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We’ve all had that client. The one with a huge, last minute, complicated project and then try to play the role of ‘worst client ever’. They do things like neglecting to answer their phone or email, love to change their minds about details in the brief, all the while demanding that you do the impossible in a matter of minutes. Of course, they forgot to mention they expect you to do these things free of charge.
Clients like these are ubiquitous in the world of freelancing. Most freelancers will work with at least one crazy client at some point in their career. They’re the fun vampires, sucking the joy and creativity out of a job that can leave you wondering why you didn’t go to law school or go work in a bank.
However, to keep the lights on, you need to listen and work with your clients. Here are some tips to keep projects on track, and some sanity in your mind.
1. You Are Clear About Out-of-Scope Work
There’s an easy way you can mitigate the problems caused by bad communication in a project. One of the most frequent complaints have to do with time. Designers rightfully take issue with their clients expecting them to be time wizards, completing an impossible amount of work in the space of a day, or hours that they don’t want to pay for the extra time.
So, what do you do? In your project contract (there should always be a contract between you and the client), include a clause which breaks down your expected compensation in the event of a rush job or any overtime work. Better yet, include a line on your rate card highlighting rush job pricing, this way there is no ambiguity on what the price is for rush jobs.
Make it very clear to them what they’re asking for and how difficult it is to accomplish, when they want you to redo the web page layout of the site to a two-column layout from a three-column layout, for example. If you’d rather not be stuck doing revision after revision, include a set number that you’ll allow each client to have.
Be specific about the project’s deliverables and outcomes, and protect yourself by having solid terms and conditions agreed to in the event of out-of-scope work arises. When the guidelines and parameters for what you will and won’t do are set in stone, it does wonders for your peace of mind.
2. Your Quote Contains A Contract
If your quotes don’t currently contain a contract, don’t take on another job without one. You can find free quote and contract templates all over the Web that cover a wide scope of freelancing needs. Here’s a good starting point from LawDepot that you can use for free.
The best solution, however, is to simply consult with a contract attorney and let them draft your company’s business contracts. If you’re intimidated at the thought of going to a lawyer, don’t be. I promise you, it’s not nearly as scary (or expensive) as being faced with a mountain of revisions from a client who isn’t legally obligated to pay you for your extra hard work. You can find great lawyers that know small business by searching Click Lawyer.
3. You Win The Presentation
Give the client what they’re asking for (for the most part). You’d be surprised by how much clients will allow you to get away with creatively, as long as you’re able to sell and rationalize it to them. The key is how you present your work and your ideas.
A mediocre idea that is presented well can outperform a great idea that’s presented poorly. So naturally, a great idea that’s presented well is the winning combination. Spend a few minutes to get inside your client’s head. Talk to them, listen carefully, figure out exactly how you need to package your ideas so that they will choose the option that’s best for their needs.
Do your research and present your case clearly. Support your design decisions with data. You could, for example, use usability research results to back up your choices. Yes, this takes a bit of extra effort, but it’s almost always worth it.
4. Your Portfolio Represents Your Business
You want to make sure that every single piece of work in your portfolio is tailored to the needs of your ideal client. This helps to make sure that you work with client’s who best match your work, acting as a sort of filter against clients that you might not be the best idea.
If you’re trying to attract small businesses or startup companies as opposed to Fortune 500 companies, build a portfolio that is attractive and focused on the needs and wants of these businesses. If you work well with a high-end client, you’ll need to adjust your portfolio so caters to this market. If you don’t have any work that represents the market you’re looking to attract, then take the time to create some fun spec work that showcases your ability to work within that market.
5. You are an Educator
Another important hat for designers to wear is that of the educator. We’ve all heard of the clueless design client who has no idea how to download an email attachment, much less understand the ins and outs of what’s required to complete their project.
I’ve found that having patience with people and taking care to explain in detail what is expected from them has helped me avoid quite a few catastrophes in the past.
If you struggle with being able to communicate difficult concepts to your clients, consider making overview presentations and inviting your client to join you for a lunch and learn. This not only helps build trust between the two of you, but it allows the client to have a no-pressure atmosphere to ask questions without distractions to learn about the creative process, your role as a designer and their role as the client. This is also a great opportunity to teach them about the importance of the brief and how the two of you can work together to define the scope before jumping into a new project.
Being able to communicate clearly can help defuse a situation that might otherwise get out of hand and end in frustration for both you and the client.
6. You are the Underdog
Here’s a personal antidote from my days as an in-house designer. I’m one of those people who can produce a large amount of quality work in a relatively short amount of time. Because of this tendency, I’ve found that freelancing suits me far better than in-house work.
Firstly, it allows me to have near complete control of my own time. I’m no longer chained to a desk, droning away with lame busy work that has nothing to do with anything creative – or more accurately, looking busy to burn the hours when there’s nothing to do.
Secondly, and more importantly, it allows me to keep my speed and creative process a carefully-guarded secret.
When you produce a lot of work in a short amount of time, you tend to assume you’ll be rewarded handsomely for it. Unfortunately, most people figure out pretty quickly that that’s almost never what actually happens. Most likely, you’ll just be loaded down with more work. Once people find out how fast you are, they’ll get spoiled and will start expecting the same level of output from you in the future.
As many designers can confirm, it’s almost never the actual work that takes the most time. You’re a designer – you know what you’re doing and how to use your tools. The biggest time drain is usually getting the client to be on the same page as you are in terms of the idea.
As a Creative Director friend likes to say, “When a client asks how long it took to come up with the idea I like to say ten years and five minutes. Ten years to gain the experience to learn how to create quickly”. 
If you’re a freelancer, my crazy suggestion to you would be to slow down. Not “slacker” slow, but try not to let your clients in on your amazing superpowers. Impress your clients by under-promising and over-delivering.

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