One red flag doesn’t have to stop a project, but when that potential client is handing you a full bouquet, it’s time to take stock.
The best way to spot the red flags is to have some kind of screening in place. Screening is an essential, #1, best, must-have step.
Whether your screening is a project questionnaire or brief, a contract, interviews, or even a chat, it needs to touch on each of your deal breakers. Set your sights high and compromise if you must. This is much more effective than trying to build up to ideal conditions over time.
Once you spot these red flags, you might accept one or two, with conditions. But when that bouquet is full, you’ll regret it if you don’t say “this project doesn’t fit the direction I am taking my business/career in.”
Red Flags and What They Signal
- Emotional drivetrain: Budget may be open or uncertain, as is publication date. Even the scope may fluctuate. Treats editing as a personal attack.
- Ceaseless contract revisions: Goals are uncertain or flexible, making the end impossible to pinpoint.
- No leader/contact point (committee work): Will they constantly jockey for control, giving you contradictory parameters and decisions? Will they rethink and second-guess every move? Will anyone ever decide?
- Product/goal is loosely defined: See #1 and 2. They have no way to recognize satisfaction.
- Unreasonable timelines: Makes it impossible to do anyone’s best. No one will be proud of it, and will forever link you to the stress (even if you saved the day).
- Anxiety about process or your role: See #1 and 4.
- Confusion over software or workflow: Excessive coaching will be needed and there will be resistance to essential best practices such as workflow. Also see #4 and 5.
- Flouting boundaries: These might be boundaries around working hours or #1, 4, 5, or 19.
- No reply/long silences: Likely to blow deadlines (including payment ones).
- Deviates from agreement early or often: See #2 and 4.
- Rants — re publishing, re experiences, re decline of English, etc.: See #1, 7. Often linked to other unappealing behaviour.
- Stickler or Thistlebottom: Will belabour minor changes, especially non-negotiable changes required by house style (publisher’s requirements). See #1, 6, 7, 11, and 13.
- Grandiose expectations: See #1. Risk building a portfolio of disappointed, disillusioned clients.
- Objectionable email address: NSFW email addresses often accompany #7 and 9.
- Angry early or often: Possible jerk. Also see #1, 6, 7, 11, 12, and 13.
- Royalties as payment: See #1 and 13, with a risk of #3 (since you become an investor) 4, 5, 8, and 10. Working for royalties is the same as investing. So is doing the work “for the greater good” rather than for pay.
- Misconstrues your specialty or service: See #7. People sometimes think I’m a religious expert, but the angels in my blog name are a joke referring to mistyped angles in STEM topics. Not getting my joke is a red flag for me — it reveals mismatched personalities. Being edited is so personal that a match matters.
- Lacks follow through: Assign “homework” for the first meeting as a test, even if it’s just providing product details.
- Only connects by [hated method]: Whether it’s phone or Slack or email that you hate, if they insist on using it, this project will be painful.
- Rejects recommendations: Aside from becoming a feeling manager instead of a task doer, why are they even asking for your input? It’s frustrating.
- Legal concerns: Be they plagiarism, copyright violations, or libel, contracts will not protect you from the cost of defending such transgressions.
- Reprehensible or dangerous topic: You don’t want to be implicated when someone gets hurt.
- Fired previous contractor: These issues are never one-sided.
- Others reject the job: Or worse, several others. Perhaps this is your foot in the door, and perhaps you can become their favourite saviour, but you could just as easily be in for the WEEE and every time they hear your name they will associate you with the pain of this project.
- Calls you by the wrong name, repeatedly: This flag is especially flappy if it’s a different wrong name they address you by each time. Attention to detail, anyone? Too rushed? Doesn’t care? Who is the cheque going to be written out to? And also signals flags #5, 7, 17, and possibly 18.
For more advice on screening clients and projects, download my workbook: Marketing Action Plan for Freelancers.