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.
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.
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?
- 7 Tips for Giving Effective Design Project Quotes
- How Wannabe Designers Burden the Profession
- How to Navigate Design by Committee
- Related categories: Project Management and Productivity
About the Author
This was published on May 5, 2011