I had a tricky experience recently and declined to work with a client on a bid. This was the first time I had done this, but not the first time I’d had alarm bells ringing during the contract negotiation stage.

This got me thinking about the red flags other freelancers experience when establishing relationships with clients and I asked the question on Twitter via #freelancechat and got a whole raft of interesting responses, many of which also resonated with me. I’ve based this blog post on this information and added other examples of my own.

What are red flags?

For me, red flags are warning signs or alarm bells that you become aware of when you are dealing with clients and they can happen during any stage of the relationship. I have ignored too many of these too often throughout my freelancing career and created some messy situations to deal with.

Top ten red flags

These are in no particular order – they are all worrying!

Not listening or talking over you

This is a pet peeve of mine – why engage an expert if you aren’t going to listen to what they are telling you? It’s fair enough if they don’t want to follow the advice, but they have to listen in the first place. I have often found myself repeating myself until the message lands or sending a follow-up email outlining the key points of the conversation.

Working in construction for 20-odd years, I’ve also experienced the tedium of being talked over (by men) until I shut up. I decline opportunities with clients who talk over me or don’t listen to what I am saying. It’s a basic lack of courtesy and doesn’t bode well for the future of the relationship.

Disregarding the contracting options provided and developing their own

I provide price and scope options based on budget expectations and I am open to negotiating terms with clients, as long as it works commercially for me.

However, I recently experienced a pick and mix approach with a client who wanted a gold-star service for bargain basement prices. Unfortunately this only works one way and gets a relationship off to a really bad start, so I’m not afraid of walking away from a scenario like this – not all clients are right for all freelancers.

Not engaging early enough

I talk about this in an earlier blog post, but in my line of work, time can be of the essence. A big red flag for me is when a client has not dealt with a bid opportunity for a couple of weeks, then calls me in a panic, needing me to get my magic wand out. *Newsflash* – I don’t actually have one and being able to meet shorter deadlines is dependent on my disrupting my own life to help them out. This never results in optimum work, so it’s best all round to just plan ahead a bit. 

In this situation, I’m clear about what is achievable and provide a scope and price to match this. I’d also be clear about the input the client needs to make to make sure the bid or project is successfully completed to meet the deadline. It’s also the reason I prefer to work long-term with clients, so I can anticipate their needs and we can start preparing for bids months before they land. 

Vague brief or not knowing what it is clients need us to do  

Sometimes clients aren’t really clear about what they need us to do and this can present an opportunity for us to demonstrate our expertise and the range of services we can provide and guide them to the optimum solution for their issue. It can also create a situation where the brief is a moving feast or stakeholders are unclear about what is going to be achieved. 

Tie deliverables down in writing – I generally do this as part of the contracting/pricing exercise, and getting feedback and client sign-off. This way everyone is clear about what will be delivered (and how much this will cost). 

Undervaluing our skills or input

Something that grates on me like nails down a blackboard is asking me to just pretty this copy up, work my magic or some other patronising nonsense. Actually, I work really hard to make sure bid copy answers the questions in a really readable way – this is a million miles away from prettying something up.

As freelancers, it’s our job to educate clients on what it is we do and what they are paying for and I do this by taking them through the process of responding to a bid and how the answers are developed. More often than not, they are very surprised about the depth and detail required to complete them and come away from the process feeling they have learnt something useful.

Lack of feedback

Linked to the point above, once a proposal or a piece of work has been submitted, we really need some feedback, to either improve or amend it! I regularly ask clients and stakeholders throughout the process how they are enjoying working together, obtaining direct feedback that will either confirm things are working or that I might need to amend something for this client.

Going AWOL

Clients going AWOL always worries me, especially in a bid scenario. I do allow leeway for people being busy (I can be guilty of this myself), but unless you can complete the work on your own, clients being incommunicado can be hard to overcome.  

Expecting too much free work

Adding value to client businesses is the freelancers’ raison d’être and it’s how we develop the long-term relationships that make us successful. However, don’t be afraid to issue an invoice or bail out completely when those quick requests become manifold. Time is money, after all, and people don’t value what they receive for free, eroding the value of your skills in your client’s mind.


We aren’t employed members of staff – we are experts, and we don’t need to be managed or be on site to complete our piece of work. Most of us have professional office set-ups, whether at home or in a co-working space, and this is how we prefer to work. We organise meetings when we need to catch-up and this could be via Skype or Zoom because it’s more time-efficient.

I’ve generally found the request to be in a client’s office borne of a controlling nature and it’s something I avoid, unless I am part of a big bid team where collaboration is key and many members of the team are based there.

Late payments

This is surely the biggest bugbear of any freelancer – actually getting payments in from clients. Some freelancers have a model that enables phased payments or deposits. I have introduced this more, particularly with new clients, but it often doesn’t mean immediate payment. I had a really difficult situation earlier this year when I had to begin legal proceedings with a client I’d been working with over a significant period of time and it was very stressful.

I’ve got two things to say on this subject: clients – please pay your freelancers on time, and freelancers – please set up processes that will either prevent this from happening in the first place or will give you leverage if it does.

How to get out of a client relationship

There are many ways to escape once a couple of these issues crops up in your client relationship. I have done all of these over the past five years.

  • Declining the opportunity
  • Telling them you don’t have the availability
  • Starting legal action (pretty drastic but it worked and they don’t speak to me anymore). 

What are your red flags?

Tricky scenarios with clients can be difficult to deal with as a freelancer. As one individual you can often feel outflanked by larger and more powerful organisations. However, you definitely don’t have to experience this alone and there are plenty of organisations and groups out there that can support and advise you, including IPSE, Freelance Heroes and Being Freelance. I’m also a member of the FSB and my local Chamber of Commerce and these have both been invaluable in times of crisis!  

I’d love to hear from other freelancers about your red flags with clients and how you deal with them. The best places to connect with me are on Twitter and LinkedIn