We’ve all dealt with difficult clients — every studio has them. You know the one, the client who frustrates you to no end, who seems to have no respect for your craft/business, monopolizes your time and makes continuous unreasonable demands.
Sometimes you might have more than one, and you probably spend your weekends in the studio putting out their fires. It’s the classic 80:20 principle; you spend 80% of your resources on 20% of your clients. Which makes the remaining clients seem like the greatest ever (and they usually are!).
Two things are important to understand before jumping in:
- If 20% of your clients take 80% of your time, your revenues will not keep up, and your resources will become depleted when they’re not focusing on the right clients who are keeping the lights on. This post isn’t for you; you need to focus on finding new clients!
- If the painful clients are also your top revenue drivers, the tips below should help you identify and manage them more effectively.
The, “I Don’t Know What I Want” Client
Characteristics: Says one thing on a call, something completely different in a meeting, and totally different over email. They’re all over the place!
Management: Get everything in writing at the start – like a detailed project brief – and reject any major change of scope after the fact if it is not negotiated, quoted and signed off before starting.
The, “I Thought This Was Included” Client
Characteristics: They insist on getting a little more out of the scope of work, but don’t want to pay an hourly cost. The scope is always expanding without compensation.
Management: Agree to any additional out of scope work, as long as it is billed by the hour. Even better is to quote the additions and take an additional retainer on it.
The, “I Need This Done Yesterday” Client
Characteristics: Our work looks simple, so it doesn’t take long. If they have the idea, the work is 90% complete.
Management: Don’t sugar coat it – if they expect the impossible it’s your job to educate them on the realities of the job.
The, “Everything Is An Emergency” Client
Characteristics: They believe that you don’t have any other clients, meetings or a life, so they deserve 100% of your time and attention.
Management: Similar to the, “I Need This Done Yesterday” Client, stand firm and establish clear timelines for the project that you both agree upon. Employing a project management system that has client updates (such as Asana or Monday) allows them to see where progress is without getting in your hair.
The, “I Don’t Care, Do What You Like” Client
Characteristics: Total hands-off approach – you’re the designer so make something ‘cool’.
Management: This is your chance to have some fun. Chances are you were hired by referral, or from your portfolio so they know what you can do and want something unique. However, that is not a license to go wild, establish your milestones and always get client approval at critical steps along the way so you’re not left with a beautiful product that you need to start over (and won’t be able to bill for).
The, “I Don’t Know What I Want, But It Isn’t This” Client
Characteristics: This client may not know what they want, but theyreallyknow what they don’t want. They’re evasive in meetings and send back one sentence briefs.
Management: This one is a major flag before starting anything. If it’s not a big account, consider finding another client as the potential for wasted time, headache and frustration is massive.
The, “Will This Cost Extra?” Client
Characteristics: Probably an accountant lol. The penny pinching, deal-making, client is looking at one thing only, the cost. They worry about every element in the quote and turn white when the discussion turns to hourly billed revisions that fall outside of the two rounds included in the quote.
Management: This is where your quoting and scoping abilities come out strong. Agree on the scope and quote before the retainer is paid (which you’re doing anyway, right?) and if they can’t pay for any additional revisions outside of the scope, then the project is finished at that point. As long as the understanding is established and written out in advance, you should be okay.
The, “I Work On Weekends, You Should Too” Client
Characteristics: You’re receiving emails at 4:30am, daily. Meetings are asked for outside business hours, calls come in to review the work on Saturday morning.
Management: Don’t be afraid to say NO! If what they’re asking for is pulling you away from your life, or other clients, let them know that they cannot monopolize your time.
The, “My Cat Likes This Colour” Client
Characteristics: They have a habit of latching onto one small thing; colour, font, word and then use it to drive the project well outside of the plan or slam the breaks until the minor issue can meet their satisfaction.
Management: Don’t ask what their cat’s favourite colour is. Ask questions that lead them to discovering what they want to accomplish from this project. This is your chance to showcase your expertise by recommending options to achieve their goals.
The, “I Thought This Would Take Five Minutes” Client
Characteristics: They’re the greatest at everything and they can do your job much faster than you, they’re just too busy/important to do it themselves.
Management: Wow, they are way, way to detached from reality. You’ll need to become an educator here, taking less than five minutes to explain why their request won’t take five minutes, but more like five days. Then launch into your milestone and timeline planning, getting sign off on the timeline so you can hold them to it.
The “Design By Committee” Client
Characteristics: Usually found in large/enterprise level corporations. Your point of contact is just one of the many heads at the table, and might not even be a stakeholder in the project. Everything is done via committee, from colours, images down to line breaks and words. They usually get caught up in irrelevant issues while missing the big picture.
Management: Force agreement! Really, you’ll need to herd them towards decisions and approvals. Use your one point of contact as your ally, getting them on board with your work and plans so bringing everyone together is an easier process. If you don’t have one point of contact and have to work with the committee, do whatever you can to get them to decide on one point of contact. And as always, remind them you bill by the hour.
The, “I Love It, But We Need Something Completely Different” Client
Characteristics: Seems like a dream client, until the final product is delivered. Then they want you to go in a completely different direction (whether it’s their fault or not).
Management: Make it clear, right out of the gate, that additional costs WILL apply to major changes that fall outside of the scope of work, that you’ll happily quote on the change and that revisions will be billed by the hour.
With all clients, best practices are to get a detailed brief in writing, defined timeline with major milestones established, approved quote with two rounds of revisions included in the cost, understanding that additional revisions will be billed hourly and then client sign-off on all of the above. Then get your 50% retainer paid up front and kick off the project!
Lastly, with all the above problem clients, you have the option of saying ’no’, and/or terminating the relationship. No client is worth damage to your mental health, so take care of yourself and your clients will continue to see you deliver successful products.
Here are 6 tips for effectively dealing with client demands.
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Here are 6 tips for effectively dealing with client demands.