Bad Client Dealings: What You Want to Say and What You Should Say [IMHO]

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Everyone loves the stupidity spilled out on sites like Clients From Hell and stories of designers telling off large companies that “invite” them to participate in crowdsourcing contests and the like. Unfortunately, if all clients were that stupid and sleazy, there would be no reason to keep working in the creative field. Now, I’m not saying the entries on websites, or self-generated stories of professional heroism are fake, although there are those who claim they are figments of creative writing, but what goes on in the real world? What are experienced, working creatives saying to clients who make incredible faux pas when it comes to working with designers?

Man holding back vulgar jokes

Clients Are Not Stupid – Just Oblivious

Sure, I have a snarky response to ridiculous requests from clients. Usually it ends a proposed project that is requested for free or very little money. One recent client was aghast when he ordered over a dozen print peripheral support pieces to go with his website. When I pointed out that they were not in the contracted fee for the website project, he responded, “these aren’t changes… the project is just evolving!’

In turn, I shot back, “so will my final bill!”

In the end, with a little professional negotiating via carefully chosen words on my part, my fee was increased and the happy client paid, in full and on time. Now he’s a regular client. My original snark could have lost that client. It was friendlier, compassionate, professional words that kept an income source and in the end, it’s all about surviving with at least a modicum of pride and self worth – and still enjoying being a designer. Sometimes, however, you just can’t save the project because there will never, ever be a working relationship.

What Really Happens to Professionals?

To find out if there are as many complaints about clients that we tend to hear, I put the question of what one should say to a bad client when you want to give them a two-word answer – and those two words are not “happy birthday!”

A roundtable of designers, creative directors, teachers and studio owners were kind enough to answer how they handled clients who made unreasonable requests. It’s not as funny as what you’ll read on Clients From Hell, but the reality is a better lesson for when you are faced with what looks like a dead end to a paying project.

What Would You Like to Say and What You Should Say

Secretary revenge

John

“Goodbye!” That is the “like” answer and the “should” answer.

Gene

I agree with John. I just passed on a $32K project from a past client because the new people involved (a husband and wife team) were just so awful. I wasn’t going to abuse myself and be abused over the amount of this proposal. I did have to tell them why but confrontation – when necessary – is not something I shy away from.

Alison

I was told by a client that working with me reminded him of working with his wife, he said, “I feel like I’m never going to win.” This led me to think, was I the crazy one or was he?

He paid almost $50K in the end for a years worth of work and a multitude of deliverables. He spent $10k on a brochure that never even circulated. How’s that for “what is going on here?” Looking back, his entire corporation was split between old generation and new generation, and unfortunately on this project, my client was of the old. The relationship ended after completing the last contractual job.

I now stick to entrepreneurial and small business. It means I have to work harder, but overall I have more fun with my clients. They love my enthusiasm and ability to educate them on the entire process and are so appreciative to look bigger than they are without all the overhead of the agency life. Saying no to bad clients only brings better ones.

Gene

Agree, Alison. Right now, I have a lot of room and am waiting to see who will fill the gap. When I let go of a client or vice versa, I know that it’s allowing room for something better.

Katerina

I worked for a large telecom in NYC for 2 months – they did not pay me. I brought up the fact that they need to pay the balance, before they pile on more projects. I said I am putting on hold all projects, until I get paid to date, it became a huge, illogical argument, them saying they will not pay until I send all work and harassing me with rude emails about me not behaving like a professional, not continuing their work stat.

Although I was the one working and taking their word, they refused to pay anything. I did not have contract at the time because it was through a person I knew. But I knew they would find a way not to pay.

I wanted to tell them that they got “A class” design work, and that unlike them, making millions, I was only making what I worked for every day.

Thanks to them I lost not only $2,000, but also TIME, my computer usage and my health, due to physical stress of working on deadlines as well as mental well being, having nightmares about the manager. They lost nothing.

Kevin

Client wanted an infinite number of rounds of author alterations. I asked him, “what do you get when you take the infinity symbol, turn it on its side, cut it in half and stick a fork in it? A dollar sign!”

Lost the client. Had a good chuckle and started a software company to solve the problem for good.

Randy

A bad client is like breaking up with your high school sweetheart – painful but necessary. One thing I learned very early on, freelancers like myself, often take the assigned duty of whipping boy. We’re easy to blame, and in the end, disposable.

So how do you part with a bad client? Graciously, but absolutely, you must exit. You wish them well. When they come calling again, you kindly, respectfully decline.

Gene

That’s right, Randy. Or you quote the project but price them out. My ex-partner, Bill, taught me a great deal about the inside workings of this industry early on. If we decided against a client returning, we would estimate the job internally and multiply by 3 or 4 and submit the quote.

So, either we would price them out of our lives or make 3 or 4 times as much money – which you would think would make up for the dysfunction. But we never had anyone go for the inflated estimate, thank God.

David

One of the worst experiences I had was with a pro bono client of all things. I had offered my services to a nonprofit through a request of my best client at the time. I worked with the nonprofit on and off for about two years, then things started to sour.

They became much more demanding of my time and the design projects turned much more administrative. When I decided to “step back” (i.e., quit), I received an incredible amount of flack. They laid on a huge guilt trip and made me feel like I was a bad guy. I was a bit shocked and highly POed.

Fortunately I was safe with my client. I was polite, but firm saying I had other opportunities to pursue and wished them well. When asked, I NEVER gave them a name of another designer, I value my colleagues too much!

It’s sometimes hard to drop the “deadwood,” but it’s necessary. Better to be on the lookout for a new client than to be frustrated and wasting time (and money) with a knucklehead.

Mary

I agree with Randy. It’s important to be honest but respectful when ending a business relationship. You definitely don’t want to burn any bridges and end up getting the reputation of being unreasonable or difficult because word does get around.

Gene

Mary, I’m going to make you laugh, because in my office, on a 2 x 2-foot sign (that you see immediately upon entering) is this phrase: “The bridges I burn light my way.”

I completely understand what you’ve stated and respect it, but I’m just not a person who ever cared what anyone thinks of me. And, psychologically, I don’t allow myself to go ”back,” so I burn the bridge.

Women punching men

Jamie

“Sure I can change that font/its typeface you d****bag.”

If people would take themselves less seriously we would all have more fun and business in general would be amazing (obviously all within its limits).

Michael

After 9 weeks with no action from client after receiving project proofs for approval:

Client: Why isn’t this project finished? My manager is questioning my ability to manage it!

Me: There is no question about it. You couldn’t manage a game of fetch with a retriever.

4.30 pm, that same day, the client returns proof copies marked-up with what appears to be red crayon:

Client: Can I have this back by the end of the day?

Me: No, I have a regularly scheduled appointment to snort coke off of a stripper’s breasts at 5:00.

After consistently advising a client about technical infeasibility of their directions:

Client: We know it’s wrong, but that’s the way we want it

Me: Thanks for burning up precious moments of my life. I have to go back to my office and surf porn.

Client leaves numerous voicemails between 5.30 am and 7.00 am – each with increasing urgency regarding my lack of response. I arrive at the office at 7:30 am to ease into an 8:00 am start time. Client enters:

Client: Maybe it’s just chemistry, but we seem to have a problem working together.

Me: Chemistry notwithstanding, I’m sure that you have the same trouble with everyone.

Various uncooperative clients:

Recently my eyes have been bothering me a lot. I just can’t see having you waste any more of my time.

Ana

“My schedule is really tight right now and I know you need this done ASAP. You would be better off working with another designer.” Translation: “You have dated and ineffective concepts that you stubbornly insist on imposing, rejecting any good advice. You micromanage the process, butchering smart design into aberrations and you are the only person standing in the way between you and your own success. I’m in this business to make people succeed, not fail. Since you aren’t going to get out of the way, I am”.

“This will take a couple of weeks.” Translation: “No, my computer does not have a ‘create a design’ button.”

“Please sign this contract so that we can get started.” Translation: “I know you are going to ask me if I don’t trust you and the answer is “no.”

Marisa

If only I could say “goodbye” to bad clients when they are also the boss. Working in-house doesn’t leave you with many options. All you can really do is try to educate and become highly skillful in the patience game.

mad programmer

Robin

Well said, Randy. Gene, I learned the hard way to do exactly what you did. I stayed up all night saving a client $10,000 on a model build, and when I got to the photo shoot I was exhausted. It was an experimental shoot, and two of the company’s representatives were there, so I got a signoff on each shot. Because I had a good relationship with the photographer, I even got them to do even a couple of additional shots that were not a part of the original job. One of the representatives mentioned that I looked tired, and I explained that I had been up all night creating the model. When the pictures came back they looked great.

However, when the reps showed their boss, the conservative boss wasn’t entirely happy, so they threw me under the bus and told their boss that the reason the shots didn’t come out the way they wanted was because I was tired. The boss called me and complained that they didn’t like the shots and wanted them redone at my expense. After explaining that their representatives had signed off, the boss agreed to pay me and continue the job.

After that, I charged them four times what I normally would’ve for each project, hoping they would drop me. This went on for about six months (they had been a long time client and parenthesis) before they stopped using me.

I learned some very important lessons:

  1. Always have a signed contract with specifications that are spelled out.

  2. Always get a sign- off, even if the client is long-term and friendly.

  3. Always get 50% of the estimated cost upfront before work.

  4. I was undercharging.

  5. Never do speculative work.

David

Spec work is the worst! I learned that one right out of the blocks. Two types: the newbie client who needs to “see” what you can do. They think it’s a test drive, but in fact it’s like walking into a restaurant, ordering a meal, taking one bite and saying “I don’t like chicken,” then walking out. You’d get hit in the head with a frying pan.

The second is the “agency” dangle. “Help us land this big contract and we’ll keep you busy.” Translation: “Give us some good ideas for free and we’ll take them for ourselves.”

Always a no win for the creative.

When asked about spec work, or something disguised as such, I’ll tell a client they can buy a few hours of my time. Then I put all kinds of provisions on the work. I copyright it and make sure they sign off on it. What’s mine is mine, until you hire me. Even then I try to avoid it – bad for our profession!

Gene

Robin, your five points are what I live by in business. And No. 5, in my opinion, is the most important for younger or new people getting into this business. NEVER do spec work!

Astrid

Like David above, I’ve had my fair share of spec clients. It irks me the most when it comes from agencies or companies that should have some kind of knowledge or exposure to the concept of spec and how it hurts business. In those cases, I’m honest: I can show you my past work and you can hire me based on that – or you can keep looking because I don’t do spec work.

Businessman fighting

John

Operating my own design firm years ago, there were two occasions when I had to “fire” clients. It was rather simple back then. Basically, they just didn’t want to pay for our/my services. They had no budget, just one agenda – they just wanted what we did “cheap.”

In one meeting, I simply stated that we could not do the work for that amount of money, so it’s best I step away from this job. They showed me the door in anger, acting like they were the ones insulted not understanding how I could turn down work.

There will always be clients that stress you and your company more than is tolerable (eat up too much time/profit). You have to consider firing those to focus on landing new clients and on current clients that appreciate what you are doing for them. It’s simply using your time wisely and profitably.

Randy

Marisa, if I might add to your insightful comment. I’ve done time at both agencies, studios, and in house art departments. Working for a good boss can be great thing, but often you are looked down on as merely “the help.”

Years ago, I worked in a marketing department in a midsize company where the only two people that did not have a masters degree were the secretary and myself. I dare say, she had more authority than me. Fulfilling my duty as a designer, I really tried to put out the best possible work for my employer only to have it go to committee and be analyzed. One such project took 39 separate committee meetings and an entire year. Needless to say the project ended up looking like caca.

I did get a measure of revenge. This project was a POP display for large automotive retailer. Not only did they reject the Display, but the account was in jeopardy. I received a panicked phone call from the Vice President to overnight another idea to them. I sent them my original design, and the account was saved.

During that time, I went back to school and pursued an MFA in graphic design. Once I could, I tunneled out of the place. Higher education, though, has its own set of challenges.

Conclusion

So, this is how practicing professionals handle real life situations with clients. They are not as amusing as the funny stuff you will read elsewhere, but do you learn a valuable lesson from funny stories… that are probably made up by creative individuals?

(dpe)

Speider Schneider

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices. Follow him on Twitter @speider.

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Pamela Jacob
Guest

Great Article – the one thing I always do is get 50% of the proposal up front. This is not negotiable…

johnna
Guest

may be its not negotiable,for he one thing I always do is get 50% of the proposal up front to all

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