How to recognise alarm bells with a prospective client and know when to walk away

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When you exist in a competitive market, you'll naturally have to work harder to win clients. You might also have to do more 'speculative' work to pitch against other designers, developers or marketing professionals.

It means you'll be putting in a lot of extra hours without getting paid, taking significant risks for work you've not yet won.

It might be that you're completely wasting your time and that the prospect is merely trying to seek out some free ideas. Or worse, you're starting to realise that the prospective client could be difficult – or someone that won't listen to your expertise.

So with so much at stake, how do you know when your time and effort is worthwhile? We've put together the following tips to help you recognise those alarm bells with a prospective client and know when to walk away.

They're only fixated on price

I always worry when someone is only bothered about the price. Isn't it more about the outcome? Despite value and expertise being a more realistic deciding factor, many firms will want to know how much you cost. If you've got a client only bothered about the price, tread carefully and consider whether you want to work with someone who is merely concerned about budgets.

They're not prepared to reveal their budget

With the above in mind, how can you possibly price up a project without first knowing the client's budget? If, after many attempts, you've been unable to discover how much they can afford – you might want to consider whether the client is serious about hiring you. Yes – some might argue that it's really up to the supplier to reveal costs first and foremost. But isn't that just going back to people being fixated on price and price alone? It's quite simple – a serious client who is happy to spend the money won't be afraid to reveal budgets.

They have no business strategy

A prospect that has no idea who they are or what they're doing is the biggest worry of all! And if they've got no clear business strategy, how can you possibly know how to help? Yes, you're a talented designer or marketing professional, but if the client doesn't even know what they want – how can you be expected to? Clients who have no clear strategy could potentially end up being more trouble than they're worth.

They think a list of deliverables is a sufficient brief

It's surprising how many businesses still don't know what constitutes a brief. A brief isn't a list of deliverables. It's a chance for a brand to tell a potential supplier about its background, its strengths and weaknesses, its brand guidelines, its strategy, its target audience and its heritage.

A list of deliverables only plays a small part – and doesn't even begin to allow a supplier to put together the right proposal and costings. If a prospect only supplies a list of deliverables, i.e. requirements, it could be a significant warning to walk away.

They're not listening to you

You've had three meetings, everything seems to be going well, but then the prospect says something that only demonstrates they've not been listening. They then suggest their solutions – things that won't help. If a client isn't listening at such an early stage, you should consider whether they'll listen at all. Because if you can't consult now, you certainly won't be able to in future. And you certainly don't want them to turn around and blame you when things go wrong, as you've got your reputation to protect.

They're expecting too much for free

I don't like speculative work. I think it's odd to do anything for a client before they've hired you. But then, this can sometimes be the world of agencies and speculative is a way of reassuring. Some might say it's giving prospects the chance to 'borrow' ideas. I think it's naive more than anything, creating something that you think the client will like rather than going through a professional, considered process of iterative work. Always think carefully about whether you want to create work for free, as it might be starting the business relationship on the wrong foot.

They're taking up too much of your time

You're happy to attend two or three meetings to discuss how you could help – and even that's a push on your time. But after five or six, you have to question when the client is going to agree to your proposal and start paying you.

If nothing has been confirmed after many phone calls, meetings and emails – I would suggest a firm but friendly discussion about whether they'd like to go ahead, and put a hold on any further support until they've agreed to make things concrete.

They're demonstrating negative traits

If a prospect is becoming pushy or even aggressive, this is the absolute biggest warning sign to walk away. A healthy business relationship is built on trust, mutual respect and understanding. It is not built on someone barking orders at you and becoming impatient, needy and over-demanding. Look out for any warning signs of psychotic behaviour to determine whether the prospect is someone you can establish a long-term relationship with.


And those are a few warning signs. For extra reassurance, why not look up the client via Companies House? You can check when the company was incorporated. You can also view director information and uncover filing history. This information alone should help in informing your decision.

If you're satisfied that the prospect is kosher, then make it clear that you expect a deposit before work begins. I usually request between 25% and 50% upfront; depending on the size of the project. It's just an extra layer of safety before you take the plunge.

Do you have any tips for spotting demanding clients before it's too late? Any horror stories you'd care to share? Join the conversation on Twitter @creativeboom.