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How To Identify Good Clients (and Avoid Bad Ones)

Peter Drucker is one of the most influential business writers of the last century. His ideas have shaped the ways we conduct business today. One of Drucker’s main ideas was the notion that without a customer, there is no business. Furthermore, customer satisfaction is the key to the success of any business, or in his words: “The single most important thing to remember about any enterprise is that there are no results inside its walls. The result of a business is a satisfied customer.”

To that, I say amen. Here’s the tricky part, though: satisfying all of your customers is simply not feasible unless you choose the right ones and let go of the rest. How do you do that? First, you have to set principles for identifying good customers. Then, evaluate potential customers against those principles, and bid farewell to those who don’t measure up… yes, even if you currently work with them.

Crafting Your Principles Link

The quest for good customers starts early on. It starts with deciding who your ideal customer is. Different companies have different ideals and cultures, and a variety of parameters are important for making this decision.

Here are the parameters to consider:

  • Size
    What sizes are the companies you have enjoyed working with? Do you prefer to work with small family businesses or large corporations?
  • Budget
    What is your minimum project budget? Will you take on a project with a tight budget if the customer is strategic?
  • Payment schedule
    Would you agree to receiving the full payment at the end of the project? If not, what’s the minimum up front that you require? This is often a pain point for small businesses and freelancers, and I strongly recommend following a harsh rule here with no exceptions.
  • Technical knowledge
    Are you willing to work with a customer who has minimal technical knowledge? How might this affect the outcome of the project?
  • Project dynamics
    Are you looking for a customer who will just give you the requirements and then wait for the deliverables, or would you prefer a more engaged client? On projects in which you collaborated with the client daily, were the results better or worse than those of projects with less interaction?
  • Length of relationship
    Are you interested in one-time gigs or a long-term working relationship? If you are thinking long term, estimate whether a particular customer would have enough projects to sustain that.
  • Personality fit
    What kind of people do you like to work with? Check with other companies that have worked with your prospective customer to find out whether there were any personality clashes during their projects.

Qualification Is Crucial Link

If you get this right, you will gradually see your customer relationships improve. More importantly, you will be less likely to wake up asking yourself why you are working on your current project.

To keep it simple, I’d recommend a total of four to five principles; but as with everything, tailor it to your own business. One effective method I have found is to set your principles in a spreadsheet, rank them, and then decide on a cut-off average for qualification. This is a great tool for identifying deals with higher average scores or for deciding between two potential deals. We’ve prepared an example of such a spreadsheet1 (Excel Spreadsheet).

A simple and efficient way to determine whether you’ve ranked your principles correctly is to look at past projects and make sure they align with your cut-off average. Specifically, make sure that past projects that really sucked get a low score, so that you avoid taking on similar projects in future.

Don’t be afraid to share your principles with potential customers. Some might show flexibility. A few years ago, when I approached a freelancer for a potential design project, he made it clear to me that he would charge 50% up front and 50% upon completion of the project. I told him we couldn’t accept such payment terms. He immediately wished me luck. You know what? I was so impressed by his confidence that I called him back and hired him anyway.

Self-Qualification Link

The qualification principles are important because they can also be a great time-saver. I call this self-qualification. The idea is simple. Now that you know what matters most in your relationships with customers, you can signal that on your website, filtering customers who you would never want to work with.

For instance, you can be clear about the prices you charge and the projects you’ll take on. Read this beautifully crafted message from Forty:

“We try to avoid very small projects (under $10k) because our process doesn’t work well at that scale. Likewise, we also pass on very large projects (over $300k) because they’re just not much fun to work on.”


You can be sure that Forty is saving a lot of time by not dealing with customers who want a plain WordPress skin for $500. The company also subtly hints that the big guys needn’t call it either. It has decided that it doesn’t enjoy big lengthy projects, which are usually initiated by big messy corporations. To make sure prospective customers get the picture, Forty specifies its hourly cost straightforwardly: “Our base rate is $145/hour.”

Another beautiful thing to notice is that personality comes through the text on the website. You can be sure that anyone who takes themselves too seriously won’t be contacting the company. And that’s perfect! It helps the agency focus on the right set of customers.

We see the same approach with Blue Flavor2: clear, detailed pricing accompanied by a clear message, setting the stage for the initial communication:


Nclud4 takes a different approach by including a drop-down form in which the customer can indicate their budget. This again makes clear the range of projects the company is willing to take on:


Ngen6 uses the same “trick.” The difference in the messages that these two menus send is interesting. Judging from the budget ranges, Nclud probably handles bigger projects:


Never Too Late To Say Goodbye Link

Assuming you’re passionate about your profession, let’s make one thing clear: you should enjoy the work that you do. If you don’t enjoy your work, that means you’ve taken on a frustrating project or, worse, a frustrating customer.

That can happen. In fact, it happens a lot. And even if you employ the principles mentioned above, it will still happen. But that doesn’t mean you have to continue suffering. No matter how many hours you have invested, if a project doesn’t work, it will continue not to work, and you will only experience more grief. Kill it as early as possible. That would be best for both you and the customer.

So, why would you fire a customer? Let’s look at five reasons:

  1. The customer is abusive.
    This is an easy one. You should be treated with respect and dignity, and you should not tolerate any kind of abusive language or behavior. Period.
  2. You don’t get paid on time.
    You are not a bank. Be willing to bend over backwards for your clients, but they must pay you on time. A customer who doesn’t understand this will hurt your cash flow and, eventually, your business.
  3. You get phone calls at nights or on weekends, even though you insisted otherwise.
    People have to respect your time and not act as though they own it. You are selling your professional services, not yourself.
  4. The scope of the project perpetually increases, but the customer refuses to increase the budget.
    This happens a lot. You start a logo, and then the client asks you to throw in a website. The responsibility for setting expectations is yours, but if you do that, and the customer still pushes for more without being willing to increase the budget, then you’ll end up with an unprofitable business.
  5. The customer doesn’t respect you professionally and ignores your recommendations.
    To stop caring and just take orders from the customer takes all the fun out of a project. It kills your productivity, erodes your portfolio and stunts your skills.

Obviously, an important question is whether you can afford to fire your client. This is a valid concern, and it depends on the circumstances. This goes back to what you value in customers, and so this will vary from company to company.

If you have many projects waiting on deck, you could probably fire a customer without hurting your revenue. In fact, by working with someone who don’t fit your business values, you are probably giving up on great customers who could take your company to the next level. Take all of these factors into consideration when deciding.

If you do decide to fire a customer, you should seriously consider how to go about it without hurting your relationship with them and without risking your reputation.

Some ways are better than others. The fact that you didn’t get along with this person doesn’t make them bad. It simply means that your values or personalities do not match. More often than not, you will be the one who has to pick up the phone. Follow these steps:

  1. Prepare for the call. Look hard again at your decision to make sure it is the right one.
  2. In the call, explain the reasons for your decision, and point out that it was a business decision, not a personal one.
  3. Help the customer find someone else who would be willing to work with them. Other firms or professionals would likely be happy to get the opportunity.
  4. Bill what you deserve.
  5. Note what you learned from the relationship, and add it to your qualification process.
  6. Most importantly, move on.

At the end of the day, the Pareto effect applies to some degree: 20% of your customers are profitable, fun to work with and contribute to 80% of your growth. The ideas explored above could help you increase that 20% to 30, 50 or even 90%.

In Conclusion Link

Working with the wrong customers has ramifications. Designer David Thorne relates one email exchange8 of his that serves as a funny yet unfortunate reminder of this. It didn’t matter to David that he had already spent hours working for that customer; he understood that the relationship was not for him, so he ended it.

If you are disciplined and follow this simple process, you will see an increase in successful projects. And your life will be better, too.

You could be interested in the following related posts:

(al, vf)

Footnotes Link

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Uzi Shmilovici, the founder of PipeJump, a simple CRM for small businesses, and Future Simple, a company focused on creating simple and intuitive online software.

  1. 1

    Excellent article! Love David’s email, I think many many designers can relate to this! A friend told me at Christmas that he picks out 10% of clients each year who take up 90% of his time (not paying, nitpicking etc.) and axes them, it sounded radicle but made a lot of sense….

  2. 2

    James Archer from Forty

    January 14, 2011 7:54 am

    Hey guys, James from Forty (one of the companies mentioned above) here. Just wanted to jump in to let everyone know that putting pricing on our website has worked out really well for us over the years. It’s gone through various incarnations, but each time it has helped us get to the right clients.

    A number of people have also commented that they felt good about the fact that we were willing to actually put our pricing on the website, when most agencies make you call and jump through hoops to even get a very general rate.

    Uzi makes some great points in this article, and I just wanted to vouch for the fact that this really *is* the right way to do it. Set some standards for yourself, and then don’t be afraid to stick to them.

  3. 3

    I wish the drop down menu for Nclud had the age-old pitch option, “this will be an opportunity for exposure!” or “if you do this for us at a discount, there will be future work in it for you!”

  4. 4

    I really wish more people would read this! Save alot of time and hassle. Only problem I can foresee is how do you charge a client for a non completed project? Is that something that should be in the contract? Do you bill them for the percentage of work you have done and hand them the code / files?
    I’m not a freelancer myself.
    Interested to see what others have to say on these ideas! =]

    • 5

      It’s quite simple and called a “Kill Fee.” A lot of standard design contracts include them. Here’s the clause we use: “a. Contractor will charge a ‘kill fee’ for work completed should the contract be terminated. It is equal to any additional expenses and labor incurred above and beyond the deposit amount, prior to any incremental payments agreed upon (see Section 3. ‘Payment for Services & Timeline’).”

    • 6

      “Progress payment” sounds nice. The contract should state that you require payment for your progress. You will invoice at particular ‘landmarks’ upon approval to continue; and if at any stage should the project be canceled you will charge for the work completed to-date and hand over as much of the deliverables/work that has been paid for. Because after all you’ve done the work and deserve the money, but they’ve paid so they deserve what you’ve completed so far, all’s fair… That’s how i see it.

      As for “Kill Fee” i’d rename it to “cancellation fee” sounds far less scary and makes a bit more up front sense.

  5. 7

    Park Firebaugh

    January 14, 2011 4:34 am

    Depressing article from my perspective. Particularly “are you willing to work with a customer with minimal technical knowledge”. I’m one of those ill-informed customers who is undergoing a painful education in learning about the website design business. I don’t feel sorry for any web design service that is struggling, particulary those who expect someone who wants their first website to know the specific vocabulary and minutae of this business. I now know that some designers are married to a limited number of templates and that some designers have no artistic sense whatsoever. Before I started this journey, I had no idea that most web design services don’t want to waste their valuable time on you unless you are spending $2500 minimum. I blew $1000 down payment on a service that I finally had to drop because they couldn’t put together anything usable. I’m now ready to consider one of those services from India simply because their sites are very educational and straightforward. So yes, it would be a good idea to put price ranges on your landing page so that people like me don’t waste time trying to figure out if you can help me.

    • 8

      You usually get what you pay for when going to India. Our company has had to go back and “re-do” websites from India because they were basically just slapped together with poor code.

      There’s a lot of options available and extremely reasonable pricing with good freelancers. Word of mouth is powerful. Ask around and support local designers before going with some overseas business whose bottom line is to get something out the door as quickly as possible so they can still make a profit off of you.

    • 9

      Sorry you have had a bad experience with the designer you’re dealing with. It’s not true that most designers have a 2500 minimum. One of the advantages of dealing with a freelancer is that they don’t have the overhead of a large company so their rates could be less. Of course you have to be careful to make sure they are legit. Before you go to India why don’t you check out, my freelance business. :)

    • 11

      Thing is, going cheap means you’ll definitely get a template it most cases. Not that it’s always a bad thing. I wonder what you mean by “unusable?” It doesn’t work in IE6? Or maybe the interface has some elements that are too over-the-top for your site’s audience?

      There’s lots of good web designers out there. Of course the going rate starts at $2k, but many people misunderstand how much work goes into a fully custom, ground-up website. There’s not just graphic design and some HTML… you also have to figure in consultation, research, programming in JavaScript and/or PHP (a good WordPress template requires some PHP work), cross-browser bug squashing, setting your site up for you, dealing with possible server issues for clients (is GoDaddy’s service DESIGNED to be problematic?), etc. As a new designer to the game, I’ve had to learn about all this the hard way.

      Sorry your company expects you to be an expert. I think though that within companies that have large budgets over 10k, they’d better all know what they’re buying! Just makes good business sense.

      • 12

        Why do you need to go to India when there are a lot of talented and professional designers here, at home? It is easier to deal with them and supports our creeping economy as well.

        In the past I was involved in dealing with development team in China – I was spending A LOT of time emailing them and trying to explain what should be done and how. In the end of the day it was very frustrating.


        • 13

          Andrei Potorac

          April 21, 2011 8:59 am

          Well, that is the problem. Why do you guys choose people in India and China only? I mean, you don’t have to go with the higher price (USA) or the lowest price (ASIA). Try to go with the best quality instead, which also brings you the best value for your money, right in between the two choices above (Europe).

          We do excellent work for our clients in USA, Europe, Australia and Asia, and we’re located in Romania & Spain. I bet we do better work than most of the USA companies (I know we do), and charge less as well, as the living expenses are smaller here.

          We’re always looking for business, so search Vuzum if you plan to have your work done properly, and be on the same cultural page with your team.

  6. 14

    I don’t know where you’re living but when I read that a typical website redesign is charged $40000, I’m really amazed because we couldn’t ask more than $10000 for such a task in most european countries and I suppose you could have it for $3000 with an offshore company.

    • 15

      it all depends on the clientele you bring in. my company works on $110k+ sites all the time. we shy away from $10,000 websites – those small fish are always the hardest to deal with.

  7. 16

    @ Park Firebaugh – I guess you don’t go and buy yourself a car without taking the driving lessons or (at least) read few reviews about that car. I don’t think so =) Approach your next website the same way.

    And why do you think that spending lousy 1000USD on product that will serve you at least 5 years and should earn you much more is right? How long do you think does it take to create an entirely unique website?

    If you can’t get over this, I guess it’s better for all of us if you go and buy some stolen website from some Indian looser, who will live from your 1000USD for next year… Think of this as a sort of charity and go for it =D

  8. 17

    @ Doh! – Seems like US to me. You should consider their GDP and overall expenses before such comparision…

  9. 18

    A brilliant article. I can completely relate to the problems caused by clients who are not right for your business. As the head of a Web / Branding Design agency, I made a difficult decision back in 2007; after an endless string of problems caused by “low budget” clients, expecting a premium level of service.

    “Feature Creep” was by far the biggest issue we faced. Clients (usually with very little technical knowledge) were asking us to add new features to their sites a week before the deadline, with no time or budget extension. Of course, being young and naive, we usually agreed to add the new features before the deadline, and ended-up working through the night to get it finished. At one point, in 2006, we had this happen with three of our clients all at the same time, all with deadlines within a week of each other (bad planning, I know) – It got so bad, that I even considered shutting the business down entirely.

    Now, we are more experienced. We only take on one “Medium/Large Budget” project at any one time. It was a difficult decision because, I felt like I was literally shutting the door on much needed cash. However, on reflection, it was the best decision I ever made. Focusing on just one large(er) project at a time allows us to offer the premium service our clients expect, with less pressure… throughout the duration of the project, we are 100% focused on that particular client. And my staff are much happier as well; No longer having to work through the night and at weekends. What’s more, we quite literally have clients queuing outside our door, wanting to work with us because of the level of service that we offer. They know what we expect from them; as well as what they can expect from us.

    We are always upfront with what we expect from our clients during a project and I’d say, on average, we end-up taking-on one out of every 10 projects that come to us. It’s not always us that turn the clients away either; sometimes they decide that we aren’t the right agency for them.

    *Interesting that you referenced David Thorne’s e-mail exchanges with Simon Edhouse… when I first that article at the start of 2010, I thought it could have been me and any handful of my clients I worked with between 2004/2006.

    Thank you Uzi for writing such an important and relevant article.

    • 19

      Can I ask how do your company or other companies in general get new clients ?

      Do you contact them?
      Is there a special place where you find these clients?
      Or is it strictly word of mouth?

      How did you start out getting clients?

      For me i know i have the skill and knowledge to do well with my company, but im having a really hard time just finding clients, I can find a lot of listings for jobs at other agencies but im really inexperienced in finding clients.

  10. 20

    Tomáš Kapler

    January 14, 2011 7:20 am

    It is interesting to see the prices for US projects. We are profesional webdesign, graphic, ppc, seo, social, marketing … company with more then 100 satisfied customers from central europe (Czech Republic, Slovakia …) and focus mostly on middle size companies and 95% of our contracts are between 2 and 5 k $. Even e.g. the development of eshop for the biggest european maps publisher was for about 7 000 $, the biggest project with a half year work was for about 25 k$.

    I see we should start to make projects for US market ;-)

    • 21

      It’s easy to say, “I see we should start to make projects for US market,” but the truth is that web design for most companies (and people) is culturally specific. US customers respond to different visual cues as dictated by culture than Central European customers, and there are different best business practices and norms to follow. Furthermore, as James says below, there is a gigantic range of possible web design services… The only difference between a $5,000 site and a $100,000 site will NOT be price, regardless of the design firm’s location.

  11. 22

    James Archer from Forty

    January 14, 2011 8:00 am

    Also, regarding some of the comments about how much a website costs:

    There is a *huge* range in the features, functionality, implementation, design detail, and additional services involved in building websites, so there’s a huge range in the pricing as well. We’ve done websites in the $75-100k range, but they were very extensive projects, and the end result was worth every penny.

    Don’t feel like you need to charge low rates just because someone else will do it for a fraction of the price. Charge what you’re worth, and make sure they know why you’re worth it.

    • 23

      my thoughts exactly James. high quality work isn’t cheap, but it’s worth the price

  12. 24

    CA Natwar Lath

    January 14, 2011 8:24 am

    Very interesting, eye opening. I learnt a lot from this particular article. Hope to implement some of the discussion at my own environment.

  13. 25

    Excellent article! I had to fire a client this year for reasons 4 & 5 which had been made even more frustrating than they normally would have been as I had (stupidly, I now realize) discounted the job. I liked the client and wanted to help them out so I gave them a slimmed down scope-of-work and reduced the project cost. It turned into a completely frustrating time-suck of a job and I wasn’t even making my rate on it. Killing the project was the best solution. I only wish I’d done it a month earlier.

  14. 26

    Great article! There are some really good points made here. While we’ve all been hungry at one time or another for that “less than desirable” client project, they usually end up costing us more than they’re worth in dollars, sanity and degradation of your own brand.

    To James at Forty I say, “Bravo!” and thanks for validating your business decision and showing its value. Great website and I’m perusing your SEO Booklet now…


  15. 27

    Clients can be so tricky, I like to work on recommendations…

  16. 28

    Yep, I’m going to fire a customer. Abusive and does not respect my professional opinions. Then again, I might not have to, because every time I email them it takes them a month and a half to get back, and they never answer my questions. I’ll just keep responding with one liners and a question.

    • 29

      Overly long response time is one of the most common issues that I’ve seen working with website development clients. The problem seems benign on the surface–if they aren’t responding then you aren’t working–but it really isn’t. Clients that take too long to respond, to answer questions, to send notes and critiques, to approve final mockups, etc. are the cause of two major issues in my experience:

      1) It becomes increasingly difficult to manage time and resources when there are more and more unresponsive clients. Often, when these clients do awaken from their slumbers, they expect work to be done for them immediately. Meanwhile, the developers have already busied themselves with other projects from more responsive clients. This rarely goes well.

      2) Almost every time a project takes longer than expected, the client blames the developers, even when the client knowingly caused the delay through unresponsiveness. If a project were projected to take three months at the onset and you reach month five, it is very common for the client to say, “We’ve already taken two months longer than you said it would take!” A response of, “Well, it did take several weeks to get design approval from you on a few occasions…” is often treated as a lame excuse.

      It’s tough to deal with this problem and I’ve considered ending the relationship simply because a client is too erratic or untimely with responses. To use a real-world analogy, you can’t take an hour to answer a waiter when he asks if you have decided on an appetizer. Eventually, you’ll simply be asked to leave the restaurant.

      I’d add this to the six reasons to fire a client, although, to be honest, I’ve only very rarely ever practiced what I’m now preaching. It’s never an easy thing to do.

  17. 30

    Park Firebaugh and James Archer have raised the best points, ones that I have agreed with for quite some time. Whether we are in the design industry or not, clear and consistent pricing is so important especially in this day and age where the economy is recovering too slowly and the job market looks meagre at best. A lot of people aren’t willing to splash out on services that come up to four-figures and even if they wanted to, in reality it may not be feasible for them. I know I certainly wouldn’t even if the designer was great. If a potential client can’t even find the most basic, expected and vital information on your website (and I consider pricing to fit under those categories), to make an informed decision on whether to hire you or not, then they are likely to move on to a designer/service that does. I know I would.

  18. 31

    Im glad there was a multitude of points addressed in this post. All the way from how much the potential project could cost down to the social aspects such as abuse coming from the client.

    Some of these points I had never even given the slightest thought to until reading and looking back some previous experiences could have definitely been prevented had I read this beforehand. Thanks a ton!

  19. 32

    this error is shown in blue theme find out the solution

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    help me out

  20. 33

    Great article! But pricing is main difference between freelancer and company.


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