How to Spot Potentially Bad Clients Before it’s Too Late

Summary: As a freelancer or solopreneur, your long-term success and happiness hinges on your ability to spot these clients BEFORE you bring them on board. In this week's free training episode, you’ll discover how to make those decisions more easily and without stressing out.

Not all clients are created equal. Some are a true joy to work with. They value your expertise and experience. They never complain. And they happily pay you top dollar for your work (and always on time!).

But then there are those clients that are just plain difficult. They complain. They’re constantly asking for more or beating you down on price. And they need everything “yesterday!”

As a freelancer or self-employed service professional, your long-term success and happiness largely hinges on your ability to spot these clients before you bring them on board. And in this training episode, you’ll discover how to make those decisions more easily and without stressing out.

For this discussion, I brought in two of the industry’s top pros on the topic of identifying good (and bad) clients and projects: Anastacia Brice and David Ackert.

Anastacia BriceAnastacia Brice formalized the Virtual Assistance profession in 1997 by founding She’s trained, coached, and certified more than 1,000 talented VAs who now have heart-centric businesses doing work that lights them up for clients they’re passionate about supporting. Anastacia’s also a business coach, writer, community builder, italophile, and a happy girlie girl who finds biz foundations and biz standards two of the sexiest things in the world!

David AckertDavid Ackert has served in the corporate, education, and non-profit sectors as a trainer, marketer and strategic planner since the mid ’90s. Through his company, The Ackert Advisory, he has developed and implemented business development programs for numerous national legal, accounting, and financial service firms. He is the founder of Practice Boomers, a distance learning program that teaches business development skills to service professionals internationally. You can read his work at and watch some of his business development videos at

What follows is a condensed transcript of my lively conversation with Anastacia and David. If you prefer to listen to the full audio (58 minutes), you can listen to it or download the file here:

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Ed Gandia: Why don’t we start by defining what we mean when we say “bad clients.” What would you consider to be a bad client?

Anastacia Brice: For me, a bad client is someone who doesn’t respect me as a business owner and shows that through his or her actions. And that’s probably that in a nutshell.

Ed Gandia: How about you, David?

David Ackert: I would say there are two types of bad clients, and it all comes down to a mismatch. There’s a mismatch to our business, so that is to say that their problem isn’t exactly the problem that we can solve. Or their expectations for fees or timing or a mismatch to what we’re comfortable delivering or charging.

And then there’s a mismatch to our personal standards. And that would probably tie into what Anastacia just mentioned, which is just bad chemistry. The way that they communicate is not the way we want to be communicated to and we perceive it as being disrespectful.

Ed Gandia: Good points. This all sounds good on paper, but it’s sometimes hard to turn down a client or prospect, even if you get this nagging feeling there's some sort of mismatch. Many of us live with this constant fear that if we turn down a client, there may not be anything else coming down the pike for a while. Or maybe we really need the work right now. What do you say to that?

Anastacia Brice: If someone absolutely needs money and for whatever reason—say they’re in a difficult situation—then it's OK to sometimes take on less-than-desirable clients and projects. I call these "KTLO clients," which stands for "keeping the lights on." I talked to a woman this morning who has a child who is severely handicapped; she doesn't always have a lot of choices.

But we also need to make a distinction between ideal clients and KTLO clients. If you honestly cannot find any other work right now, having clients who are not ideal but at least help pay the bills until things improve, that's not any different from when you worked a traditional job you disliked but you stuck to it because  you had bills to pay.

But don’t ever confuse that with building a business that bring you clients who actually do fit with you and your business, as David was talking about before, which is really important.

So, I tell freelancers all the time, your standards can always be higher. No matter how high they are, they can always be higher. And I don’t think anyone, unless they need a KTLO client temporarily, should ever accept bad clients as a long-term reality.

David Ackert: I certainly agree with what Anastacia’s saying. I want to talk about the territory here for a moment, because as service professionals, one of the things that I find is that we tend to gravitate to this line of work because we have a servant’s type of personality.

And if you just look at the etymology of service professional, it has the word "service." It has the implication of servitude. It has kind of a co-dependent dynamic in it. And sure enough, most of the clients that I work with, most of the people that I encounter have this co-dependence to them in one way or another. They avoid conflict at all cost, they want to please people, they want to hear positive feedback from their clients. They’re not necessarily the kind of person who can give themselves that kind of positive feedback, so they look to their clients for that feedback and recognition.

The other thing is the unreliable income of a freelance model. And it triggers this scarcity-oriented fight-or-flight mechanism that’s programmed into our central nervous system. If we are in the position where we’re not sure where our next check is coming from, we’re likely to make emotional decisions.

Some of these decisions are necessary for survival. And in some cases, they’re irrational. So we think to ourselves, “Gosh, I don’t know. The pipeline’s drying up. I don’t know where the next few clients are coming from. I better do something desperate right now, right?” Instead of saying, “Okay, well, time to go back to marketing. I’m just going to trust that the pipeline’s going to refill. This is the cycle.”

So instead of going to that more rational place, we’ll sometimes make a more emotional, irrational decision, which is, “This guy’s a jerk but at least he’s here, so I’m going to work with him.” And we sell out. We sell ourselves out. We sell out our standards, and we lower our ability to have leverage with that client because we’ve essentially given all of our power over to them.

This scarcity-based, unreliable income landscape that we’ve opted into as freelancers, coupled with the need to receive recognition from our clients for providing an excellent service, that's the lethal combination. Especially if we’re talking about any kind of boundary setting, any kind of consistent standard setting for our business. It demands that we keep a really high tolerance level for the kinds of people we shouldn't take on as clients.

Anastacia Brice: I'd like to add something to what David was sharing. That whole thing about people pleasers, co-dependence, all of that stuff. That all speaks to getting our needs met inappropriately through our business relationships. And whenever I see that in my clients, I coach them around getting their needs met appropriately. If that actually ends up being a pathology, they should be talking to a different kind of professional. That’s going to get in the way of their success no matter what, unless they take care of it

David Ackert: There's something else to this. As service professionals, most of us have home offices or we have a modest kind of a setup where we have maybe an assistant, maybe an employee or two. But even then, it’s kind of a family. It’s a mom and pop. We’re not really running it with a corporate culture in mind. Yet without those kinds of structures and boundaries in place, our practice becomes a combination personal/business experience. And it becomes a bit of an emotional mess unless we’re really being conscientious about it.

We will go to our business to get the validation that we aren’t getting at home. We will find it really difficult to shut off because we don’t have a nine-to-five anymore; we have nine to ten. And then we take a break for twenty minutes and then we work until seven, and then we play with our kids and then we go back to work. It’s all kind of stirred together. And so that distinction between personal and business really gets lost unless we draw the line.

Anastacia Brice: Michael Gerber, in his book The E-Myth Revisited, talks about the "technician" versus the "owner," and he explains that the mistake most entrepreneurs make is letting the technician make the critical decisions that the owner should be making for the business.

The technician is always going to get into the “oh, but my client, my poor client; he’s having trouble. I understand he can’t pay me.” If you are thinking as a business owner, which is what a freelancer ultimately is, you’d have to say, “No, I’m really sorry, Mr. Person, that you’re having trouble but if you can’t pay me, I can’t do work for you.”

Ed Gandia: Let’s start talking about some strategies that you’ve used to better screen and qualify a prospect. How do you determine who’s a good fit and who’s not a good fit? What has worked for you?

Anastacia Brice: Well, first off, when people come to freelancing, most of them come directly from a traditional employment model. They’ve probably been employees somewhere. And so the model that we typically have about getting traditional work is that we want the job, and so we do whatever we need to do in order to get that job. We jump through whatever hoops are put in front of us to show the prospective employer that we're the perfect person for that job.

And I think that the first thing to do is to step very far away from that model, because it doesn’t apply anymore. Now there’s a prospect who's coming to you. He has a business and you have a business. You’re as much the key holder as he is. And so you can turn that model upside down and suddenly say to yourself, “You know, what if I decide for myself who a client has to be to get a place in my practice?” If you do that, the whole conversation, the inner conversation, changes.

So, that’s the first thing that I’ve ever done is I’ve changed that inner conversation with myself. Who does somebody have to be so that I want to work with them rather than who I have to be to get the gig.

Beyond that, again you have to have high standards—higher than you probably think. Be willing to uphold your own standards. Know exactly who is ideal, and who isn’t. If you don’t know who’s ideal and who’s not a good fit for you and your business, figure that out, because that in and of itself is important.

I also have crafted an incredibly strong interview process. And if a client wants to work with me and doesn’t want through go through my interview process, that’s fine with me. There are other service providers who will take you on without putting you through a process like this. But if you're interested in working with me, we're going to do it this way because I can’t work with everyone and I need to make sure that we’re going to fit—and that’s is much for me as it is for the client.

Finally, it's important not to work from a fear-based place. If you’re talking with a client and you’re afraid that the client is going to walk away, as David was saying, you’ll make emotional, irrational decisions. You have to calm your "monkey" mind and really come from a very centered place. And if that client walks away, you know what, you’ve probably dodged a serious bullet.

If you want to be thought of as a commodity, then take anybody. But if you have something of real value to offer and you don’t want to be just another service provider, kind of like a gas station on every corner, then differentiate yourself, have some standards, be willing to say, "You know, I work with these kinds of people only”.

In my case, I only coach women. Not that I don’t love men. I love men. But I don’t want to work with them. I only coach women. And so if a guy shows up, there’s no conversation to be had. I don’t care what kind of money he wants to pay. I’ve been coaching since 1996 and I know myself. It's not going to happen. So you have to be willing to stand for yourself. If you’re not going to stand for yourself, who is?

David Ackert: That’s too bad. I was actually going to ask Anastacia after this session if we could perhaps do some work together. 😉

Anastacia Brice: As long as it’s not coaching, I’ll do anything with you, David. Just not coaching.

David Ackert: Actually, you sound great; it’s my loss. Anyway, I want to touch on this word that keeps coming up: "standards." I think that most of us haven’t set them. I think we have a really unclear sense of what our standards are in terms of what makes up a bad client. Now, we’ve done the bare minimum, right, so we know that we won’t work for any less than X, or for any less than X an hour.

We kind of know where our minimum is there because we’ve probably gotten burned on it once or twice. We know geographically what our minimums are. For instance, I’m not willing to drive any more than such and such miles. Or I’m not working with people who are outside the English-speaking world, or whatever. The point is, we’ve got those bare minimums set up.

But beyond that most of us don’t have anything else listed for ourselves. The standards most of us set are situationally based. They have nothing to do with the person. Remember, we’re talking about a client, we’re not talking about a job. So we also have to create a list of the characteristics of the kind of person we want to work with. Because if we don’t know what this person looks like, we may walk right by them and not notice. Or we risk taking on clients that are not aligned with our values and personality.

That said, the personal criteria probably comes down to things such as generosity. They have to have a generous spirit to work with me. If they start pushing back on my fees before I’ve even started working with them, that’s a red flag. This is somebody who, you know, they may be completely justified in their stinginess, maybe things are tight for them. But it may not be a fit from a personality perspective.

They have to be understanding. If they’re demanding about timing of work product or unreasonable demands on service offerings, that’s also a red flag. If they’re abusive in any way—and this ties back to Anastacia’s point—if they are inappropriately curt or stubborn or uncommunicative, if they don’t return emails for a week, guess what? That’s how it’s going to be, even after they become a client of yours. They’re not going to suddenly improve their behavior just because you’ve engaged them.

And for me, if they aren’t referral-minded they are not a great client. I’ve got plenty of clients that pay the bills and that’s great; they‘re good clients. But I wouldn’t call them a "great" client. Why? Because I’ll only sustain my business with those kinds of people. So the only way I’m going to grow is if I have a sales force. And for me, my client base is my best sales force.

So, plant what I call an "opportunity feed" in the first conversation. I say to them, “Listen, I’m really looking forward to working with you. I just want you to know that I have this expectation. I am going to 'wow' you. I promise you that. So I want to know if you’re comfortable telling other people about how you’ve been 'wowed,' assuming that I can fulfill on that promise. Because for me, your referrals are a really great way of acknowledging my hard work."

And I never have anybody push back on that. But sometimes I do have someone get a little defensive about it. Well, let’s see how things go, or they say yes but they fold their arms and they frown. So I can just tell from the body language that they are not the kind of person who's going to refer me to others. I don’t necessary refuse to engage them at point. But at least my expectations are set, and I just make sure that my client roster is not consisting mostly of these types of clients, because that’s a recipe for a flat line in revenue growth.

One thing you have both mentioned is this whole idea of being specific about your ideal client profile—and specifically including personal attributes in that description. I’m curious how you guys have developed your own ideal client profiles. It sometimes seems like an overwhelming exercise. Any ideas on how to make this less daunting?

Anastacia Brice: When I work with students on this, I make them do a brain dump. This includes listing all of the things they’ve liked about people they’ve work with before, as well all of the things they’ve experienced that they really wish they’d never encounter again. So think through everything, everything that matters to you, everything you’ve experienced you didn’t like and don’t want to do again. And create some sort of standards around that. And then those go into your ideal client profile.

Also, if you have an affinity to a certain profession, maybe you want to create a niche in that direction. For instance, I have no idea why, but for some reason bestselling authors love me. Okay, that’s great. I’m happy to work with bestselling authors who are women, of course. Somebody calls me and says, “Hi, I’m an author.” My ears immediately just perk up because I know there’s some reason—I don’t know what it is, some God-given reason—why I tend to resonate well with authors. Again, it's not all authors. Authors who can’t pay me are not ideal, for instance.

Ed Gandia: Can you walk us through your screening process, Anastacia?

Anastacia Brice: The first step in my screening process—the first filter, if you will—is a conversation with the prospect. It's a 15-minute "get to know you" phone call. And we purposely don’t talk about business. My thinking is that if I can’t talk to somebody for 15 minutes without talking about business, something's wrong.

The next step is an assessment questionnaire. It's about 20 questions, and I have every potential client fill it out. When I get that back I can tell, at a glance, whether any of my deal breakers are broken. If that's the case, I don’t go any further. So, I don’t spend a lot of time in conversations unless I feel that there’s a reason to move forward.

And I’m absolutely willing to pull the pin at any moment when I realize that it's not appropriate for me to be working with this person. I just stop. I don’t want to waste any one’s time, least of all mine.

The other thing is I only work in long-term relationships. It has to be a fairly long engagement or I’m not interested. I know that isn’t true for all freelancers; it just happens to be true for me. So that might not work for everybody.

From there, we then have a conversation that's really about business scale, scope, fees, the nuts and bolts of things. That’s usually about a 60-minute call. And then if that’s a go, then they’re invited to a 60- to 90-minute conversation where we talk through deeper discussion topics because they are places that a lot of people are scared to go. I want to know if there is anything that’s likely to show up in our relationship that is going to cause me to want to run like hell.

Ed Gandia: I should interject here real quick and make something clear: This is Anastacia’s process, this is what works for her. There are a lot of you out there who work in fields where this may not be appropriate. Your own screening process doesn't necessarily need to be this elaborate or involved. But the point is that you should have something in place that makes sense for you and that enables you to determine how closely aligned this prospect may be to your ideal client profile.

Anastacia Brice: Absolutely, absolutely, they have work for you. As long it works for us in our businesses, that’s the thing that matters.

Ed Gandia: David, tell us about your own screening process.

David Ackert: Well, my model is very different from Anastacia’s. Her coaching is very holistic, and she really goes deep with her clients. I don’t do that. I do business development coaching and most of my business is online. Because of that, I need more of a "step one, step two.” We’re either working together or we’re not. That's just kind of the way that I’m programmed. And a big part of the way I screen prospects is via my contract document.

I hope everybody’s got some sort of contract with their clients regardless of what you do, because that’s really critical for setting expectations, not just for protecting yourself. You’re entering into a business relationship; you’ve got to formalize that relationship.

It doesn’t have to be a long document. In fact, the shorter the better. You should run it by an attorney, but the attorney doesn’t have to be the one who drafts it. There are templates out there that you can use. But the key is to use it for setting some expectations, because those expectations are very much interwoven with your standards and they set the tone for what the working relationship will be. And if those standards aren’t communicated in your document, you’re signing yourself up for trouble.

So get your agreement letter nailed down and make sure that your standards are communicated very clearly. That way when they sign off on it, the moment that there is any issue, you can point to that contract you both agreed on.

Ed Gandia: That’s a good point, David. I actually use my contract as one of the filters in my own process. I believe in giving the client all that information up front, all my terms and conditions, and they need to pass that test. If they’re okay with my terms, they sign off on it, which tells me that they understand and that they're serious. If they balk at anything in that contract, I know I’m going to potentially have a problem, unless it's something that I need to clarify, of course.

Anastacia Brice: I should clarify something about my screening process: Besides my 15-minute call, that assessment that my prospects fill out takes me 14 seconds to direct them to it and one minute to review it, and it tells me whether I want to take a step forward. The rest of it is important to me, but if there are red flags, I can see those within two minutes of reviewing the prospect's completed assessment. So the process up to that point takes next to none of my time, which is why I did it that way. Because, again, I want them to show me that they deserve my time.

Ed Gandia: Let me play devil’s advocate here for a second. Someone listening or reading this might be thinking, “Well, that’s fine for you guys. You’ve been around for a long time, you’re very successful—you can afford to be that picky. But what if I'm fairly new to this game, or what if I'm struggling over here?"

Anastacia Brice: If you need to keep the lights on, you have to do what you have to do—temporarily. But again, don’t confuse the people you have to accept as clients in order to put food on your table with the people whom you ultimately want as clients. I mean, I cannot imagine that anybody ever goes into freelancing, starts a business regardless of the size with the thought, “I’m going to get into this, and I’m going to suffer and hate every minute of it.”

There’s too much risk involved. There’s too much self-employment freaking tax, there’s too much of all of that stuff inherent in what is that we do. So, if somebody wanted to be miserable, it’s just easier to go get a job at McDonald’s. So if, if you don’t want to be miserable then you need to fill your business with people that you genuinely enjoy working with. So, unless they’re "keeping the lights on" clients, you can’t afford not to do some of this.

Ed Gandia: David, any thoughts on that?

David Ackert:  Yes, two thoughts. I think everybody’s got a tolerance range, based on where they are in this process. I imagine for Anastacia and I, our tolerance range is pretty low. The longer I do this, the lower my tolerance gets for clients that aren’t a fit. And the people I know who mentor me and who are, you know, who’ve been at this much longer than I have, their tolerance level is like zero. So I aspire to be that intolerant.

But let’s say my tolerance level is between a five and a three, so I’ll aspire for a three. I know I’ll probably put up with a five, but what I’m looking for is to put myself in a situation where I can say "no" to clients or prospective clients that are really pushing that upper limit of my tolerance.

So if your tolerance level is really high because you’re just starting out and you’re somewhere between a ten and a nine, shoot for the nine, because from nine you can have a new platform, and then you can continue to lower your tolerance. And that’s really what it comes down to, guys.

Look, you’ve got to walk through the fire at some point. If it’s before the engagement and you have that conversation with them that says, “Look, I just don’t think that we’re a fit. I’ve got a policy that I put in place here and we’re just not arriving at the same place. I think I’m just going to have to say 'no.'"

If that conversation is hard for you, then that’s the fire you’ve to walk through. But at least you haven’t made an agreement yet. Once you make the agreement, you’ll also have to walk through the fire. But now that fire is about enduring what comes from selling out on your standards.

There’s no free ride here. If we’re talking in the context of bad clients, there’s going to be a challenging conversation that pushes you to the edge of your tolerance level.

Ed Gandia: OK, dear readers. This is important stuff. So let me ask you—do you know someone who can benefit from these ideas? If so, please send them a personal email with a link to this page. They’ll thank you for it ... and so will I! 😉

On that note, here’s what I’d like you to do:

  1. Leave a comment letting me know how you plan to take action on this material. Or, if you’re trying to figure out how to best apply it, tell us about it in the comments area below.
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  • Crissy Lauffer

    Thank you so much for this article. It is exactly what I needed to read.

  • This discussion came at the right time for me, as well. I let a client go several weeks ago, because his communication practices didn't mesh with mine, among other things.

    I'm a music director, vocal coach and accompanist, and I also do some music transcription on the side. My coaching rates are double what my accompanying rates are, because I must be more engaged with the client, and this client was always pushing the boundaries in what he expected from our sessions (i.e., I found myself coaching at my acompanying rate, and he expected consultations for free because it was connected to my transcription work.)

    The communication part that became frustrating was when I would get a text message late the night before he requested an accompanying session with me. This happened more than once, and led me to end our professional relationship.

    He has just tried to woo me back into a working relationship again, stating that he has been unable to find anyone else with whom he works so well. I'm in NYC - this town is full of accompanists and audition/vocal coaches. But, they probably have higher standards than mine, and a lower tolerance level.

    Thanks for the article. I feel much more validated in my decision, and am going to repond to him by raising some of the points you mentioned! I am also going to start referring music transcription requests to a colleague.


  • TEW

    Excellent eye opener. Was great to be reminded that they need my service and I have the equal level playing field with this potential client. Changing the mindset from being an employee to being a business owner will be the fire I have to walk through. I don't want to have non-paying clients getting my services because I want to "help" them out on this project and then the relationship continues.........without payment. Thanks for the insight and tactics to implement

  • A very interesting article. It is very hard to break away from the KTLO model of finding clients.

  • Think Logically

    Hear, hear, Teresa! When I write for a content mill, it's so hard to get motivated. I'm worth so much more than $15 per article.

    BTW, I have a good friend named Teresa D. BROWN. Small world!

    • M

      @Think Logically, *do not* write for content mills. Even considering the economic situation.

  • Great stuff. Thanks for sharing. Loved the part about putting the client through a filter process - that means I have to, for my own benefit, walk them through a quick questionnaire so that they are as clear as I am on how to move forward. That will save me a lot of heartache and time wastage having long meetings with them.

    As for tolerance level, the more I'm in this business, my tolerance level decreases (which is a good thing, I suppose, because it means I'm becoming more centred and not panicking about where the next piece of dough will come from).

  • The observation about determining your "tolerance level" is so practical and helpful. I've been writing on my own website for well over two years, but I am just now starting a freelancing career where I actually get paid for my writing. A novel concept! 🙂

    In any case, I think in life, I have little tolerance for certain things...bratty kids for example. I've raised and homeschooled four kids and everyone tells me in an amazed voice how "polite" they are. Naturally, I'm pleased to hear that, but when did being polite become so rare?

    In any case, because of the "wanting to make money" factor, I'm guessing my tolerance level for difficult clients might otherwise have been too high. Thank you for pointing this out as I will definitely be focusing on this element as I begin marketing myself.

    • Think Logically

      @Anne Galivan,

      Kids have always been bratty. Way back in the day, around 1970, my ex and his two sisters were in a swanky restaurant at Busch Gardens Tampa. The patrons made a special effort to comment to his parents on how well-behaved they were. The kids' mom had "the look" and knew when to quit acting out.

      In my large family of seven, eating out was a rare treat. We wouldn't dream of running around the restaurant or screaming. Then our parents wouldn't take us out.

      Glad that you are instilling courtesy in your kids. Then they will respect their elders.

  • Halima Salat

    Great insights. I feel like I have gone to the university of freelancing. I am a journalist and am just branching out into the murky waters of freelance journalism. And I must say I have already had my share of 'bad' clients. But I am quickly learning to tighten my belt and learn from my own poor judgements there. I like the concept of KTLO, there is no better phrase to describe it. I think of all the stuff that is out there in the net on 'how to be successful as a freelancer', this post is the best of them all; couldn't have come at a better time for me. Thank you so much.

  • I love the concept of "keeping the lights on." It is just perfect. There's a time and a place for everything, and when we're building our clientele, keeping the lights on is what helps us learn. As my mom used to say, "Well, Dear, now you know one more thing you don't want to do." We don't learn those things unless we keep the light on long enough. And it can take a while.... Right now I welcome the opportunities to learn what I want to do and what I don't want to do. Thanks so much for that wonderful visual, Anastacia!

  • Think Logically

    How true. I used to work with people who thought I could just wave a magic wand over the Mac and produce documents that were perfect.

    I agree. It's much better to work with people who get it. Actually, many people are intimidated by writing and do appreciate the effort it takes.

    • @Think Logically, Yes yes yes!

      And I would suspect that the people who are intimidated by writing and are good clients are also tuned into the VALUE. They aren't thinking "If I pay you $1000 are you actually going to work all those hours?" They're probably thinking, "Ok. If $1000 gets this done so we can get moving, it's worth it." Those are great clients. They're thinking value. Even if it takes you 5 minutes, it's better than them not having anything.

      One client recently replied to my quote, "that's a lot of dough but it's worth it." He'd been dealing with something for months and it was time to just get rid of the headache. He also understands that I'm not some cut/paste data entry person. He's seen my skill.

      • @Oz du Soleil, Bingo. The best clients for writers are thinking: how many sales will this case study help me make? Will this newsletter series prevent an employee communications crisis? If I don't document this properly, will I get fined? They are not thinking about how many hours the writer is spending in the chair.

  • I just went through a weird one -- a new client (who was referred to me by a past client) hired me to create a marketing program and website for a new business line, but two weeks into the project she backed out of the lease on the space for the new business: that was the first time I thought "uh-oh". After five months of dragging her heels about every decision, the client decided that opening a second business was going to be too much work. I knew it was coming, but I didn't pick up on any telltale signs beforehand: she had a business plan, the means to start a second business, seemed to be very excited about it, and was a referral from a known client. I guess you get a weird one every so often.

    • @Karen Newcombe, You live an learn, right? I'm starting to trust my instincts more and more. When something just doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Learning to listen to that inner voice. 😉

  • Ed, Anastacia and David, thanks. I am currently writing website content for a client who has been slippery on milestone payments, and I just extended my involvement by putting together a quick brochure based on my content, without making the additional charges for that project clear-cut.

    After I finish this message, I'm invoicing him, in a friendly but definitive way, to ensure he knows payment is due. And that any future work will be bound by tighter standards.

    My fault for letting the boundaries slip. I appreciate your insights.

    • @Tom Bentley, [APPLAUSE APPLAUSE]

      Sounds like more of the fire that we all go through.

    • I find that it pays to be firm when it comes to payment. Even a bit outside of your comfort zone. Most clients respect that. Those who don't ... well, that's the last project I do for them.

  • Great conversation!

    One thing I'm taking from this: Anastacia saying that she's "not afraid to pull the pin at any time." My gut has been on target about situations but I've plowed ahead and

    Second. Thanks to David for saying that we've just got to walk through the fire. That's a conversation that can help a freelancer realize "it's not just me, this is part of the freelancer world." That gives some peace of mind and empowerment.

    These have been a hard lessons to learn. But each time I go through one, I feel better about a new lesson.

    The very first job I turned down was with a prospect whose questions got me thinking that they would be on me every second waiting for the precise moment when the complicated work was done and then she could do the rest herself and get me off the clock.

    This felt like a difference between:
    1. Someone watching their budget and
    2. Someone who seems to live life suspicious about being conned

    When she asked me for a quote, I declined. It was one of those "fires" that David mentioned. VERY difficult decision but I knew it'd be better in the long run.

    Another lesson wasn't so much about the prospect as much as it was in identifying where they are in the decision process. If they're still undecided about their options (hire me, send one of their employees for training, or don't do anything and just accept how things are) this could turn into endless questions, calls, emails and meetings.

    One person who does sales professionals said that she's NEVER closed a deal when she's had to "teach" or help a prospect make a decision.

    Ed, thanks for what you're doing!

    • Thanks, Oz! Great insights. Thanks for sharing!

  • When I first started out as a graphic designer, I tended to be a real doormat. I'd take on any job for anybody, as long as I got paid. Over the years as I've become more mature, gained more experience, and carved out a particular niche for myself, I've gotten better able to screen out potential clients who can't afford to hire me or who won't respect the work I do.

    I sometimes backslide, such as earlier this year when a client from 2002 hired me again because "she'd been unhappy with other designers ever since working with me." Who could walk away from flattery like that? Well, this job turned out very poorly, with ten edit cycles and an inferior product.

    Through Ed's course I was able to come up with an ideal client profile that leads me to clients who will respect and benefit from the work that I do. And I avoid taking on any kind of work that doesn't have to do with presentation design because that's will take me down a path I stopped walking a long time ago.

    Thanks for providing us with some wonderful food for thought!

    • @Laura Foley, Good for you for being clear what TYPES of gigs aren't goo for you. I'm going to look into that for myself.

      Question: how and when do you determine if a client can't afford you? I think I get to this too late in my process. I've already talked for a long time, probably even looked deep into the project and what's needed. And then BOOM! We discover that their budget might be one-third of what it's really going to take.

      • Think Logically

        @Oz du Soleil,

        Simply ask them what their budget is at the beginning. Then you can go from there.

        As I pointed out above, some folks will stiff you even if they have the money. In that case, be persistent in reminding them.

        One trick is to put on the bottom of your invoice that there's a late fee of 5 percent if the bill isn't paid within 30 days.

      • @Oz du Soleil, for me the key isn't so much determining if a client can't afford me but rather helping clients "self-select." One trick I've picked up from a couple of different sources is to include a "disclaimer" on your Contact Me page (or however you do it) that says something like "If you're on a 'shoestring' budget, we're probably not the best fit." I recently added this and a few other items to a short intro on my contact page, all designed to say, "Hey, this is who I want to work with, and you need to meet this criteria for us to be a good match." I'm fairly priced and I keep tabs on that, but my team and I are all industry pros and our services don't come cheap, so I feel that laying it out in this way right up front sends that message without being too rude. And it works on a secondary level, too, because anyone who thinks I'm rude for being clear on what kind of clients are best for my business is not a personality I want to interact with!

        • Think Logically

          Good ideas! It annoys me when people want me to offer 20 years of experience for next to nothing. It's an insult, really. You wouldn't ask a doctor or lawyer to work for free. Why do writers and artists get treated that way?

        • @Ally, those are great ideas. My rates are on my site but I don't have indications of what full projects could cost. I'm going to borrow this from you. 🙂

          @ Think Logically,
          I think that people have some sense of what goes into being a Doctor or Lawyer. When death or jail can be the consequences, people are willing to pay.

          But there are lots of other products and services that the general public doesn't understand. And in talking with Ed, it's best not to try to "teach" a prospect. Work with prospects who already at least somewhat "get it." And this has been accurate in my world.

          I scrub data. I encounter people who think I do cut/paste and they wonder why I charge way more than $10/hr. They don't realize that I often write code and it's taken 15 years to get to this skill level.

          It's not that there's something wrong with them. What many of us do is mysterious and looks easy from the outside. An artist paints a picture ... the viewer doesn't see the drafts that went into the garbage. They don't see the study of color theory that makes the image pleasing. They don't see the hours of stretching a canvas that then results in a crap painting.

          Do we teach them? Do we work with people who already have a sense of the value? Some education is necessary. But how much?

        • @Ally, Great advice here. Couldn't agree more. We all have to get over this belief that we have to please everyone. Ruth Chris' Steakhouse is not for everyone. Neither is Cirque du Soleil. They don't apologize for that. Neither should we.

    • Awesome! That's so great to hear, Laura! I'm thrilled that the "ideal client" exercise has paid off for you. Appreciate the feedback and your comments. 😉

  • Fantastic presentation/discussion! Timely, thoughtful and comprehensive. I am forwarding this to some of my own business colleagues. Keep up the good work Ed!

    • Thanks for sharing the info, Brian! Glad you found it valuable enough to pass along.

  • This is a great post for newbies to be aware of. I agree with all of it. But I wanted to mention there's another type of client you might have to take on in the beginning in addition to the KTLO clients. BYP: Build Your Portfolio.

    I was able to work with the founder of an international magazine that gave me invaluable clips for my portfolio, and an interview feature-length article (that I wasn't paid for) with an A-List celebrity. I was paid for editorial services, but the fee was extremely low. On top of that, the client who seemed so amiable and cool at the start turned out to be unreliable and disorganized. And he owned his own media company!

    At the end of the first issue I did with him, he said he wanted to keep working together and then the relationship just ended, partly b/c I wasn't going to pursue more work with a client like that. I sent a final email asking what story was with future work and he never got back to me. Overall, not surprising since when he offered me a long term position he said he felt like he was "giving" his magazine away. There was a power issue at play and ultimately, he couldn't get over it even for the sake of his business.

    My point in explaining the situation is to say in the beginning, sometimes you have to bite the bullet and it's not at all easy. But for long term gains it's worth it.

    • Amen to that, Marisa. I'm also a big believer in BYP clients when you're starting out and have little to show. That's exactly how I started out. Thanks for pointing that out!

  • Most of my client interactions have come as a result of my acupuncture practice. I finally instituted was a missed appointment fee. Basic practice management, but hard for me. The feeling of self-respect I get from enforcing the fee makes up for anyone who leaves because they don't want to pay my fee. I also offer a lot of lifestyle suggestions; those who are not interested in taking charge of their healthcare usually get bored with that and move on. Thank you for the idea of “You know, what if I decide for myself who a client has to be to get a place in my practice?” Very empowering.

    • Great points, Teresa! That feeling of self-respect ... you just can't put a price on it. Thanks for your comments.

  • Great post! I wish I had this information when I first started my freelance writing career.

    The key is to listen to those 'nagging feelings' aka your intuition when speaking with clients. If it doesn't feel right, walk away. There are plenty of entrepreneurs and business owners who are looking for freelance writings. Please don't be afraid to walk away. Believe me, I've learned the hard way. It's a good think I learn from my missteps.

    • That's the thing, isn't, Amanda? Most of us show up with a scarcity mindset. As if this is the ONLY client out there. KTLO and BYP are sometimes a reality. But they shouldn't be the long-term reality. Otherwise, why bother? Thanks for your comment! 😉

  • Dear Ed,
    Thanks for all the great stuff you share with us 🙂

    I have just spend one hour bitching (yes, I know it's not the way to go, but I'm only human *lol*) about a client of mine. I really try to on my NelsonMandela/Dalai Lama glasses and try to tell myself I should learn something from this experience...

    This is just what I needed - perfect timing and great content!

    Have a great weekend 😀

    • Bitching is sometimes necessary. Good to get it off our chests, right? Glad to hear this info came at the right time for you. Thanks for your comment and kudos!

  • Think Logically

    Thanks for these wonderful tools. Using logic and sound business sense is what you're saying.

    You'd be shocked sometimes at who will stiff you. I once had two close friends and a retired pastor renege on payment. Eventually I persuaded the friends to pay up and we are still friends. The pastor, however, refused to pay and claimed financial hardship. Then why did he sign a contract?

    It can be demotivating when you have to write for peanuts so I've learned to put that on the back burner. Freelancers should market themselves at least 60 percent of the time. Authors who might be loners have some challenges. You might be shy in public. But face-to-face contact is still the best way to get clients.

    I suggest going to small events such as Chamber of Commerce breakfasts and meet everyone you can, handing them your business card. You need to listen and tailor your elevator pitch accordingly. Like Anastacia, I like long-term projects such as a book or blogging for a website for a year or two.

    After a while, you get good at recognizing those who respect you and those who don't. I do have a dependable client who won't refer me but it's because of stock trading guidelines. Because I've been writing forever, I don't care. I have plenty of others for referrals.

    This inspires me to make better plans and drop those who can't act professionally.

    • Great points here. Face-to-face is becoming increasingly more important in today's social media-driven society. And I've always said that smart and continuous marketing will solve 90% of your problems as a freelancer. Thanks for your comments/thoughts! Good stuff.