The “Bad Client” Fallacy

The Bad Client Fallacy

Web design and development blogs are always full of advice and constructive discussions. The mission of these blogs is to help the community stay informed.

One such informative article that a fellow Six Revisions writer of mine wrote recently is about the strategies involved in avoiding bad clients. Many other Six Revisions writers have tackled this concept with articles that discuss how to avoid project disasters, how to handle difficult client situations, and things we shouldn’t tolerate in design projects, all circling back to the notion that it’s just best to avoid "bad" clients.

While I’m sure that these articles are meant to act as educational materials for beginning freelancers, it seems that the ratio of advice about these so-called "bad clients" and their actual existence is disproportionately represented.

In reality, it’s a rare occasion that you’ll be forced to deal with a client who’s terrible enough that you want to turn their business away and purposefully reduce your income. More often than not, a collaborative client-freelancer relationship is (or can be) established.

The process of hiring an individual or a team to develop a new website, a new ad campaign, a new logo, etc. should always have benefits for both parties. The party being hired gains a source of revenue and the client has the opportunity to meet a need that they can’t otherwise satisfy by themselves.

For both parties involved, the goal is to create a wonderful product. And if everyone is in agreement on how to achieve that, the means to get there can always be made to fall in line with the desired outcomes.

We Won’t Always Match

There will be occasions where a designer and a client simply don’t match up (which isn’t a bad thing). These disagreements will usually involve one of the big three factors in projects: money, time, or talent.

If a client doesn’t have the budget to pay the bills, then the project won’t get off the ground or won’t get the resources it needs to be developed successfully. Similarly, if the freelancer doesn’t have the time or skill to complete the project at hand, the project is equally doomed.

Traits of a "Bad" Client

Some of the common warning signs that more experienced professionals share to their fellow freelancers are focused around characteristics of a prospective client that can drive freelancers insane. Let’s take a look at some of the warning signs we’re often told about as being "bad" and why they’re not necessarily detrimental to a project if handled appropriately.

Know-It-All, Micromanaging Clients

This bit of advice is typically a warning against working with clients who seem to know everything about your profession. They always deliver work or revision requests with long explanations of why making the change they suggest is best for the product and how they read about it somewhere. They may try to drive and micromanage everything, which makes it very difficult to perform your work.

However, freelancers should be well aware that it’s important to manage and consider criticisms that clients provide. Passing off the know-it-all client as someone who’s going to be too involved in the work is an unprofessional move. Debates, disagreements, and constructive conversations should have a role in every project or else the project decisions become at risk to groupthink.

It’s up to the designer just as much as the client to make sure this part of the collaborative process maintains productivity instead of hinders it.

Uninvolved Clients

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the client we only hear from once every other month or so. It’s often impossible to move a project forward without communication from both sides. When designers don’t receive feedback on their work and milestones, projects drag on, and checks don’t get cut.

The easiest solution to this problem is paperwork. We all know that contracts, proposals and invoices — the business side of being a freelancer — aren’t exactly the most exciting part of the work, but they are critical tools for keeping our work in control.

Taking a percentage of a project cost up front puts the ball in your court. You have the option to scrap the project and cut your losses. At the end of the day, you won’t have made the full project amount, but if you follow your guidelines, you won’t have done any unpaid work either.

Ignorant Clients

To me, turning clients down because they lack a solid direction for their project is one of the worst pieces of advice you can find in an article discussing problematic clients. The logic that’s given is that you’ll waste a lot of the project’s time waiting for the client to make up their mind.

Educating clients is simply part of what we do, and, at least for me, one of the rewarding aspects of the job.

If your client is having a hard time making a decision or you find them going back on their word a lot (resulting in tons of revision work), it’s your job to step up and give them direction. This is what they’re paying you for.

Spec Work Clients

Another huge topic when discussing the red flags involved in prospective clients are those who ask for speculative (free) work up front. It doesn’t take a genius to learn that working for free is a hard way to make a living.

However, the most common way that the evils of spec work is discussed tends to blow the situation out of proportion and make it seem like a much larger problem than it really is. Speculative work doesn’t always mean working for free, getting ripped off, or running into a client who appears to be doing a little bit of shopping.

Providing this client with some simple work such as an assessment of a current site or a little consultation on how they should approach a new website redesign could make the difference between you and a competitor getting the project.

Occasionally providing spec work, when the situation is right, can be a good business maneuver toward garnering a job, and one that we see all the time in many other industries.

Taking the Risk with "Bad" Clients

Sure, it’s natural for both freelancers and clients to do some screening in order to find a good match for the project at hand. However, when we have lists of things to look out for and when we make it sound like the sky will fall on us if a tough client lands on our laps, we’ll miss out on a lot of good clients.

Despite any number of warnings or advice about how to find and work with the right people, there’s still a good chance that all of us will have plenty of bad clients in the course of our careers.

Teaching people how to avoid bad clients by giving them a list of traits to avoid is like telling a child that the secret to walking is not falling down. And much like falling down, living through the experience of a bad client or bad project is a learning experience that will make you a better professional.

When considering clients, there are many factors to consider. Few of them are more important than the money it brings, the time you’ll have for it, and your ability to get the job done. If a client and project match up in terms of money, time, and talent, then accepting or rejecting a project may come down to what really amounts to a gut feeling, not a checklist of "bad" client traits.

A designer who’s afraid that a client may present a challenge that they aren’t ready for is really just afraid of being better at what they do.

Have you turned clients down because you were concerned about where the project might lead? What have you learned from working with bad clients? Have you had an experience where a client that you thought would be hard to work with ended up being great?

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About the Author

Jason Gross is a freelance web designer focused on creating clean and user friendly websites. Jason currently lives in Indiana and can be found on Twitter as @JasonAGross or on the web at his personal blog and portfolio.

This was published on May 5, 2011


Maria Malidaki May 05 2011

Wonderful perspective Jason! It’s true that we cannot always expect everyone to be of our standards, and that by being too obsessed with finding the less “faulty” client, we can lose an important deal of work. There’s true danger lurking when we tend to exaggerate over the “unwanted client traits”.

Please allow me to note that in the first referenced article, the strategies are explicitly -against- avoiding bad clients. On the contrary, it is suggested to inform and help clients better understand the nature of our job, in order to reduce the usual collaboration complaints from the web professional’s viewpoint. There’s also a warning about becoming hypochondriac, which I believe you extended further here, in this enjoyable and interesting article. :)

Kevin Ebaugh May 05 2011

This is basically the nicer, text-only version of this: :)

Raphaël May 05 2011

Very interesting article, I agree with most of it.
It just forgets to mention another category of bad clients I call “double painful” – a crossover between 2 kinds of bad clients. For example, the ignorant AND know-it-all micromanaging client, or the spec work AND uninterested client.
Not to mention the triple painful ones… ;)

Jon Raasch May 05 2011

Finally a more balanced article on so-called “bad clients”. I mean I’ve had some bad clients, but you can usually tell them a mile away and if you do things right you’ll never even begin dealing with them. My problems with clients happened earlier in my career when I was willing to take just about anything, which is really my problem more than anyone else’s. In my opinion there are probably more bad developers / designers out there than bad clients :).

Mark Bruce May 05 2011

I have lined up some tips for beginners, But this has large scope.

(1) You should be able to determine quality of your work compared to best designed you find of the web
(2) You should show your best design in your portfolio – It is better if you can explain that the number of hours you have spent for those design work. Then client knows quality of a design and cost
(3) It is better if you can read the mind of client. Then only you can design the website with fewer amounts of revisions
(4) You can ask him the best 5 design he likes by showing several good websites
(5) Start with layout design and get approval
(6) Ask the color theme he likes
(7) You can come up with good design which clients like

slabounty May 05 2011

This is one of the best articles I’ve read on this subject. Too often, designers come off as prima donnas in these articles, unwilling to guide and especially, as you point out, to educate the client.

Robin May 05 2011

I definitely agree with this article. Every time I’ve had a job go badly, it was because I failed to adhere to my own rules and policies, or failed to educate my client properly at the beginning of the project.

Each time I’ve found myself in a very challenging/frustrating situation with a client, I’ve learned something new. And each new thing I’ve learned has markedly altered the way I run my business. While the hard jobs are the most taxing, they are also the most educational. I would not be where I am today without my “bad” clients.

Young May 05 2011

I could not agree more with you Jason. Cyber-highfive! (I guess I still highfive from time to time) Especially with the “ignorant clients” section. “Educating clients is simply part of what we do, and, at least for me, one of the rewarding aspects of the job.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

In my experience micromanaging clients are still open to your ideas. Most of them respect that you’ve been doing this for a living, and will concede if you press hard enough, given that you have the grounds for it. If they are stubborn about it, it’s their loss, which I like to make very clear before I concede. That may your relationship with the client, but transparency and candor are also important to me.

Short but great article. SR is slowly restoring my faith in it…

Rick McKnight May 05 2011

“Educating clients is simply part of what we do, and, at least for me, one of the rewarding aspects of the job.”

Agreed. Absolutely.

sanji May 06 2011

I agree, educating your clients is part of your job (I think). But able to determined the client miles away is a good thing, always prepare yourself for these kind of clients.

Gary Horsman May 06 2011

I think there is a difference between a difficult client and a bad client. Most freelancers probably believe there are more of the latter than there actually are. But bad clients do exist. That’s why I had to write up a Terms of Service Agreement and make clients agree before starting a job.

It’s worth taking the time to develop strategies to deal with difficult clients as discussed here. Like relationships in real life, it takes work to make them succeed.

But if a client is verbally abusive or engaged in some illegal activity or refuses to pay or intends to rip off a freelancer, it’s best to recognize them and avoid them altogether.

To note, the AIGA holds a strong policy against speculative work. People can debate that position. But a professional expects to get paid as well as to pay for high-quality work. Trolling for free labor in exchange for promises is a sure sign of amateurism, or worse.

Clarence Bowman May 06 2011

I run into the good-client, bad-client scenario all the time. Some times the client is a “bad”client simply because I am not the right fit for them as a designer. The designer-client relationship is definitely like a marriage: if you both work together it moves forward, if one of you refuses to cooperate – it ends in disaster.

I even wrote a book about it called “Everyone’s Guide to Designers”. It is to help inform clients about the good, bad, and potentially disastrous things to do and avoid in order to make the design process work at its peak.

You can an excerpt here:

Mike Tupa May 06 2011

I have learned that we are in this business because it’s fun to work with others who are fun to work with. Plowing through a project which results in poor design, bad relations, sleepless nights, and receivables that never quit is not the reason I enjoy consulting. It is best to step out of those situations and move on. A polite thank you but no-thank you is usually enough but be careful that you don’t derail their project or you can be “at fault” for their loss. I look for those signs early and bow out as quickly as I can. Working overtime to satisfy a bad client means you are not out there looking for a good client.

Good Article. Been there, done that and hope to never do it again. (but I’m sure I will)

Sherry May 06 2011

I do believe that there are only a few truly bad clients and that more times than not it’s a, “match up” issue as you put it or it’s a failure on the part of the designer to educate the client properly.

However, the main problems with spec work are: putting unpaid time into something that you may not land and not having the full interaction from a client that results after you’re hired. There’s a back and forth, which you’re obviously well aware of, that needs to happen with the client to produce a finalized design and a successful project. If you spend time working on a design for spec without all the research and information you would normally need, the client might not like it (and not give you the job because they’re basing a large portion of who they hire on whether they like what they see in the spec work). The type of client who asks for work up front for free is the, “we’ll know it when we see it” type and those are the type that especially need to go through education and the full design process. Also, your portfolio should offer plenty of examples of your work and skills.

I still say, be very wary of a client who asks for design work to be done before a contract is signed. When this happens to us, I usually go into, “education mode” and explain to the client that they will not get the same caliber of work without getting into the whole process – and of course refer them to our portfolio for examples or to speak with our previous clients.

Also, I normally don’t post links in comment responses but an article I wrote back in January fits perfect with this: “2 Things That Give Designers a Bad Reputation”

I think a lot of those “bad client” articles are written by people who haven’t been in this business very long (or just haven’t refined their own process). The ones who have usually know better.

Ramesh Vishwakarma May 07 2011

I am also facing some bad client. My few client are giving me too much changes and designing work but paying less. But I am afraid that if I increase the charge they will go away.

Great post!

I’ve found that most disasters can be avoided by getting a client’s signature on a carefully written proposal. And then, sticking to it!

Yesyada May 07 2011

This is my first time i visit here. I found so many entertaining stuff in this site, especially its discussion. I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! Keep up the good work.

Mahbub Alam Khan May 08 2011

Thanks Jason for such a wonderful and informative article.

I’ve also bad and painful experience with some of my clients. From my experience, before starting any kind of work, every freelancers must be clear about working flow, timeline, and payment amount.

As a freelancer i suggest all of you , never underestimate yourself before your clients. You know better about your qualification and potentiality. so, you have to charge as per your working time. Try to negotiate with them in politely and professional way.


Brian Rowdy May 17 2011

You confidence runs high and your article is inspiring. In my youth I thought like you, but now I know humans (OK, maybe it’s just me) only have a limited amount of ‘executive function’ in a day and sometimes managing the expectations and education of your least productive client can drain all the success out of your day and tap out your ‘good’ decision making ability.

Maybe it is unjust to slough off our (MY) own limited capacity to handle the extra load of a ‘resource hogging client’ by applying a label like ‘Bad Client’ but they are bad for me and my business. Think of it from the point of view that YOU are a valued and finite resource to all your clients’ ever growing desires and needs, and manage that resource. A handful to a dozen great clients can make you a good living and one “Bad Client” can suck up all your momentum and ‘steal’ time away that should be (better) spent helping your great clients.

Caveat: I don’t have large corporate clients, mostly family run local businesses. So, I live close by and get to know all my clients. I refer to people and companies outside of my local community as customers. They come and go, but they do not sustain the success of or depend on my little studio.

Saroj Jul 26 2011

Hi i am having a very bad experiance with my denmark client. In my 10 years of exp i always used to take advance from the abroad clients but this time becoz of his big projects and clearcut requirements i thought he is a very professional and started the work. I signed the NDA bond and agreement and started the work on a condition that i will get after 30 days. I have done the site work in PHP and uploaded in my server as per the agreement we both agreed. We have mentioned in agreement that if In 30 days he dont like our work then he will pay the amount of those days and stop the work.

Till 30days he was praised a lot and we had completed the work before deadline. One day he praised a lot and told we had did it more what he was expecting. I thought this is the good time to aske the payment :). He told sure he will pay the amount within 12 hours.

Next day i got a mail that do u know Java? I told no. He told his friends told java is more secure then PHP. I told i will arrange my friend and he will continue the work.

Unfortulatly all my friends were busy and told they cannot do freelancing job.

After that he become silence and he never gives any reply to mail. So one day(after 60 days) i writen an email please pay my amount else i will publish all of your ideas in social networks. Then after that i got a mail that this is not exceptable. If i do so then he will give me a good lessions. :) the amount he need to give was 40,000. Then i only thought why to take headache for such kind of amount. In business this kind of things will happens and i consolated in my mind that i learn a lession that whatever may be the cause first i should take advance amount from client.

So i request to all freelancer that please take advance then start the work.

Karena Nuttall Oct 07 2011

Excellent Article thanks for the Insight!

Rebecca Marie Oct 07 2011

Well written article that I enjoyed thoroughly. Thanks for sharing :)

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