How to Spot a Bad Freelance Lead

Last week I showed you 5 warning signs of a deadbeat clients.

But did you know that you could spot a bad client even before you start working with them? Often what prospects say in their first email might indicate that they’re not the best people to work with.

So today I decided to show you 5 warning signs of a dud lead.

#1. Indicating Expectations for a Low Cost Service

This one’s a no brainer, if a prospect’s email includes phrases similar to those below, proceed with caution:

  • “I’m looking for an affordable [service]”
  • “I’d like this done cheaply…”
  • “I don’t have much money but…”
  • “I can’t pay right now but…”

In my opinion, to many prospects revealing financial expectations should entice you to reduce the rate.

It also communicates their unwillingness to develop a business relationship with you.

To those leads you’re nothing more than a cheap labor. And believe me, the minute they find someone cheaper, they’ll move on.

Unfortunately, this approach often works, especially with new freelancers, hungry to win any new work.

What to do when you encounter this warning sign:

The problem with acting on such expectations is that by doing so you immediately reduce the perceived value of your service.

So if you decide to respond to those queries, do it only by countering them with strong terms and conditions. Also, be open about not being cheap and talk about the quality of your work instead.

This approach works as a great test of how serious this prospect is:

If they respond, they will most likely play by your rules then. If, however, you never hear from these people again… you’ll know they were a bad lead anyway.

#2. They Send an Overly Excited Email

Here’s a scenario all seasoned freelancers are familiar with:

You receive an enthusiastic email from a lead. It goes more or less like this:

“Calin, you’re the best [service provider] in the world!!! I’m so delighted to have found you! Oh my gosh, this is awesome!!! Just tell me how much [your service] costs and we’re rocking it…”

Delighted with their eagerness you respond, almost certain that you’re getting the gig, only to…

… never hear from them again.


You see, overly enthusiastic clients are just that, overly enthusiastic. They might genuinely love your work. They might even really want to work with you. But their eagerness often clouds the reason. They forget to consider the financial implications of hiring a freelancer.

And so, your quote works like a bucket of cold water.

Now, I’m not saying that all such leads are duds. But from my experience, the majority are.

What to do when you encounter this warning sign:

Quote as you normally would. But don’t put too much hope into winning those projects.

#3. Sharing No Project Details

I’m sure you got those one-line quote requests too:

  • “How much for a website?
  • “Need an article. Price?”
  • “Looking for a logo. How much do you charge?”

Now, at a first glance there might be nothing wrong with this approach.

But think about it:

If you were to hire a professional, wouldn’t you first want to explain them what the problem is and why you need the service before asking for a quote? If only to make it easier to come up with an accurate price.

Sending one-liner requests communicates a number of things:

  • The lead probably only fishes for a quote. And they sent so many quote requests they don’t even bother writing longer explanations.
  • Or they don’t value your service. They don’t consider you a solution to a real problem.
  • Also, the request might have come from a competitor trying to sniff out your rate. This is particularly true if it comes from a non-business email address.
  • Lastly, they might not even have a project for you. They just check prices just in case, because they had an idea. But there’s no plan or project they would want to hire you for anyway.

All in all, don’t consider these valuable clients. Someone really interested in your service would send you a detailed brief to make it easy to quote for it.

What to do when you encounter this warning sign:

Personally, I ignore these emails. I used to respond but 99% of the time, I wouldn’t hear back from them anyway.

#4. Request Coming from a Generic Email Address

Similarly, if you receive a quote request coming from a generic email address (i.e. Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook), proceed with caution.

  • This prospect might only be fishing for quotes. And they’ve sent so many requests that they don’t want their mail email burdened with responses.
  • Or they don’t want to disclose who they really are. For one, to prevent you from reaching out or following up.
  • They might also be your competitors trying to find out how much you charge. Just like with a previous example, it could be someone trying to find out how much people at your level quote for certain services.

What to do when you encounter this warning sign:

If the email contains no business details, request them before sending a quote. In case if it does, I research the prospect to establish why the email came from a non-business email.

And quote only based on what I’ve found.

#5. Requesting Some Form of Work Upfront

Lastly, a prospect asking you to do spec work before they decide whether to hire you is most likely a bad lead.

These requests come in many shapes and forms:

  • Asking for suggestions / recommendations. Beware of any leads asking you to attach ideas or concepts to your quote.
  • Spec work request. Similarly, you might be asked to deliver actual outlines, sketches or wireframes.
  • Complete projects. Lastly, some leads request you to deliver a complete project so they could see your work before they buy.

In all cases, what they get though is free work they could now go off and use. Without having to compensate anyone for their work.

What to do when you encounter this warning sign:

Refuse. State openly that you’re willing to do any work only after agreeing on a full fee and paying a deposit.

If a prospect is serious about the project, they’ll agree. Otherwise, you’ll probably never hear from them again.

What about you?

What warning signs put you off working with particular leads? And what do you do when you spot them?


Written by: Calin Yablonski
Calin is a freelancer, local search marketer and founder
of the Freelance Business Guide.