What does a red flag mean and what should I do about it? I don’t really have anything in between red flags and green flags, unless you count previous ‘middling’ clients: it pays the bills but lights no fires in anyone’s soul.

This blog posts sets out some red flags when it comes to clients and what they mean for you and your business.

Red Flags Indicate High Hazard

Depending on the country, a red flag on a beach can mean one of a few alarming things:

  • High Hazard, e.g. dangerous predators or other hazardous marine life has been spotted recently; don’t go in
  • No swimming, maybe because of strong rip-rides that week
  • Beach closed, maybe because of an environmental accident

There’s no equivocation. If you proceed, you’ll invite an already-identified peril into your day.

In the professional world, red flags are portends of hazards, hard to see undercurrents and things that will halt your serenity dead in its tracks. If you know what they are, you can avoid months of drama.


When the Client Caterwauls About their Previous Supplier/Partner/Consultant at The First Meeting

Don’t get us wrong. We’re sometimes called in to work with a client who’s been let down by a previous agency. This is fine. But, there’s more to this one.

There are several reasons why this is a red flag:

  • We’ve all done a little whinging about paying for something and then not getting what we asked for or value for money. But, when it veers into personal attacks – rather than just understandable frustration – beware. Remember the adage: “If they gossip to you, they’ll gossip about you.”? It’s the same for business partners as it is for friends and family.
  • Further, if it morphs into a warning that you should not act the same as the other consultant or company as opposed to discussing what you can do for them – almost shooting you down before you’ve even begun working together – it betrays a client who’s determined to treat you like the downstairs hired help. And, this is not a motivating position to be in, at all.

When the Client Kiboshes the Prompt Return of Signed T&Cs

In our case, and in many other organisations, the impact is that the work cannot begin.

There are several reasons why this is a red flag:

  • It shows a lack of respect for your documentation and theirs, or documentation in general. In a wider context, it makes me think people are disorganised.
  • It suggests they do not value your time, the start date for the project, the time you’ve booked out to carry out the work, nor even for the achievement of any of their own deadlines. And, it means you’re always concerned other paperwork, requested documents or information will also be supplied late. Yet, you will be expected to keep the project on schedule. Our tactic is to temporarily stop any preparatory background reading or research, as it suggests the project will not proceed – and we won’t get paid.

When the Client Holds On to Their Mythical Knowledge

In our case, the impact is that the project start will be bitty and it will be difficult to show progress in the order you’ve initially suggested, as you have to work around or without missing information.

There are several reasons why this is a red flag:

  • While there can be many reasons for a delayed response to emails, and requests for information, if everyone is at work and able to receive your emails, it reveals a lack of attention to detail and a lack of respect. You can look forward only to more of the same.
  • For us, this is the single best indicator of a client who’ll expect you to parachute in and – without any true partnership or collaboration – do their job for them. It is not conducive to a successful working relationship. Our tactic is to end the project before stepping further into their chaos.

When the First Invoice Vanishes into Thin Air

The impact may be minimal – if it’s a small invoice. (And, small is a relative term, I know.) But, just imagine if several clients all do the same thing in the same month, or if several bad clients do this a few months running. Small or not, this can devastate a business very quickly.

There are several reason why this is a red flag:

  • Small businesses we’ve spoken to agree with us: breaking the T&Cs from the very first invoice creates an immediate bad taste in the mouth. Regret is hard to rinse away. These types of client will expect you to do the work; yet they have zero compunction in offering all sorts of excuses for why the payment is late or non-existent. By the way, these excuses are never accompanied by a text notification to inform you that the payment has just been received. (Yes, there are genuine reasons for late payment; we’ve only ever had one, though. I just prefer not to work with liars.)
  • It destroys trust and feelings of loyalty. The client can mitigate the damage to your trust in them by paying it straight away, and to ensure that no invoice is ever “forgotten”, “in end of month/next month’s pay run” (always an unacceptable breach of your contract if it misses the payment deadline), “in the post”, “lost”, “not received”, “gone into junk mail” or “slipped my mind” ever again. Yes, of course, we know people can make mistakes. But, we’ve never had a client who was late on the first invoice who was not also late on the second. (There have been no thirds, because we simply prefer to work with professionals we can trust to maintain their side of the contract – the one they signed.)

When the Client Treats You Like a Parachuted-in Square-Jawed Hero

Do you ever get the feeling that the client thinks you’ve made a special appearance and possess super powers and futuristic weapons to single-handedly fix it when things go wrong? If you suspect this, call in an ‘exfil’.

Clients must be on the team, participate in projects, jobs and tasks. That can look different depending on the target.

  • If you’re a custom jewellery designer, for example, the client may want you to design a special piece for a big event. But if they just tell you to “come up with something”, without telling you the materials, fittings, size and style they like, you can expect a predictably dismal response to the end product.
  • If you develop content, like we do, clients must tell you all about their product, explain who uses it, how and why. They can’t simply treat you as a pesky nuisance to their day-to day. That gets irritating for us and expensive for them, really fast. And, four months in, you’ll still be struggling to understand what they need. Abandon ship!

Barely Concealed Disrespect for Your Profession, Prices, Talent

Yes, I’ve gone ahead and worked for such clients – few in number. And, I’ve learned my lesson. But, since I’ve studied and worked in communication for a while now, I’m open-minded when I meet other communication styles not akin to my own. But, if you combine being open to new people with being inexperienced in qualifying clients, this can mean you’re prone to being a smidge too accommodating!

Listen to your gut. Here are some examples.

  • Potential clients suggesting that they could do the work themselves, but they’ve “simply no time” – suggesting they’ve little to no clue of the technicalities of the training, experience, thought, research and work required to solve their problem. They’ll subsequently not acknowledge the value in what you do. And, you can expect quibbles about the price – not at first, when they agree the proposal, price and sign the contact, but when the first invoice comes through.
  • People persistently cancelling meetings at the last moment with no genuine reason – suggesting a disrespect for your time. This will only continue. (By the way, I’ve zero problem with people cancelling meetings. Life and work priorities change. But, rearranging something 4-5 times gets boring.)

Any Kind of Isms

I’ve once walked into a situation where I detected ageism. It was so bizarre (that I was considered to be so old in my early forties) that I doubted myself and tried to put it down to the person’s squeaking lack of business and professional experience. Maybe they’d not had any parental coaching in how to grow beyond the toddler years. Or, perhaps, they’d just been watching too many ra-ra business shows, where juvenile aggression and logic is rewarded. I initially gave them a pass, but when the first few invoices were invariably paid late, and only then after some ‘encouragement’, I told them “You’re Fired!”.

Again, listen to your gut.

What Does a Red Flag Mean and What Do I Do When I See One?

Given this hard-won experience, I rarely let my interest in a cool new project or the desire to acquire another client flicker in the sunshine brighter than the red flags. Think of Red Flags as Boundaries: This Far and No Further!

Set the following boundaries in your own mind, and you won’t go far wrong:

  • Beware personal attacks and someone talking down to you – we’re neither on the playground nor subservient, and we don’t have to put up with this
  • If they can’t reply to a proposal or return your client onboarding documentation, what further disorganisation might be to come?
  • If the client won’t get involved and work in partnership with you, take your magic beans and disappear
  • Invoice issues from the get-go – do I really need to tell you what to do here?
  • You’re not a superhero – make sure it’s a team setup you’re entering into, not a one woman rescue mission
  • If someone shows what you know in your gut to be disrespect for your industry, professionalism and skills, run!
  • Racism, ageism, yadda-yadda – this particular brand of disrespect is bright red with flashing red lights and sirens

If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read further. See Why We Won’t Work for Free or Peanuts and How to Get Paid on Time.

Photo by bruno neurath-wilson on Unsplash