How to get TOUGH with clients

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March 07, 2013
How to get TOUGH with clients.

I recently received a call from a young designer who I met when she was in art school. I reviewed her portfolio and several years later at a local graphic design group meeting, she reintroduced herself and thanked me for being kind and helpful in that review. She became an avid reader of my articles on the design business and on one occasion told me that when it came to clients, she needed to “borrow [my] bastardness”.

Apparently she thought I was tough in client negotiations and thought she was being too timid in a no-win situation from which she needed to extract herself. I laughed and told her it wasn’t that I was a bastard to clients — I just know how to face difficult situations.

“It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on,” I told her, as I was fond of quotes that may strike chords of easy understanding in odd situations.

“What?” she replied. It wasn’t meant to clear up her problem but to ease her opinion of my business acumen.

“It’s a quote from Sun Tsu’s (Sun Tzu) The Art of War,” I explained. “I’ve been through this many times in my career, so I know how to combat the situation.”

People want to work with a professional, but..

Her problem wasn't so odd. We have all faced the same difficult situation. A relative of a distant in-law was getting married and the bride and mother combination proved itself to be the most hideous of any client you will ever meet.

They weren't close enough to ask her to do it for free but, latching onto her being the cousin of the brother's wife's old college roommate, who once met Kevin Bacon, and so forth, they talked her into a discount. She was a busy freelancer and worked out that she would design an invitation, map, RSVP card and some other piddling bits of paper at night and the following weekend. As happens with weddings, and bridezillas with pushy mothers, the scope mushroomed and changed every day like clockwork.

Luckily, the designer had quoted based on an hourly rate and the hours were adding up as nights turned into nights and days and the following weekend turned into multiple weekends. The hours had tripled the cost the bride and monster-in-law expected from my friend, and she was afraid they wouldn't pay at all. There were always mumblings about a deposit payment and the notice of increased hours. We would all get that sinking feeling that payment was too easily flitted away by the small, delicate bride hand, to be held in serious consideration of being paid. Push was coming to shove and it was Friday night and after yet another major changed emailed that morning by the bride, she was expecting everything to be delivered so they could go into the groom's office on Saturday and make photocopies of the invitations to send out Monday morning. Unfortunately, she couldn't make the delivery until Saturday morning but was sick at the thought of handing it over with a smile, realizing there would never, ever be any payment.

Time for "bastardness"

"Time for the hostage game," I told her after listening to her long, sad description of the assignment from Hell. "Who's coming to pick up the project?"

"The mother," she answered. It was the way she said "the mother" that I knew there was a bit of fear and disgust with the woman.

"Call her and tell her that the changes made that morning won't be ready until Saturday morning and the hours needed will bring the final bill to $X dollars, so she should have a check made out to that amount and you'll give her the files."

"What if she doesn't have a check?" she replied.

"Then offer to drive her home to get her checkbook or to the bank for a cashier's check."

"Every time I bring up money, the bride and mother laugh and tell me I'll get paid and shouldn't focus on money during this happy moment," she told me, sounding depressed and desperate, knowing she would be screwed out of a ballooning fee.

"It's a hard position but you have to keep insisting that it's no money, no files, no matter what either of them says. Just smile and keep telling them you can't release the files without a check," I told her.

A few days later, I called my friend to see if she had been "bastardized" by my advice. Sure enough, the mother of the bride called about getting the files and wouldn't talk about money. My friend, to my delight and surprise, stuck to her guns and while the mother was angry and threw the check at her feet, she was paid. The addendum to the story is; the bride called a few months later with another "project" she needed done.

But that's not nice!

Now, you may snicker at this being a "family favor" situation, but the lesson should be applied to every project, no matter how big or small the client. The key considerations is; you deserve to be paid as a professional and there's no reason you should feel that insisting on getting paid your full fee "isn't being nice" or "isn't helpful to the client." Not issuing a contract or some written form of agreement, giving a discount for no reason or agreeing to take less than you deserve is YOUR problem and will negatively affect YOU. both financially and psychologically. As a friend of mine once said;

Cutting a deal is okay as long as you aren't also cutting your own throat with the same quick stroke.

Most designers… no... it's ALL designers (and most people, for that matter) have a problem saying "no!" or are uncomfortable with confrontation. Here's some handy tips to help you toughen up in negotiations:

  • When a client asks you for something that feels uncomfortable because you know it's wrong or it's just a gut feeling, imagine they're asking you to jump off a cliff. The answer will be, of course, "I'm afraid I can't do that".
  • When you're asked to discount a project for whatever reason, imagine the person is asking you for half the money in your wallet or bank account (which is probably a bad example as most creatives have no money in their wallet or bank account). Your first thought should be, "why?" Your second thought should be, "what's in it for me?" Your out loud response needs to be, "here's what will make ME happy with a discount…" Future work is no reason for a discount unless the client is paying a retainer for several projects. There is, in fact few reasons for offering any discount unless you are dealing with a good, regular client and you want to use THEM as an experiment for a new service or skill you recently learned.
  • When the client seems the skittish type, don't use the word "contract" to seal the deal. Mention an "engagement form" or a "project brief" and use one that can be sent by email to be a legal agreement. If the client complains about any written agreement (find examples of contracts and agreements you can use for free, here), tell them it protects both parties and is the only way to transfer the copyright as per the U.S. (or international, if not dealing with a U.S. client) copyright law. Anyone who still objects is trouble coming down the road. Move on!

Keep calm while going bat sh*t crazy

I'm a New Yorker — I can't keep calm but I can keep a cool demeanor when trouble arises. No matter what, always be cool as ice but tense up your indignation when someone wants your time or money for free. Things pop up during a project and as long as you maintain transparent communication with the client on a regular basis, both on the work and fees for mounting hours, changes or additions, then there should be no major surprises to deal with on bad footing. Of course, there will be a problem here and there, from time to time. There are ways to deal with it and still be considered professional.

A client once racked up thousands of dollars in changes on a project and when it was discovered, by me, that it was the client's secretary relaying false directions from her boss so she could go to him after the project was done and be hired as a creative director (because being a creative director is just telling people what to do), the client couldn't understand why I would charge those extra fees because of this outrage on the part of his employee. When I insisted it was due to no fault of my own, that by coming to him when I did, I saved him many thousands of dollars, he softened a bit but still wanted the several thousands of dollars forgiven, I told him to take it out of his secretary's salary. He paid and actually became a good repeat client. The secretary was fired however and we are now happily married. Just kidding. I had to break up the tension of this article.

The key is to remember that if it's not your fault, if it was due to any influence outside your responsibilities, there is no shame, nor is it unprofessional to make the client pay what is owed. How do you handle these usual problems? Try these tips:

  • Scope creep is a huge problem so whenever I send an email to a client during a project that's paid by the hour, I include a time stamp of the hours used and the fee as of that day/time. It's all listed under a top header of the client, project name, deadline, contact info, contact person's name and then the time stamp. Naturally, all changes, evolutions, etc. that occur during the project is included in an email. They may say, in the end, that they never paid attention or saw the actual fee or listed changes, but they did and that gives me the strength to demand that fee.
  • When a client says they "will know what [they] like when [they] see it" after sketches are presented, it means you didn't write a proper creative brief or they have changed their mind from what they have originally said they wanted. It also means they have all the money in the world to spend or are crazy and think they can play games with the stupid artist. You MUST write a complete brief, which includes asking the client what web sites or print pieces, depending on the project, he/she likes and which elements attract them. Very few clients really want to be surprised with a new, fresh design. They aren't visual and can't imagine anything you've described to them. Use visual examples as if they were Rorschach tests for insanity. If you know they are playing with you, smile and tell them it's no problem as long as they understand the new sketch charges. That either stops changes or you get a chance to explain why they need to pull their head out of their rear and start being professional.
  • Oops! Someone asked for too many changes but their budget doesn't cover the amount of the final fee. Well, being the good professional you are, you've already collected a 30%-50% deposit and possibly a few milestone payments, correct? So, the client wants you to eat the fees for all the changes and scope creep? Imagine your family surviving on eating only two-thirds of all their meals and wearing half the clothes they need for cold winter days. There are ways to extend payments but sometimes clients don't like to pay once they have everything. TOUGH! Pay it all this time and we'll talk discount on the next one. If they are professional and it truly is a budget problem, they will be back.

The reality of your dream

Yes, we all had our dreams of what it would be like to lead a creative life and live like artists. As people who deal with ideas and imagination, instead of hard goods that can be touched, felt and held in one's hands, there is the constant risk of fumbling along. Earning a living, raising a family, saving for old age is part of the reality of running a business and even tougher for singular freelancers. Sometimes you need to go against instinct.

Being a designer is a tough position, whether it's on staff or being freelance but I'm not telling you anything you don't know. The question is; do you admit that to yourself? We see examples of crazy clients and bosses on sites like, then shake our heads and laugh but inside we feel anxious and see what we feel are our failings. Being human, we must admit our true nature as mammals on this planet. There are the alphas and the omegas of the tribe and generally, those in between who shun confrontation and aggression. Unfortunately, sometimes we must admit that when we are backed into the corner of surrendering our right to survive, we find it hard to strike back. In societal rules, we need to strike back in a civilized way and standing one's ground for our rights in life and business can be achieved without weapons or blood spilling but it takes the attitude of saying, "this is what's right and I will demand that because I deserve it."

As Shakespeare wrote, in Henry V:

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it

What act of bravery have you performed defending your rights? Any decisions you wish you could reverse? Let us know in the comments.

Images ©GL Stock Images

Speider Schneider

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. Follow him on Twitter @speider or add him on Google+

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