Avoiding Toxic Clients: Red Flags are the First Sign

March 19, 2023
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As a freelancer or business owner, you need to attract new clients to pay the bills and grow your business. However, not all clients are created equal, and some can actually end up being more trouble than they're worth. Think toxic clients. That's why it's crucial to screen potential clients carefully to avoid entering into toxic relationships that can drain your time, energy, and resources. Let’s look at a few red flags you should look for when screening your potential clients.

Toxic Clients Have Unrealistic Expectations

One major red flag to watch out for when you first talk to a potential client is unrealistic expectations. If a client is demanding and unreasonable from the get-go, it's a sure sign they will be difficult to work with. For example, if a client expects you to work around the clock and meet impossible deadlines without adequate compensation, it's a clear sign they don't value your time or expertise. Does that matter? Yes! When a client values you and your work, your job is immediately a thousand times easier.

It's important to have an open and honest conversation with potential clients about their expectations and what you can realistically deliver. Be upfront about your availability, your rates, and your process for completing work. This can help weed out clients who are not a good fit for your business and avoid misunderstandings down the line.

Toxic clients cause stress, anxiety, and they take up time you could be using for other clients. Unhappy woman sits at computer.
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Toxic Clients are Poor Communicators

Another red flag is poor communication. Let’s define poor: if a potential client is difficult to reach, takes a long time to respond to emails or messages, or is unclear about their needs and expectations, it can make working together a frustrating and stressful experience. It's essential to establish clear lines of communication from your first communication to ensure a successful partnership. I discuss communication expectations on my discovery call and I outline them in my new client onboarding package.

Make sure you clearly understand your client's preferred method of communication and availability. Establish regular check-ins and status updates to keep everyone on the same page. This doesn’t mean day calls or emails, especially not for shorter projects. But if you are working on longer, more complicated projects, a weekly check-in is a good idea. If a client is consistently unresponsive or difficult to reach, it may be a sign that they're not fully committed to the project.

Toxic Clients Don't Respect You

This one is a deal-breaker for me. A lack of respect is more of a stop sign than a red flag. If a client dismisses your ideas, belittles your experience or qualifications, or doesn't take your input seriously, it's a sign that they don't value your contributions. A lack of respect can quickly turn into a toxic relationship where you feel undervalued and unappreciated.

Establish clear boundaries and expectations from the beginning of your relationship. Communicate your expertise and the value you bring to the project. If a client continues to show a lack of respect, it may be better to cut ties early on before the relationship becomes too toxic.

Inappropriate or Unprofessional Behavior is Toxic

Another red flag to look out for is inappropriate or unprofessional behavior. If a potential client engages in behavior that makes you uncomfortable, such as making inappropriate comments, using offensive language, or acting unprofessionally, run. If you address the issue and the client apologizes for their behavior, set a professional tone and establish clear expectations around future conduct and communication.

Lack of Clarity or Direction

Finally, a lack of clarity or direction is another red flag. If a potential client is unsure about their goals or needs or cannot articulate what they want, it can make working together a frustrating and unproductive experience. It's important to establish a clear scope of work and to have a shared understanding of project goals and timelines before you sign an agreement or take on a project.

Additional Red Flags to Consider

Here are a few other signals that may indicate a potential client is not a good fit.

  • Bad Reputation: If a potential client has a reputation for being difficult to work with, or if you've heard negative feedback from others in your industry.
  • Poor Payment History: If a potential client has a history of not paying their bills on time or of disputing invoices.
  • Scope Creep: If a potential client continually adds new tasks or responsibilities to the project without increasing compensation or adjusting timelines.
  • Micromanagement: If a potential client insists on micromanaging every aspect of the project or doesn't trust you to do your job.
Toxic clients micromanage: man pointing out something to woman in front of monitor
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Avoiding Toxic Clients

By being aware of these red flags, you can avoid entering toxic relationships with potential clients. Remember, it's better to turn down a project than to accept work from a client who will ultimately cause more harm than good. Taking the time to screen potential clients carefully (both before you talk to them and during your discovery call) can save you time, energy, and resources. As a bonus, weeding out toxic clients ensures you have availability to work with clients who value your time, expertise, and contributions.

Remember to trust your instincts with potential clients. If something feels off or if a client gives you a bad vibe, it's better to err on the side of caution and avoid working with them. Ultimately, your business and your well-being depend on your ability to attract and work with the right clients.

Toxic relationships drain your time and energy, and as a business owner, you know both are already in short supply!

Remember that your clients should support your business goals, not hinder them. By being selective and setting boundaries, you can cultivate healthy, productive relationships that benefit both you and your clients.


  • Treasa Edmond

    With 30 years in the workforce, 15 of those running her own freelance writer and content strategy business, Treasa has worked with all kinds of clients. It took her years to break out of an employee mindset so she could become the boss of her business. Now she's sharing her proven client management strategy and communication process so you can become the boss of your business today!