This article is a part of my series on freelancing in China. For more articles on the subject, click here.
Over my time as a freelance web developer, I’ve become pretty good at sniffing out clients who will be a pain in the butt before signing a contract. Once in a while though, a nightmare client will slip through — just last month in fact. When I have a bit more time, I’ll want to write about my first freelance project and all the mistakes I made (I ended up giving back half of the deposit to wash my hands clean off it). Since then, I have rarely had to enforce the cancellation clause of the contract — but when that nightmare client comes, it’s nice to have that clause to get rid of them quick. Think of it as the prenup before a wedding — to avoid having your ex-wife get the house, the kids, the dog, and all the fine china you inherited from your great-aunt in the in the divorce.
Here are some of the warning signs and red flags you should not ignore when working with a client:
The client who asks for freebies up front.
I once had a potential client ask to raise my usual maintenance grace period from two weeks to six months, without paying anything for it. They needed technical support once the project was done, there is a possibility of things breaking because the internet is fluid and not static. Once I realized that what they were looking for was a full-time IT person, because they couldn’t tell the difference between this current project and things like their email for another site crashing, I did not take the project. I think negotiation is good, but asking for too many free things upfront is never a good sign.
The client who refers to their boss with a vaguely tyrannical name.
Such as… “the founder”. Ideally, as a freelancer, you always want to be talking to the final decision-maker of the project — if that’s not possible (for example, sometimes you’ll deal directly with a marketing department), be wary of people who will refuse to give you the names of the people involved in the project, or refer to them in vague terms. That usually means they are terrified of their boss (for good reason, or bad) and will only show them the project when it is too late, leading to a lot more back-and-forth discussion
The client who sucks up all of your time with questions / Promises future work in return for free/cheap labor
Most people who approach a web developer freelancer have no idea about web development or coding — and that’s okay. After all, that’s kind of why they need the help of a developer. It can be tricky sometimes to distinguish people who are detail-oriented and people who will waste all of your time. I’ve done a fair bit of work with film directors or production companies, and the people I work with tend to be very, very picky in their design, because that’s who they are as a designer. Then, there are clients like the one that I had to explain to for over 30 minutest that ‘metallic gold’ was an effect and not a color that could be used on the site. On that note, the last type of nightmare client is the worst one..
The client cannot tell you what they want
This one is hard. The job of a developer is to translate a concept or an idea into an online project. It’s also the job of a web developer to ask the right questions to push a project forward. However, it is not the job of the developer to create the brand if there is not already there (unless of course you’re being paid for that too). When it’s taking too much time to gather these requirements, or no matter what you are working on, the client uses vague terms like — “make it more high-end”-without provided tangible feedback, it may be time to leave the client. This also goes for times that the client cannot think of the whole picture and can only focus on small details (we all had the one person who could not agree on a shade of blue for weeks).
The best tips to avoid nightmare clients:
- Always sign a contract with a cancellation clause prior to working on a project.
- Never start working on a project without receiving at least 30% of the project fee (unless it’s in this case)
- Never take on a project where the client does not already have existing copywriting/visual identity/mvp plan, unless your first iteration will be creating those things for them.
- Work incrementally, set strict deadlines, and deliver the project in iterative sprints.
- Stay sane. Every bad client is a learning opportunity.
A client-developer relationship is really just like a romantic relationship. It’s up to both of you whether it’s drama-free and mutually beneficial, or whether it’s filled with insecurity, complaints, unnecessary emotional talks, and broken bottles of glass. Even though the working relationship may not last more than the few months that it takes a to finish a project, having a good relationship with the client will ensure future referrals and more work with like-minded people.
Anything I missed here? I’ll keep covering other aspects of freelance life in my article series on Medium.