Horns? Red eyes? A T-shirt that says "I'm the devil"? Would that it were that easy to spot. I've worked with my share of difficult clients over the years and it can be a tricky thing to see coming. On occasion I've seen the signs and worked with the client anyway - thinking I could deal with it and it wouldn't be too bad. But I've always ended up regretting that decision. Some things are just not worth it.
Here are a few red flags I've learned the hard way:
1) Unreasonable expectations regarding time and budget
You want to get that job - oh boy do you. But if your new best friend is suddenly calling and texting you at all hours of the day, and expecting you to give them this extra time for free - RUN.
2) They don't listen to you, and don't read your emails
Some people are talkers and some are listeners. It's great if your client is a talker as they give you lots of info, stuff you need to do your job. The problem lies if they cannot listen as well. Test this out in the proposal stage. If they interrupt you continually, do not retain what you've said only minutes before, and you're having trouble getting a word in - RUN.
3) They want to change your terms and conditions
If you've been doing business a long time, which I have, you probably have honed a T&C that is fair to all parties. A big bad sign is if they immediately want to change your T&C - it's not likely that this change be of benefit to you. Use your best judgment here, but most of the time it's a sign of bigger problems to come - RUN.
4) They delay paying you
Ok - so this one is hard to know before you actually start the job. But if your new client is delaying your payment or changing terms without consulting you, you can bet this is a sign of nothing good. From one business owner to another, you know that it's never cool to mess with someone else's payday. RUN.
5) They tell you nasty stories of the last freelancer they hired.
This is a big one. If your new client launches into problems they've had with other freelancers - listen closely and read between the lines. Sure, there are freelancers out there who don't do a great job and some of your clients may well have run into trouble with previous hires. However, this is not your problem to solve, and if they start the conversation with you by complaining about the last person, and the person before that - assume that some of the problem could be stemming from the client themselves. Tread carefully, you might be better off without them. RUN.
6) They don't value your time
Anyone who's worked with a freelancer before knows that project rate you quoted is based on an hourly rate. If you find yourself being put onto fools errands for the client "I just want to see this web layout in 35 different color palettes before I can make a decision" - you've got a problem client on your hands. Even if you're being paid hourly, it's about the lack of respect for your time inherent that kind of request.
7) They joke with you about your life or your job
This is a true story. Years ago, my developer partner and I were meeting with a potential new client. We'd driven a long way to meet with him and were on our best behavior, trying to win the work. After sitting through most of the interview, this client made a derogatory comment to my developer about 'talking to the geek in the room'.... huh? Was that supposed to be funny? Well, we did end up working with this client and it ended badly. That attitude of disrespect - as minor as it may have seemed at the time - was actually indicative of how he treated us throughout the project. Lesson learned - people tell you who they are - you just have to listen to them. RUN.