Designers Beware: 10 Warning Signs of a Bad Client

September 24th, 2008 in Business & Process

by: Matthew Griffin

No other force has more power to make or break the spirit of the web designer than the all important client. The good ones make us love our work and the bad ones can make us wish we were dead. Sometimes when it gets really bad, we have to fire a client. But wouldn't it be great if we could tell the good ones from the bad ones right away and avoid them like we would bad fruit at the market? I don't think it will ever be quite that simple. There will always be a few bad apples that sneak in under the radar. But over the years I've learned a few warning signs that are dead giveaways for hard-to-please, controlling, whiny and/or needy clients. If you come across a potential client with one of these, think twice about the project. If they have two or three, run the other way.

1. Client who claims their last designer just couldn't quite give them what they wanted

Admittedly, there are some situations where this is a valid claim. Most of the time, though, this client is controlling and hard-to-please. It may seem a little awkward but it's important to probe them for some details about their relationship with the previous designer. Ask if you can see some of the rejected work. Find out how many iterations they went through before the client gave up on them. If the client is willing to give you this information, you should know pretty quickly whether or not you should pass on the project. If they won't, proceed with extreme caution.

2. Client with computer skills that are grossly lacking

Clients who are extremely computer/web illiterate suck a lot more time than ones who know their way around. Keep that in mind when you're quoting a job for this client. Sometimes I've even found that a client's frustration with technology can be transferred to the designer—a kind of guilt by association. The last thing you want is to coddle a client through a project only to have them bad mouth you to all their friends because they're frustrated with the technology.

3. Client with "a little web design experience"

You've probably run into this client before. He's the guy who built his last website in Front Page and can't understand why the project is going to take so long and cost so much. He knows just enough to question every decision you make. If this client starts out on a controlling note, you're probably doing good to pass on the project. If you decide to chance it, it's important to establish yourself as the expert early on in the process. Don't leave any room for doubt. Do your research and be prepared.

4. Client who offers a percentage of their business as payment

I went for this one a lot when I was first starting out. Don't do it! People with million-dollar ideas and no money are a dime a dozen. You should get paid for what you do. Also, keep in mind that if the website ends up being a huge success, you're going to be first in line for the upgrade and support work anyway. That's true whether you get paid for the initial project or not.

5. Client who insists on three or four different design mockups

Clients who love options are usually clients who love control. Clients who love control can quickly become time-sucking, make-you-wish-you-were-dead, demons from Hades. Be wary of this client. He's the sneakiest and hardest to read of them all. Sometimes everything ends up just fine. The client quickly chooses an option and you're on your way. Other times you end up with a nine month project that should have been finished in two.

6. Client with the flowchart

Sometimes clients who bring flowcharts to the first meeting are just highly organized and efficient individuals who want to make your job as easy as possible. If this is the case you'll know right away. When the client is saying things like, "You're the expert, but we put these together to give you a better understanding of how our business works", etc. You have nothing to fear. But when you get a stack of paper with every detail of the website pre-planned, you are dealing with a control freak, and potentially your worst nightmare. It's not worth. Let the project go to some other poor shmuck.

7. Client with a big IT department and no marketing department

The company that has a lot of IT workers and no marketing department will almost certainly clash with your ideas about design. In my experience, the IT department in a company likes to have control of the website because they view it as part of their territory. Right away you're dealing with an issue of clashing egos. And with no marketing department there to balance the situation out, you end up with an overdose of type A personality that's no good for anyone. Be careful with these types of clients.

8. Client who thinks Network Solutions or their ISP is your competitor

A client who thinks you are in direct competition with cookie-cutter website solutions and local ISPs is probably not going to value your work very much. Dealing with clients like this always makes for a strained relationship. They may be willing to pay your fee because they "don't have time to mess with the other solutions", but they will always view you as a necessary evil. That's not exactly the type of business relationship you should be looking for.

9. Client with no previously created promotional content

Clients who blatantly disregard the value of marketing and advertising are many times frustrating to deal with. To start, they have no previous experience working with creative agencies, so everything is a learning process. Also, the lack of raw materials makes it difficult to get started. And once you do get started every piece of content you need will take extra long to get because it has to be created from scratch. If you're going to jump into a project with a client like this, make sure you're ready to spend some extra time or hire a copywriter to produce the content for you.

10. Client with a current website that was designed by a family member

This is never a good situation. There are always a lot of feelings involved and hoops to jump though. It's especially bad with the previous designer/family member is part of the decision-making group for the new design. I've been in meetings like this where pride and ego end up splattered all over the conference room. It's not a pretty sight and I don't recommend it for the weak stomached. Don't go for this project unless the family member is completely out of the picture. And I don't mean dead, because then you're looking a whole new set of issues.



Posted By: Stu on 09/24/08

Love it - I think I've met every single one of those clients! Thankyou for reaffirming that I'm not the only one!

Posted By: Robhert on 09/24/08

Thanks! I'm agree with all above. Regards.

Posted By: Evan on 09/24/08

I should print this and post it near my desk. Spot on.

Posted By: Wes P on 09/24/08

#3 can be a real killer. I'm working on a new iteration of our church website and our minister is one of those who "knows a little". Constantly questioning my decisions, making suggestions on how he would do things. Granted sometime it's good, but most of the time the ideas would be best left to the early 90s, when he last used them.

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 09/24/08

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Posted By: Joann Sondy on 09/24/08

Great article. Although, I'd like to add: Client Who Asks: Can I edit that in Word?

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 09/24/08

Yeah, that's one I think we can just file under "computer skills grossly lacking". haha.

Posted By: Sonali Agrawal on 09/25/08

Great one. I have surely met with such clients.

Posted By: dan on 09/25/08

thanks for making this, i have learned something here at work today because of you :D and your design for this site is very nice. the typography and graphics is very classic

Posted By: Julian Schrader on 09/25/08

Very niceâ´┐Ż´┐Żbookmarked :-)

Posted By: Gabe on 09/25/08

Great list. My other favorite is the client that adds brand new ideas at every step of the process, "That picture of the cat is great, but we also want to start selling dog food at our cat specialty store!" WTF people?

Posted By: frank on 09/25/08

oh this is good...

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 09/25/08

Great. Thanks for the comments.

Posted By: evilpepe on 10/01/08

#2 - Yeah, I've gotten calls about how to install fonts, and how to create margins on Word docs...

Posted By: Leah on 01/22/09

This is spot-on. I have one client who meets several of these - 2,3,9 & 10! It's been a nightmare. I made the big mistake of giving them a discount at the outset - never again. I'm a professional web designer with 8 years experience, but given all the hand holding and their constant demands of changes of mind, I could probably have made more flipping burgers than doing this project.

Posted By: nate on 02/28/09

Great tips. I just sent an email a few minutes ago to decline a job with a potential client that had at least half of these things going for him.

Posted By: on 04/23/09

I think clients like these are universal in all industries. I have had similar encounters in A/V creation. But there is a basic truism in business that us money-grubbing capitalists live by: "The Customer Is Always Right." Taking that into account, I have adapted a very simple and successful solution for the difficult clients. Simply charge them higher fees according to the degree of difficulty! It works like a charm in soothing your feelings when you know that you will be adding a digit or two to the final bill of a particularly onerous client. Repeat customers will eventually notice a pattern of heavy charges for heavy demands and smaller charges for more reasonable demands. If they're smart or budget conscious they will adapt their workload to a more cost effective level thereby making your life simpler. It's a win-win situation that will make you smile even when working for total jerks and tyrants because you know that you're going to ream them, er... profit handsomely, in the end!

Posted By: JT on 05/02/09

I recently tried to work with a designer. At the start I was prepared to give him a lot of freedom but he kept dragging his feet and not even bothering to read my notes. I felt like he was arguing with me all the time. I either want someone who can listen and come back with something that takes into account my notes. Personality is important in the designer too. I paid him sone cash for his trouble an let him go.

Posted By: Aaron on 10/07/09

Is it in bad form to direct potential clients to this post before contract signing? How about before sending out a questionnaire? I wonder if it would be like watching a drug commercial for the bad clients (do I have that disease?) or if they'd just gloss over it...

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 10/07/09

It's funny you mention that Aaron, because I have actually had clients tell me that they read this article when they were checking up on me before they hired me. If I've lost business because of it, it's probably business I didn't want anyway. ha ha.

Posted By: Terry on 10/15/09

Sage advice. I wish I would adhere to this wisdom!

Posted By: Steve Herrmann on 12/05/09

Unfortunately I have had some of these folks as clients, and YES! they are a TRUE pain in the @$%#! No details are needed here -- you surely know what I mean!

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