In several of the online designer groups I’m in, I see a lot of complaints about working with bad clients. Or complaints about how long they have to work with someone. Or asking for canned scripts for how to break up with clients.
Why are so many people getting to that state of desperation?
Why are they working with the wrong people?
After running my business for a decade and a half, I can truly say I have some of the best clients around.
These are people I truly enjoy having in my life. They trust me with their business – and don’t micromanage.
But creating these relationships has taken time – and I’ve learned to identify (and avoid) the red flags that can lead to disastrous projects.
Client red flags – warning signs you shouldn’t ignore
Long-winded and not able to articulate their issues
If a person can’t get to a point quickly, be cautious – because how they show up in the intro calls will be how they show up during the project. Rambling inquiries and never-ending voicemails are a sign that they’re not clear what they need. If they’re not sure what they want to create, point them to a business coach OR charge for strategy sessions BEFORE you start the project. And remember – you’re a pro – make sure you get paid for your time!
Convinced they won’t be successful unless they work with you
While this can be flattering, the belief that they will only succeed if you create their project puts unrealistic pressure on you – and if the projects bombs, you’ll be taking the blame.
Negative talk about previous service providers
I get it – not every experience has been great. But if in your discovery sessions all you hear is about how bad their previous designer / developer / copywriter / ex-husband / ex-wife / ex-friend was a drain on their business – be very cautious about moving forward. Because you’ll be next. Nip it in the bud or excuse yourself from the project.
Needs it done yesterday
It never fails to blow my mind when I get an inquiry from someone that says they need a full brand exploration and online course by next week. And they don’t have an audience or an idea of what they’re selling. Oh, and it needs to be under a certain (unrealistic) price.
If they’re not willing to plan and give you the time you need to execute your best work – run! Because when the ish hits the fan, you’ll take the blame.
Lays on a guilt trip
In my earlier days, I often heard “but it’s for the children / yoga / dogs / etc.” so you should be willing do the work for free or low price. Or they have continuous excuses why they can’t get you the content / images / payment. Don’t ever feel guilty for saying no. This is YOUR business. You set the rules.
Tells you you’ll get great exposure since they’re well known – so they want a discount.
I freely admit I’ve been guilty of being enamored with a “celebrity” in my earlier days. I once met a celebrity who, while well-intentioned, had NO budget for what they wanted to do and had unrealistic expectations. In the end I only lost a couple of hours since I didn’t take it on – and not months of lost revenue.
They’re not the decision maker
I rarely work with large organizations, non-profits or married couples anymore for this very reason. You need to have direct access to the primary decision maker – otherwise you’ll be running around in circles – and your project time will lag on and on as you wait for approval.
They want to bring on in-house people to “help you out”
Especially with larger organizations, you might find that as an outside contractor you might be taking over the work that someone else used to do in-house. This can get touchy very fast and it’s easy to step on toes. Everyone’s going to have an opinion (and the person you’re replacing will be hyper-sensitive).
If they’ve hired you to design, YOU should be the designer. While you do need to demonstrate some flexibility to meet the goals of the project, you shouldn’t have to put up with having your work “re-designed” or “re-imagined.” Be very clear from the start what roles are – and who is responsible for what.
Doesn’t show up – or is always rescheduling your sessions.
I encourage setting regular, ongoing meetings with your clients to keep both sides informed of project status. We’ve all had to move things from time to time – but if you find the client is always rescheduling last minute, they aren’t valuing your time.
You’ve planned and prepped your work – and your time is just as valuable as theirs.
Would you cancel on Oprah? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Doesn’t treat you with respect or understand boundaries.
You are not their kid.
You are not their employee.
You are not their pet.
(not that they should treat anyone that way!)
You shouldn’t tolerate yelling, name-calling or any form of abuse.
You shouldn’t be getting texts or phone calls at 12am (the only exception I ever make is in the middle of a big launch – and even then there should be an understanding of what is acceptable).
You’ve heard the stories – and something just feels off.
The design community is fairly small (especially if you’re working in a certain niche).
And designers talk. We know who’s crazy and who sets unrealistic expectations.
Heed the warning signs – just because someone has a “name” doesn’t mean they’re the right fit for you.
Do your research before you sign the dotted line.
At the end of the day, it’s about showing up, doing your best work and respecting each other. Go with your gut – and remember – there is ALWAYS more work out there.
Want more real-world strategies for growing your design business?
Check out my other posts on these topics:
How to get clients
How do you get more design clients – especially if you’re just starting out?
Tony Howell says
I find I’m saying “no” a lot more easily these days. I think it comes with time/age/experience!
Thank you for the warning signs, Michelle.
Michelle Martello says
you bet! And yes, no comes easier with time!
Great tips and so true! However, I believe we have to go through it to a certain degree to feel the pain that will stop us from ever allowing it to happen again. All about building experience and boundaries.
Michelle Martello says
I hear you on that!