7 Essential Red Flags to Watch Out for in New Clients

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December 07, 2010
postimgWorking with clients is one of the most difficult parts of being a web designer. It's a challenge which we face each and every day, regardless of whether we work in-house, as freelancers, or as agency owners. Some clients are great, while others leave us tearing our hair our and wondering why we felt the need to subject ourselves to this line of work. While some problems with clients can be put down to poor communication by both parties, many times we can identify clients which are going to be difficult before we even start working with them. Today we'll take a look at seven ways to make sure you don't end up as a regular contributor to ClientsFromHell.net.

1. They Want To Argue on Price

1 This is probably the most common of all red flags. A client who wants to argue on price is a client who doesn't respect, understand, or value the work of a web designer. If you hear statements such as "I have a nephew who can do the Photoshop for $50" - run a mile. Other common issues surrounding price and payment include not wanting to pay a deposit before the commencement of work and trying to get you to agree to payment clauses. For example: "Our new website must receive X amount of traffic by X date in order for the final 25% to become payable." This is not acceptable. You are a professional providing professional services, so make sure you are polite but firm with the price which you have quoted. The only way to increase the perceived value of web design as a service is if we hold steady on this issue. Some clients think that they should be able to pay whatever they feel like for services, because they aren't products with fixed prices. This is memorably depicted in The Client Vendor Relationship by Scofield Editorial.

2. They Need it Done Yesterday

2 Probably the next most common red flag encountered: clients who need their project completed yesterday, or at the very least by the end of the week. Not understanding or caring about the amount of time needed in the web design process is another sure sign of a poor client. Not understanding, in principle, is OK. The not caring part is the real issue. Almost all clients with an immediately pressing deadline aren't open to suggestion, their mind is made up. Web design at any level beyond the most basic of sites takes a significant amount of time. The reality of the situation is that in the overwhelming majority of cases it wouldn't even be possible to meet their deadline if you worked all day and all night. I once left a client's office at 8 PM on a Monday and had the client shouting at me on the phone at 9 AM on Tuesday asking why the next design revision hadn't been completed. Needless to say, for that and other reasons, the project didn't work out.

3. They Have an Existing Website Which Sucks

My own trademarked indicator of how to spot a nightmare client. It's easy to think that if a client has an existing website which sucks, that they must have had a bad web designer. What is true much more of the time is that they had a good web designer and they screwed up the site all by themselves. Here's the thing, and The Oatmeal summed this up perfectly in their comic How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell, clients often have an overwhelming knack for screwing up websites. Looking at their current website can often offer a pretty clear indicator of what sort of client they'll be. Along the same lines, also depicted in aforementioned comic, if the client has a poor relationship with their last web designer then it could be a pretty good indicator that they're going to end up having a poor relationship with you. I've personally never met a client who complained about their last web designer and then turned out to be loads of fun to work with. The best clients already have great websites. They researched what they wanted, they worked with a great designer, the website is great, and now they want to work with you to take it to the next level.

4. The Person Managing the Project Built the Current Website

4 A sure-fire way to doom a project before it ever gets of the ground. If the person who you're working for is the person who created the website which you're redesigning, then they're going to take everything personally. Not only are they going to take everything personally, but they are going to want to offer their input, advice, and opinions every single step of the way. This is never more true than if the marketing manager is the person who runs the current site. Statements such as "can we make it flash" and "can we make the logo bigger" were born from clients such as this. The fact of the matter is that the person who is paying you needs to be at least slightly impartial about the website which you're creating for them. If they have a personal connection or commitment then the chances are that their own personal preferences will get in the way of important decisions. For designers in particular, this type of client is guaranteed to be a pain from the get-go. If this red flag is present, then nine times out of ten red flag number three will also be there.

5. They Can't Communicate

5 One of the more sneaky red flags, this one can creep up on you and knock you down when you're least expecting it. Poor communicators come in all shapes and sizes. A client who seems like a great communicator socially does not always translate into a client who is a great communicator professionally. The best way to gauge this particular metric is through multiple channels of communication. Talking on the phone, talking in person, writing via email, writing via project management software. How well are they able to tell you what they want? Some of the classic statements used by clients who can't communicate are "I don't know what I want, but I'll know it when I see it." and "I want it to have more [pop/jazz/edge/whoosh/sex/shine/glint]" - these people just don't know how to say what they mean and as a result it's almost impossible to please them. Communication is the most essential part of the web design process and without it a working relationship cannot go smoothly.

6. They Want Constant Meetings

6 The needy client is sure of only one thing, they don't know what they're doing and they don't trust you to do it. To make up for their insecurities, they want to see you regularly so that you can hold their hand at every turn. With this client you'll end up spending more time in meetings with them than you will on design or code. The needy client will eventually drain you of all your time an energy. In extreme cases they'll even ask you to work at their offices. They don't trust you, they want to keep an eye on you and they want you to be right there whenever they have a question. This red flag will often show itself in combination with the "Can't Communicate" red flag. Their own inability to communicate leads them to believe that you don't understand what they want, (this part is actually justified, most of the time you have no idea what they want because they themselves have no idea what they want), so they want to see you often to ask about more 'pop' and 'flare'.

7. They Want an Ongoing Relationship

7 Finally, the ultimate red flag. A client who talks constantly about how they want an "ongoing relationship" is a client to avoid like the plague. In a healthy professional relationship both parties know that if the project goes well, and if the opportunity presents itself, then they will work together again. A client who is insecure (number 6) and had a bad relationship with their last designer (number 3) wants to hang on to the next guy like he's their holy savior. In extreme cases these clients will talk about how they want to make you "part of the team" or "part of the family". These are also the clients that are most likely to try to tempt you with offers of revenue or stock in the company in place of some part of your fee. They want to lock you in and own you. This is the client who is going to call you at eleven at night because they had some great (read: awful) new idea that they just had to run past your urgently, just in case you were relaxing and going to bed instead of working on their site. Remember, you're part of the family now, they own you.


Many of these issues can come down to uneducated clients, and as many other articles in the past have stressed: educating clients is extremely important. It's your job to help them make the right decision, not laugh at them for not knowing what it is. Sometimes however, they can't be helped. We all have bills and mortgages to pay. Sometimes people say that they don't have the luxury of choosing their clients in so much detail. Just keep in mind that a bad client will cost you money, not make you money. These are the types of people who will waste your time for two months and then with-hold payment. This is just a blog post, these aren't commandments written in stone. There are exceptions to every rule and it's up to you to use your own judgement and common sense to identify the red flags as they come up. Hopefully, this post will have simply given you a few tips on things to look out for. Do you have any other essential red flags to watch out for in clients? Have you found any strong indicators to judge good and bad clients by?

John O’Nolan

Founder at Ghost.org. Writes about Open source, startup life, non-profits & publishing platforms. Travels the world with a bag of kites.

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