I thought I’d open this article with a truly scary story: I nearly quit my business because of my first big client. Things were that bad.
To make it worse, after our big split, I had eight months of my portfolio work permanently removed from the internet. If you read no further in this article, just take away that this all could have been avoided if I’d had a contract to protect my rights as a designer. That’s tragic because there are some incredible tools available for managing contracts, but I was new to the business world and I didn’t know better.
In fact, I didn’t use a contract at all, which is the worst thing a business owner can do to both themselves and their clients. To top it all off, there were many red flags I should have recognized as they were happening.
Red Flag #1: Your client is a CONTROL FREAK.
The signs of a controlling client are usually pretty obvious. Essentially it boils down to are you “working with them” or “working for them.” That is a key difference when you are working as a contractor.
In a typical employee/employer relationship the dynamic is clearly established as a hierarchy, but things should be very different when you are hired on as an expert. You are being brought on to the project as a consultant because you have knowledge and skills that your client doesn’t. A great client will understand and appreciate that, and work with you to leverage your knowledge and skills.
If they don’t, it’s time to consider showing them the door.
Red Flag #2: Your client doesn’t want to sign your contract.
As I’ve mentioned before, my single most awful client horror story could have been prevented if I’d had them sign a contract clearly outlining our agreement.
I was told that I didn’t need to worry about it because “you don’t need a contract between friends.”
PRO TIP: If anyone in business says “you don’t need a contract,” you can bet that they don’t have your best interest in mind.
Contracts don’t need to be overly complicated (in fact, the best contracts are often short and to the point). A simple project scope, timeline, and terms of service is all you need to get started.
Red Flag #3: Your client doesn’t communicate with you.
On the one hand, it’s great to have that client who gives you complete freedom. “Just update me when you’re ready for me to give final approval on the project,” one client said to me.
What could have been a two-month project turned out to be six months, because on average I could expect a response two to three weeks after I sent her an email or left a voice message.
If you’ve already started working with a client like this, you may have to tough it out on the project. Then the next time they ask you on for work, use your contract to clearly delineate what is an appropriate amount of turnaround time while you’re working together.
Red Flag #4: Your client engages in excessive communication.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, one of my worst clients would FaceTime call at least three to four times every day (some days more!) during the course of our projects. The reason? To make sure I was working on the project, and not just wasting my time doing things like taking a lunch break, grabbing a coffee, or using the bathroom.
For weeks afterwards I would cringe every time the phone rang. If that happens, it’s time to say “Bye Felicia!” ASAP.
Red Flag #5: They badmouth previous contractors.
It can feel really great when your client says that you’re the one who finally “gets it.” They proceed to complain about the string of contractors they hired before you, and how you’ve renewed their faith in humanity.
True professionals don’t share those stories. If they’re complaining about those “other contractors,” guess what? You’re their next breakup story! Get out of there before they force you into a bad situation.
Red Flag #6: They don’t respect your ethical boundaries.
This is pretty obvious. If your client is asking you to do something that you know is wrong, you’re probably aware it’s time to get out. Unfortunately it’s a red flag you tend to see once you’re already neck-deep in an awful situation. Never let a client pay you to compromise your standards, I can assure you it’s not worth the guilt if you do.
Red Flag #7: Your gut instincts are kicking in.
This is a big one. Often times we have the tendency not to trust our gut instincts, and I think this is a huge mistake. Years of survival mechanics have honed our intuition to detect bad situations — if you’re feeling uneasy, there may a reason for it.
Now, that’s not to say you should be paranoid — particularly if you’re an anxious person like me. What I will say is that relationships between clients and contractors are best when there is trust and a clear line of communication. If you have concerns, you should voice them immediately with your client. If you’re afraid of how they might react, that may be confirmation of your gut instincts.
Collin Belt is the Chief Design Strategist & Founder of Ice Nine, a design strategy studio that helps businesses and agencies skyrocket their inbound leads through web strategy, and deliver stunning proposals with killer close rates using Proposify. Collin is also a tech enthusiast, highly-caffeinated Starbucks addict, and champion for business owners everywhere. He can be reached a variety of ways: email: firstname.lastname@example.org; phone: +1 778-300-0648; Twitter: http://twitter.com/collinmbelt; Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/collinmbelt/.