When I first started freelancing, I was grateful for any job I could find that paid me to put my e-Learning talents to work. Back then, my motto was “Any client is a good client!” After all, each project I took on gave me more fodder for my e-Learning portfolio, and getting paid at all felt great!
At the same time, somewhere in the back of my mind, I was afraid of what the consequences would be if I started turning down work. What if I rejected offers and never found new ones? Didn’t I owe it to my career to be open to any and all new work opportunities? Because my livelihood depended on me saying “yes” to new work, I frequently reminded myself that beggars can’t be choosers.
While the “any client is a good client” mindset may sound like a rational way to think, the truth is that it reflects a lack of confidence, and for me, it held me back from growing as a professional, and kept me from reaching my own financial goals. In my early days, I took on several clients I shouldn’t have: They paid well below my standard rate, monopolized my time, and had me creating content that wasn’t aligned with the kind of work I enjoyed doing. Eventually, I realized that I needed to break up with them and spend more time on finding clients that were a better fit—but it was a hard lesson to learn, because I was resistant to saying “no” to a paying client on principle.
In hindsight, I wish I had broken up with them sooner—I could have become more selective much earlier in my freelance career! So in this week’s post, I’d like to talk about identifying and avoiding the wrong clients. (Next week, we’ll talk about finding and keeping “good” clients and making sure that you’re growing your business in a way that fosters the business relationships and types of work that will make you happiest over the long term.)
Money is Money, Right? (Spoiler Alert: Not Always.)
For me, the first step toward evolving beyond “money is money” thinking was understanding the benefits of finding work that supported my own goals, and the risks of taking on work that didn’t. (If you haven’t articulated your goals as an e-Learning freelancer yet, it may help to review this article from earlier in this blog series.)
It was only when I started comparing my work from different clients that I began to realize the positive effects my favorite relationships and projects were having on my career and my general outlook, and the negative impacts of my more challenging situations.
Why Are Bad Client Relationships So Dangerous?
I think it’s important to start with understanding that “bad clients” are not bad people. Rather, a bad client is one that causes unnecessary stress and effort, or otherwise creates a dynamic that is costly to you and your business. It’s also worth noting that “bad” is a matter of degree here, so it will be up to you to determine your own thresholds of tolerance for clients with counterproductive behaviors. My goal here is to first examine the risks of these situations, and then help you identify the warning signs that indicate a client could have unhealthy tendencies.
Here are a few “bad client” situations I’ve encountered more than once:
- Think about a potential client that tries to haggle each line item in a project proposal. While it’s certainly their job to save money, consider the amount of time you spend negotiating every last detail—that could be time spent working on projects! Furthermore, for every line item you’re asked to discount, the client is communicating that they don’t think your work is worth what you’re asking. That sets a dangerous precedent, and it’s tough to find motivation for a new project if you’ve just been told your work isn’t as valuable as you think.
- Consider a potential client who involves you in long, drawn-out meetings where they’re doing most of the talking. How likely are your future meetings to be more efficient? How are you going to handle working with someone who talks more than they listen?
- What about the clients who are hard to work with, but apologize profusely after each project? If you’ve ever had a client that struggles to get you what you need, then promises to do better next time, I have some bad news for you: It’s unlikely that they’ll change.
My point here is that when you enter into a relationship similar to any of these, your morale, stress level, and financial health are all likely to suffer. The checks may be clearing, but if you find yourself frustrated, overworked, or struggling financially, it may be time to consider seeking work that is more aligned with your needs and values.
Identifying Bad Clients
In her article, Shattering the Myth: All Clients Are Not Good Ones, Dana Brownlee identifies five types of clients you should stay away from. I’ll summarize them here (although the article is definitely worth a read):
- The Stiffer: “Stiffers” are clients with financial problems that hesitate to sign contracts.
- The Abuser: “Abuser” clients constantly request low pricing, cancel meetings at the last minute, and pay late.
- The Moocher: “Moochers” typically don’t want to pay you at all. They want your services for free, or just want you to provide “samples” that also happen to be completely finished work products.
- Mr./Ms. Clueless: “Clueless” clients have no idea what they want, but will hold you responsible for delivering a great product.
- Mr./Ms. Unreliable: “Unreliable” clients are hard to reach when you need information, documents, feedback on edits, etc.
Again, “bad” is a matter of degree, so as you’re thinking about these archetypes, spend some time considering how much of each behavior you’re willing to put up with. For example, one “Abuser” may be worth working with if they pay you a week late, versus another who pays you six months late. So consider these as generalities, but strong red flags indicating future difficulties.
3 Ways to Avoid Bad Clients
With these warning signs of bad clients in mind, let’s talk about how to avoid similar situations before getting too entangled with them in the first place. Here are a three things you can do to protect yourself:
1. Know your goals and core values.
We’ve discussed the importance of knowing both your goals and core values earlier in this series, so I won’t belabor the points from those posts, but it’s definitely worth noting that finding new clients is one of the first and best ways to put your goals and values to work for you.
For example, I once had an opportunity to work with a client on their Learning Management System (LMS). The work seemed pretty straightforward: Once I had completed a given course and it had been approved, I would upload it and keep going. As I started working on more courses in the project, the client wouldn’t provide feedback in a timely way, or in some cases at all. What was worse, I struggled for days in the beginning because they were reticent to provide credentials to access the LMS. (I was on the hook for doing a job, but being denied the proper tools for the job!)
In this situation, I quickly realized that this client was showing the telltale signs of being an “unreliable,” and they were asking me to go against my core value of simplicity. Furthermore, when I saw that they didn’t want to trust me with login credentials for their LMS, that conflicted with my core value of integrity. I was wasting valuable time and energy due to things I couldn’t control, so I made the decision to close the project as quickly and professionally as possible. I knew that staying on board would only lead to more chaos and stress, and made the decision to focus my efforts instead on finding clients that were a better fit for me personally.
2. Write a profile describing your ideal client.
One of the most dangerous sentiments when it comes to determining if you’re a good fit for a given client is, “I’ll just see what feels right.” While I don’t usually downplay the effectiveness of instincts, when it comes to establishing new client relationships, in the beginning you likely won’t have enough information for even your gut feelings to make strong decisions.
I find that one of the most effective tools for evaluating client fit is a pre-written profile that lists the characteristics and behaviors of my ideal client. Once I took the time to articulate the type of client I was looking for, both in terms of the work they offered me and their behaviors, I was able to filter out all of the clients who didn’t meet my criteria. Doing this made a huge difference in terms of selecting the right work: I no longer had to rely on my emotions to help me determine which clients “felt right,” and I had clear boundaries around the types of clients I would and wouldn’t accept. If a potential client didn’t meet my criteria, I moved on, knowing that I wasn’t really turning down money–rather, I was dodging bullets and avoiding situations that were going to cost me money in the long run.
I recommend creating your own profile by considering a variety of factors, including:
- What types of work do you most enjoy doing? (Be specific, both in terms of practical things like courseware versus print materials, as well as subject matter.)
- What is the ideal business size or years in business for your ideal client? (Working for a start-up is always very different from working for a multinational corporation!)
- What is your ideal client’s minimum budget for a single project?
- What type of payment schedule would you want to have in place? (Payment in full upfront, a percentage upfront, payment at the end of projects?)
- Are you willing to work with a client who has zero knowledge when it comes to managing and working with e-Learning projects? (Sometimes guiding clients can be easier than working with those who are set in their ideas about e-Learning.)
- Do you want a client who is regularly engaged or will just give you the details and let you run with the project? (An involved client can be great–but so can being handed more creative control)
- What types of personalities do you like to work with?
The important part of this exercise is that you’re learning to define your ideal situation, so that you can constantly play to your strengths. While you don’t have to be rigid about your list, the more you can use these criteria to identify terrific clients and avoid bad ones, the better.
(Also: Make sure that nothing on your list is discriminatory. For example, it’s OK to have a personal policy of not working with businesses with more than 500 employees, but it’s illegal to refuse to work with minorities or members of a protected class.)
3. Create a client criteria scorecard.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned that all of the red flags are a matter of degree–so now that you have the profile of your ideal client created, create a scorecard to help you measure how closely a new client or project meets those criteria. This will help you get out of “yes or no” thinking (for example, if you’re determining personality fit, it may be difficult to judge a potential client in such stark terms).
For example, create a chart with 5-6 key principles, then rank them in order of how important they are to you. For example, I’ve used a chart that looks like this (where 5 is the highest rating, and 1 is the lowest):
|Criterion||Client A Project||Client B Project|
There are several ways to use this data, but the simplest go like this: Set an overall point threshold, and then only work with clients whose total overall rating meet or exceed that threshold. For example, if I had an overall threshold of 15, I would accept Client A’s project, but not Client B’s. (Or better yet, I would pass the work along to a peer e-Learning professional and make a new connection for future opportunities!)
What if I Don’t Discover A Bad Client Until It’s Too Late?
In his article, 4 Ways to Avoid Bad Clients, Stefan Fidanov explains that for a variety of reasons, sometimes bad clients are just unavoidable. Sometimes, you’re well underway with a project before you discover that the relationship or work is a bad fit for you. Fidanov offers a few tested ideas that might help:
- Don’t price your services too cheaply
- Focus on value (so as not to appear as a commodity to your clients)
- Avoid jobs with clients who have already decided what they want to do
- Avoid working with projects that are too vaguely defined
Just Remember: Nobody’s Perfect
In the end, it’s important to remember that no freelancer is able to only work with perfect clients all the time. So your job isn’t to aim for 100% ideal relationships and projects all the time, but rather to do everything you can to ensure you’re setting yourself up for success as often as possible. And much like some of the other topics we’ve covered in this series, the best first step is to know yourself and spend time maintaining an awareness of the work that makes you the happiest.
So now that you know how to identify and avoid the clients that will cost you time, money, and happiness, next week, we’ll move on to the other side of the coin: Understanding and finding the indicators of an ideal client.
What has your experience been like with identifying clients that were a bad fit for you? Did you have any realizations, or did you learn over time? As always, I invite you to join our private Facebook group for a discussion with your e-Learning peers, or to participate in our Twitter conversation using the hashtag #eLearningBiz!