10 red flags to watch out for when meeting potential clients

As a freelancer or agency owner, you'll often find yourself going to pitches and new business meetings to compete for work and prove that you're the right person for the job. But you should also consider whether the client is a good fit for you.

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

After all, you've got a reputation to uphold, and you want to ensure you only work with people who will listen, so you're able to add value and deliver results wherever possible. It's why you should watch out for the early warning signs of a bad client. You know. Those red flags that sometimes pop up during that initial discussion and reveal how difficult they might be to work with.

We're not suggesting you should run for the hills if you spot any of the following red flags; we're just urging you to tread carefully. Listen to your gut before you decide to work with anyone new.

1. They don't offer you a refreshment

Great relationships are built on mutual respect. If you're not offered a glass of water or a hot beverage when you meet a client, what does that tell you about their attitude? Personally, I'm happy to overlook this red flag, as nine times out of 10 it's an innocent mistake. But sometimes, it can reveal a lot about a client and whether they respect you and your time.

2. They badmouth their former supplier

You've barely settled in your seat and the client is already explaining why they sacked their last designer or agency. It doesn't exactly fill you with confidence. And it's a potential warning that they'll be challenging to work with.

Take the opportunity to ask them what went wrong. That way, you'll be able to gain a better understanding of the situation and whether your client or the supplier was the problem, thus, determining your next move.

3. They assume everything is super easy

The client might want a "simple" brochure because they don't understand the process behind creating one, or they could just be ruthlessly trying to keep costs down. Because if it's "easy" then it won't take long, right?

Take some time to explain how you operate and why tasks might take a little longer than expected. Go into detail of what's involved, the feedback/amends process and any other aspects that your client might not be aware of. If the client is prepared to accept that the work isn't so quick or easy, then you're on the right track.

4. They have no idea what they want

There's no strategy, no clue, no budget... you didn't even receive a detailed brief. It's the biggest red flag of all: the client has no idea what they want — not a good start. You can't be expected to work miracles.

But every cloud has a silver lining. In this case, it's an excellent opportunity to flex your creative muscles and offer consultancy on the client's business. What do you think they can do to improve? What ideas can make a difference? Before you go to any new business meeting, be fully prepared for this scenario and ready to impress the client with your skills and expertise.

5. Their expectations are way too high

If a client is expecting the moon on a stick without paying very much for it, run away. Don't even bother to pick up your notepad or bag. Run. Run for your life. Ok. I'm being a tad melodramatic. But clients with unrealistic expectations are the stuff of nightmares.

Look instead for reasonable clients. The type who understand what is and isn't possible. Who is willing to give you a chance. Who doesn't impose impossible deadlines? Who knows what can be achieved with the allocated time and budget. Those are the kind of people you want to work with.

6. There's no agenda

You're sat around a table with four people and no one is leading the meeting. In fact, you're expected to. And so you ask lots of questions, just to try and take control of the situation. It's awkward, but you're doing the best you can.

Yes, a lack of an agenda is worrying, but it's also a chance to show your leadership and organisational skills. It's also an opportunity to consult and steer the client in a direction where you feel you can add value.

7. Someone doesn't want you to be there

You're getting bad vibes from someone and it's making you squirm. You can just imagine the conversation internally: "we need to get outside help," says an eager member of the team. "Why do we need any support? We're doing fine on our own," exclaims the insecure/threatened colleague.

It's time to go on a charm offensive. Read between the lines and see who you have to impress the most. Try and find a way to get on to their level. Usually, it's about uncovering their insecurities and then subtly reassuring them that you'll be working hard to make them look good — nothing more, nothing less.

8. They keep inviting you back to meetings without any progress

You've been to three or four meetings with a potential client and nothing has been agreed as yet. You're driving up and down the motorway, losing precious hours at your desk and you're not even sure if the client has hired you. Or if they ever will.

If you find yourself "consulting" with a client without getting paid, then it's a definite red flag to consider. The client might be after free advice. The cheek! You're better than this. Next time they ask for another free "pick your brains" meeting, say you'd be happy to – once they sign the contract, of course.

9. They want to argue on price

You've impressed the client. All is going well. You're on the home straight. Now the client wants to fight you on price. Pah. Typical. Then you hear the immortal words, "I have a friend who got his website for £100", and the red flag implodes.

If you have to justify your day rate at such an early stage, or even convince the client to pay a deposit for the project, then it's a good indicator that the client doesn't respect your time or understand the value of your expertise. Unless you can come to some reasonable compromise, i.e. provide an "introductory rate" to meet them halfway, then it might be wise to stick to your guns and walk away.

10. They have too many politics at play

What if you've been hired to improve something that somebody on the client's team created? Or you'll be working with five different directors, all with their ideas of how things should be done? What if only three of those directors wanted to hire you, while the other two wanted someone else?

Ah! Politics. Breathe it in. If you sense there are too many politics at play, you'll likely be fighting every decision, every piece of advice, every bit of work from the very start. And that's setting yourself up for a fall before you've even begun.

To conclude, you never really know what you're going to get when you meet a potential client. You have to listen and observe. Consider everything.

With time and experience, you'll develop an intuition that stops you from working with difficult people. Sometimes you'll get it wrong. But more often than not, you'll be glad you listened to your gut.


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