Freelance is gr8, Part 2: The ‘Bad Client’ Myth

In part one of this open-ended clusterfuck of ramblings on freelance, professionalism and mistakes, I spoke about how blaming your clients is dumb as fuck and leads you to constantly having poor client experiences. This sparked a little bit of discussion and I feel like maybe I should write a separate post on this so here we go.

One thing I touched on was my exaggerated belief in a half-truth:

Nothing is the client’s fault

I suggested, pretty brashly, that you should actively look to blame yourself when things go to shit in a project. I stand by this, but I have to clarify it properly, because there’s a lot of people out there lacking self-worth and self-confidence. These aren’t just simple character traits, they’re often deep-rooted psychological issues. I’ve been there, it’s fucking dismal, and I’ve been bothered by my own words just a day after writing them.

Do not, every time something goes to shit, actively beat yourself up. That will get you nowhere. Trust me. Be self-critical without being a detriment to your self-worth. Let me clarify how I approach this kind of shit in a bit more detail and maybe I can make a decent distinction between demoralising self-shaming and constructive self-criticism.

Why start from a point of self-blame?

There is a huge, huge issue in design and that is it’s became commonplace to actively, often vehemently, complain about your clients in public. It’s the norm. Sites and social media pages like Clients From Hell actively encourage (and profit from, like that isn’t fucking insidious) so-called professionals blaming and shaming their clients.

By flipping this on its head, you distance yourself from this often-glorified mentality. Ranting is good. It really is. Clients can be the most annoying fuckers in the world. But so can anyone you’re forced to interact with and/or do work for on a regular basis. All relationships can fray, especially ones that revolve around various stages of criticism, collaboration and professional obligation. By being vulnerable to change, by refusing to default to defensiveness, you give yourself a chance to work things out. If not for this client, then for the next one.

By instantly being closed-off, through a combination of natural instinct to defend our actions and confirmation bias manufactured by other so-called professionals and their highly-retweeted client rants, we put ourselves in a position where procedural change has a lot of mental, evolutionary and social barriers to break through before it can be affected. So start vulnerable – start with the assumption of accountability, but make sure you know that this is not a bad thing. Seriously. Everyone fucks up. It’s fine. The faster you figure out where and how you fucked up, the more and more dope you become.

Perform A Postmortem

Even the best projects have bumps in the road. Something I started doing at the end of projects and eventually at the end of project phases is sitting down and looking back at my project notes. Everything that pushed a project back, every time I worked longer than I should have, every time the client gave shit feedback. If I don’t know where the problems arose, and the state of communication around those problems, I’m in the dark. Keeping a project diary can be super useful.

This diary basically consists of all the positive and negative shit that happened outside of the actual design work. What I noticed, after I started actively looking at my past projects for my mistakes, was over time, these pain points went from truly major issues (I’m talking getting fired by and having to fire multiple clients) to almost ineffectual issues (the client didn’t understand why wireframes were in Comic Sans, I misinterpreted a small part of a brief and had to redo a couple of hours’ work).

This happened because I looked back with a self-critical mindset of all the things I could have done better. I’m gonna go out on a limb and show you a perfect example of how I failed to do this and how I lost a client that was previously paying me ~£4k a month:

I got a front-end project in from a client whose small internal team used Angular. I explained that I was only really comfortable handling basic templating and simple transitions, as well as all the standard CSS and HTML shit that was expected. I thought that was agreed, we kicked the project off, and I got started turning designs into prototypes.

Shortly after that, things got a bit more Angular-intensive and I quickly explained that I was happy to learn on the job, but progress might be slow.

I started juggling expectations, falling behind on work, blaming the client for the stalling because how could they expect me to learn and do the work all at the same time? There was poor communication between myself, the CEO, the dev team that led to way too much being expected of me, and me failing to deliver because I failed to manage their expectations.

Eventually, progress was so slow that I was fired from the project. Super deservedly btw. The client started off absolutely fantastic but over time, in my head, they just got worse and worse, expected too much from me, and basically ground me down to the point where I was delivering shit.

Now, that is total bullshit. Looking at it from a self-entitled, defensive, closed-off standpoint: I basically threw all the blame at the client and their team, told myself that I was backed into a shitty position and basically could not have done anything more to deliver good work.

After the initial embarrassment of a (very, very nicely-handled) firing had died down, I went back through all the shit that had led to it; this time making sure that I took the blame for everything that fucked up. Here’s what I learned:

  • I didn’t communicate properly what should be expected of me. I had a super brief chat with the CEO and assumed everything was good.
  • I failed to notice early enough when too much was being asked of me, instead, I agreed to do it. This created a super rocky situation where the client felt confident in my ability to deliver, while I had no fucking clue whether I could or not.
  • I failed to let the client know when I was getting swamped, when I needed help, when something was just totally beyond me. I let work build up. I was scared to even write a line of code because I was so far behind and so far out of my comfort zone.
  • I failed to break down and estimate properly key areas of the app build because I had no idea how long some bullshit Angular ng-mayhem would take me so I just jumped in and hoped for the best. This meant delays and actively forced the client to get ‘pushy’ (btw every client has every right to get pushy, deal with it).

Losing out on that project stung. A lot. Losing that kind of regular money was a massive blow. My first instincts were to get mad, blame the client, print out the Angular source code and ritualistically burn it every night. But eschewing those initial desires to blame everyone but myself led to me noticing a huge deal of my own bullshit that resulted in an absolutely pissy situation.

After getting a grip on how accountable I was for the misfortunes in that project, it really opened my eyes to how unprofessional it is to be in a position where you instantly let yourself completely blame other people for stuff you’re at least 50% in control of of going to absolute shit.

There were many key flaws in how I approached projects and I would have totally missed them, and almost definitely repeated them, if I just instantly started crying about how much I hate clients. Another thing I wrote that applies to anyone who’s whiney and unprofessional enough to completely blame other people for projects turning into absolute fuckery is:

The only constant factor in your ‘shit’ client experiences is you

If you’re regularly getting ‘fucked over’ by clients, if you’re regularly getting ‘hilarious feedback’ from them, if you’re regularly having clients dodge paying you, if you’re regularly getting clients who expect the world on a shoestring budget and complain when they don’t get it, if you regularly bemoan all your ‘shitty’ clients: take a fucking look at yourself. Rarely you’ll be able to look back on your projects and say ‘I did everything absolutely perfectly and this client just wanted to watch the world burn around me’.

Clients are naive about design and development and whatever the fuck else they pay for. It’s why they pay someone else to do it. If you’re always talking about how you’re not a ‘pixel-pusher’ or a ‘code monkey’ then fucking act like it and take some responsibility for educating your clients.

Some clients think wireframes are final designs. Hilarious right? I bet there’s some fantastic memes about this! You know why? Because they’ve dealt with shitty amateurs who haven’t explained properly the various stages of their process. You might find it absolutely hilarious that Ms. Client and her little old dog-walking business think that Comic Sans would ever make its way into the paragon of timeless design that is your Dribbble profile, but Ms. Client probably sees that shit all the time. Maybe her next door neighbour uses it every time she invites people for a BBQ or some shit. Maybe all the signs at the local shop are in it. Maybe she isn’t a puritanical fucking jizzbag who pays too much attention to the font someone uses in Microsoft Publisher. Tell your clients what to expect. Help them gather inspiration. Show them how early stages lead closer and closer to final designs. Tell them what feedback you expect at every stage. Never assume your client understands the fifty million buzzwords ‘UX’ people invented to sound fucking clever. Manage their expectations at every stage. Get them involved. They’re paying you for time and help, make a fucking effort.

Some clients think that they never have to pay up front. ‘This is totally new to me, I’m not feeling comfortable with this’, they might say. Before you jump on to whatever blame-shifting support group is your fav, take a second and think about this client’s past experiences. Maybe they paid a shitty design up-front before and all they got was some weird interface in Comic Sans that didn’t really look like a website. Maybe they just don’t get that you need an upfront fee because your time is worth money. Tell your clients why you take deposits. Tell them why someone who doesn’t take deposits is probably fucking useless. Tell them that with a proper deposit and contract in place you start with a purposeful statement of professionalism that you’re both super happy to adhere to.

Some clients provide little-to-no information on what they want and expect something absolutely amazing from you without putting effort in themselves. These clients have probably never seen, never mind had to produce, a clear brief/statement of work in their entire life. Don’t just jump in to the project because you’re desperate and ‘handle the vagueness later’. Because when ‘later’ comes and you’re 90% through your estimate with just a hero image and a hamburger icon mocked up, you’re gonna be in the shit. Explain to your client why a brief is important. Offer to produce a brief for them (if you know how) for a fee. Recommend someone who could write a great brief on their behalf. If your client doesn’t know what they want, and you refuse to help them at least somewhat envision it, you’re gonna be crying about how indecisive and tasteless they are pretty fucking soon.

Sometimes clients really are out to fuck you over

Sometimes you just encounter an absolute fucking parasite. Anyone who has to deal with local businesses especially will, if they stick at stuff long enough, come across a potential client that is borderline criminal in their business practices. It takes a bit of experience to spot this early enough to not get burned and it’s a huge fucking caveat in the ‘self-blame’ approach I take.

In my first stint freelancing I worked with at least three clients whose business practices were shady to say the least. I let these clients pick and choose when (not) to pay me. I let them overwork me and threaten me with some absolute bullshit if I didn’t deliver, because they were experienced business people and I was a naive fucking kid with 0 freelance experience whose eyes lit up at the smell of enough money to leave the house.

If you encounter a client like this, I still think a self-analytical approach works. I honestly think it can really help further separate the nice-but-naive clients from the actual fucklords.

If your project starts getting really problematic really quick, take a look at how you’ve conducted yourself. Once you’re used to handling projects with clients you’ve actually helped educate, you’ll learn to spot someone who wants to eat your pets a mile off.

Early on, you can only really mitigate this; run some of your communications by someone more experienced than you if you can. Make sure you get a deposit and a contract signed. The first sign of a businessprick who wants to take a poo in your garden while your dog watches is the vehemence with which they push back on either deposits or contracts. You will learn to spot when someone is genuinely inexperienced and uncomfortable with upfront payments and when someone is actively being a little fucksnake and trying to get you to start for free. Never start a project without a contract and deposit (I’m a fucking broken record right now). If someone is desperate to not pay a deposit or sign a contract, err on the side of caution and do not get enticed by the potential of a few quid. Better projects will come along.

Firing a Client

Finally, I want to touch on how you might approach firing a client as a last resort. This is always a tricky one, but more often than not, you’ll find that clients are either oblivious to their failings and willing to change, or relieved because they can get away from you and stop paying you for absolute shit.

A few reasons you might want to fire a client:

  • They’re consistently rude and obnoxious
  • They consistently fail to stick to agreed deadlines (payment, content, sign-off etc.)
  • You simply cannot align your visions after a number of iterations
  • You feel like you’re in an untenable position where you cannot produce your best work
  • They get acquired by a bigger company that has a war criminal on the board and you couldn’t take a penny off them any longer because you have actual morals

This is a bit idealistic as it assumes that you’ve avoided the bad eggs early enough to tell them to fuck off before you enter a legally binding situation. That’s not always going to be the case, but this post is already far too long.

How to do it cleanly:

  • Have a ‘break clause’ in your contract that very specifically states the notice period and any settlement payment dates for outstanding work. Make sure you and your client fully understand the implications of ending the project at a certain time. Often this very simply translates to stating that if the project is fucked while someone is still owed either time (your time to the client) or money (the client’s money to you) then those obligations will be satisfied and the work stops.
  • Be actually fucking nice to your client. Explain exactly why you want to fire them and show them that you’ve analysed the situation. Almost every client I’ve fired has been super nice about things and have often agreed that there’s been breakdowns on both sides that have resulted in this shitty situation.
  • Hear them out. If they’re honestly oblivious to the reasons why you’re firing them and they offer to change their approach or how they communicate then think about if it’s worth giving them another chance. You might want to renegotiate a new contract with specific stipulations based on the client’s promises, but that’s up to you.

You don’t always have to fire a shit client. Some of my best clients have been those I’ve actually approached thinking I was going to fire them, ended up having borderline cathartic conversations about project failings and both saying ‘shit, let’s not do that again, but let’s still make amazing loveliness together.’

Wrapping this shit up

This is an actual behemoth of an article. I am so sorry. Here’s some shit I want you to take away:

  • Stop instantly blaming your clients for you being shit at dealing with clients
  • Don’t get too down on yourself if things fuck up, but make sure you’re self-critical, it’s a great way to grow
  • Be vulnerable, have a malleable process, never think you’ve got shit figured out
  • Some clients genuinely are worse than Genghis Khan
  • Firing clients can feel great
  • Almost-firing clients can feel even better

Thanks for all the nice things y’all have said about the first post. Sorry for anyone who’s actually a fucking baby and doesn’t like swear words, especially sick as fuck portmanteau swear words.

Hugs xoxo