9 nightmare clients and how you can avoid them

Clients come in all shapes and sizes. They’re the lifeblood of any creative agency, bringing with them problems to be solved in return for hard cash. So when someone comes along with an exciting project it’s easy to get excited about the design possibilities without thinking too clearly about for whom you will be working.

Spotting a bad client early on is key to keeping both your sanity and a sustainable business. But how do you know what they will be like as a client before you start working with them?

Firstly, do your research. Find out what other suppliers they have used and contact them to get their feedback. If they are looking to use you as a replacement for an incumbent supplier, it’s a good idea to find out why. This can avoid nasty surprises down the line.

Secondly, trust your instincts. In my experience, a client who is difficult or frustrating to deal with during the initial discussions and pre-contract phase, is not suddenly going to turn into the perfect client once you start working with them.

Sometimes you might only discover a problem client once you have started work with them, in which case you need to either fix the client-supplier relationship or fire them.

Here are some examples of problem clients, if you encounter them (and you will) run for the hills.


1. The Reluctant Client

Some clients don’t want to be clients. They’re looking for a supplier not because they want to, but because they feel they have to. The Reluctant Client is a client in denial.

Be very wary of potential clients who don’t seem to want your guidance, who just want someone to build something. Be doubly suspicious of someone who doesn’t think they need a new website but is getting one because they’ve been told to. Be triply suspicious if the previous website was created in-house and they’re still smitten with it.

Reluctant clients are difficult to communicate with, slow to respond, disengaged, and unresponsive to your ideas.



2. The False Client or ‘Hoopbringer’

Is there actually a job to win? Often clients get ahead of themselves in trying to find suppliers before the job exists.

Tread very carefully when approached by someone — usually in a junior role — at a company who is looking for a huge amount of guidance up front. You will often find that there isn’t actually a job there, and you’re just an unpaid consultant. Often, they are using your time to try and further their own career. They might consider themselves as ‘rainmakers’, able to make big things happen for you, but my experience is that they are ‘hoopbringers’, hoops that they will expect you to keep jumping through.

Identifying timescales and budgets will help you determine if there is an actual project. Suggesting a period of paid initial consultation is a good step to finding out how serious they are. Also, find out who has sign-off on creative and invoices, to see just how genuine this opportunity is.



3. The Hidden Client

A variant of the false client is the Hidden Client. The person whom you regard as the client is actually a puppet, and might have no power within the organization, or is acting as a middleman with the real client hidden behind the scenes.

Make sure you identify the real client. When a client is a middleman between you and the real client, they are likely to do anything to ensure you have no direct contact with the real client. And often you’ll end up with effectively two clients on the same job, getting feedback and revisions from the puppet client before the work is even shown to the real client.

Ensure you meet the real decision makers early. There is nothing worse than working closely with someone, and then finding their boss coming in and overriding all the decisions you’ve made together.



4. The Helicopter Client

A client who wants to hover around and oversee your every move is a helicopter client. They are either so precious about their project, or so doubtful of your abilities, that they feel the need to hover over you all the time.

I once had a client — in the very first days of my own agency — who, having decided that work was not proceeding quickly on their project, sent someone to come and watch over me. Every. Single. Day. Inevitably, every day turned into a review of the work, and progress proceeded at a glacial pace. With more confidence, I would have shown them the door.

A twist on the helicopter client is one that wants to do all the design work themselves.  Not only does this completely marginalize your skills as a designer, but when the results are inevitably terrible, they will regard it as your fault for not being able to translate their design vision properly.

Of course, some clients are very creative in their own fields, but whilst you might speak a similar design language, the creative client is often not good at leaving you to do your thing and trusting your particular skillset. People in creative professions are used to leading design work, and can find it hard to let go.



5. The Broke Client

Making sure you get paid is the most important part of the design process. But even with the best will in the world, often clients will try and change the deal in terms of payment, both in terms of when and how much.

It’s worth checking that the client actually has the ability to pay you. Beware of clients who say “you’ll get paid when I get paid” – it means that you’re taking all the risk on the project. If a client says they will be getting the money soon, then you should reply that you’ll be ready to start work when the funds are in place. Remember, if the budget is not in place, they are a False Client.

My experience is that getting the first payment out of a client is the most difficult, often because you are dealing with the byzantine machinations of their accounts department. Once the first payment has been made, subsequent payments generally follow smoothly.



6. The ‘Weasel’

Sometimes clients can afford to pay you, but won’t. It’s a power trip that some clients cannot leave alone, believing it to be an essential part of ‘doing business’. For some reason, some clients feel the need to teach designers some tough lessons.

If the client starts trying to change the payment terms, a big alarm should go off. This is when you’ll be glad you have a full written agreement of what you will get paid and for what work, or better still, a formal contract. Also make sure you retain all the intellectual property in your work until you have received full payment — in many countries this principle is enshrined in law.



7. The ‘Entrepreneur’

A variant of the Broke Client is the client that can’t afford to pay you now, but will if the project is successful. Another big alarm should go off at this point. In this situation you are effectively an unsecured investor in a venture, and are operating entirely at risk.

Ask yourself how much you believe in this venture, and also how much risk is the Entrepreneur putting in? Sometimes you might find out that everyone else is getting paid, and you are the only one expected to work on spec.

If you do go down this route then choose your projects carefully, and insist that you earn some equity in return for your efforts — big risk should result in big reward. Do not settle this on the back of a napkin, get it in writing and signed. Depending on the amount of work involved you may want to let a lawyer look it over.



8. The ‘Buddy’

Sometimes a potential client might act like your new best friend. They want to take you to the pub, go for coffee, or just drop by your studio because they were passing. They will add you as a friend on Facebook, send you funny links by e-mail, or tickets to the football.

This client is likely to use emotional manipulation to get you to do more work, accept lower payments, and be their support network.

Remember, you are not in business to make friends; strong relationships with clients are built on mutual respect, over a long period of working together. Sure, go out for a drink if you’d like to, but don’t let it get in the way of business.



9. The Client from Hell

There are infinite variations on the Client from Hell. Here are just a few:

  • Clients who constantly want to make changes on changes.
  • Clients who never respond.
  • Clients who go behind your back.
  • Clients who impose impossible deadlines.
  • Clients who miss deadlines.
  • Client who don’t want to pay for any work they don’t use.

The trouble with the Client from Hell, is that they tend to disguise themselves well. The only thing you can do is ensure you’re covered legally, and get out while the gettin’s good.



Don’t be a bad supplier

Finally, it’s worth looking at your own performance as a supplier. Are you doing everything you should keep the working relationship healthy? Try looking at things from the client’s perspective. If you were a client, how would you like your supplier to conduct themselves?

It’s tempting to moan about your clients to friends, colleagues and acquaintances, but the person you moan to today might think twice about being your client tomorrow.

Remember, being a design professional is not about trying to be friends with everybody, but by being clear and upfront with clients you can ensure that in your dealings with them there can be no emotional manipulation.

Clients that are responsive, engaged, and (most important of all) pay on time, are to be treasured. If you have them, hold on to them, cherish them, and don’t forget to tell them once in a while how much you appreciate them.

  • http://design-feed.com Design-Feed

    The helicopter is the worst. Getting micromanaged by someone that doesnt know what they’re talking about is painful.


    • Alexander

      In the beginning of my career, I was deeply troubled by clients which don’t know a thing about design but wanted to change my awesome designs. Now, I’m OK with helicopter client as long as I get paid.

      • http://design-feed.com Design-Feed

        I have the 20 minutes rule. If they dont listen to me after and argue for more than 20 minutes over trivial things it goes into the ‘I dont care, getting paid’ pile.

  • http://www.cliftwalker.co.uk/ Jonathan Clift

    As a freelancer I’ve definitely had my fair share of ‘nightmare’ clients. The hardest clients I’ve always found are the ones who seem to think they know more. I’ve completed various designs for clients in the past, only to be sent back something mocked up in Microsoft Word that they think is better and would like me to implement.

    This proves tricky for a few reasons. Firstly the designs are often so bad it would be detrimental to the clients business for me to implement it and secondly even if I did implement it, it would look bad on me and certainly wouldn’t be something I could add to the portfolio. If you do run into this, sometimes you can still save it by spending time educating the client some more about what you’re trying to achieve with your designs. I’ve got round this in the past by setting up a ‘workshop’ with the client so that they are directly involved in the design process, can make decisions but I ultimately controlled the final design.

    Another thing to watch out for when you’re just starting out is clients who think they are doing you a favour by giving you a project. They’ll tell you that it would be a great project for your portfolio so if you can give them a ‘cheap’ quote they’ll be happy to go with you. In a lot of cases it pays off doing some low cost work with the right clients but keep in mind that often the lower the cost the harder work a client is. Don’t fall into the trap of continuously doing low cost work just because you think it will build up your portfolio.

  • http://www.markevans.ca/ Mark Evans

    Nice post! As my consulting business has grown, I have developed a “Spidey Sense” about most clients. It’s always a challenge because you want business but being able to identify potential problem clients is invaluable.

  • Jason

    I make the .css file and images external until paid in full. The contract is clear. I haven’t had any real problems as of yet. *knocks on head*.

  • Nic DiPalma

    Ugh, we’ve all been there, but we can avoid it by recognizing these symptoms early. But then what? Exercise your option to say, “No, thank you.” Hard to do when you’re struggling for work, but understand that your #1 priority is to make a difference for your client. Go for the project that will allow you to make the biggest difference. That’s how you create the most value for yourself. Only 10-20% of your potential clients will “get it”, so embrace those that do, be an agent of their transformation, and they will reward you with accolades, referrals, and more. The other 80-90% will only take until you have nothing left.

  • http://markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

    Have come across all of these at some point, my personal worst are the helicopter, entreprenuer (bad one, generally) and the client from hell. I think it’s really hard especially for those new to freelancing to accept that you sometimes have to get rid of ‘bad’ clients as you don’t want to turn down work, but it takes time to recognise the deadwood and get rid. I also dislike the client who constantly picks fault and then when you point out how what you’ve provided has improved his business (with proof), they just ignore you until they think up something new to complain about! Great article, thanks :)

  • Maria

    A very good article!
    Like for Jonathan the worst type of client for me ist the one who thinks they know more. As I am a very quiet person I always found it hard to handle such situations. But as my experience grew I was able to get over it. Have you heard of the “Dunning Kruger Effect”? If a client believes themselve to be as good as you (they hire you just because they cant find the time to do it on their own), RUN!

  • vanzylmedia.com

    Thanks for the interesting [yet funny] take on clients Martin.
    Over the last 10 years I have waisted countless hours (read money) on some of these types of clients. The are definitely hard to spot at first, but you definitely learn to read the warning signs with experience.

  • http://www.dzierza.com Michal

    Great post. From my experience, you can easily swap ‘designer’ for most freelance jobs. Client types seem to be universal.

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    This happened to me once but good thing I was on Fiverr.

  • Squiggles

    I had to give up my freelance business because I couldnt find any clients at all. I tried all the freelance sites, my local businesses, I just couldnt land any work. Anyone have any tips that I can try to find some freelance work as a designer?

  • http://myjosephine.se/en/ My Josephine

    The client from hell was my usual type of clients when I first started out. Then I saw the video “F*ck you. Pay me.” with Mike Monteiro at http://vimeo.com/22053820 and it helped me so much to get on the right track. To really set better rules for myself on which clients I take on (and that I don’t have to take on every single one, but instead choose the ones that are serious and seem pleasant). And to also think extra hard about what is absolutely needed in my contract and what type of milestones to use to ensure my safety (as well as theirs of course).

    I won’t say it’s pain-free today, but 90% of my clients are wonderful now a days.

    • Barbara

      Josephine thank you very much for this video “F*ck you. Pay me.” with Mike Monteiro. It is very useful.

  • http://www.phoenixstudios.co.uk Greg Donert

    I think the helicopter client is probably the worst. Ultimately you hired someone for a reason, you need to trust in their ability to complete the project. Having regular catch ups and milestones helps this and it’s important to put this in place at the beginning of a project.

  • Nathaniel

    haha! as much as I hate to say it, I think I was a “helicopter” client. I remember when I hired someone from sleeklogos.com .. I wanted things to be perfect, you know? Guess it’s normal for first timers, eh?

  • Ken Bailey

    So awesome…LOL! You definitely encounter them in all fields…i wanna add something to the “Client from hell” — has so many freaking demands..most of which are impossible.

  • Ken Bailey

    I know right, man. I encounter them with clients as well, and I’m sure others have as well.