There’s No Such Thing As A Bad Client

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Hardly a day goes by without hearing a client horror story from one designer or another. Whether I hear about it in person, by email, over the phone or on Twitter, one thing seems clear: designers seem to like complaining about their clients almost as much as they enjoy taking their money.

Everyone has a client horror story. Plenty of websites and blog articles feature creative professionals venting their spleen. You can find some of these linked at the bottom of this article. I encourage you to read through them; some are really quite outrageous, but I hope your thoughts are tempered by what I’m about to say.

What Makes A “Bad Client”?

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Each person has their own definition of a bad client, depending on their outlook, personality and tolerance. A few universal traits sum it up for me.

Doesn’t Pay

The worst of them all. Any other “bad” characteristic is usually manageable compared to this one. Clients who don’t pay or delay payment never realize the trouble and pressure they heap on you, especially if you are a small company or freelancer, for whom cash flow is king. A world of trouble awaits all parties if you have to get legal about it. In this situation, not only do you lose out on income that you have rightly earned, but you could lose out on jobs because your time is consumed by chasing debtors.

Wants Something for Nothing

A lot of designers and developers start out in the industry by offering free work to friends and contacts as a way to get their foot in the door. I know I did. There comes a time in your career when this has to stop, and doing it can be difficult. But there are always a few clients who see this situation as the norm.

I no longer do free work unless it’s for charity or something else I believe in strongly. But this hasn’t stopped a few clients from expecting free samples before commissioning further work. It’s all a bit “carrot and stick,” but in my experience more often that not the carrot never appears, and you end up feeling like you got whacked with the stick.

You have a portfolio for a reason. If a client can’t decide whether to hire you based on that, then forget it.

Moves the Goal Posts

This situation can creep up on you, and before you know it, you’ve done a lot more for the client than you were paid for. The client will accept your very reasonable quote, but then begin bolting on extras as the job progresses, sometimes in such small doses that you are unsure whether it falls in the agreed plan. This usually happens when the client is unsure from the outset exactly what they want from you. We’ve all heard the line, “I don’t know what I want until I see it.”

Makes Strange Demands

This is probably the most common complaint against clients. The king of all demands is, of course, “Can we make the logo bigger?” The Clients From Hell21 website displays endless examples of strange requests.

Plenty more complaints could be added to this list, but they would be smaller annoyances that everyone gets in their daily job, such as: poor communication, being badgered by clients, clients who know it all, disorganized or emotional clients and, of course, gossips. You may well be scratching your head at this point. I’ve clearly pointed out a few ways in which clients can be bad, after proclaiming that they don’t exist in the title. The trick is deciding whether to let them be your clients at all.

No Such Thing

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I remember when I was a kid, I used to believe monsters were lurking in every dark corner of my bedroom. Every shadow and silhouette seemed menacing and scary, despite the fact that the rest of my family would tell me that there is no such thing as monsters.

Eventually, you grow up and realize that the shadow cast by your Transformer is completely benign and has no ill will against you. But believing or seeing is not enough; you need experience. You grow up and learn; you grow out of bad habits; sometimes you grow new ones.

Bad clients are the monsters under the bed when your creative career is young. They are very real and can give you plenty of fear and stress. But there are ways to grow up and get rid of them, until they become stories that you tell younger designers to scare them.

It comes down to experience and necessity.

Experience And Necessity

Experience can’t be taught. It’s one of those things that is gained only by doing. You have to get burned to learn when something is hot. You should regard every bad client you encounter, whether at the beginning, middle or end of your career, as a learning experience—a stepping stone to help you avoid similar situations.

Experience: Taking the Rough With the Smooth

At the time, it sucks. No one likes working for bad clients. But you have to step back and look at the bigger picture. Sure, you may lose out immediately if a client doesn’t pay you, but in the long run this experience will probably save you vastly more money because it will make you change your working practices so that it doesn’t happen again.

Experience counts for nothing if you don’t use it to keep from making mistakes again and again. Some will argue that you can’t guard against bad clients, that you either get them or you don’t, that it’s a lottery. I would say that with enough experience you can spot a bad client from a mile away. Experience won’t solve all of your problems. Sometimes you will need to exercise simple skills such as patience, communication, adaptability and understanding.

A lot of client conflicts arise from a lack of knowledge. Sometimes the client just doesn’t understand what we do as creative professionals, and this accounts for many of their crazy requests. Our job as designers is to help them with their particular goals. They always have a target in sight; they just don’t know how to hit it. Communication is all-important. You have to understand what the client wants, and the client has to know what you need to do to make it happen.

Every client is different, and each has to be handled a different way. You’ll have to be attentive to some; others will require a standoff-ish approach. The important thing is finding a way to draw clear lines of communication, so that both parties know exactly what they’re getting out of the business transaction. Hopefully, the client will educate you as much as you do them.

There is no better condition to learn in than extreme pressure—at least for me. Has a client ever made such a strange request that you had to sit down and think, “How would I even achieve that?” But it spurs you on. You’re forced to learn different ways to work because the client doesn’t think like you. They don’t have your knowledge or sense of “how things are done.”

The next time you get a seemingly bizarre request, just go with it. It’s part of the excitement that every designer should seek out. Don’t worry if it isn’t “normal practice,” or even bad practice. Experiment a little, even if only to humor the client and prove that your way is ultimately the right way.

Necessity: A Glutton for Punishment

Now we come to necessity. The truth is that any client, no matter how fussy, impolite or demanding, is a good client if they pay a fair wage for the work done. It’s as simple as that. Everyone has bills to pay. We all do jobs that are less than creatively satisfying just to get the cheque at the end. We deal with people who we might not like in exchange for a little extra cash, and we’ll put up with a little more crap than usual because we like to eat.

But everyone makes choices, and our choices define us. Clients have the power to sack us anytime they want; and for freelance designers, that’s a two-way street. It may mean a drop in income; perhaps the bills won’t get paid on time this month. No matter the consequences, the choice is open to every designer out there.

Conclusions

The only “bad clients” are the ones you take on in spite of your better judgment. At a certain point in a designer’s career, they are able to tell whether a particular client will be trouble. At that point, clients aren’t so much bad as they are self-inflicted pain for the designer.

We all know that the career of a designer is a steep learning curve. Bad clients have to be a part of that curve. At the time it’s frustrating, maybe even financially dangerous, but each one is a stepping stone to learning how to do things better.

When the day comes that you have earned the luxury of being able to pick and choose who you work for, bad clients won’t really exist. Perhaps that day is a mirage and I’m full of it; but for now, as I work towards that goal, my only “bad clients” are the ones who refuse to pay 50% up front. Everything else they throw at me is a challenge that better equips me for the next one.

I’d like to know your thoughts on this. How do you react to bad clients? Can you look back on bad experiences and learn from them? Can you spot bad clients? Have you reached good-client nirvana?

Bad Client Stories

Why Bad Clients Aren’t Always Bad

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Footnotes

  1. 1 http://clientsfromhell.net/
  2. 2 http://clientsfromhell.net/
  3. 3 http://speckyboy.com/2009/10/02/a-collection-of-web-design-horror-stories-and-quotes-from-bad-clients/
  4. 4 http://freelancefolder.com/bad-clients-and-how-to-avoid-them/
  5. 5 http://webdesignernotebook.com/rants/clients-arent-stupid/
  6. 6 http://graphicdesignblender.com/the-biggest-myth-of-graphic-and-web-design
  7. 7 http://freelancefolder.com/clients-are-not-demons-from-hell/
  8. 8 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/04/23/educating-your-client-on-web-development-successfully/
  9. 9 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/04/09/dealing-with-clients-who-refuse-to-pay/
  10. 10 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/02/19/is-john-the-client-dense-or-are-you-failing-him/

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Ken Reynolds is a graphic designer and illustrator living and working in Suffolk, UK. He runs his own design blog, arrogantly named after himself, where he writes articles on design, blogging and freelancing. You can stalk him via twitter.

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  1. 1

    I disagree. There are bad clients. They steal your work. They refuse to pay. You end up in court fighting for compensation. etc…

    A difference of design opinion or mis-managed expectations are faults of the designer and do not make a bad client. But, bad clients do exist and freelancers especially are vulnerable to them.

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  2. 52

    Isn’t saying there is no such thing as a bad client, kinda like saying there is no such thing as a bad designer? Maybe there are bad clients and bad designers?

    But I see your point. A lot of problems can be our own fault. I know that first hand from not using proper contracts or communicating enough with the client.

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  3. 103

    ClientFromHeaven

    May 29, 2010 7:47 pm

    Thanks for this. I wish this myth of “client from hell” would be put to rest. I just hired a designer, gave him detailed specs, answered every single question in detail, provided the first deposit after settling on price – which kept getting upped and upped by him. The result? I was strung along for months on end with excuses and delays… and at the end he told me he didn’t couldn’t do it!

    After threatening legal action he returned my deposit but the time that I had lost and the fact that the project was now way late is a lesson I’m still stinging from. Maybe you should do an article about how to find a designer who doesn’t have his head up his rectum.

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    • 154

      ClientFromHeaven, this is a start in the right direction.

      We need a moderator to help resolve conflicts between clients and web developer-designers. All the web developer-designers I have worked with have wanted me to pay up, and be dumb and happy. As long as I show them the money and don’t ask questions I am considered a good client. The minute I ask about deadlines, broken links, poor titles, minimal SEO, faulty design, bad code, etc., I’m a troublemaker.

      I, too, have spent countless hours describing to web developer-designers what I wanted, only to have them renege on their commitments, after having collecting their fees.

      From reading many of the replies posted on this article, I see I would not hire half the people who commented. I can understand web developer-designers who loathe clients who don’t pay and I can understand not wanting to deal with clients with unreasonable expectations. But, other than these kind of clients, a client is at the mercy of the so-called professional.

      When I go to a doctor I expect him to ask me all questions necessary to diagnose my problem. When I seek out a web-developer-designer, I expect him-her to ask me all questions necessary to determine the scope of my project. If I don’t know how to explain them in technical terms, I expect the expert to make everything clear. After all, when I’m in a doctor’s office, I don’t have to know the medical term to describe my sore ankle.

      I think web-developer-designers need to form trade guild in which all members must be licensed and accountable. They need to evaluate their fees and base them on what the market will bear for the services provided. If they do not finish their projects as outlined in the agreement (in a timely manner), they need to forfeit a percentage of the fees, or else appeal to the client for extra time due to extenuating circumstances. If the developer-designer is cooperative and the client is not from hell, a mutual agreement should be reached.

      My observation is too many web developer-designers hide behind emails and refuse to deal over the phone. This only leads to further miscommunication and irreconcilable differences.

      If the client is a jerk, is disreputable, or in other ways shady, the developer-designer is screwed. In all other circumstances, the developer-designer needs to make sure he-she does not fall into one of these categories.

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  4. 205

    There are bad clients, but you live and learn.
    I now have all my clients sign a legal form before starting their job. I break the work down into increments, they pay as I go along. If they don’t pay no work, I don’t care what their deadline is, pay and you will receive.

    I’ve also learnt over the years when meeting a client for the first time or talking over the phone. There are some you can just spot and so I’m not interested in working with them.
    The other thing I have learnt is if your rate is to cheap you only attract the difficult clients, don’t be afraid to set what you are worth. You will in the end attract clients that don’t mind paying a little more because they know that they only get what they pay for.

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  5. 256

    This article makes a lot of good points. We run a small computer service / repair business and we also do web sites. In fact we’re down the hall from the other leading web company in town. Im sure he has lots of horror stories about clients, but he also somehow manages to charge 4x what we do for sites. If a client wants a small change, they are looking at hundreds to a thousand dollars. And we’re talking small businesses in our area.

    We tried to build our web sites with tools built in so that the client can make minor changes to his pages without contacting us. It’s made for a better client experience, and we had 4 clients come over to us from this other company in the past month. We could charge twice what we do and still charge less than him, but our charges are reasonable, and our clients are super happy.

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  6. 307

    Hey everybody: Those who may have been disappointed by this article might find a discussion worth listening to in one of the Interactive Podcasts from this years SxSW conference: Eight Ways to Deal with Bastards.

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  7. 358

    I will not work with bad client again.

    And if he wants to make your design worse than how you want it, give it to him but put good version into portfolio.

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  8. 409

    Yes, of course there are such things as bad clients, as someone said earlier just because we gain experience from the situation it does not mean they weren’t ‘bad’. And as for moaning about it, you would too if people constantly under valued the work you do because they do not understand it. This article is maybe suggesting that as well as the skills we already have we must also become excellent cold readers of people, seeing how much of an idiot a particular client will become a short time in to the future. Because as most people will have experienced, it doesn’t always show straight away and by then all the work you’ve done means it too late.

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  9. 460

    Its all about the project….not the client… This is something that I learned early on in my freelancing career. I took on the project above my knowledge level and figured Id just “learn as I go”. Needless to say it did not turn out well for both me and the client. I wasted his time and not to mention an unfinished project. Looking back I understood what justified the client’s fury…

    bottom line a well done project equal a happy client which makes for a “good” client.

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    • 511

      No, not really Ross. That was purely your mistake for biting on something you can`t chew. :P

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  10. 562

    If there are bad clients there should be bad designers somewhere. In most cases they find each other.

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  11. 613

    Nice topic selected, to be a good designer, clear things before start working, ask them more questions to make them educate. Wait for some time with the drafted one and ask yourself for questions. Atlast its the clients desire.

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  12. 664

    Surprisee Friend , i love with ur blog. LOL Please come to my blog

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  13. 715

    The title is misleading, good for hits though.

    There are of course, bad clients. To imply otherwise would imply that you have the ability to control your client’s personality and actions. That is impossible, it would be delusional to think otherwise.

    There are many bad clients – the best way to avoid them is to either avoid them in the first place, or to stop working for them.

    By the way I’m speaking from the point of view of a software engineer, but same concepts apply to any form of freelancing and small business.

    Either the client will take responsibility for himself, or he won’t. You can’t control that, you’re not god.

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  14. 766

    Getting a client who pays you 50% upfront, and then trying to enslave you for the next many months by dangling the possibility that you “will be paid more” is not a good situation. I have just told a potential client, who is willing to pay me upfront, that I don’t want to get his business. Yes, if you need every dollar you can get, then there is no such a thing as a bad client. Beggars can’t choose. But, if you have other clients who are reasonable and who are paying you, it is better to serve those clients by paying more attention to them. I can think of two insidious aspects of serving bad clients. First, if a client tries to chisel you and you let him or her do it, you lose you self respect. Secondly, when you are stressed out by a bad client, your performance with the good clients will be negatively affected. When these two things come together, you may become so stressed out that you lose the good clients. Some money is not worth making.

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  15. 817

    You have to understand that if the customer was as ‘smart’ as you at your specialty he wouldn’t be a customer.

    So by definition part of the job has to be to figure out what the customer really wants and to let him know what he can get. That means the customer has to figure out if he can trust you.

    I think the ‘bad customer’ syndrome occurs when the customer doesn’t trust the consultant. I notice over time either bad customers get worse, or at some point both you and the customer ‘get’ what the other wants and can deliver.

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  16. 868

    Of course there is such a thing as a bad client, just as there is such a thing as a bad employer, a bad employee, a bad apple, a bad driver, a bad man. Sometimes the beast (oops, ‘not so good client’) doesn’t reveal itself until the end of the project, but regardless, to place the ‘blame’ on the professional/contractor, is pretty disingenuous as well as plain out wrong.

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