Dear Clients From Hell: Thank You
As a freelance designer, design contractor, or design business owner, it’s inevitable that you will encounter at least one difficult client during the span of your career. These are the clients who are seemingly demanding, disrespectful, unappreciative, unrealistic, deceitful, incompetent, cheap, condescending, lazy, and a bunch of other negative words.
These less than desirable experiences can lead to frustration, anxiety, resentment, and disinterest. I’ve built up quite a few interesting client stories over the last 15 years, and I’ve gained some wisdom along the journey. To those challenging clients, I say thank you. Here’s what I’ve learned:
You get what you accept
“Can you send me a sample of what my idea could look like, so I can decide if I want to work with you?”
Sometimes I laugh when I reflect on how much I complained about the same problems over and over again. In my early days of freelance, I would get so upset about how a client would call me late at night or keep asking me for “one more revision” when we had clearly exceeded the amount we agreed to. I couldn’t understand how some clients just wanted more and more, even though I had already given so much beyond the project parameters.
It’s important to set boundaries. Late-night calls may be okay for some but not acceptable for others. Some designers consider every opportunity fair game, while others are more selective about the projects they pursue. If you’re not happy with your client interactions or the fluidity of your process, first evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. Understand how your process (or lack thereof) contributes to the overall client experience. Then change the way you work and set the expectation upfront with those you work with. Making the rules as you go or just going along for the ride is a sure recipe for disaster.
Define your ideal client
“Can you just move the logo over a quarter of an inch to the right? Actually, I meant half an inch to the left…”
You could probably eliminate at least half of your crazy client woes if you actually worked with the right type of client. This seems like a pretty obvious sentiment, but it often takes time to figure out your niche and understand what type of people you’d like to work with. Of course, everyone wants to make money, but figuring out how to sustain it is a challenge.
Some designers are looking for volume and some are looking for a few high-quality connections that produce a steady stream of work. The sophistication of your client is usually in line with the sophistication of your business. For freelancers and business owners who are looking to grow beyond the one-and-done model, their focus should shift to retention, quality over quantity, meaningful projects, strategy, and scale. If you’ve got high expectations of making money and working on more exciting projects, but you’re still doing $50 logos for Pookie down the street, then you can’t be surprised when things don’t pan out the way you thought they would. If your ideal client is a mid-sized business or corporation, then your processes, level of quality, competency, communication, and experience have to be much higher than your level of effort to convince a few college students to let you design some flyers for them.
Define the demographic you want to work with. Define your ideal client’s attitude and affinity for good design. Define the types of resources and budget they have. Make sure what you’re offering matches or exceeds your expectations of the client. Then go and out and get them.
Learn to say no
“Just copy and paste it from another website. I don’t have time to write copy.”
Why is it so hard to say no? Well, there are many reasons, including not wanting to disappoint others or being overly ambitious, desperate for money, people-pleasing, and fearful of confrontation. During the early stages of your freelance career, you’d probably be more hardwired to say “yes” because you’re excited to get your feet wet and gain new experiences. And because you don’t know what you don’t know, you’re more likely to accept anything until you learn to do better.
As your career matures, you’re more likely to choose more carefully because you’ve learned over time what you will tolerate and what you won’t. Time becomes more valuable and you begin to look for more meaning and purpose behind the projects that you do. You learn that saying yes to everything makes everything important — which ultimately makes nothing important. And when there are no priorities to guide you, you soon get thrown into a black hole that’s hard to dig your way out of.
Some underlying reasons that might make it hard to say no are:
- Lack of prioritization and focus
- Lack of successful time management
- Lack of self-value, worth, or confidence
- Lack of direction or purpose
It took me years to start to learn how to confidently say no. But the more I was able to flex the “no” muscle, the easier it became. It’s either that or burnout.
Put it in the contract
“I thought website hosting was included in the price…”
In the early stages of many freelance careers, designers may be timid about presenting a contract because the project “isn’t that serious” or they don’t want to intimidate the client and scare off good money. This is an understandable gripe because it would be kind of weird to make your best friend sign the dotted line before designing their birthday invites. And even coming up with proper contract language and legalese can seem like a project in itself, and not worth stressing over.
It didn’t take me long to realize that a design agreement — however large or small — was absolutely necessary. Missed payments, ungodly amounts of revisions, scope creep, and extended timelines — among many other things — pushed me to draft up a contract in no time. Every time I would encounter a painful experience, get taken advantage of, or find loopholes in the workflow, it was an incentive to put more energy and time into my design contract. This doesn’t mean that I ended up with a 10-page, nine-point-font document of legal jargon, but it did mean that I needed to set reasonable boundaries that my clients and I could agree upon.
Trust your gut
“I can’t pay you right now, but I promise to send you more business once I close this deal.”
Your instincts are pretty important. I’ve had a few intro calls and emails with prospective clients that just didn’t settle right with me. I’ve received referrals with key phrases like, “They’ve already gone through a lot of designers” or “They can be a little eccentric but they seem to be nice.” I’ve seen the early red flags of clients not fully understanding what they want their business to be or taking a very long time to respond to a conversation they initiated or aggressively trying to negotiate down an already discounted price.
Trust your gut when a client claims they will advertise you on their site or send plenty of referrals if you can do the project for free. Trust your gut if the project entails work that you don’t feel comfortable doing. Trust your gut if you’ve heard or seen things about the client that don’t seem professional or honest. Trust your gut when you sincerely know that you cannot provide what a prospective client is requesting. Trust it if their track record proves that they don’t value time, money, design, or commitments. Trust your gut and act accordingly.
Work smarter, not harder
“This shouldn’t take that long, right?”
At the end of the day, the goal is to serve the client with your best effort to create an effective visual solution for them. The goal is for both parties to receive mutual benefit. If your goal is to attract better clients, then you have to be willing to grow into a better designer and businessperson. If your goal is to make more money, you’ll have to think bigger. Level up your skills, business acumen, or both. Learn how to delegate. Create processes that help you automate repeated tasks and increase your level of efficiency. There’s no medal of honor for enduring the most turmoil or for juggling insane demands. If you want better client interactions, place more priority on discovering what they need in the beginning and understanding the best way to formulate solutions. Figure out how to make your talents work for you.
Ultimately, it’s our job as designers to own the client experience. We cannot control what others do but we can control how we react and how we apply those vital lessons. Your difficult clients aren’t all bad people; they have their own unique backstories, challenges, intentions, and goals. It’s our responsibility to get clear about what we want, evaluate if they are a good fit for what we offer, educate them about design, provide clear and consistent communication, continue to streamline our processes, set standards and expectations from the beginning, and give honest feedback. We have the power to create experiences where both parties can thrive.