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.