5 Warning Signs That Scream “Do Not Take this Client!”

Unless you are new to coaching and consulting, you probably have had at least one “client from hell” over the years. If not, I’d never wish that upon you! Difficult or problem clients can even threaten the sustainability of your business. Those of you who are regular readers will know that I post a lot about getting more new clients. But today, I’d like to come from the opposite direction and share with you how to watch out for signs of brewing trouble… before it happens.

Here are some things that I’ve learned in my nearly 30 years in this business:

1) The prospective client asks that you work for free, such as creating a mockup of a PR campaign to see what you’ll come up with before hiring you. In my early years, I was asked to come up with an idea for a public service company that wanted to communicate the fact they didn’t shut down during a natural disaster. My business partner and I spent hours crafting a knockout concept. After we submitted it, we never heard back from them. A month or two later, we learned of another disaster… they’d used some of our ideas and gave the assignment to someone else. We were never compensated. Today, my answer to that type of request is, sure I can do that and my standard rate for such work is… If they balk at that, it’s time to head for the door.

2)  The prospective client hires you on the spot, without doing any due diligence or checking you out because they are desperate to get someone in. Equally risky is taking on a client without checking them out. What is their ability to pay you? Is the company on the rocks? Is the client is a good fit for your experience, strengths, and skills? Can you really help them? What is the real issue they’re struggling with? Are their expectations reasonable? Have they recently had other coaches and consultants attempt to address this issue and how did that work out?

One of my very first clients was an electronics company. Twenty-five minutes after I’d walked in, I had the assignment to help solve some employee problems. As it turned out, the company was a bottomless pit of corruption and the owner was clueless. It lasted three weeks before I respectfully disengaged from the client, telling him that the true nature of his problems far exceeded my ability to solve them. What he needed was an investigative firm, not team building workshops. What a waste of time.

3)  During the initial meeting with the prospective client, they seem detached and treat you like a vendor of office supplies or light bulbs instead of a professional. They make you sit in the lobby for an extended period of time or constantly reschedule phone calls… wasting your time. Or worse, you also may begin to suspect that you’ll not be meeting with the true decision-maker but an underling charged with screening potential candidates. I do not continue to waste time with anyone who keeps me waiting more than 20 minutes or who misses two phone appointments. Take it from me… it never gets any better than the first date. Hiring a coach or consultant is not like buying a commodity, it is about a relationship. If you have been working to develop that relationship and they are not reciprocating, it means that they do not respect your time. After all, we as coaches and consultants cannot bill for lost days. Time to move on.

4)  There are weeks or months of delays in the pre-proposal or proposal process and during those intervals, no one reaches out to keep you in the loop. They give you the silent treatment, not returning calls or emails. I’ve experienced this and my standard response is to let them go. If they do contact me eventually, I tell them that I am very busy and don’t have time to deal with them at this time. If they are motivated, they will want to convince you to please help them. If you do accept that, put a time boundary around their making a commitment to you. If they violate it, it’s hasta la vista baby!

Note: Here’s a bold tactic if you are the proactive type… Send your contact an email with the subject line… “Are you still in business?” In the body, you can write something like… since you’d never heard back, you’ve been wondering… and then sign it. What do you have to lose?

5)  They tell you that there are other very capable candidates for the job and that the company or client will be requiring a significant discount off your fee structure in order for you to win the business. I’ve learned not to enter these types of bidding contests, because we will almost always end up working for less and resenting it. If we do accept their terms and later get an opportunity for repeat business they will nearly always expect you’ll continue to work at the reduced rate. If they refer you out they’ll often disclose your fee arrangements, crippling you with that next client as well. Why would they do that? It shows that they really don’t respect what you do or understand the value you’ll provide for them. Look for the exit signs or fire escape, whichever is closest.

I know that it’s hard to walk away when you need the money, I’ve been there… but it does wonders for you when you can summon the courage to say no! If you do decide to take on a client that displays one of the warning signs above, at least you’ll go into it with your eyes wide open!



  1. Rico Marciano

    Funny situation, most of my “rude” clients are the most wealthy, and inherited the money! As a professional with 40 years experience, I do not bargain. Food for thought? Does a grocery store clerk bargain with you for a discounted price on their products? No. I never accept any druggies or alcoholics as clients, they are a nightmare!

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