When Should You Reject a New Client?

We have to learn to stop saying yes to every potential client and job opportunity.

By saying yes to projects that aren’t right for us, we lose the chance to take on the ones that are. In the long run, we end up filling our time with work that leaves us frustrated, bored, and broke.

When should we turn down a potential freelance opportunity?

In this article, I will go over some situations that you should pass up on.

1. The Client Wants You to Work for Free

The situation: The client absolutely loves your work. And they have a great product. For you, the project is very interesting and you would love to be a part of it.

They talk about working together to make their company succeed. They really seem to care about creating a long-term work relationship with you.

But when you present them with a price quote for your services, they immediately clam up.

"We’re a new startup. We don’t have a lot of funding. We thought, you know, you’d do this for the opportunity. For the exposure. If this takes off, you will be richly rewarded and super famous."

There are some situations where working in exchange for exposure is a good decision. For example, when I began freelancing, I did some free work for content publications in my niche to build my network and to get my name out there. Guest blogging  and working with non-profit organizations are examples of pro-bono work that give you an easier opportunity to get exposure and experience.

But, if a client is in the business of making money, then they should have money in their budget to hire you.

They wouldn’t ask their other employees to work for a vague promise of future reward and fame, so why should you be treated differently?

2. The Client is Shady and Obnoxious

You call the client via Skype to discuss the project.

In a mere 20 minutes, the client has already made insulting remarks about your nationality/gender/race and is trying to get you to work on something you know is wrong (black hat SEO, for example).

Always trust your gut when you’re choosing clients to work with.

I know, it can be tempting to accept any job and to work with anyone when you’re in a bind, when you’re desperate for more money, when your meal plan consists of cheap instant ramen noodles and $0.99 fast food hamburgers.

But I can assure you that if a client is already being obnoxious and fishy in your initial discussions, they are going to be a lot of trouble when the project kicks off and when it comes time to pay the bills. (I speak from experience, unfortunately.)

Doing things you know are wrong or against your principles for a quick buck will hurt your professional reputation in the industry.

3. The Client Doesn’t Trust Your Professional Expertise

The client contacts you with very specific requests about what they want for their website.

When you suggest that perhaps the seizure-inducing, animated site logo they want is a bit much, or that the 2-minute splash page intro is going to obstruct the user’s experience and is a more-than-a-decade-old outdated web design trend, the client gets angry and tells you your job is just to do what you’re told.

You have a responsibility to your clients and to your own business to do your best possible work. But you can’t do your best work if the client won’t allow you to use your expertise and skills.

And when the end result doesn’t generate the results the client wants, who do you think will be blamed? That’s right, you.

4. The Client is a Cheapskate

At first, it was a question about your prices being a bit high, and you gave them a little discount because, hey, they have more work for you in the future.

But they keep slipping in little extra jobs.

"Oh, it won’t take you but a couple of minutes to whip up a Facebook button, will it? And a background for our Twitter page too please?"

They try to barter your services for theirs, even though you have no need for hair straighteners, organic muesli, or whatever it is they’re selling.

Being budget-conscious is quite normal in business.

Optimizing every resource and every dollar is an important component of any successful company.

But those things should be done fairly and tastefully.

A client who constantly barters and haggles over price doesn’t believe in the value your work.

I often ask for a client’s budget up front to get an idea of whether we’re going to be a good fit or not.

5. The Client is Flaky

The client makes initial contact about the job, but after emailing back and forth a few times, the cracks start to appear.

You can see they aren’t sure what they want exactly, and they are indecisive about even the most fundamental components of a project such as agreeing on the exact scope of the project.

They then seem to disappear off the face of the earth for days/weeks at a time.

I’ve had my share of flaky clients. The truth is, people get busy, they don’t know what they want, they get distracted, and things are forgotten and shoved to the side. That is all well and good.

But if their work ethic gets to the point where it becomes impossible to finish the project, you should consider whether or not it’s a client worth keeping in your list.

Flaky clients tend to delay and prolong your projects, and will cause you to miss out on other job opportunities.

Final Words

Clients come in all shapes, sizes, and types. Some are a dream come true, and others can be a total nightmare.

By knowing what to steer clear of and by trusting your instincts, you can avoid some of those nightmare clients in future.

  • My rule of thumb: if they’re nutty or things get complicated during initial conversations, everything is destined to get much much worse after the gig begins. I always write an escape clause into my contracts.

  • I remember the most stingiest person (who was actually very rich) .. he kept on saying that he can get a website outsourced for only 70 USD with domain and hosting! I told him you pay for what you get and if you don’t want to spend any money then get a free website online as there is many to choose from. What made him realise that paying good money for a website is that people can value your company by looking at your website… especially if it is a $4 million a year turnout like this client who I was dealing with!

  • Hi Meredith! Thank you for sharing your advice.

    I agree with you completely. I can’t emphasize enough how much I agree with Steff’s advice to trust your instincts. At the start, if things are already going badly, 9.9 times out of 10, it will get worse when the project kicks off. Like Steff (and probably you, I’m assuming) I say this from past freelancing experiences.

  • Hi Sharjah! Yes. Reading your story, I can’t help but think back on this article on our other website, Six Revisions: How I Earned A Lot More on Projects by Changing My Pricing Strategy.

    In the article, Mike, the co-founder of Freshbooks, says:

    […] if I was proposing to build a website capable of creating an additional $100,000 of profit annually, I would ask the client to make an investment of $40,000 in their website.

    Essentially I based the price on the expected value to my client, not on how long it would take me to do the work.

    That’s a great deal when you think about what a new site is going to deliver for the next several years, for most businesses.

  • Amen Meredith! I agree whole-heartedly!!

  • LOL…how come it’s the wealthiest people who are the skinflints? Hope you were fairly compensated for your work Sharjah!

  • Daniel

    Excellent guide, an eye-opener!