By Brett Shapiro, co-founder of Easy Doc Filing
If you're in business long enough, particularly in a service-based industry, it's inevitable that you'll end up with some clients you wish you never met. These may be clients who refuse to pay you, have unrealistic expectations, refuse to honor your boundaries, or extort free work via the threat of bad reviews.
While you may be tempted to accept this reality -- writing it off as the cost of doing business -- there is a better way. These clients will likely exhibit one or more of the following behaviors out of the gate, tipping you off that you might be better off without them.
1. They ask you to lower your fees.
I've observed that three out of four times that a prospective client asks you to lower the cost of your services, they're going to be difficult to work with. First, their request comes imbued with an assumption that you don't know the true value of your work. Second, seldom does a client request this special treatment without subsequently requesting additional benefits or discounts that you don't regularly offer. In my experience, they're also typically the clients whom you'll later have to chase down for payment.
2. They open with a lengthy negative assessment of the last person who performed services for them.
Generally, if a prospective client spends more than a minute or two explaining why they terminated their relationship with their last service provider, they may have unrealistic expectations or be difficult to satisfy. While it might be expected that they communicate the practices or policies that haven't worked for them in the past, if they spend more than a few minutes detailing their complaints, tread carefully.
3. They violate your initial boundaries.
If you offer a free 30-minute consultation, and the prospective client continues to ask questions -- particularly repetitive questions -- well beyond the allotted time, it's unlikely that they'll suddenly start honoring your boundaries once you're hired. The same goes for a client who shows up more than a few minutes late to your initial meeting; chances are they respect their time more than they will ever respect yours.
4. They make jokes about having to pay you.
If a prospective client frequently makes comments (poorly disguised as jokes) about having to pay you, they likely don't respect the value of your services. These include, "Oh, no. I wonder what this call will cost me [insert awkward laugh]" or "Man, you must eat well with what you're charging!" These people are simply passive-aggressive versions of No. 1 above.
5. They're a professional plaintiff or defendant.
While it may not be in your interest to do some digging into the background of smaller clients, for any client for whom you will be doing a substantial amount of work, do a brief litigation search to see how much time they've spent in a courtroom.
You can usually do this by going to the website of your local courthouse(s) and searching their names -- the ability to conduct this search varies by county, and some counties charge a few dollars for the search.
If they've been involved in more than one or two lawsuits, it would be worth paying the 10 cents a page to download the complaint. If they frequently get sued for failing to pay or frequently sue others for any number of reasons, you should probably think twice about working with them.
6. They come with a forewarning.
If the person who referred this prospective client to you warns you about any of the above, listen. Typically, if the referring person makes a point to tell you to collect fees up front or to set expectations and boundaries carefully and explicitly, assume that they're understating the problem.
7. They use reviews as manipulation.
While this one may be hard to spot in advance, these are the clients who will threaten you with a bad review to get something they want, or even try an entice you with a good review if you do a good job. If they're going around wielding their ability to review you as a weapon, you could find yourself jumping through a number of hoops that were never paid for.
None of the above issues are necessarily prohibitive, but you should consider them yellow flags. If more than two are present in an initial consultation, perhaps consider it a red flag.
The cost of getting out of a dysfunctional client relationship usually exceeds the benefit of working with a dysfunctional client, whether that cost is monetary, stress, time or all of the above. Worse, the damage they can do to your reputation in this age of online reviews could cost you far more than any one client can bring in.
Brett Shapiro is co-founder of Easy Doc Filing, a resource center that takes care of the mundane, yet critical, formation documentation.