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How to Avoid Working With Clients You Want to Avoid Working With

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Read Time: 15 mins

If you are currently a freelancer or plan on freelancing in the future, then this is a topic that should interest you. I’m going to be writing about client selection and the process I go through when screening potential clients. This is an important subject that can often go overlooked. It’s easy to start chasing money and find yourself in a bit of trouble when you are stuck with a difficult client and absurd amount of work on your plate. I’m going to share my screening process and some tips to help you avoid difficult clients so you can only work with the great ones!


My name is Remington McElhaney and I am a freelance motion graphic designer. I’ve written a few articles on freelancing for Aetuts+ as well as a couple tutorials. I began freelancing in December of 2010 and I had no idea how much of my time would be spent on the “business” side of things. I thought I’d be animating the whole time! I’ve learned and grown a lot while freelancing and been pretty successful at it. A lot of that success I can contribute to having a good understanding of the business side of freelancing and I like to share some of that knowledge when I can. I hope you can find some of it useful!

When first starting out I couldn’t imagine turning down work! That didn’t make sense to me. However once I got started, I quickly learned that in order to be successful you have to be careful about how you select clients. Being careful about how you select your clients inevitably means you will be turning down a decent amount of work. I understand you need to take what you can when you're starting out, but once you get a decent client base going, you can begin to be more selective. I’ve been lucky enough that with over 70 different clients, I’ve only had one truly negative experience and it was very early on in my freelancing career. I have great clients and I love working with each and every one of them. In order to do that I must be doing something right and I hope you will be able to take what I share with you today and have the same success.

Common Phrases Used by Potential Problem Clients

In this section I’d like to identify some common phrases you’ll find potential problem clients use. This in no way means that if someone says this they will be a problem. It simply means that in my own experience I’ve found these to be warning signs of potential problem clients (the key word here is “potential”) and I’d like to share them with you. As always, you’ll have to treat each case differently and make your own judgment call with a potential client.

I don’t have a big budget for this project, but if it goes well there will be SO MUCH work in the future!

Ahh… the classic promise of future work! Not just some future work but a whole truckload! It’s such a wonderful idea, and it ranks right up there with no taxes, problem free computers, and a second season of Firefly. Unfortunately none of those are going to happen. I’m sure almost every single person out there has heard this one before. Here’s the problem with clients looking for discounts on the first project:

  • They have no way of knowing how much “future work” they will have.
  • They have no way of guaranteeing that work will go to you and not to the next person who will work for cheap.
  • Once they pay you a discounted rate they will always associate your work at that price. If you pay a kid $20 to mow your lawn and he does a great job, why would you want to pay him $50 the next time? You already had a great job done for $20.
  • There’s a reason why they have a small or no budget. That reason is unlikely to change for the next project.

While I’m sure some people lie about the potential of future work, I don’t believe most people are lying when they promise it. Most clients have good intentions, but unfortunately that future work never pans out for one reason or another. Are you really willing to gamble and risk your success or failure on theirs? My rule of thumb when taking jobs with these promises is if I wouldn’t take the job knowing it was the only job I’d ever do for the client, then I walk away. If it’s a good opportunity and has an opportunity for more work, then great! Go for it! Just don’t assume everything the client promises you will happen. In fact, you should plan on it not happening and decide accordingly.


The last couple guys weren’t able to complete this project.

Whenever I hear a previous contractor was unable to complete a project it sets off giant red flags. If I hear that multiple people were unable to complete a project I immediately (and still politely) end talks with the potential client. Here’s why:

  • When there are multiple failed attempts at a project, there’s always a common denominator… and that is the client. I have to assume that this poor client didn’t just pick bad contractor after bad contractor. The problem isn’t with the contractors, it’s with the client. That could be for many reasons but those are irrelevant. All you need to know is that this client has a proven record of being hard to please or work with and you should steer very far away from them.
  • There’s no reason to assume you will have a different outcome then the previous contractor.
  • There’s a good chance you may not get paid for this project! (At least not in full) I don’t know about you, but I need to get paid for my work. So anything that might make that difficult is something to stay away from.

Now not all clients that have had issues with former contractors are problem clients. Unfortunately there are simply bad contractors out there who give the rest of us a bad name. So if the potential client has had only one failed attempt that’s not an immediate cause for me to walk away, but it means I need to tread cautiously. I always ask more questions about what went wrong previously to try to understand who was to blame. If I have any thoughts that it was the potential clients fault; then I walk away.

It will be a great portfolio piece.

This is another fairly common statement for potential clients to make. They attempt to lure you in to work for cheap with the promise that the end result will look great in your portfolio. You know what else looks great in your portfolio? Personal projects. Projects where you have 100% creative control and can tackle whatever style you’d like. You don’t need to do discount work for someone in order to build your portfolio. You know what else makes good portfolio work? High budget projects for high profile clients. They have a proven product/service you can draw from and they pay you a good amount to get it right. Here are a few issues with clients telling you it will make a great portfolio piece:

  • It’s not dependent on them to be a great portfolio piece. They can provide you with a good start but it’s up to you to make it great or not.
  • They need you, you don’t need them. You can always make a “great portfolio piece” for someone else.
  • You decide what goes into your portfolio, not them.

The budget is small, but that’s okay because it will only be viewed by two people.

Yes, someone really did tell me this. And yes they did think that it warranted a steep discount in the price. They didn’t quite understand that the idea of putting time and effort into a piece that would only be viewed by two people wasn’t very appealing, let alone at a discount. The biggest problem was that whether two million or two people were going to see this piece it was going to take me the same amount of time. They weren’t asking for it to be lower quality because only two people would view it, they just thought it should cost less. I explained that it would require the same amount of time from me regardless of who viewed it so it had no effect on the price. At this point I could tell that negotiations wouldn’t be able to continue and I would be better off to graciously end the conversation as soon as possible.


I’m doing this work on spec, so since I’m not getting paid…

This one is fairly straightforward. Just because a client is not getting paid for a project does not mean you shouldn’t. It’s irrelevant to me what they are using it for. If they are taking a gamble by doing a spec project then let that be their gamble, don’t make it yours as well.

Tips for Screening Clients

I just gave you some signs of potential “problem clients” and what I recommend you should do in those situations, but here’s an even better idea: Never even speak with them. Being able to properly screen your clients before you even pick up the phone is an invaluable tool. The quicker you can identify if a client will work well with you the better. It will save you a lot of time and headaches down the road. I’ve definitely wasted my fair share of time with clients who I was completely incompatible with and because of that I’ve developed some techniques to help avoid that.


Most of the statements I spoke about above came when someone blew past my screening process and managed to get me on the phone. Had we exchanged a few more emails we would have realized that it wouldn’t work and saved the phone call. These tips will vary for each person but it’s important that you recognize for yourself what makes a “good client” and a “bad client” and how you will identify them.

Here are a few things I look for or ask about when speaking with a potential client:

  • I ask about their budget. Almost immediately. Now this can be a hard thing to do for some people because money can be an awkward subject. It definitely was for me at first. If I had it my way, I would only have to focus on my work and I would be paid a fair rate in a timely manner without having to ask for it. Unfortunately that’s not how most things go and you do need to have the ability to negotiate budgets/payments. However, that’s a whole different subject... Check out 5 Things To Help You Know How Much To Charge at some point.

    I simply list my ballpark prices and see if they would like to proceed.

    For this article, the key is that you need to establish very early on if this client can afford your services. This isn’t a binding agreement and you don’t need to come to an exact price (How could you, you’ve barely spoken with them?) but you do need to make sure you are both in the same ball park. If you charge $5,000 per video and they have a budget of $500 then no amount of negotiations are going to make that work. So if you can establish that right off the bat then there would be no need to spend any more time hearing about their project or explaining your process if it’s not going to work in the end. It can be tough to get this answered sometimes because everyone wants to be a tough negotiator and not let the other one know what they want. What I’ve found I usually need to do if they won’t tell me is simply list my ballpark prices and see if they would like to proceed. I’ve found that eliminates about 50% of my potential clients which is fine because they can’t afford my services.

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    I don’t want to get too into proposals and negotiating price (maybe I will in a different article?) but I do want to say this: Good clients know what they can spend on a video. So when people tell me they don’t have a budget, they are either lying or they haven’t thought out their project very well and the odds of it happening are very slim. I’ll say one more thing and that is that occasionally I get requests for a price quote for people planning a video in the future. Which is fine and I’m happy to let them know what I charge. However I have never had a single person come back to me later on to start their project. I can’t really tell you why and maybe it’s just me, but I have a feeling it’s a pretty common thing. My point is I wouldn’t recommend investing too much time with these “future clients” because it doesn’t seem to work out in the end (at least in my cases).

  • I check their spelling and grammar. Now some of you may be wondering why especially if you may have noticed a grammatical error or two in this article. I’m not looking for perfection. I’m simply trying to assess their communication skills which will affect our working relationship. This doesn’t mean I’ve never worked with someone who has poor spelling or grammar, but it is one of the red flags I look for when screening a client.

    The main reason I care is 95% of my communication with clients is through email. So if I am going to have a difficult time communicating with a client in that way, then I need to be aware of that and really assess if the job is worth it.

  • I ask about their timeframe. The timeframe of a project can be almost, if not just as important as the budget. If the client needs a rushed project and I’m booked up then there is nothing I can do for them. Unless of course they have a really big budget in which case I trade sleep for cash. But the majority of the time if a client needs something very quickly and I don’t feel I have the time then again I graciously end the conversation.

  • How to turn away work

    I’ve spent all of this time telling you how to identify problem clients, situations to avoid, screening tips and they all lead to one outcome: Turning down the project. By now you are probably thinking I’m some mean dude who loves telling people “no” for the ego boost or something. I don’t enjoy turning down projects but it’s a necessary evil if you are going to be a freelancer. It gets easier the more you do it, but I definitely don’t enjoy it. Here’s a few “guidelines” I follow when turning down projects.

    Be Respectful.

    I always try to be as respectful and courteous as possible when declining a project. Even if someone can’t pay your full rate, they are still offering to pay you money for your service and that’s something you shouldn’t take for granted. Here’s an example of what I would say when turning down projects:

    Thank you for your interest in my work and I appreciate the opportunity to work with you. Unfortunately I won’t be able to work on this project but I wish you all the best in finding a suitable contractor for your video.

    It’s short, simple and gets to the point. People seem to respond well to this message or not at all (which is okay).

    Be Professional. Always.

    Even when dealing with the most difficult people, you have to always remain professional. Even if they aren’t! I’ve had some potential clients say some rather bizarre things but I’ve always made my strongest effort to keep a professional tone. Some people don’t like being told “no”, and that’s okay, it’s not your problem. Your problem is protecting your reputation and you do that by treating everyone in a professional manner.

    Be Polite.

    It may be a given at this point if you are being professional and respectful, but you should make sure you are being polite as well. Remember, every email you send out is being read by a human being so treat them as such. There’s no need to be rude. Keep a polite tone to your messages and they are always better received.

    If your respectful, professional and polite when declining work you shouldn’t run into to many problems. It’s a great thing being offered work and you should always remember that. Unfortunately, we can’t and shouldn’t take on all projects so gracefully declining work is going to be a necessary skill as a freelancer.

    Wrapping it up

    Alright well… that’s all I’ve got for now! It’s a big subject and I’m sure I could keep writing but I doubt you’d want to read all of that. As always there’s no guarantee that they will work for you but I sincerely hope you’ll find a way to apply them for yourself. Each situation truly is unique and you have to treat them as such. These are very broad tips and there are very few rules that can’t be broken as far as client selection is concerned.

    Let’s keep the discussion going in the comments! If you ask a question make sure to check back because I do my best to respond to as many as I can.

    Thanks everyone!

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