Once upon a time, I received the "three warning signs" from a potential client all in the first sentence: "I don't have much money, I need my site up and running a.s.a.p., and my current web design company won't return my calls".
Hmmmm...why, I ask you, did some benevolent lightbulb go off in my head - the toxic urge to help someone in need, perhaps - and not the glaring warning flares? I don't know. I took the bait. We met, I agreed to slash my rates, get it done in 30 days, and thus began a relationship with a client that, because of their micromanaging and nitpickiness, ended up diluting my hourly rate to about minimum wage.
I learned early on how to spot the warning signs of a nightmare client. It just took me a little while to figure out how to say "no.". Early on, I am sure that the desire to grow my business was at the heart of the acquiesence, even in spite of that feeling of dread you feel when you are about to execute the contract. Now, with plenty of work from corporate clients, many of whom refuse to micromanage because they have jobs to attend to, I can be a lot more picky.
With that, here's my anaysis of the Big Three. Feel free to add your own.
"I need to do this as cheap as possible"
Usually, this comes out in their first inquiry. If I track the nightmare clients' profile, I can definitely trace this comment to usually the very first phone call. In fact, it's interesting how many of the potential clients who made this statement from the outset would ultimately either stand me up, or cancel the first consultation before we ever got off the ground.
"I need your best price" certainly sends up the red flags now. Not because clients who insist on a fair and equitable price are inherently nightmare clients, but, clients who begin with this as their foundation, those who are price-driven, ultimately don't understand value. They ask "what will you do for me?" instead of "what will my website do for me?". And usually, this type of stance is followed by:
"I need it yesterday"
A tight time constraint is not, in and of itself, a problem. In fact, a number of my better clients have been somewhat urgent about a launch date. But taken in concert with bullet point #1, this becomes indicative of a client who has no understanding of or regard for the process. They think you are sitting at home with nothing else to work on other than their $1000 site. Usually, all other aspects of their business, project, etc are equally in disarray. They are close to closing down, and their website is a last ditch effort to generate business, and so on.
This type of frenetic urgency is interesting, in that, usually, these people are the nitpickiest clients of all - critiquing every font, gradient, and crop. Wanting it done over and over until the picture they saw in their head begins to take shape, or, more likely, until it begins to look like their friend's website, which is what they wanted it to look like all along, but were afraid to say so.
Until I began to grasp the concept that "your failure to plan is not my emergency", I was usually being reactive to the timeline wishes of the nightmare client. Now, the launch date is set by when the calendar will allow.
and, finally, but most daunting of all:
"My current web designer won't call me back"
I have seen and heard many varients on this theme. Sometime it's couched in secrecy, i.e. "our last company we just had a...well, it just didn't work out"; sometimes overt, to-wit: "the web design company I hired dropped me" or "says they won't do my site because they don't agree with my content".
Now, this is much different that the client who breaks with their existing web design company because truly, they are getting bad service, or perhaps they entered into a relationship with a fledgling designer who either got in over their head or evaporated before they ever got off the ground, but you can definitley tell the difference.
This is the client who, by the tone and description of their "falling out" is clearly suspect, and it's very soon apparent that the reason they had a falling out is because they were pouring scope creep into their relationship by the truckload, micromanaging, changing their minds, and diluting the value of the already whittled-down price way past the point of tolerant. I have had a few of these clients and have come close myself to dropping them mid contract (in fact, I did fire one mid-relationship. It's rather liberating)
The fact that there was a break in the relationship with their previous designer should send you running for the hills. When combined with the need for speed and the demand for your rock-bottom dollar, there's almost no need to follow up with questions about why the previous relationship ended - you know why.
Being able to turn away business is a little intimidating at first. It seems counterintuitive to growing your company. But IMHO, it's just the opposite. Turning away BAD business, and there is most definitely bad business in this field, frees up your time to market yourself to and design for quality clients. Clients who get it - who understand that a website is about value, not about price, and that will trust you to do your job in the manner in which they have hired you to begin with.
Just my two cents. Any other red flags?