10 Client Red Flags & How to Deal With Difficult Clients

Sometimes, it can be easy to look past red flags. You may think that it’s your job to handle everything that comes your way without question. We’re here to remind you that it’s not!

We created a red flag sticker because it took our agency (Kick Point) a while to develop stronger awareness and processes to catch red flags. Although clients pay you, it’s still a business relationship. (Keyword = relationship.) Payment does not mean that they can walk all over you. Likewise, it’s up to all of us to help the relationship by setting realistic expectations, communicating openly, and being respectful.

Watch for these red flags when starting new relationships and nurturing current ones. We’ve got tips on how to turn those red flags into green flags, but if there are a lot of red flags and nothing’s improving, it might be time to break up.

🚩 They’re Just Plain Rude

First up, an easy one — they’re just plain rude. They never say thank you. They only ever make demands. They continually stand you up at meetings.

Although clients pay you, you’re still a human being who deserves grace and respect. If a client continually rubs you the wrong way, it's time to part ways.

That being said, tone can be hard to read via email. If this is your primary method of communication, it’s important to not overanalyze and think that they’re always short with you. If they don’t use a million exclamation points, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t happy. Hopping on a call might quickly clear up the misconception that someone is rude. (Tone can be hard to decipher over email.) Or it might not, and it’s time to part ways.

🚩 They Bring In Other Reviewers Way Too Late

You’re working on a project with a client, and everything’s been going smoothly until… a new manager chimes in. And then the VP gets involved too. All of a sudden there are new goals that weren’t mentioned before, new design opinions, new completely necessary features… and the scope starts to creep. Ack!

When this happens in projects, it’s often because there weren't clear expectations about when feedback can come and from who. We use a clause called “Mystery Voices” in our contracts that we got from our friends at Louder Than Ten, who adapted this clause from Bureau of Digital’s “Voices in the Shadows.”

“All stakeholders and decision makers must be present from the outset of the project and must attend the kickoff meeting. Any input from those not initially involved in the project means the Company will renegotiate its terms. This is to protect the Client’s timeline and budget since additional voices added to deliverables and reviews inevitably lead to scope creep.”

🚩 They’ve Worked With a Lot of Agencies

If you’re looking at working with a new client, one of your initial questions might be who they’ve worked with before. If their list of ex-partnerships goes on and on and on, that might be a sign that no one wants to work with them (and that they’re the common denominator) or that they aren’t taking the time needed to build a sustainable partnership before cutting ties. If that’s the case, it might be a good idea to pass on taking them on as a client.

On the other side of the coin, they may truly have been taken advantage of by multiple agencies. This one is hard to call, use your best judgment.

🚩 They Refuse to Speak Openly About Budget

We get it, money can be a touchy subject. That being said, there is nothing more frustrating than a client who won’t have an open and honest conversation about budget. Without knowing their budget, you can end up wasting a lot of time preparing a proposal that is beyond what they can afford. Lack of transparency around money can be a major red flag as it can quickly turn into “How can I get the most bang for my buck” instead of “How can we work together in a way that meets my goals and benefits both of us equally.”

It’s important to remember that money can be a sensitive subject and it often takes building trust to know that you’re working with someone who isn’t trying to rip you off. To start building that trust with a potential client, you can express how you can be flexible with budget by starting with a smaller phase first and then building up to further phases after they’ve seen what it’s like to work with you.

🚩 They Expect Unrealistic Timelines

Some clients ask (or even demand 😒) that a project is finished on a specific date. They might pressure you to complete things ahead of schedule or give you timelines instead of asking what is possible on your side. This is the biggest red flag because meeting an unrealistic deadline results in overwork, burnout, and — usually — an even unhappier client when you can’t deliver.

Sometimes unrealistic timelines aren’t coming from your client but from someone they have to answer to on their side. They also might have some reason for wanting a project finished because they have an event or set date on their side. The best way to get on the same page about timelines is to ask your client directly if they have a date in their mind, and then set expectations about whether that is realistic. This means that you should have a good idea of what timelines actually are doable for your team — instead of setting “hopeful” dates that you’ll eventually blow past.

If a client does have a good reason for wanting something done by a certain date, you can work backwards from that date to see what is possible to deliver. That might mean doing a phased approach and focusing only on the most important pieces. Always leave yourself buffer room in a situation like this, though!

🚩 They’re Slow to Respond, And Expect You to Respond ASAP

Do you have a client who sends a follow-up email only hours after their first request? Unless you have explicitly worked out an agreement where you will be available on call (and are paid accordingly) this isn’t reasonable. You likely have other clients who also have projects on the go, and you also have a life. You don’t need to be at the beck and call of clients just because they are paying you.

This is especially frustrating when they take weeks to get back to you on something you need to move their project forward. 🙄 The hypocrisy!

Sometimes it just takes some expectation shifting to get on the same page with a client because they may initially see you as a vendor instead of a partner.

Clearly laying out communication turnaround times is key, and so is emphasizing that you’re building a partnership together. For example: “Our partners can expect to hear from us in 1–3 business days for most requests so that we have time to provide a thoughtful response.” Remind clients of that expectation if they forget!

If they can’t respect that boundary, they may need to find another agency that is willing to be on call.

In terms of waiting for a client to get back to you on time, we have another great item from Louder than Ten to include in your agreements — the Pause Clause.

“If any deliverable including assets, turnarounds, approvals, payments, or sign-off is more than four business days late, we’ll put the project on hold and restart it as soon as the deliverable is received— based on our schedule and availability.”

Are they slow to pay the bills? Have overdue invoices? You need our Pay Your Invoice sticker.

🚩 They Want to Skip Parts of Your Process

Sometimes clients will look at a proposal and decide some items can be skipped. Usually they’re looking to save time or money by asking to skip over certain parts of your process, or they’ve recently done similar work with another agency and they don’t want to feel like they’re paying for the same thing twice. Not only does this already create tension in the relationship (“they don’t value what we do”) it also NEVER GOES WELL. Take it from us, we’ve been there. 💁‍♀️

You’ve developed processes over time because they work and deliver consistent results. When you skip a step, it will likely bite you in the ass because you’ve delivered something that doesn’t meet your client’s goals since you’ve skipped discovery work that would have gotten you to the right solution. OR, you’ll find yourself trying to sneak the necessary work into another phase without having adequate time or budget to do so. Not great either way.

There’s no magic here except sharing what happens when you don’t follow your normal process and being unapologetic and firm about its importance. Explain why you do what you do and what value your client will get from moving through each step with you.

Getting to the root of why they are trying to skip a step also helps. If the problem is timeline or budget, think about how you can reduce scope while getting them a deliverable they’ll be happy with. There’s always opportunity for future phases if your client understands and values the work you do. If not, they might not be the right fit.

🚩 They Expect Free Work

Do we live in a capitalist society where we need money to live? Yes.
Is there an argument to be made about how capitalism works? Of course.
Should you work for free? Absolutely not.

Give yourself permission to say no. Learn how to say, “sorry, I don’t work for free.”

The best way to deal with someone expecting free work is to communicate clearly and readily about costs. Don’t wait to bring up that a client will be charged for a request until it’s already been completed. That’s an unwelcome surprise that will feel awkward for both of you. Be upfront about how much money and time you’ll need when a client asks for new work — they might not have even realized that they’ve requested something out of the scope of your current agreement.

🚩 They Think They’re a Subject Matter Expert, But They’re Not

Nobody likes a know-it-all. Clients who think they are subject matter experts can be a nightmare.

It’s one thing to have questions and want to learn. (That’s great!) It’s another thing to question your every recommendation (more on that below).

If you run into this type of client, the first thing you can do is educate them. Phrases like “We don’t recommend X because…” and “That is an outdated understanding of X…” can be helpful to push back and show why their knowledge or logic is flawed. If they still want you to do something that you don’t recommend, you can either stand your ground and say no or implement it anyways — just make sure you have a paper trail that highlights your conversation and why you don’t think it’s a good idea.

🚩 They’re Very Defensive or Don’t Trust Your Expertise

Have you ever told a client that their current marketing campaign isn’t really doing what they think it’s doing? Or that their website isn’t following best practices? Evaluating what a client is currently running with is a necessary part of getting them to where they need to go. Some are so happy to hear what can be improved upon and are ready to action on your recommendations. Others may come across as offended, defensive, or they might question your expertise. This puts you into a situation where you’re spending more time defending yourself in response and backing up your recommendations rather than doing the actual valuable work. What a waste of everyone’s time!

Sometimes people aren’t in the right place to hear feedback. They might be going through something personally, have invested a lot of time and energy into something that you’re reviewing, or have been burned by bad advice in the past. It’s not your job to heal someone’s past wounds, but it can be helpful to remember that a client’s negative response to your feedback or recommendations likely has nothing to do with you or what you’re sharing.

It doesn’t mean this client is bad, they just might not be in the right place to really hear you or trust you. Be patient, but don’t let this pattern continue for too long. You deserve to work with people who are willing to let go and trust you based on your experience and expertise!

That’s… a lot of red flags. To remind yourself to watch for red flags (and protect your mental health), get our red flag sticker and stick it somewhere you’ll always see. (Or if you’re feeling sassy, send it to someone who you think is a walking red flag.)

How to Drop a Client That is a Bad Fit (Or How to Fire a Toxic Client)

If a business relationship isn’t working for one side, it’s not working for either side. If you approach your clients as partnerships, you’ll know right away when your clients aren’t holding up their side of the relationship. On the whole, it should feel equal and mutually beneficial. If it doesn’t, and you’ve put in a reasonable effort to turn red flags into green flags… it’s time to say goodbye.

To drop a client who’s a bad fit, it’s best to give them at least 30 days to find a new agency to work with (and hopefully you’ve included a 30 day termination clause in your project contracts). Be as candid as you can be without pointing fingers or laying blame. Explain that the relationship is no longer working for your team and recommend a new agency that you think might be a better fit. Be clear and kind. Here’s an example:

“While we’ve enjoyed getting to know you over the past few months, we’ve found that our working styles differ too much for us to be an effective partner. We do our best work when we have the space to set timelines that we can actually deliver on, and we’ve noticed a continual pattern of you requiring turnarounds that aren’t possible for our team. Because we haven’t seen an effort on your part to accept timelines that do work for us, we are going to have to end our current agreement effective 30 days from today.

[Agency Name Here] has a much larger team than us and may have more capacity for meeting quick deadlines. We’d recommend reaching out to see if they’d be a better fit for you.

We’ll wrap up deliverable X and Y this month before our agreement ends on May 30th. We won’t be able to finish deliverable Z within this timeframe.

Please let us know if you have any questions.”

If a client is truly toxic (i.e. they’ve been verbally abusive, are refusing to pay their bills, etc.) then you don’t really owe them a graceful break. Be concise and firm in ending the relationship. Lay out the actions they have taken and what the consequences are. For example:

“I am writing today to terminate our working relationship effective immediately. Because you were abusive to our team in your most recent email and because you are not abiding by our 30 day payment terms, our agreement is null and void. Please refer to the terms and conditions contained in our attached agreement.

All work completed to date is yours and is attached to this email. We will be sending a final invoice out today. Thank you.”

These two emails are just starting points that you can use when it’s time to say goodbye to a client — customize them as you see fit!

TL;DR: Watch for red flags. Bad clients aren’t worth sacrificing your mental health.