A client’s personality can tell you a lot about how they’ll do business.

For example, meet Jason. Jason’s a rich customer who worked with another firm before and came to us with a pretty robust version of his app. He’s an evasive communicator. Getting a straight answer out of him and knowing what he wants is really hard. And, he wants a lot more than he asks for. A simple project will take twice as long once Jason is done adding new features and expanding the scope.

Most importantly: the firm Jason hired before was well-established, competent, and capable.

What happened? Why didn’t things work out?

The Flags

I’ve learned that clients like Jason pretty much always raise red flags before you even sign a contract. While trusting your gut often means turning down good money or interesting projects, believe me: it’s better to miss out on work than to be stuck with a Jason.

Here’s why we said hell no to his offer:

Red Flag #1

He wanted us to consult with the old developers but wouldn’t give us access to the staging site, read-only access to the code, or anything that would educate us about the project. It was impossible to know what we were signing up for if we agreed to work with him.

Why it’s a red flag: If a client can’t trust you with information about the project before you sign, you’re starting the whole relationship off on the wrong foot. You should never agree to do work if you don’t know the scope.

Red Flag #2

We spoke with the developers and quickly realized they were highly professional and capable. From the sounds of it, Jason kept adding to the scope of the original product, demanding more and more from the developers until handing the work off to us. The development team was probably working on a fixed bid and couldn’t handle his increasing demands and expectations.

All they begrudgingly said about him was the “had a lot of big ideas” type of thing.

Why it’s a red flag: Plenty of people come to us after having a bad experience with another firm. But if that other firm is competent and has done great work, there’s a reason the client got dumped — and it’s usually something about the client. Solid firms rarely get rid of perfectly good clients.

Red Flag #3

We asked Jason for more information about the product and its development, but he evaded. Either he didn’t know exactly what he wanted or he was afraid we’d turn him down once we knew the scope.

Why it’s a red flag: Clients who don’t communicate before you start working never get better afterward. Trying to do anything for someone who ignores your questions and won’t help you do your job is a losing game.

Once we knew that Jason’s previous firm was fine and we’d dealt with his communication issues firsthand, we politely declined.

The Takeaways

Here’s what you can learn from Jason:

1) Don’t Repeat the Mistakes of Others

If a good company is being railroaded like this one was, it’s likely that they are dealing with a toxic client. In this case, Jason knew that he wanted more, but he didn’t really understand what that meant. By adding more features all the time, he was fundamentally altering the production process — one that had already been agreed on. Talking to the other firm and figuring out why they weren’t working with Jason anymore allowed my team to dodge a major bullet.

2) Heed Red Flags

If you’re feeling uneasy about a client, chances are there’s a good reason for it. Listen to your gut. It’s usually right.

3) Avoid Fixed-Scope if Possible

The biggest mistake the previous firm made was agreeing to a fixed-scope project. Once you’re locked in, it can be challenging to manage clients’ requests for new features or other changes to the scope. Personally, I suggest a weekly billing model — it’s the best way to prevent feature creep clients from screwing you out of business.

If you absolutely have to do work with a fixed scope, insist on a very specific scope of work and stop feature creep before it starts.


CEO and Co-founder of Neon Roots Ben Lee is the co-founder and CEO of Neon Roots, a digital development agency with a mission to destroy the development model and rebuild it from the ground up. After a brief correspondence with Fidel Castro at age nine, Ben decided to start doing things his own way, going from busboy to club manager at a world-class nightclub before he turned 18. Since then, Ben has founded or taken a leading role in 5 businesses in everything from software development to food and entertainment.