5 Habits of Bad Freelance Clients — And When to Drop Them

Feast or famine.

It’s the everlasting battle freelancers face. You’re either riding high and living the good life or struggling to find two pennies to rub together.

The famine cycle is justifiably terrifying. But the threat it poses shouldn’t influence how you run your business.

One of the most common mistakes freelancers make is holding on to bad clients. They do it for fear of losing vital income.

Dropping bad clients is a crucial part of growing a successful freelance business. Sure, your income might take a hit, but you’ll be a happier, more productive and more profitable freelancer for it.

I’m not saying you should drop every client who makes you mad. Constructive criticism is necessary for your growth, but sometimes there’s nothing constructive about a client. If any of the below seem too familiar, it’s time to remove the thorn in your side.

The Client is Just Plain Rude

Even good clients have bad days. They can say something they don’t mean, be rude on the phone or react emotionally to a business decision.

It happens to the best of us, and it’s not necessarily a bad client red flag.

If the client acts up once, chalk it up to them having a bad day. If, however, they’re consistently rude or a problem, then they’re a negative influence you need to remove.

I once worked with a client who loved to exercise his “I’m the boss” muscles. He’d belittle the writers in a group slack and insinuate that he could do it better if he only had the time.

Every time I saw a notification come through with his name on it, I’d put off dealing with it. Inevitably, when I did get to the projects, they were rushed and of low quality. When I decided to cut him loose, I realised I couldn’t use those articles in my portfolio because they were so bad.  

Your profitability is linked to your productivity and productivity to happiness. If the client always makes you feel bad, you’re going to work — and earn — less.

They Pay Late

Let me chase our finance department,” is not an answer.

If a payment is late, the only acceptable answer is, “I’ll make sure you get it by [DATE]”.

That may seem harsh. But you don’t send invoices and contracts so the client can give vague answers. You do it because this is a professional agreement with hard deadlines for payment.

The client wouldn’t accept a wishy-washy response on your deliverable deadlines. You shouldn’t accept one for your compensation.

You’re not doing this out of the kindness of your heart. You’ve got bills to pay. You provide the work, the client pays you for it. If not, then you’re not a pro freelancer. You are, at best, a hobbyist.

Late payments, like a rude client, should be limited to one offs and accidents. If they’re the norm, you are not being valued. Take your business to someone who will value you.  

I very recently dropped a client who consistently paid over a month late. We had a three-month contract and I had to waste valuable hours chasing every single payment.

That was time I could’ve spent completing billable work.

At the end of the three-month contract I refused to extend, instead focusing on finding new clients. I not only negotiated a higher fee, but my profitability jumped because I was no longer wasting time chasing payments.

Not to mention I’m far happier as things are running as they should.

They’re Not the Most Profitable Use of Your Time

When I started freelancing, I wanted every hour to be as profitable as possible. To achieve this, I created a spreadsheet outlining which clients pay the most per word and per hour.

I created this document because, even though I price per project, I needed to know which clients were the most profitable.

For example, I had one client who paid $2,000 per project and another who paid $500. Straight away client A looks like the winner, right? Not so fast — the work took me two weeks to complete.

Client B took around one day. My per hour rate with the lower paying client was far higher. If I could secure more work from them, I’d end up earning more.

Your time as a freelancer is limited. If you want to grow your income, you’ve got to focus on earning more in less time.

You Hate the Work

In point one I highlighted the link between your happiness and productivity. Happiness is linked to both the client and the work you’re doing for them.

If you don’t enjoy the work you’re not going to do a great job. That’s going to negatively affect the quality of your portfolio and the number of referrals you get.

If you’re not excited about the work, turn it down or end the agreement. It seems counter productive, especially if you’re desperately fighting the famine cycle, but trust me. Taking on work you hate never works out.

They Engage in Scope Creep

You should always be using a contract.

A contract isn’t just there for when things go wrong — it prevents clients from taking advantage, unwittingly or purposefully.

A good freelance contract clearly outlines the project. It includes, in no uncertain terms, what is expected of both you and the client.

Why is that important? Because it negates the possibility of the dreaded scope creep.

Clients sometimes forget you’re not an employee and that you’re there to help with a specific project.

They slip, and say things like “It’s great, but if we could just add X it would be perfect” which is the start of a slippery slope. After adding X, they also need Y and Z. Before you know it, that small job balloons into something huge.

For the late payment client I mentioned earlier, I completed a full draft of a case study and submitted it. Then I heard nothing for four weeks.

When they finally got back in touch, they wanted some amendments — that was not a problem as we’d agreed on two revisions to any extent. But two revisions later I was asked to jump on a call with a consultant within the business to iron out the details, then to call the client featured in the case study.

These were all things I’d be happy to do when they’re outlined and agreed upon up front. But when the client adds them with no warning later, I’m starting to perform extra work with zero extra compensation.

Without a contract the client could argue it’s all part of the project. But with a contract outlining project details, you have some leverage. You can rightfully argue that it’s beyond the agreed scope of work and either charge more or refuse the extra work.

The clients you’ll work with are varied. You’ll have huge clients who are nightmares, small clients who are a dream, vice versa and everything in between.

What you have to do is ask yourself if the problem you’re facing really is a relationship-ending bombshell, a learning experience for you, or something that’s simply the result of a bad day for them.

Pete Boyle is a freelance copywriter who helps other freelancers break into the business and set up profitable freelance writing businesses. To sign up to his business building newsletter, get your hands on a free email course and freelance contract templates, head over to http://have-a-word.com.