Recently, I was having coffee with an old friend who works for herself doing graphic design and a bit of copywriting. Of course as soon as she said "graphic design", the conversation turned to talking shop, and we traded war stories about some of the clients from hell we've both encountered – in fact, she had a fairly fresh battle story to share that ended with "I should have known that would happen!"
Reliving these stories with her took me back to when my partner and I started our design business over a decade ago. We were eager for work, and we took any client that came our way. Of course we quickly learned that not every client relationship is a match made in heaven. But we also realized that with practice you can spot the red flags that indicate a client or project that you might be better off avoiding.
That's great for us… we made our mistakes and learned from them. But what about everyone else? Other than learning the hard way – getting burned by bad relationships – how can you spot these potential troublemakers?
Well, I took a good look at the "rules" we've developed over the years based on these experiences, and I believe there are a few warning signs that you can easily learn to recognize. Watch for some of these red flags during your initial meetings, talks, or negotiations, and you are on your way to developing your own early warning system.
From what I can tell, it doesn't matter what industry you are in or what service you provide; you will eventually encounter the "carrot-dangler". They try to talk you into providing more work for less compensation, with the promise that later they will be bringing you all sorts of glorious new things to work on that will more than make up for a measly little price cut now. "Later" is the key word here: if they are truly trying to help you out, or provide something of value in return for your extra work, they won't yank the carrot away when you try to grab it! Stick to your guns with the carrot-dangler; you are providing something of value, so don't let them devalue your work. Those big promises can be tempting, I’ll admit, but I can tell you that in all the years we've been in business, I have never once seen this type of person follow through on those big rewards.
It sounds strange, but we've had a fair amount of people walk through our doors looking for design and marketing services, while at the same time saying that they weren't really sure they needed design and marketing services. I don't know about you, but I don't walk into a hair salon if I don't need a haircut! Start out by determining if they are a "true skeptic". True skeptics won't be easily converted because they don't believe the service has value at all; you can end the conversation with them by saying that if they decide they are in need of these services in the future, you'd be happy to discuss their goals at that time. If they don't fall into the true skeptic role, you can do a little digging to see what brought them to your door in the first place – maybe a friend told them they really need this service and they don't really understand it enough to see the value of it. If that's the case, don't spend too much time trying to be an evangelist for your industry in general; instead, focus on what you offer and how you differ from your competitors. We've learned that hard-sells never quite work out. Talk about what you do and how you do it better, and let the client make up their own mind.
I know approximately how long it takes me to write 5 paragraphs of content with SEO in mind, and how many days I need to create a full website mockup. I also have a good idea of how much I need to charge for this time based on our overhead and a myriad of other factors. That's why I go into red alert when a potential client tells me how long something should take and how much it should cost. If you think their estimation is right on the mark, then this could be an indicator that they are well-versed in your industry or service, and you might be dealing with a pro here… but if their numbers seem to come from Fantasyland, I’d suggest walking away politely. Like I said before, don't concern yourself with trying to evangelize and educate every client who walks through your door. Changing their preconceptions about your industry is an uphill battle, not to mention a full time job in itself! Let your demeanor and professionalism do the selling for you, and if they disagree, it's OK to let them walk.
Now I know almost everybody has heard the saying "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." So I get really confused when I hear clients say things like "Well, what you do isn't really all that complicated. Anyone could do it!" or "This isn't really all that difficult. It's just…" I admit that I think to myself: well, if it's so easy, why aren't you doing it? I'm not sure why some people take the approach of starting off the conversation with an insult – maybe they don't realize that what they are saying is rather insulting, or maybe they think that if they downplay the difficulty of the task you will charge them less. Whatever the case, I’m not sure their motivation matters; I usually politely and quickly end the conversation when I hear one of those insulting phrases. You don’t want a repeat client who insults or degrades you every time you interact, now do you? You’re better than that!
I’m paranoid about being on time; I’m too early for everything because I hate being late. However, lateness happens to the best of us: stuck in unexpected traffic, a clock that stops, an alarm that fails to go off. I’m not going to penalize someone simply because they are late once… but when a potential client keeps rescheduling, postponing, or not showing up at all, that’s where I draw the line. We once had a potential client show up 5 hours after our scheduled meeting time (he thought this was no big deal)! We gave him a second chance and he forgot to call, then rescheduled with us the next day, and ended up being late again. Sigh. It was a big fat warning sign that he really didn't respect anyone else's time but his own. You can cut people a little slack for those unforeseen delays, but don't let anyone take advantage of you… or you aren't respecting your own time either.
In the end, I don't think any of us will ever stop having client-from-hell stories. But if you learn from your mistakes and listen to your instincts, you can use those challenging experiences to develop your own early warning system. I know that our red flags have definitely helped us to turn bad clients into nothing more than the occasional odd story, to be shared with a friend over coffee.
I'm a graphic + web designer/developer and closet airbrush artist (the 80s called and I answered). I'm passionate about sustainability and community, and I'm a big fan of my hometown, Pasadena, California.Follow @bethkuchar