10 Early Warning Signs of a Bad Client

Not every design job goes smoothly, but you can protect yourself

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It is often the case that designers are competing for projects and the client is selecting who to work with based on experience, rates, and other factors. At the same time, designers should be deciding if the client is a good fit for them.

While there are many ways to determine if they're going to be a good or bad client, there are some classic red flags to look for. These are things a client may say that are common signals of more trouble to come once the project is yours.

If you hear any of these red flags, it certainly doesn't mean you should automatically end the relationship. It simply means that you should exercise caution. Use your judgment and look at the situation as a whole before making a decision.

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Everything is "Easy" or "Quick"

We've all heard it before... "I just want a simple website" or "Can you design a quick poster?"

In some cases, the client actually thinks something is easy because they don't have experience with design. In other cases, the client may be trying to downplay what they need in order to keep your costs low. Either way, it is a red flag that can first be handled with an explanation of why the project or task is time-consuming.

While we don't need clients to completely understand every technical aspect of the design process, or that we may stay up until 4 a.m. obsessed with their project, we also don't want them thinking we're just throwing this stuff together. See how the client reacts to your explanation to determine how to proceed.

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Promise of Future Work

Potential clients will often try to obtain your services at a lower rate by promising to hire you for projects in the future. While it is up to your judgment to determine whether or not the offer is genuine, remember the only guarantee is the initial project. Even that can be up in the air if you're in a bidding war.

If a client is sincere about their intentions of working with you on an ongoing basis, it is never a guarantee. It will ultimately be the work you do for them and how your relationship progresses that decides if you continue to work together.

If you feel the client has good business sense and that there really is potential to gain a long-term client, giving them a break on the first job may be worth the risk. Just remember there is always a chance you never hear from them again.

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Unrealistic Deadlines

Be wary of clients that want everything ASAP. Sometimes turning down such work is easy, because what they want in the time they want it just can't be done. Other times, it is possible to pull it off but only if you sacrifice your current work (and existing clients) to get it done.

Keep in mind that a client that wants their first project done right away will probably want their next one finished just as quickly. This may always leave you scrambling to finish work. While designers do often thrive on deadlines, you do need to take your well-being and current workload into account as well.

If you really want or need such a project, consider charging rush fees and explain that you have to put other work aside. You may also want to find out why the work needs to be completed so quickly to determine if this is a trend or a one-time rush job.

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Questioning Your Rates

Look out for clients who question your rates, as that is an early sign of distrust. There is nothing wrong with a client telling you they can't afford what you have quoted, but that is different from them telling you it shouldn't cost so much.

Clients should understand you are quoting fairly and accurately (that is, assuming you are) based on the scope of the project. While they will most likely get a wide variety of quotes from other designers, your costs coming in higher doesn't mean you are cheating them.

Finalizing a rate for a project is one of the trickiest aspects of landing a deal, but it is also a good test of how effectively you and your client can communicate.

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They Fired the Last Designer

This is a tricky one because you will probably only hear one side of the story and it will be about how bad their last designer was. This may be 100% true and you might just be the designer to step in and save the day.

Remember to also question what happened with the last designer. Feel out these answers to determine if the client too difficult to satisfy. Does the client also have unrealistic expectations or confusing requests? Is it difficult to agree on the terms of the contract? 

You probably shouldn't just walk away from a job if you hear this, but take a look at the full story. Find out what went wrong so you're not next.

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You Don't "Get It"

You've done many projects in the past. You're great at listening to your client's requests and coming up with a plan. Then why is it you have no idea what this new client wants after several discussions?

A client who can't clearly convey his or her goals and expectations will probably be difficult to communicate with throughout the project.

This is especially true if you're primary communication is over email and shared documents. Without the one-on-one designer-client interaction, clear communication is absolutely essential to a successful project.

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The Disappearing Client

Many designers have experienced projects that drag on and on, with little or no communication for weeks or even months at a time. Often, an early warning sign of this is the same behavior during the early stages and negotiations.

Does the client respond promptly when you call or email with questions, or do you wait too long and have to follow up before getting answers? Sometimes this is a sign that they are speaking with several designers and shopping for the best price, or perhaps they are too busy to be committed to the job at this time.

If you see this problem developing but want the work, consider putting a project schedule in your contract that includes deadlines for the client. Cancellation clauses may not be a bad idea, either.

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The Dreaded 'Spec Work'

One of the easiest red flags to spot is the request for "spec work."

This means a client asks to see designs for their project before they make a decision to hire you. Since they don't intend to pay a fee for such work, you may invest time and resources without getting anything in return. You really should be selected based on your portfolio and experience, and come to an agreement regarding payment before starting on the design. 

It is also possible that a client has asked several designers to come up with concepts. They may spend a little time with each of them to explain what they are looking for.

In the end, both parties benefit by choosing to work together from the start.

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Disorganized From the Start

Watch out for clients who appear disorganized from day one. In order to finish a project on time and on budget, both designer and client need to be organized and able to communicate.

If a project outline from a client is unclear, or if they cannot provide content on time, it may be a sign that the entire project will be frustrating.

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Trust Your Gut

The last red flag is that 'gut feeling' that a client is nothing but trouble. Trust your instinct, especially if you have already worked with a variety of clients.

This may be more difficult when starting out. As you take on more projects — especially those you wish you had walked away from — you will learn when to turn down a job based on any of the factors above and your own experience.

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