How To Identify and Deal With Different Types Of Clients

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In business, being able to read people and quickly get a sense of who you’re dealing with is an invaluable skill. It turns your encounter with a client into an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the upcoming project and how it will need to be handled. It is one of the building blocks of a professional relationship.

In today’s digital age, the arena has shifted to the Web, and the online office space that most freelancers inhabit limits personal interaction. Though sussing out a client’s personality via online communication is difficult, it still remains an invaluable tool in your arsenal.


Image by Salva Barbera1.

In the freelancing field, you will encounter a range of client types. Being able to identify which you are dealing with allows you to develop the right strategy to maximize your interactions with them, and it could save your sanity. Below is a list of the most common personality types and the tell-tale signs that will tip you off.

The Passive-Aggressive


Image by John Philip2.

This is the client who is very passive when you ask for initial input, but when you submit the finished product, they aggressively attack it, demanding a lot of detailed changes, both major and minor. They had an idea of what they wanted all along but kept it mostly to themselves. Even though they showed appreciation of certain ideas and elements throughout the development process, do not expect the passive-aggressive client to keep any of them as they send revisions your way.

Identifying Characteristics

  • Communication is mostly one-sided and unhelpful during project development.
  • Makes statements such as:
    • “I’m not really sure what we’re looking for.”
    • “Just do something that would appeal to us generally.”
    • “You totally missed the point of what we wanted.”

How to Deal

Patience is the key. Expecting the last-minute requests for revisions may soften the blow of the client’s aggressive behavior. Keep your original layered design intact so that you can easily refine and change it later (not that you wouldn’t, but it does happen). Also, make sure your contract specifies a limited number of revisions.

The Family Friend


Image by Celiece Aurea3.

This is the client whom you have known for years either through personal or family interaction, and this connection has landed you the job. The relationship will be tested and perhaps marred forever by what could very well be a nightmare of a project. This family friend believes he deserves a “special” price and unbridled access to your work. They will sometimes unwittingly belittle your work or not take it seriously because of their personal connection to you.

Identifying Characteristics

  • These clients are easy to identify because… well, you know them.
  • Makes such statements as:
    • “Could you just throw something together for me?”
    • “I don’t want you to think that just because I know you I want you to cut me a deal.”
    • “You’re going to charge me what?! But we go way back!”

How to Deal

The way to deal with this client depends on how well you know them and how much you value your relationship with them. But remember that anyone who would take advantage of such a relationship is not truly a friend, so respond accordingly. An honest approach could end up saving the relationship. But start off with a professional, not personal, tone, and they may follow your lead. Of course, if you truly value the relationship, you may want to pass on the job altogether.

The Under-Valuer


Image by Maxime Perron Caissy4.

Like the family friend described above, this client will devalue your creative contributions. But there is a difference: you do not actually know this person. There is no rationale for their behavior. They feel they should get a “friend’s” pricing rate not because they want to be friends with you, but because they do not see your work as being worth that much… even if they couldn’t do it themselves. Not coming from a creative background or even having had exposure to the arts can mar someone’s appreciation of the work that you do. After years in our field, we make it look easy, and that is what the under-valuer sees.

Identifying Characteristics

  • Does not respond to questions in a timely fashion.
  • Makes such statements as:
    • “It’s not like it takes much effort on your part.”
    • “Couldn’t you just throw something together for me?”
    • “How hard can this really be?”

How to Deal

Confidence is key here. You know what your work demands and how well you do your job. The under-valuer will recognize this confidence. Don’t back down or concede a point to the client when discussing your role in the project. Standing firm will establish the professional and respectful tone you deserve. If the client does not respond in kind, cut your losses and decline their project.

The Nit-Picker


Image by Bob Smith5.

This client is never fully satisfied with the work you do and will constantly pick on minor details here and there that they dislike and want changed. Do not be surprised if they ask you to change these same details over and over ad nauseam. It is not a sign of disrespect (as it is with the other clients), but simply the nature of the person. They may have been burned in some other project and are now unsatisfied with everything in their path, including your work.

Identifying Characteristics

  • Complains almost consistently about unrelated things.
  • Personal outlook comes with a scathing bite.
  • Makes such statements as:
    • “How hard is it to [fill in the blank with any rant]?”
    • “I’m really not sure about this element here. It just doesn’t pop!”
    • “I don’t think you are really getting it.”

How to Deal

Once again, patience is important (especially if you have some sadistic reason for taking on nit-picking clients). Try to detach yourself from the project as much as possible, so that the constant nit-pickery does not affect you personally. It is easy to feel hurt or get defensive when your work is repeatedly questioned, and you may begin to doubt your skill. But understand that this is not about you or your talent; it is simply a personality trait of the person you are dealing with. And once again, protect yourself in the contract.

The Scornful Saver


Image by Ivan Petrov6.

This client has similarities to the nit-picker and under-valuer but is actually impressed with your work and skill set. The criticize you merely to undermine your confidence in an attempt to lower your pricing rate. Unlike some other client types, the scornful saver understands creative people and their processes. But they are cheap and manipulative, and their scheme may have worked in their favor once or twice in the past. So, they continue to subtly abuse the people they hire in the hope of saving every last penny.

Identifying Characteristics

  • Compliments always come with a less-than-flattering qualifier.
  • Takes time to respond to questions, sometimes making you ask more than once.
  • Makes such statements as:
    • “I really like what you’ve done overall, but I’m unsure about one or two things.”
    • “You may not have gotten exactly what we’re looking for, but you’re close.”

How to Deal

Once again, it is all about confidence. Having a solid understanding of your field and being confident in your knowledge and abilities will keep this client’s manipulation in check. Standing your ground and even calling the client on some of their tactics could shift the balance of power over to you. Be prepared to walk away from the project if the disrespect and manipulation continues. There will be other projects and other clients.

The “I-Could-Do-This-Myself”-er


Image by Maria Beliakova7.

Where to begin… When this client farms a project out to you, they make clear to you that they know how to do what they’re hiring you to do but that just don’t have the time to actually do it. They may be working at a firm or an entrepreneur; either way, you are there to pick up their slack. If they’re at a firm, you could be in for an interesting situation; they were likely hired for their particular style and proposals, and now you will have to please two sets of people: the person who hired you and the people who hired him.

Identifying Characteristics

  • Will generally be (or look) hectic and rushed.
  • Communication from them often takes the form of short bursts of information.
  • Makes such statements as:
    • “I could easily handle this if my schedule weren’t so full.”
    • “Really? Not sure that’s the direction I would’ve gone in, but whatever.”
    • “Remember, you are filling my shoes, and they’re pretty big.”

How to Deal

The “I-Could-Do-This-Myself”-er will likely have recognized your talent and skill right away, which is why they hired you. They merely want you to know that this project (and thus you) is not above their ability. And though these reminders will grate on you periodically, they will let you run with your ideas, perhaps offering suggestions or feedback on the final design.

The Control Freak


Image by Michal Zacharzewski8.

This client desperately needs to micro-manage every little detail of the project, no matter their qualifications. No decision may be made without their explicit input and approval. This tiresome client forces himself into your workflow, heedless of either invitation or protest, and will demand access to you at whim. The concepts of boundaries and strict work processes are easily lost on the control freak, who constantly disrupts the flow. They may also believe you lack dedication or preparedness, further reinforcing their need to interfere.

Identifying Characteristics

  • Initial contact is long, detailed and one-sided, with little input sought from you.
  • Your input remains unsought as the project pushes forward.
  • Makes such statements as:
    • “This way we can keep in contact 24/7 in case you have any questions, or I do.”
    • “I really know best what is right for the project and what is not.”
    • “What do you mean, I’m distracting you? I am the only thing keeping this project on track!”

How to Deal

If you absolutely must take on this client, for whatever reason, resign yourself to the fact that you will not be steering at any point. You will have to detach yourself from the work because you will have no control at all. You will merely be constructing, not designing, so just let go and let it happen. You may want to exclude this project from your portfolio.

The Dream Client


Image by Piotr Lewandowski9.

This client, widely dismissed as a myth, does in fact exist and understands the full scope and artistry of your work. They value your role and creative contributions and want you in the driver’s seat as soon as the project gets underway. They are timely with responses and payments… payments that they did not “negotiate” but rather accepted for what they are. They reflect on your suggestions and have confidence in your capabilities.

Identifying Characteristics

  • Is enthusiastic about the project and your involvement in it.
  • Communication shows awareness of and respect for your role.
  • Makes such statements as:
    • “Here’s the brief we prepared. The rest is pretty much up to you.”
    • “We like what we’ve seen and trust you’ll do great things for us.”

How to Deal

Don’t brag! Just enjoy the ride and hold on to them for as long as you possibly can!

Wrap-up

Being able to identify the type of client you are dealing with will prepare you for the job ahead. It will also help you decide whether to accept the job in the first place. Your contract will reflect the power dynamics of the project, so the more you know about the client, the better able you will be to adjust the contract as necessary. Have you come across other types of clients in your freelancing career? Please let us know in the comments.

Further Resources

Because contracts are such an important tool, here are some resources to help you draft them.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/524000
  2. 2 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/983714
  3. 3 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/422180
  4. 4 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/514164
  5. 5 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/418215
  6. 6 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1102930
  7. 7 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1070268
  8. 8 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/957040
  9. 9 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/426208
  10. 10 http://www.davidairey.com/using-freelance-graphic-design-contracts/
  11. 11 http://www.businessofdesignonline.com/downloads-forms/
  12. 12 http://www.acuitydesigns.net/freelance-contracts/

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Rob Bowen is a staff writer for Web Hosting Geeks and Top Web Hosting, a longtime freelance designer, and burgeoning videographer and filmmaker whose creative voice and works can be heard and found around the web.

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  1. 1

    I laught a lot. I could reconized most profiles. And I could verified -maybe hundred times- with a Passive-Aggressive profile you MUST keep your original design files :-)))
    Of course they can’t remember you present in the end the original files but the guy is happy, just because he thinks his ideas are better than yours. He just can’t remember after weeks of modifications the look and feel of your original design.
    I’m dealing actually with a mix of “passive-agressive” + “I-Could-Do-This-Myself” (better of course) + a dose of misogyny. I do not think the projet will be in my portfolio and… I will work again with this client. Never had a so agressive client! Patience and confidence, patience and confidence…

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  2. 2

    If you are going to do work for a friend, do it for free or don’t do it at all.

    For the rest: have a signed contract spelling out the timeline, scope of project and scope of revisions. Get a signature for each deliverable and each revision. Any deviation from the contract will incur more payment (this usually stops them dead in their tracks). No need to figure anything out or play games. No contract, no good.

    Good article! (each one of these clients deserves their own article) I personally have worked with ALL of these clients. The bad ones show themselves at the beginning of your career or in a bad economy. If you are really good, the bad ones won’t want to work with you and the good ones will. You can look at them as archetypes. Demons sent from hell to test you. Each test you pass, a stronger demon is sent until finally you have vanquished them all. :) The way out of hell is to go through it. (Dante’s Inferno)

    The economy is coming back people. Raise your rates and your confidence and take no prisoners. God bless the freelancers and those who start their own company, and always take the road less traveled (Robert Frost)

    Cheers -David

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  3. 3

    Haha im still waiting for my dream client!

    Most of mine seem to be of the nit picker type

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  4. 4

    Nice article. Dream clients are actually more common than you might think. My team cranks out 1-4 websites a month, and normally at least one of those projects is extremely smooth. The really difficult/slow clients make up for it though :-(

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  5. 5

    Very nice article, we are still searching for the “Dream Client” ;o)

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  6. 6

    awesome, this should be printed as a handbook

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  7. 7

    Wow! that was really very useful information. Thanx a ton smashingmag.. your rock! m/

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  8. 8

    I could literary see a face for every kind of clients you described here.
    Great article indeed. :)

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  9. 9

    LOL, just soooo recognizable.

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  10. 10

    Great post! I think I have encountered every single one of these people. I’m dealing with a nit-picker right now.

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  11. 11

    Awesome post Rob! I laughed when I read “I-Could-Do-This-Myself”-er, what an appropriate title for certain clients .. and you are so right about them all including the “Dream Client”, they all exist :)

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  12. 12

    Just saying it out loud makes it easier to deal with. This was like a much-needed miniature therapy sesh :)

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  13. 13

    Nice… I see them all.

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  14. 14

    Great article – but it made an thought pop-up to my mind:
    If I as a designer try to determine which type of client I’m working with, and if the client has a lot of experience with other designers – how will they identify me as a certain type of designer, depending on the way I behave? ;)

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  15. 15

    I have gone through with all kinds of client in my freelance career. Really informative and helpful article… Keep posting article like that

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  16. 16

    So true… nice article :)

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  17. 17

    oh, there’s one other type of client, tho i’m not sure how you’d categorize him…

    he’s *just* discovered the internet, but knows nothing of it other’n people can MAKE MILLIONS using it. he wants ALL THE LATEST gizmos, without knowing what any of them are. he has *an idea* for a site, but he thinks that you just come up with “hey, i’d like a site about widgets”, the web designer waves their magic wand and *voila!* a complete site about widgets appears without his ever having to tell you what a widget is. “you’ll need to give me some information about widgets.” “well, yes, like i said, i want a widget site and with things about widgets on it.” “what’s a widget?” “well, you know, the site will be about widgets and explain them there.” evidently, as soon as i can build the site, i’ll be able to go there and reference what it is so i can know how to build it.

    personally, i call him the “poke him in the eye” client.

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  18. 18

    Fantastic article. I wish I had read this sooner, I’ve had all of these at least once haha.

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  19. 19

    Very useful, thanks for the information:D!

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  20. 20

    Very Perfect and Awesome Article here.. :D
    last week I had a “The “I-Could-Do-This-Myself”-er Client”. He was in real rush .. hell lot disturbance in my life :D

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  21. 21

    Clients are a pain. Full stop. Good article.

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  22. 22

    Good article :)

    Quite comforting to know that other people have to deal with these kinds of clinets as well.

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  23. 23

    Very good article. What about the “False Promises” client? These are mostly the start-ups that claim you’ll get rich right along with them when things really get going. I’ve dealt with quite a few of these types. They want cheap work up front but claim my return on the back-end will be well worth it. These types usually try to self-market themselves and fail miserably.

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  24. 24

    It’s a great article Robert!, but I figure the dream client died out one million years ago! perhaps before dinosaurs :(

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  25. 25

    I finally met the Dream Client last week. They can actually make you feel valued and in return the designer pays back with a special dedication. is a win win all the way. Good clients will have an impact in your life-span expectancy.Good Article, Thanks!

    Ric

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  26. 26

    Great Article! I love these types of entries and almost feel that they are therapeutic for the community.

    My 2 cents ->
    Stick to a contract and be patient with the tough ones, but always make sure your clients appreciate your abilities before you sign them on or you WILL become a PUNCHING BAG.

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  27. 27

    Freelancing does come with Pros and Cons, since your the Boss and the only one to Blame is yourself so its deep down tricky. Freelancing also means Freedom! the one magical word we all love to have in our work, if taken the wrong way that Freedom is also revoked soon!

    And here goes something I read in a Barber’s Shop “Clients are kings! but do Kings bargain?” pretty obnoxious for Clients but sadly true; strikes right into their pride :)

    Experience is you best teacher and guide in this world. Clients are also teachers in this case :) so, you gotta pack your bags go to school everyday and learn a new lesson… GREAT ARTICLE TO READ, RELISH AND LEARN…

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  28. 28

    Yes. yes yes yes.

    And sometimes they act like this:
    http://www.socialbootstrap.com/how-not-to-ask-for-help/

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  29. 29

    I was dealing with nit-picker and under-valuer for a year on variable projects and I almost lost my enthusiasm for this job. Some of them are like energy-vampires ready to suck you out. Now we have our dream client (at last! – just one!) and enjoying it as lot as possible. It’s just few of them, or it is based on where you live? :) I see it’s global..

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  30. 30

    What a great article! I have definitely had experience with all of these client types, and I’m pretty sure one of my clients was all the types (minus the Dream Client) combined!

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  31. 31

    I agree with David Platt. I have learned this the hard way and have now worked out a contract to avoid people trying to make far too many changes or overstep their boundaries… and if they want to then they’ll have to pay!

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  32. 32

    Excellent post! I am dealing with the passive-aggressive client and I am glad that I am going in the right way. I agree with you. The Dream Client exists and I have dealt with two such people. I should consider myself lucky!

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  33. 33

    I once had a Passive-Aggressive-Nit-Picking-Under-Valueing-Control-Freak. It’s 18 months of my life I wish I could get back. Having a contract and written approvals with this person was uselss. So after the project completed I cut them loose to be the “I-Could-Do-This-Myself”-er for all future versions of the project. They now pay themselves nothing for the work and it clearly shows in the product they are getting their monies worth. I can say I did learn much from the experience, though.

    As for the last client type, “The Dream Client”, in my circle we call them “The Unicorn”.

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  34. 34

    Great article, it’s both funny and informative. I’ve had a few of each I think!!! All in all, I have a lovely clientelle, save one or two, and I couldn’t ask for a better bunch!

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  35. 35

    Great article! This will be going into my online library.

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  36. 36

    Awesome article and VERY helpful :-) I will bookmark it and use it as reference when taking on new clients. Thanks :-D

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  37. 37

    Great tips, it makes it easier to deal with these types of clients when you have a solid idea of the best way of going about it.

    Can really help take you from “woe-is-me land” to getting it done.

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  38. 38

    One of my clients is a dream type! Pleasure to work with! :)

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  39. 39

    Oh so true. Met them all, many, many times!

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  40. 40

    This is such a great article. I do luckily have a couple of dream clients, but I also worked with 3 scornful savers for 2 years. With those types (and a lot of the other negatives on here) you mostly just need to put your foot down and accept that if they go somewhere else, oh well – you’re probably better off. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. ;)

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  41. 41

    Thanks for the great article. I was thinking of another client type that I’ve had experience with:

    “THE PROMISER:”
    They are cheap and know it, but try to make up for it by promising future projects and will pay you well when things take off. They may bring you many small projects, as long as you hold up your end of the deal, which is to keep prices low and quality high. If your prices don’t mach their budget constraints, they take it personal and may walk out on you.
    IDENTIFYING CHARACTERISTICS:
    – Overly enthusiastic about the project and self-pitying about the cost
    – Makes you think they’re doing you a favor
    – Makes such statements as:
    “Once we get this finished, big things are going to happen.”
    “You and I are going places”
    “If this does well, I’ve got a lot more work for you.”
    HOW TO DEAL:
    Again, confidence. “The promiser” may tickle your ears when things are slow, but keep in mind the opportunity cost when dealing with them. Don’t feel bad about sticking to your price points, even if they go somewhere else.

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  42. 42

    Amen! Excellent article!

    The perfect contract is a smart boundary to set before hand…

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  43. 43

    And don’t forget …. the client you take today is the client you can’t take tomorrow! So have the courage to turn down difficult clients … or at least charge them 30% more and let them decide to walk away. Have the courage to know the right client will come by, as long as your providing excellent service and getting the word out about yourself.

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  44. 44

    Excellent article!!! Great Tips!!!

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  45. 45

    Having had clients since 1997 I have seen them all. David makes a good point in that as your skills increase you do decrease the less than helpful client. In the last 4 projects I have worked on they have ALL been dream clients but I am very good at weeding out the wasters from the prospects.

    You have missed some though…

    The “no-content client” – This client sells widgets and wants a website to sell them. This person has no logo, no brand colors, no images (or maybe a few hundred in a brochure which you need to scan), no text and no idea on layout. They expect you to produce a fully working, highly graphical, content rich website from thin air.

    How to deal with:
    Make sure you have a contract beforehand stating timescales depend on the client getting the content to you. You are a designer, not an author so get them to supply the text (they, after all, know more about the widget than you ever will) and at least give you some example sites they like so you can get a feel for how much work will really be involved.

    “The Amazon for a fiver” client
    I have had dozens and dozens and dozens of emails me asking for a site like ebay or amazon, with the same functionality but it needs to be within a £100 budget. Seriously these types seem never ending for the last 3 years.

    How to deal with:
    Don’t. Simply walk away because as soon as you accept you will have months of work for a few hours pay. They are commonplace and a waste of time.

    You have to be firm in your commitment. No matter how hard up you are you WILL regret taking on clients you would not take on if circumstances were better. These clients bring you down both mentally and physically and I have learnt from bitter experience it is always better to say no than yes!

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  46. 46

    I actually have one of those mystical dream clients that keep coming back. They listen to my advice (without being afraid to ask questions either) They pay on time, are respectful and great to deal with. Just make sure you treat them right :)

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  47. 47

    Thanks for this article SM! You guys ROCK the house, seriously. I just had a meeting yesterday with a “Family Friend” and it was not a very happy meeting. It’s always good to read that I am not all alone in working with these different personalities. Thanks!

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  48. 48

    Great article! I work with an in-house design and marketing team and I probably work with one of each of these type of “clients”. It has forced me to learn how to DEAL with different needs, values and perspectives. If you don’t like dealing with people ……. get over it and get better at it :)

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  49. 49

    I’ve had most of these (all of them if you include time with previous employers).

    I currently have a dream client that pays me within 12 hours, every time. I’ve even received payments from her before she’s been invoiced, simply because she thinks she owes me and wants to make sure I’m happy (and motivated to keep working for her, I presume).

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  50. 50

    I wonder if it would be inappropriate to send this to a client, telling them which category they fall into ^_^

    So apt! So true!

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