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12 Red Flags For Spotting Bad Design Clients

Bad Design Clients can ruin a business and destroy your love of design. Luckily there are certain Red Flags to help you spot bad clients before things go too far.

In past episodes of the Resourceful Designer podcast, I talked about reasons for passing on design projects from both existing clients as well as from new clients. This time I focus on the clients themselves, specifically bad clients you want to avoid. 

Maybe you’re just starting out, or perhaps you’re a struggling designer, and the thought of turning away clients is entirely foreign to you. Not to mention that telling clients you can’t or won’t help them is not only uncomfortable, but it goes against human nature to want to please people. Plus there’s the fear that turning a client away may backfire and you may lose future opportunities.

These are all real fears. But to run a successful design business, and also be happy in the work you are doing, there will be times when passing on a client is the right thing to do.

Not every client out there is a good fit for you and some you plain don’t want as a client. In the years I’ve been running my business I’ve had a few clients I wish I had turned away at the start.

Not every client out there is right for you and some you just plain don’t want to work with.

By being selective in your client selection you are not only helping yourself, but you are also helping the client who deserves to work with someone who is better suited to serve them.

So how do you spot the red flags letting you know when you should pass on a client?

Start by studying the client

Before you can decide whether or not to accept a new client, you need to try and get a feel for what it will be like working with them. Only then will you know if you want to invest your time in building a relationship with them.

Start by asking the client about themselves and their business before ever asking about their project. Get to know them a bit first.

Once you start discussing the project make sure you ask them what it is they expect from you as a designer. Not just the designs deliverables you will be providing, but what experience do they expect from working with you.

Through your initial conversation, you should get a small feel for what it would be like working with the client. Over time you’ll develop the ability to quickly feel out potential clients to decide whether or not you want to work with them.

One thing you could do is hold off agreeing to a project on the initial call or meeting. Always offer to send a proposal to the client outlining your discussion before taking on their project. You will accomplish two things by doing this; 

  1. It will give you time to think about the client and research them if needed.
  2. Should you not spot any red flags and start working with the client only to discover later they are a bad client; you will have the initial proposal in writing to fall back on in case of any disputes.

12 Red Flags to watch for to spot a bad client.

1. The client has a bad reputation.

You might be unfamiliar with the client, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do some research before agreeing to work with them. A quick Google search of their name or business can turn up all sorts of red flags with information that may help you make a decision. 

If you know of anyone the client has worked with before, contact them and ask how it was to work with the client. 

2. Inconsistent communication. 

Clients who contact you in a rush to have something designed but then take forever to give you details or to respond to a proof. Or clients who harass you looking for quotes or proposals but don’t respond to you when you follow up afterwards. These are red flags that can help you see how communications will go during the project phase.

Inconsistent communication while working on a project can be a real pain. Spotting this red flag early could save you a lot of headaches.

3. The client rudely challenges your fee.

It’s normal for a client to question your price, as long as they do it in a professional manner “that’s more than I was expecting to pay, my budget was closer to X.”

What isn’t right if when a client rudely scoffs at your prices and replies with “who do you think you are charging this much?” or “you're working from home without any overhead, you can give me a better price than this” or “this price is ridiculous, I can get the same thing done much cheaper elsewhere“.

Scenarios similar to these are akin to bullying. Any client that starts off the relationship this way isn’t work keeping.

4. A client expects you to be on call 24/7.

Some clients expect daily progress updates or to be shown every step of the design process. Some want to be able to communicate with you at any hour of the day. Some clients may expect super fast turnarounds, or for you to be “on call” at the drop of a hat whenever they need you.

There are also the clients that will send you an email, then a text telling you they sent you an email and then follow up with a Facebook PM letting you know they emailed and texted you.

If that’s not how you want to work, then don’t work with this client.

5. The client wants to micromanage you.

Clients who micromanage don't’ respect your skills and experience as a designer. They think they know best and want you to follow their lead. Remember that working with a client is a partnership, not a dictatorship. You are not their employee. You do not work for them; you are working with them.

There are few things worse than working with a bossy client. If you feel your authority in the partnership may be minimised, pass on the client.

6. A client doesn’t want to partake in your discovery process.

Some clients think the discovery process is a waste of their time. “You’re the designer, just design something”. They don't understand why you need to know all these things about them and their business.

Without proper discovery to learn about your client, there’s no way for you to design the perfect piece to solve their problem. 

If a client refused to partake in discovery, there’s a good chance you will fail to please them with your work since there’s no way for you to know what problem you are trying to solve with your design.

7. A client wants you to steal or copy another designers work.

This Red Flag doesn't need an explanation. If a client asks you to copy something and change the name on it to theirs or build a website identical to someone else's but maybe with different colours and text, there are only two things you can do.

  1. Educate the client on why you cannot do what they are asking of you (Ethical reasons, copyright laws) and that they are hiring you to design something unique to represent them in the best possible way.
  2. If they don’t want to listen, walk away. They are a bad client to have.

8. A client complains about previous designers.

No good can come from working with a client who complains about previous designers they’ve hired. 

95% of the time there was nothing wrong with the former designers, it was the client that was the problem. You're taking a risk by trying to be the design saviour they want. If you fail to meet up to the standards they are looking for; they will be bashing your name and reputation in the future as well.

Get away from this bad client while you can.

9. The client doesn’t want to sign a contract.

Run away, run away fast. 

Some clients will try anything not to sign a contract. “Go ahead and get started, I’ll mail the contract to you tomorrow” or “There’s a tight deadline on this project, why don’t you get started and we can iron out about the contract later.

This red flag isn’t always the end all of a client relationship. If you firmly but politely tell the client you cannot get started without a signed contract there’s a good chance they will concede, and you can move forward. However, if they push back at all, you should kindly pass on the client.

10. The client wants you to work for free, on spec or for exposure.

In this day and age, I shouldn't have to explain why you should be compensated monetarily for your work. Unfortunately, there are people out there who don’t see what you do as a real job and therefore don’t feel the need to pay you like a real business.

If a client offers to work with you in exchange for:

  • The exposure you will get once people see your work.
  • A project that will make a great portfolio piece.
  • The promise of referring you to others.
  • A design that if they like it, they will pay you for it.

It’s your duty as a professional designer to inform them that you deserve proper payment for your time and services. If they can’t pay you, then you can’t work with them.

11. The client flirts with you. 

Some people are natural flirts and don’t even realise they are doing it. Others use it as a manipulating tactic to get what they want. Unfortunately it’s not always easy to distinguish between the two, and either way, it could leave you feeling uncomfortable if you are not receptive to the flirting.

Be wary of this client. There may be nothing wrong with them, and they may turn out to be a perfect client. But if their flirting makes you feel uncomfortable then pass on them.

12. You have a bad feeling about the client.

You can’t explain it. The client has an excellent project for you, they accept your terms, they’ve agreed to your price, and for all intent and purposes, they seem like the perfect client to have. And yet you have a bad feeling about them.

I don’t want to compare design clients to people in dark vans offering candy to kids, but some people can appear perfectly normal, desirable in fact, all the while hiding who they really are.

If you ever encounter a client that for some unknown reason just doesn’t fit right with you, listen to your intuition. Human beings have relied on it for millennia to keep them safe. Save yourself the stress and possible future troubles and pass on this client.

Weed out these Red Flags and build a great client base.

Life is too short to deal with undesirable people. If you keep an eye out for these Red Flags to weed out bad clients and build a great client base of wonderful people you enjoy working with, there's no reason you shouldn't have a successful design career.

You should love the work you are doing. Don't let bad clients ruin it for you.

What Red Flags do you look for in a potential new client?

Let me know what Red Flags you look out for or what bad client stories you've experienced by leaving a comment for this episode.

Tip of the week Check your Inode limit.

I recently had an issue where all of my client's websites failed when I tried updating or installing a plugin or theme, and I was unable to add any new images to the media gallery. It turns out I had gone over my Inode limit on my shared hosting plan. My hosting provider informed me that even though my plan includes unlimited websites and unlimited disk storage space, there was, in fact, a limit to the number of Inodes I could have. What's an Inode? I asked the same thing. It turns out an Inode is a file (why they don't call it a file I don't know). So even though I have unlimited storage space, there is a limit to the number of files my hosting plan allows, and I had exceeded it.

They offered me two options, 1) Purchase a new hosting plan and migrate some of my client sites to it to reduce the number of files (Inodes) on my first plan. Or 2) Delete files on my current hosting plan to drop my total Inode count below my limit.

Luckily there were a couple of websites still on my hosting plan that were old and no longer live. Deleting them freed up enough space to allow me to continue working on the site I was building for a client.

I will be purchasing a new hosting plan for future client sites. Hosting is inexpensive, so it's not a big deal. However, I did learn something from this experience (not just what an Inode is), read the fine print. Unlimited disk space sounds great, providing there isn't some other cap in place.

I don't begrudge my hosting provider. If they didn't put a limit on the number of Inodes, there would be nothing stopping me from hosting hundreds if not thousands of websites for a small monthly hosting fee.

All of this to say, check with your hosting provider to see what your Inode limit is so you don't encounter the same problem I did.

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I want to help you.

Running a graphic design or web design business all by yourself isn't easy. If there are any struggles you face running your design business, please reach out to me. I'll do my best to help you by addressing your issues in a future blog post or podcast episode here at Resourceful Designer. You can reach me at feedback@resourcefuldesigner.com.

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