Clients From Hell: Quick Ways to Spot and Avoid Them

Carol Tice

Beware of freelance writing clients from hell. Makealivingwriting.com

They pay late, or too little. They’re not sure what they want. They’re unavailable when you have questions, and sometimes downright abusive when they do pick up the phone. They’re clients from hell, and as a freelancer, you just don’t need this grief.

And yet, tales of client woes are an epidemic in the freelance world. Stories of the best friend you went to work for, who underpaid you for years. Or the company that never raised your rates, even as your responsibilities grew. The one that disappeared with your big final payment.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could avoid freelance writing clients from hell like these?

Well, for the most part, you can! There are some classic warning signs that things will go wrong — if you know what to look for.

Here’s my guide to quickly screening out losers:

Find out who they are

It amazes me how many freelance writers take gigs without having any idea of the size, age, or income of a business. They get a message signed, “Joe” — no website listed, no phone number — and the next thing you know, they’re writing for them. And the next thing you know, the writer’s been stiffed.

“Can you believe that?” they ask me. Y E S. Yes, I can. It really pays to spend 10 minutes checking them out online.

Golden rule: If a client can’t give you a website to look at, run.

Beyond their site, easy ways to learn more include checking LinkedIn for a company page — and seeing how many employees they say they have. Under 10 is a red flag. Over 100 makes me more comfortable that they have a clue (and probably a decent marketing budget).

That LinkedIn page is also good for finding out whether the company has been in business longer than a few months. In general, startups make poor clients for freelancers, as they don’t yet have steady income and tend to be chaotic and disorganized.

Revenue numbers can take more advanced research skills to track down, but at least check their website for press releases about sales growth, new clients, acquisitions, and such. Or Google “revenue at <company name>”.

If it’s a big enough company, Google could shoot you an instant answer, like this:

Avoid clients from hell -- find out their revenue first

As you can see, they also throw in competitor info as a bonus — sweet.

For smaller companies, you might try Hoovers. If they’re tech-ish, see if they’re listed on CrunchBase. This site can be a goldmine of information on founders’ past business successes (or failures), and tell you how much investor money they’ve raised.

If you can’t get any intel through these methods, the company is likely too small or dysfunctional to be a good client. Move along! Nothing to see here…

Verify their claims

If a prospect gives you some background on their business, try to verify their statements and make sure they’re real. Don’t just take their word for it. Sadly, I’ve had people impersonate me and hire writers, and then stiff them. There are a million scams online! Don’t be a victim.

A few of the writers who saw ‘Carol Tice’ hiring on Elance took the time to compare the listing’s contact email with the one on my websites. They noticed the two weren’t the same. They reached out to me direct, learned they were the victim of fraud, and didn’t get ripped off. Many others weren’t so lucky.

Fraudsters will tell you they’re from Costco (seen recent reports on that one) or some other major corporation. Follow their links closely to see if it’s really that big company. I like to see my contact’s name on their site, or confirm other company facts they’ve given me.

Scan for gossip

Don’t be in the dark about your prospect’s reputation. Others have worked for these folks before. Did they think this was a nice, ethical company, or a total nightmare? Make it your business to know.

Two quick ways to check for trouble:

1: Look up reviews on Glassdoor (for instance, check out these reviews of notorious ‘news’ website Guardian Liberty Voice). You may see things like this:

Clients from Hell -- GLV review

2: Google “<company name> sucks” and see what you get. The latter can be brilliant for turning up blog posts where writers vent about their bad freelance experiences. You can also try the Blog Search Engine to turn up negative company chatter.

Of course, you should ask your writer community  as well. Sometimes, you’ll learn that dozens of other writers got the exact same email! And mass-mailing is another sign it’s not a good client.

Be skeptical

In all, take a ‘buyer beware’ attitude toward email nibbles and reach-outs you get on social media. Assume that queries you get with absolutely no concrete details about the company or the project have a high likelihood of being from potential clients from hell — because good clients aren’t mysterious that way.

Some bad-client buzzwords I watch out for:

“Let’s collaborate” or “Interested to partner with you” — These are never lucrative offers. More usually, it’s someone who wants to buy a link in a popular post without disclosing it’s paid. And that’s unethical. The other angle here is they may want you to work in exchange for equity shares in their company — an angle that almost never results in a paycheck.

“We’re hiring hundreds of writers” — Bad news: There is no business model that pays writers well, where hundreds of writers are employed. I’ve been researching this angle for a decade, and have never seen a single instance where this works out well for the writer. It’s a guarantee pay is teeny, or that the business has no idea how to make a profit.

Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Always get a contract and deposit

Starting work with a new client? Here’s the easiest, fastest way to screen out clients from hell — ask for a deposit.

I like 50%, but I know writers who ask for 100% of the first small piece up-front. In any case, don’t ask for less than 30% up front.

When you require a deposit, something magical happens: 90% of the flaky, loser clients disappear. They won’t pay the deposit. They balk. They have excuses.

Why? Because their plan is to rip you off. Or they never use freelancers and don’t understand how that works — another warning sign of possible clients from hell.

Once you ask for a deposit, follow through and don’t start working until you receive and cash that check.

Sometimes, these checks bounce — in fact, there are common work-from-home scams that send you a bad check as the first step in their process. You turn in some work before realizing the check is rubber, and then the company vanishes.

To repeat: Don’t work without that deposit and signed contract in your hand! I know a writer who’s out $2,000 right now, because she started working on the promise of a deposit…but it never arrived.

You can stop attracting clients from hell

If you get a lot of the scammy, suspicious reachouts from prospects I’ve detailed above, it’s time to take a look at how you’re marketing.

Are you clear on your expertise? Industries you specialize in? Do you have an online portfolio up? A strong LinkedIn profile? The more you do with your inbound marketing online to show you’re a savvy professional, the less scam artists will target you.

Quickly screening out time-wasting loser prospects will leave you more time to perfect your process to get better clients. The end result: You end up earning way more.

Who was your worst client? Leave a comment and give us your client from hell avoidance tips.

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36 Comments

  1. Bonnie Schooler

    Great advice as usual Carol. I have used Paypal for years personally and now in business. I have never had a problem and they do not hold smaller amounts, they have let me transfer mine same day. I feel safer using it whenever I can.

    Reply
    • Carol Tice

      What I’ve found is the more volume you do on Paypal, the faster they fire your money into your account. It SAYS 3-5 business days, but mine is always there the next day. 😉

  2. Clement

    This is a great article that I have greatly adored. In fact, you have brushed me up me another mile. In fact, I can recall late last year when I was scammed by a client that I wrote 50 articles and vanished mysteriously. I did not ask the deposit beforehand as the rogue promised me to pay me after completing my first 10 articles that he/she agreed to pay $5 per article. After I was done with initial 10, he told me to add another 10 so that he could send the payout. I started becoming suspicious but went on writing for him/her. After completing the first 20 articles, he advised me to send the bank details and he had initially promised to send the payout via PayPal. I had initially sent him/her my PayPal address but I resent it to him/her. Then he/she told me to add 20 other articles so that he/she could pay all the submitted work altogether. I wrote and submitted 20 other articles. Then he came out persuasively that he would send the payout and would continue sending the payout as I continued to submit more articles. Unbeknownst to me that he/she was a client from hell I submitted 10 other new articles adding the total to 50 articles. Since I used to demand payout every other moment, I did so after the 50 article. But Ouch! I was scammed. I tried to send messages to the client that all fell on deaf ears. I was speaking to the rocks!! After looking the articles for plagiarism, I found all my articles posted at fyireaders.com. I got terrified. I tried to contact the site administrator but my my attempts were just futile. Early this year I tried to browse the website but I found that it no longer exists. I think it was pulled down for similar fate other freelancers had experienced and raised the matter to Google.
    If I had read the article above,I believe I could not have fallen a scam victim.
    Thanks again for tipping us off with the invaluable insights!

    Reply
    • Carol Tice

      You bring up a great point, Clement — in the world of clients paying $5-$10 an article, scams are rife. There wasn’t much pay to begin with, so I think they figure what’s the difference if I just don’t pay you at all? I probably should add to this list, “Get paid more than $5.” By definition, ALL clients paying these rates are clients from hell, because that’s not a paycheck, really — it’s writer exploitation.

      Getting an up-front deposit is magical. Anybody who won’t pay it isn’t a good client. They don’t understand how freelancers work…and as you found out, half the time, they may be unwilling to pay an up-front because they’re planning to simply NEVER pay you.

  3. Firth McQuilliam

    This is another interesting topic! My experiences with content mills may not be exactly germane to the thread, but I’ve nonetheless picked up a sixth sense about potentially difficult clients. I’d be hard pressed to put my finger on it, but the way they write their project requests somehow stinks of flop sweat and dishonesty.

    Needless to say, I steer clear of these imps from the nether regions of Heck. Plenty of honest clients are happy to pay for the services of a decent if not brilliant writer. It’s been quite a while since I had trouble with a sleazy client. I’m knocking on wood now. ^_^

    It’s hard to say how well this sixth sense will translate to genuinely lucrative markets once I finish seeping over to that world later this year, but the experience can’t have hurt. This wonderfully informative blog post will help with mastering the art of knowing when to politely decline a gig that reeks of black hattery and con artists. ^^;

    P.S. I just got a great offer via a badly spelt email from a totally unknown startup company in the Bahamas that plans to hire hundreds of top writers at $4 a word for fluffy articles about puppies after the company’s single public contact point has weeded out the losers! The company is expecting a huge investment any day now from unidentified parties somewhere in the Middle East. Wow, I totally should jump on this contract-free opportunity to write lots of stuff on speculation to “prove myself” to these fellows! All I have to do is write four 6,000-word white papers on fiber telecommunications trends and twenty highly detailed, annotated blog posts about recent advances in aircraft jet-engine metallurgy. What could possibly go wrong? O_O

    Reply
    • Carol Tice

      Ha, I should hold a ‘worst client ever’ contest and see if we can find one that has ALL the red flags.

    • Cherese Cobb

      You totally should! 🙂

  4. Maureen

    Carol,
    Thank you for this article. I’m about to graduate from college and want to start freelancing this summer. Those of us that don’t have experience navigating these waters really appreciate the red-flag warnings.

    Reply
  5. Manoj

    Excellent article Carol. Once I also did some work for so called Ngo but they didn’t pay. They keep promising for payment but till now they payed nothing. Luckly, the amount was small and I took this incident as lesson.

    Reply
    • Carol Tice

      Yep — see my comment to Douglas, Manoj! That’s exactly how you SHOULD take it.

      If writers are thinking NGOs are do-gooders so that means they never have cash-flow problems and can’t pay…you’d be wrong. You need a contract with them just like any other business!

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