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 did a CD album art design for a client a while back and he was somewhere between control-freak and dream client… he knew how he wanted it, but wasn’t over the top and paid a tip that was very nice… I’m new to the design business so this article was very insightful… bookmark!

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  2. 52

    I had the pleasure of working with the dream client (slideroom.com) they were just awesome, respected my knowledge, experience, and work. That was the best project I have worked on in a while. So yes, they do exist!

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  3. 103

    Scary I now know all of these after 3 years @ this game.

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  4. 154

    I second the motion of David Platt. Always have a contract -with a Statement of Work, and Deliverables, total fees & milestone payments. Also: Don’t start the work without a deposit. Invoice on time for every milestone, and ask (politely) for payment. Don’t negotiate on price. Be clear, direct and prompt in your communication, and communicate a lot. Be the dream vendor. Be OK with saying No.

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  5. 205

    Gad, where were you when I started my last project? And what if you have a client that has more than one of those characteristics? Still, it comes down to confidence and being firm in your abilities.

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  6. 256

    Excellent typology tips, thanks, and useful for protecting ones personal interests in general!
    This stuff should be included in the training courses for all kinds of service providers.

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  7. 307

    really nice post! i am proud to say that i´m working for a “Dream Client” :) it´s just great.. like you wrote :)

    greetz from germany!

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  8. 358

    I think that nice folks who hire designers don’t realize that artists love creative input. They are trying to be nice by saying “I trust what you come up with”.
    Well I guess after a few dream clients I am just spoiled ;)

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  9. 409

    Wow I have been doing business for 2 years and I must say I’ve dealt with all of these types of clients. I don’t think the dream client exists unless you are working for free.

    Ok the undervaluer, the worst indeed.

    I would categorize the undervaluer with the technologically incompetent client. They have no idea how to use a computer besides checking their email and they know their daughter occasionally uses it. I have no idea how I work with so many of these people. Try explaining the concept of flash to these people let alone the process of developing a website. Either way just explain why your design with make them more money and they usually shut up.

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  10. 460

    From my experience, the client-types described here are pretty accurate. Although, there can definitely be some overlap between them. For “the dream client” I would add something to the effect of “pays on time” ;)

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  11. 511

    I think I have at least one of every one of those types in my client roster! But happily I do have a “dream client” to keep me centered. ;-)

    Nice article – made me smile to know I’m not alone.

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  12. 562

    I think I’ll have to write an article from the client’s point of view : – )

    -1
  13. 613

    Thanks to everyone for the kind words. So glad that the article is useful and on point. I love all of the suggestions for the clients I missed, brilliant!! And to all you who have your Dream Clients, I envy you all, hold on to them tightly!

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  14. 664

    You forgot to mention “Look for the future client” – I guess :D

    This type of client always wants to pay you less for the present works and likes to tell you the story of big future works of big money!!
    “Do this work for cheap, I am going to land a big project within 4 months and it will be yours! It will be a big project of $x,xxx”

    Only one way to handle this type of client IMO – don’t do their works!! Because that future work would never come and they will continue to suck you!!

    It is from my personal experience :(

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  15. 715

    Absolutely LOVED this
    thank you for writing this article. I get down about clients a lot and this definitely makes it all seems much more worth while. It’s also nice to know I’m not alone!

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  16. 766

    anonymous independent designer dude

    October 15, 2009 10:50 am

    I once had an acquaintance/”almost-friend” approach me about a project. I cut him a huge deal on my cost estimate for the project, and he thanked me with a reaction straight out of the Under-Valuer playbook. In his mind, this groundbreaking, programming-intensive project (which, he claimed, would make him a very wealthy man) should only cost him the equivalent of a new DVD.

    My response was to tell him I had misplaced the decimal point in the quoted price, and that the actual cost was 10x the figure I had initially presented him with. I then apologized for giving him the mistaken impression that it would cost so little, and recommended some places where he might work with international designers of even my dirt-cheap “misquote” was still too much for him. ;)

    Needless to say, I didn’t land that project. But that’s okay, since it turned into a project I didn’t want to land.

    A month later I landed my very own Dream Client!

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  17. 817

    I like what Gaird said: never negotiate on price. If you’ve come in with a fair price, that’s the price. If you let a client knock your fair price down then in the BEST case they’ll be a client you resent.

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  18. 868

    Wow. This is a fantastic article, thank you. I can say I’ve personally experienced a lot of the under-pricing types. I have, luckily, gotten one or two dream clients.

    This article did make me think, though, it would be really beneficial (to freelancers at least) to write an article on preparing a bulletproof contract.

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  19. 919

    I instructed a 2.5 hour course years ago called “How to get more from your creative resources.”

    It was about the creative mind, how to frame feedback in a constructive way, you get more flies with honey than vinegar, etc.

    It was selfish, really. I wanted to turn these students (all post-graduate peeps in marketing management) into dream clients.

    This would have been a nice eye-opener for them. Thanks for sharing.

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  20. 970

    Too true. I get the “friend and family” a lot… :’3

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  21. 1021

    Well, 12 Breeds of Client at FreelanceSwitch was a lot better.

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  22. 1072

    Good stuff, this is great!

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  23. 1123

    ^_^ Great …… I enjoyed every min of this and very true and useful.

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  24. 1174

    great article as always ;)

    The “no-content client” like Simon Day said in his comment is also a well know too me ;)

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  25. 1225

    I would add to “Dream Client”: “Here’s your payment. I know the contract says it isn’t due for another couple of weeks, but I had them make it into this week’s run!”

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  26. 1276

    This article is right on! You were all reading my mind! I think I have experienced each and everyone one of these types of clients and I just started 2 yrs ago. Key things that I learned as a freelancer is that no one values your time like you do. Also, less technical people (which are generally all of your clients) do not understand the concept of development time and testing. It almost always takes longer than you allotted in the original contract. Clients also don’t know that when requirements increase the time line and costs increases!

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  27. 1327

    Elizabeth Richardson

    October 15, 2009 1:53 pm

    Fabulous explanation. Very much apprciate the examples of what each client might say so you can listen to the conversation to pick the personality as well.

    I’ve very lucky to be working with a dream client right now.

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  28. 1378

    Kartlos Tchavelachvili

    October 15, 2009 1:59 pm

    I enjoyed reading this article, thanks.
    This was funny statement: “Could you just throw something together for me?” :)))

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  29. 1429

    Thanks for sharing. Really great article.

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  30. 1480

    I have had all of them at least once. The “dream client” depends not only on the person, but the project itself!

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  31. 1531

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

    If you employ that attitude then your bringing down the whole industry and the value of a good designer. The person who the work is for is running a business and your giving them a service which they would other wise have to pay top dollar for, Im sure if that person was running a business they wouldn’t appreciate friends rocking up on the door saying “Hey I need some plumbing done at my house” then you as the friend saying to them what “your going to charge me for your time”. It works both ways just because its design work it shouldn’t be perceived as something you just do for free.

    I always give them a heavy discount but I’m not going to do it for free.

    I understand there are special circumstance where you are really close friends then the logic above probably doesn’t apply I’m more referring to “Friends in General”.

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    • 1582

      No! It depends on the culture. For some cultures demanding money from family or family friends is extremely rude and anti-social, far worse than slurping your drink loudly at the dinner table.

      The value of a designer is not just measured by the money he gets paid. Perhaps in many types of Western cultures (mostly Northern Europeans cultures, or Western cultures of Northern European origin) this is more the case, but in the majority of the world this is not the case.

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  32. 1633

    Very nice article. Thank You.

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  33. 1684

    Great article indeed! I have experience working with all these client types… but trust me… the worst is “The Family Friend” type! Totally agree with @Jeff

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  34. 1735

    Good article. Brings to mind that passing on a “bad” client opens the opportunity to take a “good” or at least “less-than-bad” client.

    I would much rather pass on a bad client than pass on a good client while the bad ones are sucking the life out of me.

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  35. 1786

    Randall G. Leighton

    October 15, 2009 8:51 pm

    Great article. I’m going to make good use of these tips. Thank you.

    I never create a website for free. Ever. Nobody should – unless you’re 14. A professional website takes a considerable chunk of time.

    Always overestimate time. Clients usually don’t have all the materials ready, anyway.

    Quantify exactly what you will do for the agreed upon price. 6 pics, 500 words, 7 links, 2 changes, etc. Put it in writing and have all parties sign. Don’t forget to include your fees for additional work. Then, bill ’em when they go over. You will look professional and gain their respect.

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  36. 1837

    I had one I-can-do-it-myself-er client who actually downloaded all the files from the FTP and tried to finish an asp.net app himself in order to avoid the final payment.

    When he couldn’t (only a couple of lines were missing hahaha) then he called me again and paid me to finish the work. He kept saying that the project was for a client of his and they hadn’t paid him so he couldn’t pay me. WTF? Why should I care about that?

    Months later he called me for another project. The first one was such a nightmare that I gave him a polite excuse and didn’t took it.

    You know. You are a human being and you are affected by the environment. Don’t take a project if it is going to degrade your confidence because it will show with the other clients you have.

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  37. 1888

    Awesome, really useful and kinda funny.

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  38. 1939

    this is how it is :) really appreciate this article.

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  39. 1990

    beautifull! haha actualy make me laugh at some clients cuzz i recognized them so much :)

    fun to read, Nice article!

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  40. 2041

    LOVE IT! The Dream Client AKA the golden Grail for GDs ;P and it is just a great myth!!!

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  41. 2092

    There are two types I’m missing in this list:

    The “I know it all!”-er
    This type of client is probably one of the most annoying ones in the business. The really think they know all the ins and outs and at some level it even looks like it. But after a couple of talks it seems that they have no idea what they are talking about.

    Identifying Characteristics
    – Uses a lot of hot terms, but have no idea what it means
    – Tells you how to do your work
    – Makes such statements as:
    – “If you do it like this it will work better”
    – “We would like to see some [hot term]”

    How to Deal
    Patience, patience and again patience… Don’t try to teach anything and just go with the flow. When it really comes to a critical point just tell them it ain’t gonna work, but finish the job and cut it loose.

    The indirect client
    This client isn’t the one you’re doing the work for because you’re working for the client of your client.

    Identifying Characteristics
    – It takes ages before an answer comes back
    – The answers you get from questions makes no point at all and seems to be written by someone else then your contact person.
    – Complains a lot when you send a higher bill than anticipated or when the second project costs more (while for the same subclient)

    How to Deal
    Try to have direct contact to the subclient, since this will make the job a lot easier, although most companies won’t allow this. In that case make sure you pre-calculate the extra time and work even while you know it can be done notime.

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  42. 2143

    Brilliant article! Most of my clients fall mostly into one category with some traits of another category added just to keep it interesting. So now, thanks to you, I now have a point of reference – you’re fabulous!! x

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  43. 2194

    Oh man, Perfect article. Especially the one about the control freaks. There seem to be too many of them out there. Love the part about excluding them out of the portfolio. So True

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  44. 2245

    As many before me I could see some of my clients coming close to certain types. But did anybody else wonder what kind of client he would be?

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  45. 2296

    Very nice and informative article – will surely help me and others ! – Thanks SM

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  46. 2347

    Recently had a “Dream Client” myself. All contact was done through email, never spoke or met up once, changes to the initial mockup were minimal and payment was always done same-day.

    I miss her!

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  47. 2398
  48. 2449

    Wow, you really hit the nail on the head with this one. Thanks for the advice.

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  49. 2500

    My boss has somehow managed to be all but the last two (control freak and perfect client) wrapped up in single person. Yes, it is just as fun as it sounds to deal with them.

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  50. 2551

    Here’s my experience with the Under-Valuer:

    The guy wanted a deal because I think he felt he was giving me the chance of a lifetime to work for him. :(

    (He wanted a site with tailored illustration and about 20 pages of content for $500) I should have known better. He gave me his content in ALL CAPS WITH GRAMATICAL ERRORS AND IN EXCEL.

    I finished the site and sent him a proof. He approved and when the content was inserted, he asked me to retype all of his content with upper and lower case. I told him that he would have to do that since that would take such a long time to complete and that was not part of the deal. He threatened that he would not pay me if I didn’t. So, I said goodbye. Then he threatened to SUE me because he’d “lost thousands” because the new site was not up.

    He didn’t do that. Instead, he took my original artwork from the proof and went to another company to finish the job. They completely butchered the site because the proof was low-res. The site looks hilarious. You can tell he ripped off the images. If I could figure out a way to get revenge. Oh well.

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