13 Red Flag Phrases That Bad Freelance Clients Use

For many of us, the hardest part of freelancing isn’t the technical skills like development or design, but the skills of finding clients, negotiating projects, and getting paid. No matter how good you are at these skills, the difference between a good client and a bad client can be the difference between becoming a six-figure freelancer, or quitting freelance after a few months to take a full-time job again.

I’ve been freelancing full-time since 2007, and I’ve interacted with thousands of potential clients in their job posts and via email and phone. I’ve developed a list of red-flag words or phrases that I’ve found often (but not always) indicate that you might be about to find yourself in a bad relationship with a toxic client.

This is the next big thing!

This client almost always goes on to describe how their idea is going to be the next big Facebook / Twitter / Uber / etc. When pressed, they never have any idea how those startups started, got traction, etc. They rarely have anything beyond the idea and maybe a few wireframes. No marketing plan, no business plan, no fundraising plan.

I just need someone to build it.

Usually accompanies the “next big thing” red flag. This client thinks that coming up with “Facebook for pets” was the hard part, and building and growing it will be trivial. They just need a code monkey to knock it out over the weekend, is that so much to ask?!

As soon as my client pays me, I’ll pay you.

This client is running a shell game. They hired you to do work that they were hired to do themselves, and they don’t even have the level of success to front the cash until they get paid. In my experience, you will probably get paid, but it’ll take forever, and you don’t want to hitch your wagon to this dud of a star in the long run.

Could you reduce your rate?

The most surprising red flag to me is that almost anyone I’ve ever talked to who pushed back on my rate without offering any kind of concession (firm commitment to larger volume of work, accelerated payment schedule, etc) turned out to be a horrible client. If someone just straight up asks you for a discount, they don’t value your talent. You’re a commodity to them, and neither of you will be happy with the relationship in the long run.

I don’t pay upfront deposits.

Every client needs skin in the game, period. If they won’t commit by putting down a deposit before you start working, then you’re basically doing spec work that they can choose to buy if they like it. Don’t run your business this way.

We need this done yesterday!

Translation: we’re disorganized, put this off until the last minute, and / or don’t understand that your work takes time to get right. I’d give this client a chance by explaining, once, that good results take time, and that you will give them a realistic timeframe for how long it will take. If they keep insisting that you pull all-nighters, work on the weekend, drop everything, etc, run away unless they’re offering 2x – 5x your normal rates. And get a big deposit! 🙂

Shouldn’t take long for someone who knows what they’re doing.

Ask yourself this: if the client doesn’t know what they’re doing (and thus looking for you), how do they know that this won’t take long? The client might be trying to manipulate you, or they might just be cheap, but they’re not worth having either way.


Would you sit down with an attorney that you’re evaluating hiring and tell them you have a great “opportunity” for them? This one just smacks of cheap salesmanship to me. This is likely just an opportunity to get underpaid or deal with unrealistic expectations.

This isn’t how I normally do things, but…

This usually follows some request for a concession of some kind. The client is attempting to lure you with the promise of things being different in the future, but if you’re just talking to them for the first time and they’re already treating you poorly, why would it improve once they find out that you’re willing to put up with it?

You must work onsite.

You’re a freelancer, not an employee. Meetings are one thing, but there’s almost never any reason to work onsite. This typically means that the client values input, not output, and they want to look over your shoulder and “make sure you’re working”. Toxic!

Let’s setup a daily call, just to check in.

This is related to the “must work onsite” red flag. Phone calls are fine if there’s an agenda and there’s something that needs to be discussed that can’t be done over email, Slack, etc. But a standing daily phone call to check in means that the client probably doesn’t trust you or see you as an expert.

Do we really need a contract?

Yes, we really do. Next!

I’ve been burned before, so I’m kind of nervous about hiring freelancers…

This one is kind of sad, because there are a lot of bad freelancers out there, and it’d be nice to be able to do great work for someone like this and redeem their view of freelancers. But there are three issues with these clients.

First, you’re only hearing their side of the story and there’s a good chance that when they were “burned” before, they were the problem.

Second, they’re now going to try and micro-manage you to avoid the issue they had with the last freelancer.

Finally, the project is now likely over-due and over-budget, so they’re going to be extra stressed about it and put pressure on you.

It’s not that these never work out, but they’re usually not worth it.

So how many of these words or phrases have you seen? Email me and let me know of any that I missed, or just to vent about toxic clients from hell. We’ve all been there 🙂