Spotting a Bad Client

December 2011

Over the past year, the most important lesson I’ve learnt while freelancing is: pick your clients carefully. Even if you’re relatively desperate for graphic and web design work (and you probably won’t be for long), it’s best to err on the side of caution if you believe a prospective client might be Bad News.

(I’d like to point out that I’ve dealt with only one really bad client this year. If I’ve worked for you and you’re reading this: you are most vehemently not that client! You’ve been wonderful!)

From my experience, there are broadly two flavours of bad client: incompetent “Dilbert boss” types, and bullies. Incompetent clients tend to beindecisive, because they lack the ability to properly articulate their needs, and so are of the attitude that they’ll “know what they want when they see it”. Considering a hazily-defined problem could have virtually infinite design solutions, this will almost always result in a project stretching on indefinitely. Incompetent clients are often ridiculously nice human beings, but are rarely great to work with.

Bullies, of course, are much worse. A bully might use a bait-and-switch tactic to draw you into a project, then suddenly change the scope when it’s too late for you to back out. A bully might belittle you and your work – not for the purposes of constructive criticism (which would be fine!), but to make you feel small. A bully might decide – after the fact – that your work simply isn’t worth paying for.

It’s worth developing strategies by which to spot a bad client as early as possible. Some of the signs are extremely obvious: does the client misspell your name in emails, or contact you without having seen, or wanting to see, samples of your previous work? If so, there’s a fairly good chance the client views you as expendable. Are you being hired because the client admires your past work, and believes you are the right person to solve a particular design problem… or are you being hired because you’re the only person this person knows who owns a copy of Photoshop? It’s worth only taking on clients who admire (or at least are aware of!) the work you do.

A second test comes in setting the parameters of the project. Can the client clearly explain what he or she is looking for? Of course, the client doesn’t need to know what a CMS is, or the difference between Verdana and Futura, or whether they believe their website’s design should be responsive. The client doesn’t need to “speak designer”. But can the prospective client explain, broadly, what they are looking for? As in: “I’m a photographer, looking for a simple website I can use to maintain a portfolio and a blog. I’d also like a an elegant logo that says ‘girly and high fashion’. Here are a few examples of sites and logos I like…” If, at the stage of setting the parameters of the project, the client offers little scope or direction, it’s probably a sign they don’t really care about the project or lack the ability to communicate their needs.

Another good way to sniff out a bad client comes in their tardiness with payment. Speaking from experience, it’s a very wise idea to split all projects into several stages of payment. At the very least, one payment for completion of mockups, and one final payment on completion. Being paid for mockups before progressing to the project proper allows you to ensure the client is willing to pay in full, and on time. If you aren’t paid for your mockups, cut your losses and move on. If you are paid, but the payment is months late, or there are any other issues, politely inform the client that you don’t think things are going to work out. By front-loading any potential issues with payment to the early stages of the project, the stakes are smaller, and it’s easier to leave a client before things turn really nasty.

Finally, a bulletproof contract is always your friend. I use a fairly heavily-modified version of Andy Clarke’s killer contract. The great thing about Andy’s contract is that it’s straightforward and friendly, instead of placing the client on the back foot. It prevents scope shift, ensures the client is obliged to provide adequate input to push the project forward, and sets deadlines for payment and project delivery. Andy’s contract isn’t designed to screw the client, but to ensure any reasonably foreseeable conflicts can be resolved clearly. A good client can turn into a bad client in the case of a dispute, but a contract works to stand between the client and the designer so nobody gets hurt.

TL;DR? Bad clients are bad. Develop strategies to sniff ’em out, then avoid like the plague. A good contract can serve to cushion the blow, but who wants to to enter into a business relationship knowing you’ll probably end up having to wield your contract like a wooden shield?