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”?
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.
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 Hell 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
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.
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
- Clients From Hell
- A Collection of Horror Stories and Quotes from Bad Clients, Speckyboy
- Bad Clients and How to Avoid Them, Freelance Folder
Why Bad Clients Aren’t Always Bad
- Clients Aren’t Stupid, Web Designer Notebook
- The Biggest Myth of Graphic and Web Design, Graphic Design Blender
- Clients Are Not Demons From Hell, Freelance Folder
You may be interested in the following related posts:
- How To Successfully Educate Your Clients On Web Development
- Dealing With Clients Who Refuse To Pay
- Is John The Client Dense or Are You Failing Him?