Clients to avoid: Early warning signs that a prospect may not make a good client

Some months back I wrote a post about knowing when it’s time to fire a client. In response, Rob Wood of, a Web design, development and marketing business, pointed out that the real trick is to not do business with problem clients in the first place. Good point!

Rob also provided a list of  early warning signs that a potential client may be more trouble than they’re worth. Here’s his list of clues to spotting problem clients before doing any business with them, along with a few comments from me in parentheses:

#1 Poor credit score. You do credit checks on prospective clients, right? (Well, Rob, actually I don’t. Since I get 90 percent of my business via referrals, I trust that my clients are not going to send me a deadbeat. I also ask for a deposit from any new client who is not a referral. It’s worked remarkably well so far but if this is not where you business comes from, then I’d follow Rob’s suggestion.)

#2  Lack of a clear scope of the project they want you to bid on.

#3  They share other vendors’ proposals with you. (I’ve had people do this a few times. Since it’s certainly not something I’d like them to do with my proposal, this would send up a warning signal, for sure, although I think in the instances where it’s happened to me it was more out of a lack of experience than anything else.)

#4  Their previous vendor “disappeared.” (Yes! This is definitely a red flag. Especially if it becomes clear that they’ve run through a number of prior vendors. Nobody should  need, for example, a new public relations firm every year.)

#5 Googling the company name produces links to bad reviews, complaints of poor service, lawsuits and negative news reports.

#6 Missed appointments for conference calls and meetings designed to clarify the scope of the work.

#7 They divulge “too much” information about other vendors, previous vendors.

#8  They provide too much information about their great idea for a new business, without asking you to sign an NDA.

#9 Their Web site is either grossly out of date or obviously cobbled together out of spare parts or canned “DIY” programs.

#10 They call you or e-mail you repeatedly with questions about how you would do this or that part of the project, before you even have a consulting agreement, much less a contract for the project itself. (This is something that is beyond annoying. I’ve had prospects who clearly weren’t capable of taking notes during phone calls and so the next time they call you go over the same information all over again. It something like this annoys you at this stage, just consider how aggravating it will be to have to explain everything five times once you’re working for them.)

As Rob pointed out, although one or two of these is not enough to set the alarm bells off, they all combine to present an image of the kind of business you may be dealing with. If the overall picture is shaky, it’s not going to miraculously get any better once you’ve signed a contract with them.

I would add one more to this list and this is one that should be enough of a red flag all by itself to make me turn down a prospective client. It is this: People who don’t value your work before they hire you won’t value your work. This is a universal principle. A prospect who seriously grouses about what the work is going to cost will continue to beef about what they’re spending once the work is underway. Also, they will invariably try to change the scope of work without changing the budget. Such people also tend to take their own sweet time paying invoices. If you want to spend your time arguing about money, fine. If not, run the other way as quickly as possible.


  1. Ann Brauer says:

    I would also add that if you have to work too hard to get them as a client, you probably don't want them. I have had clients for whom I have promised"the world"–guess whatt? They are usually RPA's. Much better to have clients who love what you do–IMHO.

  2. Elisa Novick says:

    I agree with Ann about having to work too hard, whether to get or keep a client. When someone calls me for counseling and asks too many questions, usually fearful questions, or wants to know the outcome in advance, they usually will not show up for a first session or for a second one. A little reassurance needed is fine, too much is a warning sign. Or if they try to get me hooked into their story without the proper container of an agreement. The beginning of a relationship sets the tone for the entire relationship. I will not work with someone who is not respectful of my time and attention; I bring great love and care to each person I work with. It is so important that one not be so eager for the work that you accept nonsense from anyone; it always causes stress, sooner or later.

    There is also another red flag that I've learned to watch out for, that doesn't usually show up until at least the first session. That is when a client tells many stories about how they were ripped off by others or that they've been to many other practitioners who could not help them. Most often they will be the ones to not pay or show up, or even to get angry if you actually do assist them with their presenting issue. After 30 years in practice, I've learned much about how to deal with these red flags, but one can always be surprised by a new one!

    I work deeply with my clients. I now can usually tell from the first call whether the person just wants a "feather-duster" or is sincere about being willing to go to the places that will bring healing or greater learning. When I get a sincere student, who truly wants to heal and grow and make a happy, successful life, what a treasure!

    I use a system I've developed for receiving clear spiritual guidance. I never make an appointment with someone without checking to see whether the person is sincere and ready and is right for me to work with. Even without such a system, I believe we all get inner feedback that if we pay attention, can let us know who is right to engage with, in life and in business.

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