what to look for, but dealing with these situations yourself will give you the experience and confidence that you need to push back on unfair requests and recognize which potential clients to avoid. Also, as you build your business and land good clients, you will have more freedom to turn away high-risk projects.
As always, feel free to reach out if you have any questions.