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5 clients that will destroy your design business

By Andrew McDermott Posted May. 25, 2016 Reading time: 6 minutes

Have you ever had a customer from hell? The kind of customer who abuses you, spending as little as they possibly can while trying to squeeze as much free work out of you as possible?

You’re not alone.

At some point, most creative professionals (e.g. designers, developers, copywriters, etc.) will run into the customer from hell. These are the customers who, once they’re inside your business, bring in 20 percent of your income and 80 percent of your headaches.

Customers today are abusive, entitled and demanding… right? Actually no…

Customers as a whole are patient, kind and understanding. When they buy into you, into your business, they’re game changers. These customers have the power to literally change your business for the better, over night. I just mentioned the customer from hell though. Am I talking out both sides of my mouth? Not at all: The customers from hell? They aren’t customers…they’re predators.

Customers from hell? They aren’t customers…they’re predators.

These customers come in five deadly flavors, but their goal is the same. Take as much as they can from you, give as little as they can in return. Ruthless and simple. What’s not so simple is how they find you.

Most people have serious misconceptions about these predators. Their mistaken ideas keep them in the dark, which is exactly what these thirsty bloodsuckers want. Most of us recognize these predators when they’re in our business, but by then it’s too late.

If you’re clueless about them, you’re clueless about how they work — which means you can’t stop them, especially if you believe in these myths:

  • It’s a customer service issue: “If we’re just able to keep them happy we won’t have a problem.”
  • All customers are basically good: “If we’re good to them they’ll be good to us.”
  • Make customers the priority: “Put customers first and they’ll reward you” or “the customer is always right.”

So what’s the problem then? What attracts them to your business?

Marketing. Haphazard marketing sucks these predators in. The term “marketing” means anything you’re doing to close new clients. Your emails, proposals, blog posts, forum posts, anything. 

And the worst part?

Most freelancers have no idea their marketing attracts the wrong customer. But how? Are these predators all the same? Should you work with them or weed them out? Knowing who you’re fighting dictates how you fight.

Let’s start with the first predator.

 

1) The Arranger (manipulates deals, circumstances and events)

These predators want any project, any circumstance to be win/lose in their favor. If you have an agreement they’ll change the terms and conditions. They demand options that don’t exist and push for concessions that really only benefit them.

The Arranger looks for two things:

  • Freelancers afraid to lose their business. Every project is an amazing opportunity when there aren’t enough clients. Arrangers use this fear to wear you down, chipping away at you until you’re psychologically exhausted.
  • An unhealthy desire to be flexible. Need this 300 page site in 48 hours? Sure! Established freelancers use a “take it or leave it” philosophy. Arrangers use “flexible freelancers” as cheap labor.

 

2) The Corrupter (a dirty, rotten liar)

They’ll say or do anything to get what they want. They’ll lie to you or about you. They’ll steal from you, turn customers and vendors against you, use entrapment – nothing is off limits for them.

The Corrupter looks for two things:

  • Fear of Conflict. The Corrupter loves to cross the line. They’ll invade your boundaries, cross ethical and moral lines and provoke fights. Carefully monitoring your response. A fear of conflict tells them it’s okay to steam roll over you.
  • Unfair exchange. Give Corrupters a discount, concession or deal and they keep pushing. Put conditions or limits on what you’re willing to give them and they become vicious.

 

3) The Disrupter (demands control)

These predators require special treatment. They want to be in charge. They refuse to use your product or service as intended. They demand your co-workers, partners or employees ignore your requests. For Disrupters, control is everything.

Marketing that attracts The Disrupter:

Disrupters target freelancers with strong “peace keeping” or “fun loving” temperaments. Prefer to avoid conflict or focus on having fun? Disrupters demand you do things their way.

Messages like “have it your way”, “designed around you” and “you’re the boss” are lightning rods that attract The Disrupter.

If you’re a freelancer with a strong perfectionist or control temperament, you’re much harder to control. Focus on “keeping the peace” to win a customer and you’re theirs.

 

4) The Slanderer (punishes you with shame and guilt)

The Slanderer is a professional troll. They’ll provoke you. Imply that you’ve let them down. They’ll bully you, spread gossip and pick fights—they want you to explode.

When you do they have the justification they need to demand discounts, ask for free products and “renegotiate” contracts: “Why do you charge 10x as much for the same service?” “I gave you a chance when no one else would. Is this how you repay me?” “My company pays your bills.” “How do you justify not including that feature? That’s robbery!”

Marketing that attracts The Slanderer:

As a freelancer you’re unique. That’s obvious to you but it’s something customers can’t see. What’s worse, your uniqueness needs to accomplish two clear goals.

  • Something customers care about. Your uniqueness solves customer problems or attracts them in some way.
  • They’re willing to pay for it. It tells you that customers value your work and they’re willing to take a risk with you.

Marketing pieces that say things like “we guarantee your satisfaction”, “we never stop working for you” or “our customers are number one” attract slanderers.

They see this lack of uniqueness as potential desperation. They believe there’s nothing special about you as a freelancer. So they’ll remind you over and over in different ways, until they’re able to get what they want.

 

5) The Schemer (exploits loopholes)

Agreements were created for them. They’re incredibly resourceful; they’ll find a way over, under, around or through your boundaries. Don’t do spec work? “You should have told me.” Offer a 30 day money back guarantee? They’ll use your rules against you. They’ll squeeze out 60 days of free work, then on day 59 ask for a full refund.

Marketing that attracts The Schemer:

Do you make promises or commitments to your customers? Offer extras, incentives or bonuses to get customers to work with you? Schemers look for incomplete policies and procedures.

If you’re a designer and you don’t offer source files, state that specifically. Do you create single use websites or can your customers turn around and resell your work? State your boundaries clearly, then prepare to defend them.

 

Defending your business starts with awareness

Want to protect your business from these nightmare predators? Learn to recognize the symptoms. When you’re aware of the problem it’s easier to spot the solution. But what then? Do you show these predators the door? It depends. If you don’t have a strategy or plan in place to deal with these predators it’s a good idea to show them the door.

What if you need the money?

Or, you have a plan to deal with these predators? It’s rare, but some of them can be converted into all-stars. It requires all of the ingredients I mentioned earlier and the strength to stand up to anything they throw at you.

But it can be done.

If you’re in a situation where you need the money or you have to work with a predator? Here’s a few ways to protect yourself.

  • Get paid up front. Get 50 to 75 percent of the project paid up front. Get paid via credit or debit card, so you control when you’re paid. Bill them weekly or bi-weekly to minimize potential damage if they decide not to pay.
  • Make your agreement ironclad. Make it non-negotiable. Predators sign it as-is or you walk. Add in clauses where the agreement auto renews indefinitely or until you cancel. Give yourself the ability to walk away at any time.
  • Close the loopholes. Find all of the loopholes in your marketing, in your policies and procedures. Then close them.
  • Freeze everything when they step out of line. Did they give you a faulty credit card? Stop working. Asking for something questionable or unethical? Stop working.

Walking away is ideal; have a strategy in place if you can’t. Predators don’t have to take you for a ride. You can provide the help they need and survive to tell the story. Manipulation and abuse doesn’t have to be an option you accept.

 

The customer from hell is a predator

Predators are abusive, entitled and demanding. They choose their victims carefully. They’ll do their best to spend as little as possible while simultaneously squeezing as much free work out of you as they can. You don’t have to be their next victim.

You have the power. Now you’re aware of their attacks, you know where they’ll strike. That awareness acts as a vaccine, giving you the knowledge you need to protect your business and your customers. But only if you choose your customers carefully.

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