Red Flags to Look for in Initial Client Contact

If you are a veteran freelancer, you know that you don’t have time for stressful clients, and you enter every initial conversation with a healthy amount of skepticism. If you’re starting off as a freelancer, you might ignore your gut feelings in order to land a project, or you might not even know what to look out for. The desire to work on a project as a new creative sometimes overrides our logical side, and we put ourselves at risk. When you work alone and for yourself, you have to protect your time and sanity, and keeping an eye out for red flags is a big part of that.

The opportunity to work with different companies and people from all over the world is one of the best experiences in freelancing. We receive an enlightening and intimate peek behind the curtain of diverse industries and individual businesses. Sometimes what we see are streamlined processes with dedicated folks who love their careers while working their hardest to provide the best service possible while encouraging a healthy work environment for their peers. Other times we don’t. Clients and their businesses can be hot messes, and for the sake of your own well-being, you need to look out for red flags and projects to avoid. And they can pop up in the very first bit of correspondence.

Is This a Good Company?

So I guess this an obvious question: is the person or company providing a good or service that improves the world around them? Are they taking advantage of their customers or an industry that needs regulating? Before responding to that initial email, hop on the ol’ Googles and thoroughly investigate the company. What is this potential client saying and promoting on social media, and how do they interact with their customers? What are the customer’s issues with the company, and how does the company resolve it? Check Glass Door and company reviews to see how they’ve treated employees in the past. Look up your point of contact and see what their back story is. If you know of other freelancers who have worked for the company or individual in the past, shoot those creatives a message and ask how their experience was with your potential client. This may seem a bit stalkerish, but this research helps you understand what kind of people you’re dealing with.

Resolvable? Well, it depends: if they end up being bad news, how much do you sell your soul for? And remember, money only helps you keep your sanity so much.

“Dear Wrong Name, We Love Your Work.”

This happens all the time: a potential client uses the wrong name when inquiring about your work. Generally that’s because the sender is mass emailing creatives for the project. It could be an innocent mistake, but it’s one of the biggest tells for boilerplate emails and a client who has a general idea of what they want but doesn’t care enough to narrow down their search to a few creatives and email them individually. While it’s great to explore options as someone in the market for a contractor, there should be a certain amount of vetting before emails are sent out to the freelancers, and those emails should be not one size fits all. A client who is not willing to do their research and planning in order to carefully select a contractor is most likely going to have even more issues down the road.

Resolvable? Sure, email them back and call them by the wrong name. Hell, they might have actually just used the wrong name and missed it in their proof read. Be cautious moving forward- if they care this little early in the game, it’s a theme that could most likely define the project.

shrt emls and Instagram DMs

Think about how much effort you put into the last email you cared about. Now think about the last email that you gave absolutely zero shits about. Compare, and you’ll probably notice a few differences. If a client cares that little in their first impression, they’re probably not concerned with leaving you high and dry after receiving a reply. Save your time and have a canned response ready to copy and paste so you can move on to more important things. If they respond, great! If not, you didn’t waste too much time.

Resolvable? If they write back with a more detailed and attention filled email, maybe. Still be cautious- a short, glib email may be a sign it was a mass boilerplate email.

“This is a Quick Project That Shouldn’t Take You Long at All.”

Oh but it will. It’s shockingly unprofessional to tell someone in any industry how long their job should take. Imagine saying that to anyone you take your business; a waiter taking your food order, a shop clerk trying to find you an item, a doctor with your lab results.

It’s not only rude, but it is also very telling. It is saying, “Your job is easy and this project should not cost me much.” From this one sentence, you know that they have made up their mind about what your job entails, and they will approach the project with the idea that you are an artist for them to dictate actions to at a low rate. While they might be naive to hiring freelancers, it still foretells what type of attitude they will have throughout the project: dismissive, unappreciative, and ignorant.

Resolvable? Maybe. Depending on my relationship with the client, I will either try to educate them on the process or decline the project. To be honest, this one is a rather big flag, and I typically decline.

“We Don’t Have the Money to Pay You, BUT…”

There’s several ways people ask for free work: they offer exposure from people seeing the work, they offer a job depending on the quality of the work, or they offer payment down the road. None are acceptable. When you work for free, you set a standard for your fellow artists. It’s not just a standard of payment; it’s respect. Payment is the physical and professional way of appreciating someone else’s time and effort. And if you say yes to working for free, you are reinforcing the idea that what you and your fellow freelancers offer isn’t worth anything.

Working for exposure, to the inexperienced designer, may seem like a fantastic idea. You’re just starting off, being a creative is all sunshine and roses, and all you need is the world to see your work. No. Stop that. The world- for the most part- treats art like a good meme: you see it, appreciate it, and move on. Not many people care who made it, and even fewer are rushing to find out so they can hire them to make more. Applied art is meant to draw attention to or enhance the appeal of the service or product to which it is attached. It’s insulting to say that they’re helping you out by having your work attached to their product or service. Anyone asking for free work with the promise of exposure regards custom design or illustrations as the plastic fork and napkins that you get with your fast food.

Working for a chance at a job without compensation is a great way for a client to get a bunch of free work. Imagine this: a company or individual contacts a bunch of artists who are eager for projects, get them all to create a free piece of work to see if they are a fit for the project, then ghost. Regardless of their motives or plans, your portfolio should be enough to prove yourself. And if they require an individual piece to prove your capabilities, they need to pay for it. It’s normal to do a trial run with a client; your work processes and personalities sometimes need a first date to see how things go.

Working for promised payment down the road once the app takes off, once they get their first round of funding, or once someone gives them money is a bad time. Business professionals should know they can’t ask this of app and website developers, print shops, or any other type of business without getting laughed at, so why would they ask you to provide free work? It’s up to you if you want to take that gamble, but whatever you do, get that shit in writing and don’t count on it working out.

Resolvable? Not really. If they have the balls to ask for free work, that’s something you want to steer clear of. You can try to argue it with them, but I can list hundreds of things that are a better use of your time.

“We Love Your Work! Can You Do This Other Style?”

It’s really heart wrenching to get contacted about a fun, new project only to have something like this happen. The client has a mood board of the style they want you to copy, and they got your name somewhere assuming that artists can produce any work or style under direction. They might even think that you would offer the style at a cheaper rate because you might be more affordable. While styles can influence and inspire us, if the client asks for blatant style copying, it is in your interest and the interest of the industry to suggest that they contact the original artist. This does a couple of things.

First, if you are working in a style you are not comfortable in, you are opening yourself up for potential unforeseen stresses. When you create art that comes natural to you, you have a rough idea how long concepts will take, you know the processes you follow, and what the outcome look should like. When you’re mimicking, it’s difficult to know those things, and you could spend hours trying to get that magic trick that the other artist has already mastered.

Second, you’re disrespecting the other artist. They’ve worked hard to establish their style, and they should be the one doing it. You could argue that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and you need to make your money. Fair enough. Do you want to be the artist who copies others’ styles or do you want to make a name for yourself? These are the tough decisions you have to make, and when you see the positive effects it has on protecting you and your fellow artists, the easier that decision it is to make.

Resolvable? Explain to the client why this is wrong, and ask them to take a look at your portfolio for a style you offer. If they agree to working with your style, stay cautious, they might be so focused on their original plan that anything you create will never be good enough in their eyes. If they are still stuck on the other style, encourage them to contact the style’s artist or artists.

“We Need This ASAP.”

Rush projects are 95% of the time the result of poor management, planning, and communication. When someone comes to me with rush work, it immediately tells me that they do not have their shit together. Now there are exceptions: maybe they’re trying to help a client out who forgot something, the project is time sensitive and popped up out of nowhere, or maybe a few other reasons. However, most of the time, it’s because they put off the project or put off the creative part of it until the deadline was upon them. That’s a lack of respect to creatives and the pride we take in the quality of our work. Altogether, a project will take a certain amount of time to be done well, plus a certain amount of time for mistakes and set backs, and additionally a certain amount of time for communication and decision making. Which part of the process are you going to cut in order to meet that deadline? You will either produce low quality work, become very stressed, or deliver something that doesn’t meet the needs of the brief as well as it could. All three of those have the potential to deteriorate your work and as a result your reputation as a creative.

Resolvable? Explain the workload and what happens when work is rushed. They might not care and find someone else to do it, but look at you: you’re producing high-quality work that benefits from being given the time it deserves. Plus, you’re not stressed out. If you do take on rush work, charge way more. Never ever forgo your contract, scope of work, deposit, or anything else you need to insure you are paid. I personally like the approach of being paid entirely upfront with no refunds, but do what makes you comfortable. They’re asking you to over-extend yourself; you are allowed to ask for quick compensation in return.

Price Haggling and Timeline Pinching

There’s a healthy amount of compromise that takes place in most creative projects, but many creatives know their process and what it is going to take to complete a job. Know your value and limits and stand by them. You are the one working this job, and after a few trips around the sun, you know how you should be compensated. Unfortunately, the more a client haggles, the more apparent it becomes how much of a hassle the project is going to be. The client is going to be unpleasant to work as they do not see the work as valuable and they are not respecting your boundaries and expectations. Half the job of freelancing is working with the client, and if the relationship starts out with bargaining and arguing, it’s going to be a high-maintenance, bumpy ride. Ideally, a client should understand that when you are fairly compensated and stress free, you make your best work. So it works against them to trim any sort of timeline or pay you less.

Resolvable? Stand your ground on what makes you comfortable, and you’ll see pretty quickly if this is a client you want to work for.

Let’s Wrap Up This Chaos Burrito

At the end of the day, people are people. They bring the best and worst things to projects, and none of us are perfect. Sometimes all they need is a perspective from your end, and they’ll come around. We’ve all sent embarrassingly misinformed emails or accidentally overlooked someone else’s hard work and value. It’s the nature of being human, and it’s okay. We just have to strive to improve every day and being understanding of others when they make mistakes. However you’re a freelancer, and you have to take care of yourself, so cutting the stresses is one of the most important things you can do. In responding to all these situations, always be kind and professional. You are a professional, and never forget that. And if you decide to take a chance and take a project with red flags, be cautious and get absolutely everything in writing and at least half of your payment up front.

If you found that helpful, maybe you’d like to buy me a coffee? <3

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