As the owner of a freelance design business or design agency, you’re always working with a variety of clients. Some clients are amazing – they give you a succinct, accurate brief, they allow plenty of creative freedom, they’re open to new ideas, they are prompt with their feedback and they sing your praises to their colleagues. But what about the other type of client – the difficult client.
Every designer has their share of difficult clients, each with their own unique personality and quirks. Here are five of the most common difficult design clients, and how you can deal with them.
She is brash and opinionated, and she will spend more time arguing over price than over setting out the creative brief. A Haggling Harriet will wring every last ounce of value from her budget and will want to understand exactly where every dollar is being spent.
How to Deal with Haggling Harriet: A robust project management system that tracks time will stop Harriet from questioning every single hour spent on a project. Having a clear set of pricing structures and options will help Harriet understand what she’s paying for, and negotiating back at her (“If we cut $100 off the price, you’ll need to upload your content to the site yourself) will ensure you’re not out-of-pocket thanks to her scrimping.
A Low-Tech Louis will call instead of emailing, insist everything be faxed to him, and will want in-person meetings for aspects of a project that are usually resolved via your project management system. If you ask him about the Cloud, he points out the window. All your productive, time-saving systems will grind to a halt as Low-Tech Louis refuses to learn how to send an email or sign off work online.
How to Deal with Low-Tech Louis: Louis needs his hand held throughout the design process – and you may have to explain concepts a few times to ensure he understands. If you have a team of designers, give Louis’ job to the most patient of them – because they will need every ounce of that patience. It can help to explain technological aspects in writing so Louis can refer to them at his leisure.
The best way to deal with Low-Tech Louis is to give him the best advice about technology, and utilize his knowledge about his business to make the project as big a success as possible. Don’t push a new system on him that you’re not sure he’ll be comfortable with (such as a website that requires a lot of updating). Allow him to dictate his comfort level.
Second-Opinion Sam might be a single cog in the machine of a giant corporation, or a small businessman sharing responsibilities with a spouse, business partner or particularly astute cat. Either way, he has to get a second, or third, or tenth opinion from his office on absolutely every decision. This makes Sam painfully slow to work with and often returning with conflicting ideas he expects you to resolve.
How to Deal with Second-Opinion Sam: Unfortunately, there is really not that much you can do about Sam – his existence is a fact of life when working with companies. It can help to present Sam with a couple of alternative options at each stage of the project upfront – this way he can present all options to his team at once. Charge accordingly.
Nancy is a repeat client, which is wonderful, but every job Nancy brings to you needed to be done last week. Nancy believes all her jobs are “high priority” and doesn’t know or care that you have other clients.
How to Deal with Need-it-Now Nancy: You need to carefully manage how much of Need-it-Now Nancy’s work you take on at any one time, and you should only have one Nancy on the books at any one time – any more is a recipe for high stress.
You need to get Nancy to understand that repeated urgent requests are unacceptable – do this in a gentle, joking tone, but be firm when you say that you are making an exception for her, and that you won’t be able to again. Often, Need-it-Now Nancy’s have so much urgent work because they are disorganized and they don’t realize how their habits affect your business – so it’s up to you to make her understand!
Indecisive Ian doesn’t know what he wants. But what he wants isn’t what you’ve created. He can’t tell you what it is, but he’ll know it when he sees it. A simple job can be stalled by several rounds of intensive edits while you and your team take wild stabs in the dark at trying to perfect Ian’s impossible vision.
How to Deal with Indecisive Ian: You cannot design what the client wants if the client doesn’t know what he wants. Indecisive Ian will be one of your most difficult and frustrating clients – and he may become frustrated himself if he doesn’t see the “perfect design” he imagines.
Be very clear from the beginning exactly what revisions cost, and make sure this is outlined in the contract. Taking the time to produce a detailed creative brief will also help you narrow down the parameters of the project, and it will be less likely to spiral out of control.
Candice has come to you with a problem: She’s seen one of her competitors websites in your portfolio, and it look so awesome she’s decided she needs a her website done, too. The problem is, she wants you to basically copy what you’ve done for that previous client!
How to Deal with Copycat Candice: You need to clear up any issues of copying – whether from one of your previous clients or another business, right up front. Say something like, “we try to look at each clients needs on an individual basis. What worked for that company won’t necessarily work for you. And if we just copy what we did for them, not only is it not fair to them, but it also has legal implications and it paints you as a copycat – your customers will notice, and it will reflect poorly on your company.”
Explain to Candice that you can incorporate some of the ideas and concepts into her project, but out-and-out copying isn’t going to work. Focus on getting her excited about her distinct brand and what her company can offer.
Larry can be a difficult client to spot. Upon first encounter, he appears to be the perfect client – enthusiastic, interested in learning about the process and willing to try your more creative ideas. But the first clue comes when he starts telling you about his skill as a designer/photographer/artist, and before you know it he’s pushing copies of his own concept sketches into your arms.
How to Deal with Lets-Try-It-My-Way-Larry: I get it – you don’t want to be the one to burst his bubble. Larry is a good client, but he’s not a creative professional, and his ideas wouldn’t be the way you’d approach the project. So what to do?
The best way to approach Larry is to use his ideas as a jumping-off point for the creative team. Take concepts – rather than actual designs – and use them as the framework for the project. Explain to Larry that he has specific ideas in mind, so you’re going to follow that direction, however he’s welcome to sit back and let you do your job.
Paranoid Philip is dangling an exciting, top-secret project for a major brand right in front of your nose, but his non-disclosure agreement is the length of a historical novel and he is demonstrating a distinctly antagonistic attitude toward your staff. He seems convinced you’re going to rip him off, and nothing you say will convince him to otherwise.
How to Deal with Paranoid Philip: A paranoid client will present you with a significant amount of legal documentation drawn up to protect their interests. This usually means 101 ways to get out of paying you for your work. You must hire your own lawyer to go through the documents to make sure you’re covering your own back.
Don’t take on a paranoid client for a small job, as the legal fees and hassles involved will eat away what little profit you’d have made. For a large job or a high profile client, make sure your contract is explicit, with lawyers fees added to your total.
Yolanda works in an industry everyone dreams of getting into – music, or film, or space-exploration. She has a job for you, but she knows that if you don’t take it, she’ll easily find another designer or agency who will. Too-Cool-for-You Yolanda acts like she’s doing you a favor by giving you a job, and she usually expects special treatment for her trouble, such as a discounted rate.
How to Deal with Too-Cool-for-You Yolanda: Remember that the reason you take on Yolanda is to get that sweet job for your portfolio. The best thing you can do is be honest with yourself about how much you want that job, and whether it’s worth the extra work/lost income. If you’re just starting out, Yolanda can give you a real door into the industry, but if you’re a seasoned designer, Too-Cool-for-You Yolanda could be more trouble than she’s worth.
David was super-enthusiastic about your design project in the beginning, and he approved initial roughs very quickly. But now, you need his approval on the first proofs, as well as a deposit, and he’s not following up with you and not answering his emails.
How to Deal with Disappearing David: It could be that David has a lot on his plate right now. It could be that he has family issues keeping him away from work. It could be that he’s having email issues. It could be that he’s simply disorganized. Or it could be that he’s deliberately trying to stiff you for your fee.
The only way to find out is to contact David. If you can’t get hold of him via email after a week of trying, then give him or his business a call. Let him know that you’re halting work on the project until you hear back from him. And don’t give it another thought till you do!
Difficult design clients come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. But it is how you deal with them that define you as a business owner. Have you had a difficult design client recently? How did you deal with their situation?