Do You Know How To Spot Problem Clients?


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Do you know how to spot problem clients?  When you first launch your home biz and offer services as a VA, Social Media Manager, Graphic Designer or any other service, it might not occur to you that there is such a thing as a problem client. 

As long as they sign a contract and pay the invoice then it’s all good.  Right?

After launching your business, about your fourth or fifth client in, you’ll discover that problem clients exist and that you need to be selective about who you work with.    

Being selective about who you work with is the best way to protect your total health – mental, emotional, financial and spiritual health. 

Problem clients suck the joy out of business and that translates into sucking the joy out of life in general because you’re spending your free time stressing about them.

Regain your business sanity and your life’s joy by taming these problem clients or dropping them altogether.

7 Signs of Problem Clients  

Before you take on another new client, run through this list of 7 signs of problem clients. It will help you avoid boatloads of frustration and some ugly tears!

Problem clients demonstrate wildly inconsistent communication

When you first launch your business you probably have the destructive freelance mindset of “I have to say yes to everyone.”  This naturally leads to working with clients that demonstrate wildly inconsistent communication. 

Have you experienced the potential client that leads you around for almost 4 months with promises of work?  One week everything is an urgent mess (“we need to talk TODAY, like right now!!!) and then after you drop everything to accommodate them, they disappear for 3 – 6 weeks because they are still thinking about what they want to do…

The inconsistent cycle of communication will continue as you work together. Responses to email will be excruciatingly slow in coming, and a project that should have only taken a couple of weeks will end up dragging out for So. Many. Months. 

If you take on a client who can’t maintain regular, reasonable communication, chances are that the delays will cost you your sanity. Send this email pronto:

Hey (name),

Thanks so much for taking the time to reach out!

I would be honored to work with you however my current workload allows me to take on a new project (insert very specific date range).

If that timeline doesn’t work for you, I’m happy to recommend:

  • name
  • name

Please let me know if you have any questions!


Your name

Problem clients want you to work for peanuts

As painful as this is to hear, the reality is that there’s a group of people out there that think if you are a new Virtual Assistant then you don’t need to be paid for your time and talents.

If you meet a person like this, they’ll likely say something like:

“We’re not in a position to pay you for this particular project, but I’m convinced that it would be perfect for your portfolio! I’ll give you a great testimonial.  And of course, if things go well, I’ll recommend you to EVERYBODY I know!”

Here’s the only thing that’s guaranteed – this promise will only bring plenty of headache and heartache.  To run a successful business for the long term requires, at minimum, fair payment. From day one!  Insist on a reasonable rate or say “no thank you.”

Experienced Virtual Assistants may run into a different, but similar problem.  In business, it’s normal for price to be a sticking point for some people.  And you have to expect this on every discovery call and be prepared with a great response.

Related Post: Discovery Call Tips To Land Your Dream Client

Yet, there’s a vast difference between the potential client who something like this:

I’m not prepared to spend that much right now — what could you do for me at X?” And if not, who could you refer me to that’s within my budget of Y?”

— and the person who retorts with something obnoxious like this:

“Wow. You must think you’re pretty special. I know a friend’s second cousin thrice removed who charges HALF that. So I know it’s definitely not worth what you’re saying it is.”

You can be sure that if a person has so little respect for you, they will be a bad client. You’ll be bullied throughout the entire process, leaving you with a perpetual feeling of resentment. 

To politely and professionally remove yourself from the situation follow one of the scripts in the Business Building Swipe File. 

Problem clients pressure you to start work without a contract

A contract is the one thing that stands between you + the lurking disasters inherent to doing business with flawed humans. Most people respect this. They understand that no contract equals no work.

But if you work independently for long enough, you’re sure to come across a few who want to overlook this “minor” detail. They give you empty promises of:

“Let’s just start and I’ll get the contract signed when I get back into town next week…”

“I really want to stay on schedule with this project, so why don’t you do A, B, and C.  You don’t have to worry about the contract, I’ll get it to you!”

You may feel pressured to cave (just this once!), particularly if said person represents an opportunity for a big pay day, is someone you know, or seems oh-so-sweet. Don’t do it, though.

The good news is that, in this situation, you rarely have to walk away from the job entirely. Many potential clients will respond well to an upbeat but firm email:

Hey there!

I’m as excited as you to get started! I will need to get your signature on the contract before I can begin any work, however. As soon as I get that, we can dive right in.

Thanks so much, excited to get started!

If they respond with another excuse, then be alarmed.  And don’t be afraid to move on.  


Your Name

Problem clients expect you to be available 24/7

The client who wants your immediate attention any time of day — all days of the week, no matter if it’s outside business hours or on a holiday — is a dangerous person to do business with.

This person can be spotted by their flood of increasingly hyper Facebook messages between 7 p.m. and midnight, or the 6:00 am emails asking “Did you get the messages I sent last night???”

They might also pressure you for daily “progress reports.”

They may demand all day access to you via SLACK.  Or text you incessantly with questions. Thoughts. Epiphanies.

If you see signs of this kind of behavior before you enter into a work agreement, don’t hesitate: educate them ASAP about your availability policy. Outline what kind of contact methods are appropriate, your strict working hours, etc. Be explicit and leave no room for interpretation.

If you still don’t sense that they “get it” — or they give you grief about it — it’s risky to go any further. Once you have their money in hand, they will act even more entitled to every spare second of your life.  So much for work-life balance.


Problem clients won’t answer your discovery call questions

This tip is especially important for anyone offering design services.  If a design client has a tendency to hedge around almost all your questions regarding their ideas, likes, + dislikes watch out!

You may think that after the contract is signed, and the deposit is made, they will give you more details on your project questionnaire. Don’t count on it. 

You will most likely get responses like this:

“It’s up to you.”

“I don’t really have any examples of things I like.”

“I’m not sure why that’s important.”

“I just want it to POP.  And BE AUTHENTIC.  You know?”

You might think this kind of client is open to your creative ideas, but alas: it’s often the complete opposite. 

They suffer from bad communication but somewhere in their head they know what they want.  You’ll end up shocked at the number of hours you’ve waste when you have to scrap what you worked on and start at the beginning.   

Unless they can be persuaded to the importance of their thoughtful input beforehand, don’t take on a design project with a client who is inarticulate. It only sets you up for failure down the road.

Problem clients want you to copy another’s work

Beware the client who wants you to be a copycat.  This should be a deal breaker! It’s often the not so subtle:

“I want my logo to look just like __________’s logo, but with my biz name and maybe a slightly different color.”

“I just love ___________’s weekly emails.  They are perfect! I want my emails to have the same tone and say nearly the exact same thing. Just with a few of my personal stories here and there, of course.”

“I want the same ebook cover photo and font as ____________.

This shady situation is hard to catch before you both sign on the dotted line, but from time to time you do get lucky. It helps if you’re a pro about handling the discovery call. 

Related Post: Discovery Call Tips To Land Your Dream Client

When you do find out their intentions, your next step is to educate this person about:

  • ethical standards
  • copyright law
  • your business values

Explain that while you’d love to help them, you won’t dim the light in your soul.  If you can’t come to terms then take your clear conscience and walk away.

Problem clients gossip and complain

You know the type.  The gossiper and complainer who can’t have a conversation without throwing someone under the bus:  

“Oh gosh, I’m so glad I found you! The last two Virtual Assistants I’ve worked with left A LOT to be desired. I just seem to have bad luck finding a good VA” 

“We’re working with someone on a different project right now and having quite a few problems with them… We just don’t know what we’re going to do. Have you heard anything about them?  Their name is ___________.”

“I’m in the middle of a divorce.  But my business has never been better.  My spouse was walking, talking, narcisstic nightmare!”

This is an easy situation to spot, which is good…because it makes it easy for you to pass on the work without getting too invested in the person or the project.

What’s hardest about avoiding a bad client like this is that it’s so tempting to take on the role of being their hero. With all these horrible experiences, it’s easy to believe that surely you have the knowledge, skill, and ability to save the day.

Nine out of ten times, people who say things like the above in a professional setting thrive on perpetual drama and have bad character. 

The Final Word – Trust Your Gut!

As a Virtual Assistant or other service provider, it’s up to you to stay vigilant and avoid problem clients.  It’s definitely easier said than done.  You may be working with someone who, by all appearances, seems perfectly normal. 

Polite. Responsive.  Willing to pay your rate.  Clear on what they want.

You really have no objective reason not to work with them. 

Except for that nagging, uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach.  It’s okay to listen to your intuition.  It’s there for a reason.

Your God given spirit is extraordinary at recognizing inconsistencies, actions and words that are slightly off.  Don’t dismiss the subtle alarm and don’t ever feel bad for passing on work. 

Alexander Graham Bell is credited with the famous quote, “When one door closes, another one opens.” Quite simply, if you drop a toxic client, another client will find their way to you. It may not happen the next day or the next week, but you’ll have more time to market yourself and show leads that you have time in your schedule.

Alternately, you can drop the toxic client and spend that newfound time creating another stream of income for your business.  Perhaps a signature course or ebook. How about selling printables?  Or creating a steady stream of affiliate income through your blog?

Additional Resources & Ideas:

Passive Income Blogging: How to Make $1,051 with an Amazon Affiliate Blog in a Month

Do you have any red flags that you watch for when considering working with someone? Do you feel comfortable turning down work? Leave a note in the comments below.

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Hello there! I’m Jill, thanks for visiting my blog. I help women create work-life flexibility and financial stability by building a profitable online business they love.  Feel free to send me a message and let me know how I can help YOU!

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