Avoiding Bad Clients

Most clients are great to work with — but it’s inevitable that you will meet your fair share of bad clients. Here are some red flags to look out for so you know which ones to stay away from.


They want everything for cheap

Some clients will try to devalue your work by asking for cheaper prices after you have given them a quote. One way to avoid this situation is to ask for the client’s budget first so you know what to expect. It’s never a good idea to negotiate on price, since you are likely to lose more than you gain. Others will offer to pay you in equity which, in other words, means you won’t be getting paid. Avoid them as well.

Most clients with small budgets are going to nickel and dime you, and sometimes not even pay. They don’t recognize the value of good design and aren’t interested in how much work you put in. It’s hard to avoid such clients, especially when you’re first starting out and don’t have much working experience.

However, if you focus on quality, then charging more and finding clients who are willing to pay more shouldn’t be an issue. Also, such clients are usually more interested in results and don’t really care how much you charge, as long as you’re skillful enough to meet their expectations.


They think they know how design works

There are also ‘know-it-all’ clients who claim to know how design works, despite knowing nothing about the design process.

It should only take an hour!

I can do that in Photoshop, why am I paying you to do this?

Such clients are difficult to work with, as they will try to undermine you every step of the way. However, you should never bash heads with them. Instead, try your best to help them understand your design process. For example, you can show them the rough sketches and notes you did during conceptualization, and describe the rationale behind your decisions. If they still prove to be troublesome, then it might be time to cut your losses.


They refuse to sign a contract

By now, you should understand the importance of contracts and why it’s a must to have them. Clients who refuse to sign contracts usually spell trouble. However, if you can get them to accept your terms and conditions in some way, then it can effectively be considered as a contract. For example, email can be legally binding depending on the context. In such cases, it comes down to how much trust you have in the client.


They don’t know what they want

Sometimes a client is unsure and can’t give you direction on the design which can be good or bad. You have creative freedom, but it also means you can’t fix a price for the work done. The client can make as many changes as they like since they are paying for it, and it might get frustrating for you, especially if the project stretches on for too long. You aren’t responsible for their lack of direction, so it might be wise not to gamble on it.


They don’t pay up

As careful as you are, you’re guaranteed to run into bad clients who don’t pay up; it’s just a matter of when. To reduce such risks, be sure to always collect a deposit and divide payment into milestones. However, if the client doesn’t pay you in full by the end of a project, is it worth the time and effort to chase payments? It really comes down to opportunity cost — and oftentimes it’s not worth it. Other than blacklisting the client, you can’t really do much in most cases.


They ask for spec work

Some clients will ask you to come up with a few concepts before they pay for your services. Called spec work (short for speculative), it’s considered bad practice by designers. While the request may sound reasonable, don’t be fooled. More often than not, you will never hear from them again after sending them your concepts. Even worse, they are free to use your ideas however they want, since there is no formal agreement or contract in place. Your portfolio should be more than enough for clients to evaluate your skills and decide if you’re the right fit for the job.


They aren’t responsive

You will have clients who are very busy. They don’t seem to be around when you need to ask them important questions regarding the project. Some of them will even take weeks to send you a reply, which can be frustrating and a test of patience. In such cases, you can either highlight the issue to the client and hope he or she takes action, or drop the client entirely.


In the end, it’s about managing expectations. Whether you’re charging a fixed price or hourly, let the client know what you will and won’t do before starting anything. In as much detail as possible.

So that means:

  • Clear contracts, with a limit to revisions (or clear language indicating you will charge more for revisions)

  • Making sure the client understands the terms and conditions before signing the contract.

  • Reminding the client when you’re about to start revisions. It’s easy to forget what’s in the contract after time has passed.

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