How to identify a client from hell

I love new projects. It’s exciting to work with my clients, building their businesses and serving their customers with a service worth paying for. From time to time, however, I get these weird requests from potential clients. They found me online and are looking for someone to build a web application for them – a copy of the Checkers 60/60 app, Groupon, Tindr, and my absolute favourite:

“We’re looking for something that’s sort of like Facebook, but more like YouTube. We also want it like LinkedIn so we can upload CVs and people to find employment.”

A client asking me about a potential project

Though I love to help people, I have realised that I need to filter clients so that I can offer a better service to them.

To this end, I am writing this article – so that you can choose better too!

Red flags you need to look out for

So, red flags are things that potential clients say that reveal something about them. Though this is not an absolute, I’ve found that some of these are recurring themes with clients that do not have, for example, the budget for work that needs to be done. Let’s dig into some examples of these red flags.

Underestimating the workload

“We would like to get started asap. I will send you URLs and you can copy their app as is.”

One of my (ex) clients

It’s understandable that clients do not understand the complexities of some industries. For example, art directing and graphic design seem simple: you open Canva and drag and drop a couple of elements – and voila! You have a beautiful mobile application.

Though we live in a society where timelines are always unrealistic, small businesses need to educate their clients and set realistic expectations. When you’re screening a client, it might not be worth explaining to them how much work it is. Furthermore, these types of clients are often not the ones who are willing to accept that things take longer than expected.

When they compare you with other suppliers or ask you to pitch

I once received a call from a potential client who made it clear that I would need to pitch my software development services and compete against other developers. I declined the invitation of request for proposal (RFP). It takes a large amount of time to prepare for the pitch. The effort to write a business requirement specification, in my opinion, is also billable.

When the client doesn’t understand what they’re asking for

Though we cannot expect clients to understand what we do, we do need our clients to respect our trade and skills. In some cases, such as software development we need to educate our clients to understand what we do so that we can work with them and not for them.

In some cases, you will end up running the whole show for them

When you need to do everything for the success of the business

When working with clients, you can either work in your business (e.g. a contractor/consultant), or work on your business (e.g. SAAS or selling a physical product). In some cases, a client requires someone who can do everything – a mercenary. This person can assist a client in building their business – but leave as soon as the work is done.

Though mercenaries are important and valuable, if you’re attempting to build your own business, it won’t make sense. It is therefore important to understand what type of role player your client needs.

Unrealistic deadlines and an urgency

Getting calls at 22:30 isn’t fun. It’s also not realistic or sustainable to be on call 24/7. Clients would generally in their opening conversation drop hints such as:

  • We’re behind schedule due to the previous developer dragging his feet
  • We need to get started ASAP
  • The previous person didn’t respond timeously

Unclear role definitions

If you’re a business that offers a complex service such as software development, accounting or engineering services, it can be difficult to pen down the services that will be rendered. Though it might look easy to simplify the service to “a mobile app”, “consulting services” or “submitting tax” – it’s much more complicated than that.

It’s recommended to be explicit about the services offered by your company. If this is explicitly communicated (through a rate card or contract), all parties will know what to expect. The following needs to be defined:

  • The exact service offering (e.g. coding, recruiting of staff, client liaison meetings)
  • The availability and frequency of communication, e.g. support turnaround time, response time and appropriate times to send/receive communication
  • Expectations on prioritisation of work – both new and support. Add support importance levels, e.g. Red, Orange, Green

When clients have commitment issues

One of the biggest tests for me when taking on a client is if he is passionate about the project. If the client isn’t passionate about the project, they tend to lose interest and the project dies halfway. Though you might be driving the client to sign off, they will push it further back on the priority list.

No financial means to get the project off the ground

It also happens that clients don’t want to commit financially to a project. For this reason, I charge my client a diagnostic fee for unpacking their software needs and putting a document together (a business requirements specification, BRS) before coding work starts.

People who are not serious about business, tend to fall off, as they are unwilling to put their money where their mouth is.

If I have doubts if the client is financially able to afford my services, I tend to ask straight out what is the budget of the project. Their reaction will often tell me if the client is worth pursuing or not.


Filtering potential clients can be challenging. It’s an art that you master over time. Look for red flags when you have your first meeting with a client. These red flags include an urgency to get things done right now, needs and expectations that are not well defined and an overreliance on your skill to make the business a success.

Although these are signs, it’s 100% possible to get good clients that have some of these traits.

It’s also a privilege to fire a client. When you do have a high-risk client, it is important to manage your client well.

Happy investing!


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