5 Ways to Spot a Nightmare Client

In “The Top 5 Small Business Pet Peeves (and How to Avoid Them),” I gave advice to potential clients on how not to tick a small business owner off.  This article is devoted to you, entrepreneur.  Picture this: it’s a week after your latest marketing campaign dropped, and you get a phone call from a potential client.  Business has been slow, and this client wants to order a large number of your products or book an unheard of number of service hours.  You’re so excited that you’re ready to send off the purchase order or contract now!  But wait.  Before you take on that new client, make sure your eagerness now is not going to set you up for a headache later.  Examine that first phone call or meeting to make sure you’re not about to have a nightmare client on your hands.  If that potential client utters one of these 5 phrases, you might want to run in the opposite direction.

1. “Thanks for giving me your prices, but can you hook me up?” This phrase usually comes after the potential client has recognized that you have something in common.  You could be of a similar cultural background or gender, have kids on the same little league team or have gone to school together.  Some of these offenders can be in your own family.  Because you have something in common, they believe you’re obligated to offer them a substantial discount.

2. “I don’t know.  Just show me something, and I’ll react to it.” That phrase was especially for the design professionals out there.  In my web design business I get countless clients who cannot articulate the vision they have for their web site (this is even after an comprehensive “getting to know your project” questionnaire).  An open slate gives you a great chance to show off your creativity, but most times, the client has no idea what he wants…but he knows he doesn’t want what you’ve presented.  If you find yourself with a confused client, protect yourself upfront.  Include a certain number of consultations or design rounds in the initial contract.  If more are needed, the extra cost should be added to the project.

3. “I don’t know how much this type of stuff costs, but send me your estimate.” I put this on the list because it often signals a client who hasn’t done much research or may be low on funds.  Once you send over the estimate, don’t be surprised if you get met with “sticker shock.”  One way to alleviate this is to have package prices or a range of prices on your web site.  If it’s a custom project, don’t get trapped into committing to a price range during the initial consultation.  The client will likely anchor onto the lowest end of the range and want specific details on why his project costs so much.

4. “Can I ask you 4 very specific questions?” Service professionals and public speakers run into this a lot.  It usually comes from someone who has no intention of paying you for your products or services.  Instead, she’ll use the free consultation or Q&A after a workshop to get her most pressing business questions answered.  If he does end up hiring you, don’t be surprised if he asks for “a hook-up” on the price.  To combat this, put a time limit on free consultations.  Once you’re at the limit, thank the potential client for her time, and ask her to book a paid consult.  At workshops, ask for only 1 or 2 questions per person so that you can get to everyone.

5. “I had to fire my last [type of service professional].” Sometimes clients run into shady business owners and have to sever a relationship.  That’s understandable, but if you are the 5th accountant he’s worked with, run.  The common denominator in all the bad business relationships is that potential client.  I’ve been the victim of this before.  A potential client mentioned that I was the 3rd designer he’d used.  Rather than see the warning sign, I thought it would be a great chance to prove my value.  Boy was I wrong!  The client demanded constant attention (phone calls, emails, etc.), nitpicked on the work and was slow to pay.  If you do take on a client with a string of failed business relationships behind her, be cautious.  See if you can find out more information on why the previous professionals weren’t a good fit for the client.  If she’s tight-lipped or places all the blame on the professional, run.

As small business owners, we have to remember this fact: every potential client should not be OUR client. It’s okay to say no.  Do you have a nightmare client story?  Share it below.  It’ll be good to get it off your chest and could help someone else.  🙂

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About Dequiana Jackson

Dequiana Jackson, CEO of Inspired Marketing, Inc., is a small business marketing coach who teaches women entrepreneurs how to monetize their message so they can make more money from their expertise. Dequiana is the author of Know Your Business: How to Attract Ideal Clients & Sell More and runs the award-winning blog, Entrepreneur-Resources.net.

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  1. Another nightmare client is one who asks you to work for free to see what you can do. Oh really? I guess the clients on my list are just there for decoration. Why do you want me to prove myself to you when you have read and seen my work?

    And then there are the people who just want you to work for free. They want your services but don’t offer nary penny for your time or talents.

    Can you feel my frustration?

    • I can definitely feel your frustration. In the design community, there’s a whole NO!SPEC Campaign (http://www.no-spec.com/) that believes creatives (and other service professionals) should be paid for their work upfront. Similar to what you posted, looking at your portfolio of previous work, reading case studies about your work and contacting former clients should be enough to decide whether they want to work with you. The danger of spec work is that you are taking time away from paid work or the opportunity to get paid work from new clients. I’ve also seen people work on spec and get their ideas stolen. Sucks all around.

      As far as working for free…that’s called volunteering. If you didn’t sign up to do something pro-bono, then you need to tell them your prices before any work starts. Good luck, and don’t let those nightmare clients throw you off your game. 🙂

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