Let me preface this article by mentioning the vast majority of my clients, whom I adore, have been a joy to work with and have been with me (usually) for years. Their work got me through the recession when no one was hiring any designers or web developers, and all the local designers were scrambling for a handful of clients. I take care of my clients, and they take care of me.
But then there are the clients I am not heartbroken to lose. Here is my list of the 16 warnings signs of a problem client.
1. I usually don’t like anything I see, so we may never get this project finished.
I’ve actually had a client say this to me. While his honesty was refreshing, uuummm, we didn’t last long.
2. I have no experience in the business I’m going into.
This client will often need much more education than someone already in his or her business, and that may not work out. They tend to be very insecure and extremely focused on one way of doing things — a way that might not be the best way of doing things, or at least they’re not open to a discussion of other ways. I often find that these people have not run a business before. One potential client was a woman and her friend who were going to open a t-shirt printing business, and they had never done anything remotely graphic. I had to explain what the different graphic files were, and what “centered” text meant.
3. I need this brochure designed and printed in 2 weeks for a conference.
Unrealistic expectations are difficult to work with. In this case, unless the brochure is going to be digitally printed or copied on a copier, I usually plan on two weeks for the printing alone, let alone design, review, design changes, and change reviews and sign-off for the printer. They have a hard time hearing, “Then you should have started this brochure 3 weeks ago, at least.”
4. The last 3 people I’ve hired to do this have been terrible!
Maybe the problem is not the last 3 people. Even if I hear that the last person was a big disappointment, I take it with a grain of salt. I don’t know the whole story. When I was young and stupid, I used to think that if the last person was so awful, I would be the superhero coming in to save the project. Not so much anymore, because chances are, a frequently disappointed client won’t like anything I produce, either, and they won’t like anything that anyone else comes up with. I can think of one current client (for a few years now) who was treated badly by her previous designer, and I saved the project.
5. This is what I require for my project — I think.
I’m so leery of doing Requests for Proposals (RFPs) or Requests for Quotes (RFQs) because the person putting together the requirements often doesn’t know what he or she is asking for, like a hit counter for their website (seriously, no one does that anymore), or the legal requirements if they’re government-funded. Some clients have kind of an idea of what they want, and then part way into the project, they change course, requiring a “Change of Scope” agreement or a new contract. Don’t get me wrong — many people I’ve talked to can be steered into a more cohesive direction with some judiciously worded questions.
6. My directions to you are going to be cryptic, and I assume you’ll figure it out.
7. This is what I want. Make it so. I don’t want to discuss anything else.
Unless they’re an advertising or marketing firm, or have experience in that, this one is likely to be a big problem. This kind also tends to hand you artwork from their small children to incorporate the corporate piece into what you’ll be building.
8. I’m sorry I haven’t responded to your phone call or email in a month. I’ve been so busy.
I have a clause in my contract saying that if the person is very busy, they might want to appoint someone authorized to make decisions or their project may be removed from my production schedule. I have waited months for content for several websites. I’ve even offered to help them create it. They’ve paid nonrefundable deposits already. I’ve removed their projects from my schedule, and periodically reminded them of their job. If you have someone with a tight deadline, impress upon him or her the dire consequences for their project if they don’t respond promptly with what you need to complete it.
I’ve added a “Reactivation Fee” clause in my contracts if a client goes off the radar, because delays can mess with my production schedule and cause me to lose money. I’m cautious about taking on new work if old work isn’t completed.
9. I’m a programmer [or fill in the blank] myself and set everything up for you.
Then you find out they don’t know anything about the details of doing what you do. But they try to tell you how to do your job. If they do know, I’m happy to have a conversation and take their lead. I bow to the client’s expertise. If they don’t know, I sure wish they’d get out of my way and let me work. I’ll even explain to them in mind-numbing detail what I’m doing and why, if they like.
10. I know every project of mine has been a rush, and this project is a rush too! Can you squeeze my job in?
I don’t mind the occasional rush job, but if every job is a rush, my other clients are not going to appreciate it if I keep putting this client’s jobs to the head of the line. An organized, forward-thinking client is going to get their job turned around faster (and probably cheaper) anyway.
Robert McGuire writes, in “How to Charge a Rush Fee for Freelance Clients Without Drama,” whether or not it damages your relationship “depends on the expectations you established in the past. If you have a clear statement of work that identifies timelines and responsibilities on each side, then it will be clear where this rush job fits in.” It can be scary to tell a client there will be a rush charge, but it’s business, not personal.
11. I don’t have much of a budget on this, and your price is too high.
And then they try to bargain you down, sometimes even with the promise of a bunch of work later or “exposure.” Run away, run away. If you have a good history with each other, maybe negotiate.
12. You are going to get direction from me.
Except you end up answering to more than a few decision-makers, and you get asked to change things back and forth. Nail down your contact at the organization.
13. I’ll trust your judgment.
No, they won’t. Be extra careful to have them sign off of everything. After the first time I was told this and it didn’t pan out, I activated my super duper red flag system. I call it my “E” ticket (arcane Disneyland reference)to doing everything by the book.
14. I’ll take care of you.
They never do (red flag), unless someone who has been with you for a while says this. Then they almost always do.
15. This will be easy [or quick].
No, it won’t be. If it were that easy, they could probably do it themselves.
16. I need you to make an exception for me.
“This may be asking for special payment terms, wanting to haggle on pricing or making demands that go outside of the scope of work,” says Maggie Patterson, in “10 Warning Signs of a Bad Client.”
These aren’t gigantic X-marks through a potential client, because most clients are great, but if you can recognize a potential problem at the start, you can prepare for it. Don’t be blindsided.
There is no such thing as a perfect client (there’s no such thing as a perfect designer), but in 45+ years of being a designer, I’ve made mental notes on a few (or more) “What have I learned from this horrible experience?” I have a fairly comprehensive contract (that’s another blog post), but there’s just not enough paper in the world to protect against everything that can come up. During your first conversation, state some of your basic expectations — “Communicate with me. Be organized and efficient so it saves you time and money. Did I mention communicate with me? This is going to turn out great!”
Theresa has been a graphic designer for over 45 years, and a web designer since 2003. She’s also been doing marketing for clients about as long – including AdWords and social media. When she’s not coding websites or making logos or brochures, she is probably painting, quilting, gardening, or cooking or being a grandma to two perfect grandkids.
If you want a designer and marketer to help you build your business’s brand, contact me!