I’ve been in the graphic design game long enough that I’ve seen my fair share of difficult clients. When talking with a new client—or potential new client—I’ve found these are some very important red flags to watch out for. The biggest thing is knowing what you’re worth, standing up for yourself, and being confident enough to pass up a project or client that just isn’t the right fit. You’ll be much better off saying “no” to a project that may end up costing you time, money and wasted energy in the long run. In my experience, sometimes they don’t realize they’re being difficult, in which case a simple conversation addressing the matter will hopefully resolve the issue. And sometimes they do, and they just don’t care (buh-bye!)
I’m a graphic designer, but these cases can appear in any freelance profession: photographers, writers, fine artists, musicians… especially for those of us just starting out in our independent career. But fear not! The following points should help when looking for new clients.
When you DO find great clients they will:
- Tell you what they want, what they like, and what they don’t like
- Communicate with you in a professional and timely manner
- Agree upon an estimate and scope of work, and honor that agreement by paying you fairly and on time
- Come back with edits or changes in an agreed upon number of rounds, or willing to pay for extra editing
- Hopefully even refer you, ultimately giving you more work with more reliable clients
If a new or potential client says any of the following, beware!!
1. “I can’t pay much, but this will look great in your portfolio.”
Someone who is not willing to invest in what it takes to create or improve their brand is not that serious about their business. By doing this, they are disrespecting your time and your business, as well as their own.
2. “But this will lead to paid work”
What they’re really saying is that they don’t have any/enough money to pay you. Oh, and I learned this the hard way. Trying to get more jobs or clients for you is NOT PAYING YOU.
Same thing as the previous excuse. If they’re not willing or ready to invest in their own business, just don’t work with them.
3. “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when it I see it.”
Just say no. It may seem flattering that your client thinks you’re a mind reader and a miracle worker, but let’s face it—this is just going to waste time. If your client says this to you, and you’re already invested in the project, try to squeeze more details out of them. Be up front and let them know that the more hours and rounds they burn through, the more expensive the project will get. If they’re okay with that—Great! More $$$ for you.
4. “Well my last designer did it for X amount”
Maybe the client is using this as a negotiating tool to get you to come down on your cost. But they’re likely feeling some sticker shock after seeing your estimate. THAT’S OKAY. Don’t compromise your time or your work. See next point:
5. “You’re too expensive. I didn’t think it would really cost that much.”
If you get this response after you’ve sent an estimate, be pleased that this person was honest with you. They know their budget limit and that’s FINE! Great, actually! Good for them. For YOU, just move on. If they think you’re too expensive, I promise there is another client just waiting to talk with you who IS willing to invest in your work.
Know what you’re worth, and don’t come down on your pricing unless you reeeeeally want that particular job. In that case, there are some ways to solve the “too expensive” problem without compromising your time and work. For example, are there any areas that you can cut down on costs (photography, printing, etc?) Can you cut down the number of hours it will take to complete the job? Instead of spending 10 hours and a really snazzy looking brochure, maybe it’s 5 hours for a (what I like to call) “quick-n-dirty” job. Less quality, but faster and cheaper.
6. “I just have a couple more tweaks” and you’re already on round 10
YOU MUST charge them for the extra rounds and changes, otherwise you’re just wasting your time. Usually when I send an estimate, I make sure my client knows that the job includes 2-3 rounds of changes. After that, any additional changes are billed at $__ per hour.
If the client knows this and they’re okay with the extra hours, Wonderful!
7. “Sorry, I can’t pay you right now.”
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this. If your client understood and accepted the estimate of work, this is just unacceptable. If you had them sign a contract (which you should always do for a new client!), then legally they have to pay you. Make sure the client understands this and that you will pursue legal action if necessary. Usually a warning email or letter will compel the client to pay up.
I once did a website for a client and learned the hard way that I should have had them sign a contract and pay a deposit up front. I emailed them every 2 weeks for months asking for payment but all I got were sob stories about bad business deals they had been through. I had hoped these stories were at least true, but there was no way to know. I was angry because it wasn’t fair to me and my business to have done an entire website basically for free. Months later, the client ended up paying off the balance they had owed, but needless to say I will no longer work with them.
It’s hard to spot a difficult client at first. You may have found a new client and there are absolutely no red flags until they see the final invoice, or they just up and disappear. Hopefully these tips will help alleviate some pain down the road:
- Always have a contract with a new client, and maybe every job you do with them, unless they are a long time client who has reliably paid you on time in the past.
- Request a deposit up front before you start work. 40-50% paid up front is pretty common.
- Choose your clients wisely. Is this person starting up a new business and it sounds they won’t be able to pay you until they get paid? Be wary. Are they an established company with a reliable reputation? Awesome.
Most likely, you will run into some bad client experiences in your career. Totally normal and to be expected. This is how we learn. The most important and valuable thing you can do is take note of these experiences and improve your process for the future.