weed out tire kickers

How to weed out tire kickers from your freelance business

As a new (or not so new) freelancer, it can be tempting to jump at every job opportunity that comes your way. The fear of being left without work can be a strong motivator to invest time where sometimes you shouldn’t.

Investing time in a client proposal can be time lost if the client is a “tire kicker”.

What’s a tire kicker? A tire kicker is someone who’s going to ask, and ask and ask, with very little chance of them ever paying for your services. A tire kicker is a lo-baller, a time waster and a constant danger to any independent worker.

So, what can be done, how can you spot this dastardly type before it’s too late? No-one wants to invest time in a dud client. Fortunately there are a few things we can do… but first, let’s take a look at some of the tell-tale signs that you’re in contact with a tire kicker.

They ask for a quote without giving any details.

This one can be a red herring, so be careful. It’s not a client’s fault if they don’t know how our industry works, but do bare in mind that people who are looking for a fixed, job-lot price may give you problems. The request usually goes something like, “I need X, how much do you charge?”

Most times this can be to a lack of understanding about what we do, and how we do it, so tread carefully and use your best judgement.

They are in a real hurry

“We need it tomorrow”. How many times have you heard this? Sometimes clients are in a real hurry, and if that hurry means you have to postpone other work then a “rush job” premium should be applied.

Most times the hurry is not as great as a client might think. When everything is now, now, now, just be careful you don’t get trampled in the rush.

They try to back out of paying a deposit.

Hopefully you’ll be able to spot a tire kicker before it gets this far, but anyone who stalls on paying a deposit gets a big red X! I hope the reasons are obvious.

Asking for a quick mockup.

Yes, I’ve fallen for this one myself. A potential gig comes in and it’s a doozy. They say they want “something quick” just to get an idea… You want the gig, so you spend some time on an initial concept and… you realise they’re doing the same with countless other designers they also scouted on dribbble. They take the best of everyones’ designs and say “Thank you very much”.

I now make it clear that all work done will be paid for, regardless. I no longer partake in these “let’s see” contests. You shouldn’t either.

Generic emails

“Dear designer.” Yep I’ve had those too. I’ve also had generic emails (mostly via dribbble) who have been addressed to another designer. That’s a great start to any relationship.

I’m doing a few months work for a startup in Madrid, and a couple of weeks ago I was sat next to my design partner when we both received the exact same email, at the same time from the same scout, (which incidentally had my name wrong). It doesn’t inspire much confidence.

We’ve probably all used some form of generic email at some point or another, but we’re careful to get the name right and to adapt it to the person who’s receiving it, right?

If you’re on the receiving end of a generic email, keep in mind that you will be one of many, and your pricing will more than likely be a deciding factor.

People who want to meet, straight away.

When I used to work with local clients, many would want to meet in person before even discussing the job or budget. If the potential for a job is big enough, and you’re sure the client has a budget, go for it. The problem with this approach is when you have no idea of who they are or if they even know what your fees are. Traveling to meet someone who falls out of their chair when you mention your daily rate is not a good way to spend a morning.

When they ask for a discount with the promise of more work

Another classic! It usually goes something like this: “If you can give me a good price on this project, then I guarantee they’ll be lots more work to come”.

There won’t be.

A good tactic for these kinds of emails is to stand your ground, and defend your worth. Either that or high-tail it and maintain your sanity.

Never lower your rates just “because”. If a client needs a lower price, then look at ways of reducing the workload. Remember, when a client asks for a discount before you start, it’s usually a sign of things to come.

They are virtually dead.

The first thing I do after receiving a request for a proposal is to do a little detective work. It can be as simple as Googling the client’s name and email. Normally it’s very easy to find basic information about a person on Linkedin or their personal site. Be on the lookout for big red flags, screaming “No, don’t do it!”.

I begin to be slightly concerned if they have no online trail at all. Although if perhaps they’re a little older, and are coming to the internet for the first time, there may be a valid reason for this. But again, this can be a warning sign.

Always go with your gut

Perhaps the most valuable asset any freelance designer has is their instinct. If a client seems iffy, then they probably are. The few times I’ve gone against my instinct, I have always regretted it. There’s not one time I have surprised myself and thought, “Ah, turned out nice in the end.” Thousands of years of evolution shouldn’t be taken too lightly.

There will be more clients. It’s OK to say no.

But you know the thing that weeds out 99.9% of the tire kickers that approach me?

A simple client questionnaire. The questionnaire will pick them out almost immediately.

Why use a questionnaire?

A questionnaire does two things:

It shows me whether the client is willing to take the time to tell me  about their business. If a client can’t make an effort to explain what their problem or need is, then I’ll pass.

If they can’t take this one simple step then it’s adios. Designing and developing a service or product is a two way street, some clients are unaware of this, others are just unwilling.

The questionnaire also helps me to have a clearer idea of the scope of the project. At an initial glance it helps me to see:

  • How long the project is likely to last.
  • Whether it’s something I can do? Clients don’t always understand who does what in the world of design.
  • If their budget is realistic. (yes, I ask for their budget).
  • If I’m interested in taking the project on.

It shows you whether a client is willing to take part in their project. If they can’t fill out a basic set of questions about their project, then they can’t work with me. End of.

If you have any clever ways of weeding out the tire kickers or have had a particularly narrow escape, let me know. It’s good to share the pain.

Good luck!

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  1. I wish I would have seen this when I was first starting out. Thanks for the reminders.

  2. deifos

    Great read! thanks!, this will sure help me in the process.

  3. Shane J. Simone

    Hi Nathan, I am an interior designer who is happy to find your blog. Today, I was absolutely frustrated with dealing with “tire kickers,” not only over the last couple of weeks, but my entire career. I love what I do for a living, but I hate dealing with these tire kickers. At one point, I thought of stepping away from design, inventing air freshener with the label, “TIRE KICKER REPELLENT,” and pitching it to every showroom in the country. I was so incredibly bothered by them that I did a google search on “tire kickers” to get more information about this perfidious species. This is how I found your post and website! You are most informative and have great ideas!

  4. Joel Atwood

    Hello I am looking into starting up my own web development company and I would like to thank you for this article. I really enjoyed it. I was wondering if you would be willing to share your questionnaire with me because I like that idea a lot but am unsure what questions would be good to ask. Either way thank you for all of your assistance

    • Nathan Powell

      Hi Joel.

      Sorry for the delay in replying. So glad you enjoyed the post!

      I have a chapter screening questions in The Designer’s Guide to Freelancing. It gives you a complete list of the screening questions I used as a freelancer and the reasons why I asked each of them.

      Good luck

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