How to Avoid Bad Clients
Opinion: There is no such thing as a bad client.
Congratulations! You landed a new client. You sent your first invoice and (hopefully) just got your deposit. You hang up after that first kickoff call or leave that initial meeting with a spring in your step. Everything is going swimmingly. Everyone’s excited. Everyone’s happy.
And then, somewhere along the way, a switch gets flipped.
Late-night emails demanding new edits. Endless rounds of revisions with no end in sight. And, of course, the nightmare scenario, refusal to pay.
Suddenly, your not-so-new client is now the bane of your existence. You dread every email notification. Seeing their name on your phone brings upon relentless anxiety.
And you may ask yourself, in the immortal words of David Byrne, “how did I get here??”
But it doesn’t always have to be this way.
One of my all-time favorite design books, How to Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy, has an entire chapter dedicated to the subject of difficult clients and “bad” projects.
Below are the top 3 approaches I’ve learned and implement with each of my clients at the outset of every project.
How to Keep Good Clients
1. Set expectations. Early.
Unless you establish at the first meeting the working patterns by which you intend to execute the project, you will find it difficult to assert yourself later in the relationship.
Set boundaries about your availability and commitment upfront. I try to be very clear with my clients that I don’t check emails after 7:00PM and I typically don’t respond on weekends.
Too often, we get frustrated with clients breaking rules or invading boundaries we never even told them existed in the first place.
If you don’t want your clients texting you, say so. If you require 2–3 days to implement revisions, let them know.
Regarding “working patterns,” one of your first conversations should be about your unique process. Talk about what you expect from them and what happens if things get delayed.
After the talk, put it in writing and send it in an email.
2. Never blindly implement feedback.
If a client says to you, ‘I’d like to incorporate this logo that someone did for me,’ you can say, ‘Okay, it will fit in very well’ or you can say ‘Okay’ and then seethe internally at its utter inappropriateness. Or, you can take the logo and say, ‘I’d be happy to try it, but I’d like to show you some alternative ideas I have in mind.’
Most clients will find this suggestion reasonable and acceptable.
I like to remind myself when clients critique my design work (“The logo feels small to me,” “Those colors are really loud; can we try a darker color instead?”) that the real issues with the work are hidden in their language.
Clients typically are looking at a real problem through untrained eyes. It’s our responsibility to decipher and solve accordingly.
Designers and clients alike tend to jump straight to a solution when given a new project or fresh feedback. Most designers eventually retrain themselves to take a step back and identify the problem, but this instinct kicks in every so often.
Be as critical with client feedback as your client is with your work. It’s the foundation of a successful relationship based on mutual respect.
3. Remember they need your help.
“Treat your clients like you treat your friends. This is not saying make your clients into friends; just treat them like friends.”
I consider every client as a partner, establishing upfront why we’re doing this project, putting us both on the same side of the table.
They could have chosen a multitude of other designers and they’ve trusted me with their business, their customers, their money and, above all else, their time.
The design process is scary for a client who has never gone through it before. (And sometimes it’s still scary for us who have gone through it a million times).
But very rarely are these frustrations based on genuine animosity or a desire to see the project fail.
There is no such thing as a bad job, and the responsibility for a successful outcome rests firmly on the shoulders of the designer.
We are a trusted expert in our client’s court, with the sole purpose of producing excellent work on their behalf.
A Final Note About Bad Clients
Of course, it is true to say that designers occasionally find themselves in impossible situations, trapped in projects where they are powerless to act and where they are reduced to slave labour. But in most cases, the eventual outcome of any project is in the hands of the designer.
Do bad clients exist? Yes, yes, of course, they do. But I find they’re few and far between. It’s becoming all too common to immediately dismiss and wave away the critique of a “non-designer”.
All too often, in the metaphorical designer breakroom, we love to complain endlessly about impossible clients. We joke about them behind their backs and sneer at what they perceive as passable design work, poking fun at cluttered logos and outdated websites. But there’s an enormous danger in treating our partners as immediate enemies.
But you must resist these demonizing tendencies in dealing with your ‘commission givers,’ it’s counterproductive.
We are our clients’ greatest advocates. It’s up to us to maintain patience, respect, patience, open communication and, above all, patience in our client relationships.
It won’t always be easy. Or perfect.
But then again, truly great relationships never are.
Thanks for reading!
PS: Inspired by Julie Zhuo, I’ve challenged myself to hit the publish button once a week. If you enjoyed this article, please let me know in the comments!
Lucy Darby is a brand and website designer in Orange County, CA. She’s currently a senior interactive designer at an email marketing agency and owner of Darby Design Co.