Common hurdles in the design business involve client situations that are annoying, challenging, stressful, & sometimes downright ridiculous. Now disclaimer here, the vast majority of the people I’ve worked with & for are absolute darlings. But then there were others I was elated- I mean seriously overjoyed- to see the back of.
How do we deal with dodgy client conundrums? We find ways to reduce opportunities for client-related issues to happen as much as possible in the early stages. This means identifying the signs that a new client may be a bad fit for the company’s style, ethos or brand, bad timing, bad communication or other factors that lead to getting rough. So, what are the signs we need to look for?
First, I would look out for that client who expects you to perform magic. They have entirely unrealistic expectations & to top this; they expect you to read their minds. Sometimes, this is down to a lack of knowledge of what does into a project (which you can fix by breaking things down for them) & other times; this is a sign that your client is out of touch.
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Sign One | The Client Expects Miracles.
If there’s one client you should try not to work with, it’s a potential client that’s desperate, frantic or delusional. Any client that wants things done immediately (or yesterday), with a full guarantee & warranty, yet doesn’t have the time to tell you what it is they want, & doesn’t have the time or staff to devote to even a little bit of testing.
In my years of designing, these types of clients are looking to you to fix a project or business that’s heading south & may be suffering from wildly misaligned expectations. A desperate client will always be hard to please & pinching pennies, so watch for signs of someone who’s “tried everything” or needs “this one thing to work”.
Sign Two | It’s Hard for You to Respect them or Their Business.
We’re all going to have different values in terms of what is & what isn’t acceptable for who we work with. Life is too short, & no amount of money will make a client you don’t respect okay. Saying no is tricky, but dignity & respect are way more important.
Sign Three | The Client Expects You to Bend The Rules For Them.
Clients who ask for special treatment at the onset of your relationship are usually going to cause the most trouble. If they expect you to respond to them within three rings of the phone & be on-site within 15 minutes, 24/7 alarm bells should be going off.
If your client wants that kind of service, you’ll probably need to hire additional staff to be on-call, & that is something they should pay you for. Their failure to plan is not your emergency & you need to hold firm to your standard operating procedures so that things are consistent.
If you find clients are always pushing boundaries, you may need to do a better job of articulating & reinforcing them. If you don’t have specific contracts in place for payments, pricing & schedules, you need to outline these & then communicate them at the proposal stage, so there’s no confusion. You can be firm & friendly, but sometimes that’s just not going to be good enough, & your client completely disregards your boundaries.
Sign Four | You’re Constantly Being Interrogated.
You’re meeting for the first time, & the person wants you to convince them that you’re the right person or start pushing hard for you to impress them. This is often a sign that someone didn’t do their homework before requesting a proposal, doesn’t know what they want or has wholly misguided ideas about how things work – none of which bode well for the working relationship.
If they mention that you’re the (third/fourth/fifth/Xth) designer, they’ve hired to do something in a short time because “no one else can give them exactly what they’re looking for” then the chances are, neither can you. I would also watch out for clients who try to pick your brain (i.e., they will take your ideas & thoughts, fire you, & hire someone cheaper to implement your ideas or do it on their own).
Sign Five | Your Client Can’t Find Anything Nice to Say About Other Companies.
This goes for everyone, not just your client. Excessive trash-talking is never a great sign. When someone is willing to speak badly about another business to you, it’s an indicator of a much bigger problem. This type of client is either delusional, desperate or egotistical none of which bode well for you to help them. Another big red flag is that they treat their employees poorly. If the employees have absolutely nothing good to say about their employer, that’s a pretty big red flag.
There are exceptions to this rule, as sometimes people get burned & are reticent to trust someone new. There’s a big difference between needing to be reassured & them needing to blame someone. How do they share this information? Do they name the person? Is it designed to be context or more gossipy?
Sign Six | You Can’t See Eye to Eye.
The first few months of working with a new client are challenging as you’re both finding your rhythm, but the problem comes when there’s a pattern of not being on the same page. If you find your client ignoring all of your suggestions, or flat out arguing all the time, take note. In my years of designing, this is a bigger problem waiting to happen.
It’s nearly enough impossible for you to ensure a particular outcome or result when your client is in opposition to you. They hire you as a professional or expert, & if they repeatedly made decisions counter to that, you’re blocked from doing your job correctly. Any client who wants something with a vague or undefined scope on a “fixed price” is likely problematic.
Ensure the scope is very well defined upfront & that you charge extra for changes – or just bill time & materials. Any client who can’t spend the time required to help determine a proper scope is usually pretty bad. Watch for this one as it tends to sneak up, but if you don’t address it with your client, it will likely result in larger issues over time. & it’s okay to wrap things up with this client as you’re probably not the best fit for what they need at this point.
Sign Seven | Your Client Is Determined to Be Dissatisfied.
Occasionally things don’t go according to plan with clients, or certain conditions exist that prevent you from producing expected results. It happens to the best of us, mainly because most of us do so many variables. But how your client behaves determines whether you should continue working with them or not. The second a client starts pointing the finger, I would get out, as that’s not a sign of a working relationship built on trust.
Watch out for Clients who try to get a discount on future work by telling you your work is garbage. If the result were so bad, they wouldn’t want you to be doing work for them in the future, & thus wouldn’t trying to be getting a discount on it. Avoid clients (or people in general) who promise you something vague in exchange for something concrete – such as “We’ll help you with marketing & referrals in exchange for a discount.” You’re giving up something concrete (fees) in exchange for – what was that they were promising to do again?
Yes, clients are allowed to be unhappy or frustrated, but if they are directing that at you in an unprofessional manner, you need to set boundaries. Stand up for yourself, articulate what worked, what didn’t & what you can change in the future. If that’s not good enough, they aren’t a good client for you to continue serving.
Sign Eight | When it Comes to Important Milestones The Client Has Terrible Timekeeping.
Often, you can spot a bad client early on based on how frequently they communicate with you. Some clients want to call you to check up on everything you are doing for various reasons. They like to micro-manage people; they want a break-down of things you are doing to identify cost-saving areas, or simply because they want a power trip. But when it comes to the important milestones, like sign off or payments, they never seem to show up on time—holding the whole project up. They might become unresponsive when payments are due, but pipe up when their project is put on indefinite hold.
Asking for payment upfront help ensure that you don’t do uncompensated work. You may choose to do things differently, but the goal should be for you to stop payment problems before they can happen. Also, if you’re in a situation where billing upon completion of the project is standard, consider adding late payment fees as an incentive to pay on time. If, (even after all of this has been put into place), your client still behaves, in the same way – refuse to work with them again.
Sign Nine | The Client Expects You to Be a Punching Bag.
It’s great if you can get on well with the people you work for, but sometimes that personal relationship goes too far. When you run a services business, the personal is professional, but there are times when boundaries are crossed. Disagreeing with suggestions is one thing, but yelling & calling names, among other things, is unacceptable.
I wouldn’t work with any client that tries to manipulate you emotionally or tells you something along the lines of “the customer is always right” or “you’re running a business, & a real business does X” (X is of course what they want you to do). Things like making business situations personal or treating you like a therapist is a massive red flag that you probably shouldn’t be working for this client. A professional relationship that crosses the line is always hard to navigate when tough decisions need to be made, so course-correcting, while you can, is worth the time & effort.
Wrapping it All Up.
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