How to Spot Difficult Clients and Their Red Flags

Embrace the Dip!, Evaluate Prospective Clients and Strategies to Help You Deal With These Difficult Clients

I’m so glad you’re here! - Thanks for sticking with me!

First off, thanks to all the new subscribers I am blown away! I have had some really nice emails and messages on social media.

*I thought i would just mention this here as a few people I have been chatting with were not aware you can comment and engage directly on each newsletter post as if it was a blog post, I would love to hear from you in the comments.

In a previous newsletter I wrote about How Valued Repeat Clients Make Your Business Better.

It was a long one and this one is no different in fact its the longest issue to date so brew up and get comfy as we get into today’s issue.

Over the years of running my own design studio I have worked with many great clients a majority of one off client projects that went amazingly smooth and other that turned into repeat clients who I have done many projects for and considered more of a partnership to each other’s businesses these are the type of clients you need for your business and will know when you get them if you have not already.

Some of my best clients are more open to me suggesting advice and ideas to things they need to implement without them feeling like it’s a sales pitch.

They quickly respond to my emails even if they are on vacation. They will respond out of courtesy to let me know so I’m not waiting for a response.

Even if I’m away I will respond and they will tell me to ignore them until I’m back as it can wait.

When you have good clients like this you don’t need to worry about them paying their invoices as trust is sky high and it’s paid pretty much as soon as the invoice is sent.

Good clients really make the effort to make you feel like a valued partner to their business and also part of the team.

It really is amazing when you get good clients who value and trust you as a professional.

The challenge is getting good clients they are far and few and with every good client you gain there are always more that are not so good.

We all get them from time to time and if you’re a designer you will have had your fair share.

Bad clients is a grey area and not many people talk about it, and I feel that some designers don’t want others to know the types of bad clients they have had while others are very open in sharing their experiences.

I think some designers feel embarrassed or think it will make them look unprofessional or less of a designer than others.

A Bad Client Experience

Trust me we have all had them, we are human and sometimes we miss the red flags or trust or heart instead of our gut and a bad client will take the biscuit with us and before we know it it’s gone too far and it’s too late and we need to walk away.

If you know me well you will know I don’t talk about people to other people if I am told something in confidence it does not go any further I respect people’s privacy and their business, neither do I discuss clients with other clients I hate when I see and hear this its disrespectful and bad for business.

To be transparent with my readers I will explain this bad client experience without mentioning any client or business details that’s confidential.

I had a really bad client quite a few years ago and nothing to do with The Logo Creative, it was through my other business.

I was only in my early twenties with a good head on my shoulders, but not as wise as I am now at 37 as of writing this. It’s the first time I have mentioned this but it’s a good example I think it's worth sharing.

In fact thinking about it, it was an unfortunate situation there was no way for me preventing this clients situation but I could have gotten more of the down payment and been compensated more for what I had done, and you will properly agree that what this client did to me was very unfair.

To cut a long story short they seemed ok no red flags at all, good communication, provided all the info I needed, paid me 50% down payment (should have asked for more).

I was designing a full branding package including, logo, identity design, stationary, marketing materials, web design, basically you name it the full works for them, I worked months on the project they approved the direction and milestones set was really happy with how everything was going.

When it came to signing off on the final design they went quiet!

After doing some digging I found out they had gone bust before they had even launched due to overspending, and terrible… more like stupid and careless business decisions which ended in them being in debt.

Instead of informing me during the process they let me carry on with the work. I even spoke to the director after he knew what was happening! And he said nothing!

Some time passed and I managed to get in contact with the director of the company or should I say in front of him due to my persistence, He had been dodging me for quite some time, he was quite surprised that I manged to catch up with him, and his excuse was he had so much going on he forgot, and he was embarrassed to tell me the situation.

So I basically said to him:

“You forgot? I sent you multiple emails, left you multiple voicemails, Knocked on your door only to be ignored, but you were willing for me to carry on with the work leading me along wasting my time, instead of just being honest and considerate like a genuine human being.”

He said:

“I really like the work you did a great job with it and if I had the money I would pay the remaining balance but I’m broke!”

I replied:

“Don’t I know it? If you had been straight from the moment you knew instead of wasting my time we could have resolved it amicably, and you’re not the only one who is out of pocket!”

I was furious of course I was properly the worst client I ever had, I could not believe this client had done this to me he seemed such a nice guy at first with a great business ahead of him, it was a substantial amount of money he owed me as well on quite a lengthy project.

I was also really proud of the work as it was good and the client loved it. The project was nailed!

I was also angry with the client for getting himself into this situation and I really wanted to give it to him about what an idiot he had been with his business. He had been an absolute idiot and would have had better luck if he had given the money to some kids to invest or just burnt his money with a lighter.

I knew it was not worth pursuing further as he was legit broke and owed a lot of money not only to me but others as well, it would have cost me far too much and I knew I would not get the remaining balance for the work I had completed. I knew I had to walk away literally and move on.

Why didn’t that idiot just say to me this is what has happened? I have been an idiot and made some stupid decisions and investments. We need to postpone or cancel the project!

If this idiot ever reads this and I wish I had stayed long enough to say it to his face!

“You need some serious business, money balancing and investment lessons and you need to man up to your mistakes, own it and stop blaming others for your own stupidity, and while you’re at it appreciate other people’s profession and time, be honest there is not only you in this world who is having a hard time!”

Anyways I’m firing myself up and that’s in the past now.

In fact I’m not a gambling man but I would place a bet on him not working for himself anymore (thinking about it he never really did!) and working for someone still paying off his debts.

Embrace the Dip!

Every silver lining has a cloud and really good things have happened since then, it was a bump in the road and I walked away and moved on to better things.

One of my favourite quotes is

We used to have this quote on the kitchen wall, it was quite big (we have decorated since then, we now have it in a frame.

Every time I go out of the house I look at it and think it’s not raining so I don’t need to dance, and there is no thunder storm so life is good.

This bad client experience also taught me about applying milestone payments on bigger projects.

In fact big projects like this I now take 75% down payment and the remaining 25% on client sign off.

Life is not perfect, the world is not perfect, and people are not perfect.

We have to accept that, things go wrong, and it’s not always sunshine’s and rainbows the world can be a mean place and life hits you hard at times. You need to be ready to embrace the dip, its coming we just never know when.

My favourite quote of all time is from Rocky, and it has stuck with me for years since the first time I saw the film way back.

Life is a fight, it’s a struggle, we have to work hard to achieve our goals and dreams, but we need to realise this, and the more we are prepared the more we can enjoy our life while we do it!

The world ain't all Sunshine and Rainbows!

This is related to anything in life, but during your design career you will get a bad client, and go through a bad experience you properly have already multiple times such as either these awful clients did not pay on time, did not want to pay at all, or got upset when asked for payment for the services rendered.

The topic of safeguarding yourself and business from bad clients and spotting the red flags is rarely discussed and I hope to offer some advice in this article.

Evaluate Prospective Clients

A seasoned professional who’s been in the game for years (I know there are quite a lot subscribed to the newsletter who I admire and look up to) will understand this concept.

If you’re new to the industry, it’s very important to evaluate prospective clients to see if they are going to be a good fit for you and your business.

Think of it like this: A client is looking at a number of different designers and studios to see who they like and trying to narrow down the search.

When you go shopping for a certain item, you will hunt around for the best model and the best deal you can find.

So as a professional service provider it’s only natural that you want to work with the best clients for your business.

The sooner you get into the mind set of validating clients and not that I want clients the better.

Try not to think of money or the amount of projects you’re getting always be thinking about validating first when you have developed a skill for it you will notice you will start to get better clients with bigger budgets who are a pleasure to work with, projects are more interesting and run a whole lot smoother.

Difficult Client Red Flags

Here are some red flags to look out for when you’re validating your prospective clients.

The Client is Unclear When It Comes to Payments

If the client completely avoids the subject of project fees and the cost involved, that’s a red flag and a bad sign.

You’re in business to make money just like they are, you’re not doing this work for free they have contacted you as a professional service provider for them.

Remember you’re a business owner and a professional in your craft, before you do anything with a client, discuss numbers early and agree working fees as early as possible.

If a client goes quiet when discussing rates or does not respond then walk away and remember you have not lost anything at this stage you are validating the client.

If you do agree and settle on price, get everything in writing, send over your agreement form for the project outlining what has been agreed on and a contract outlining the terms of the project.

Get a signature or ask them to reply back to the email with the documentation attached stating they agree to the documents attached to the email.

You need to be covering yourself here as much as possible because if you have to go to court over any issues that may occur, you will have proof of the agreed upon price, terms of project send the scope of the work agreed on.

The Client Questions Your Price

In the early stages of engaging with a prospective client when they start to question your rates before you have even started to build a rapport and explain the value you are giving them this is a sign of lack of trust or more than likely a price driven client only interested in your quality work for a lowball rate… it’s a big red flag!

As a designer you should be able to easily communicate your rates and the value you will provide to a prospective client without too much questioning from them.

You will get the odd question here and there but that’s understandable the client is making an investment and trying to gain a sense of trust and reassurance it’s going to be a worthwhile choice.

Those willing to invest will trust that you are offering a reasonable cost for their project. With experience you get a sense of who is who and you will be able to spot them a mile off!

Disorganised Client’s

A disorganised client is quite easy to spot it’s also a red flag. For a successful project completion both the client and design need to be organised.

If a client is being disorganised about a project outline, it’s a sign there may be future holdups by working with them.

This can be frustrating, the communication is not smooth, and the project can get delayed making the experience of working with this client a nightmare, best to avoid and move on!

Clients who want unrealistic project deadlines   

In the early stages this type of client will start demanding unrealistic deadlines this to me says the client is also disorganised and not fully thought about the project making them more than likely a nightmare to work with.

You should work together with your client to determine a realistic deadline that is both suitable for you and your client.

I also don’t recommend rush jobs for higher rates. I see others offering it and find this unprofessional and it sounds quite desperate.

I don’t want to charge someone a higher rate to rush something knowing it will not turn out the best I could make it if only I had more time.

Now I want the time to explore it, I’m not a pixel pushing machine, I’m a professional creative thinker and problem solver. I design in a strategic way that’s goal orientated to an outcome that solves the client brief.

You’re not helping a client at all by doing this, and clients don’t value the design industry by thinking something can be knock-up quickly it’s disrespectful to the profession. 

The Client is Hard to Contact

It’s always a good idea when your first start engaging with a client is to monitor their response times.

As a rule give people time to respond some people don’t always have access to their emails 24/7 others check them at certain times of the day or even a certain day of the week.

It all depends on what it’s regarding for instance if it’s a simple question answer situation you’ll properly have a response the same day or by the next working day.

If it’s more complex and involves a decision making process on your prospective client’s end it will take more time just be patient.

Normally when it’s a project inquiry I would expect most prospective clients to respond within a few days or at least a week.

If you don’t hear anything you can always follow up with an email, just asking if they received it as you would not want them to think you did not reply to them.

I personally may do this depending on the project, but most of the time I just move on and focus on other things – Time is money and I’m not chasing people I don’t have time for that.

What if it’s a client I’m working with?

There is nothing more frustrating than a client who is hard to get in contact with especially after the project has started. (Like my example above) and this is the only experience I have had with that’s hard to contact.

I suppose with experience you learn how to prevent these situations by having larger deposits/down payments, and setting mild-stone goals and review stages so you progress while getting paid for your hard work along the way.

It’s defiantly frustrating as it hinders and slows down the entire workflow unnecessarily my advice is to establish the preferred communication method early and get some backup contact details also.

They Fired The Last Designer They Worked With

You will have properly had this type of client before and I’m always very wary when a prospective client can’t wait to tell me they fired the last designer they worked with.

I always feel like they are trying to say

“And we will do the same to you if we are unsatisfied”

It’s just not a good way to start an engagement with a new designer its immediately sets of bad vibes.

When I hear this I always try to find out more information and pay close attention to how they tell me such as their body language and some of their voice as I can normally tell when they are telling me a pack of lies.

I will ask them direct questions like

  • “Who did you work with last?”

  • “What happened, why did it not work out?”

  • “Why do you want to work with us?”

Be direct and upfront, they may be saying this to try and make you feel intimidated and get the upper hand in the relationship.

This is not how a designer client relationship works it’s a two way engagement and you are a professional. They are seeking to help them solve their business design related issues.

I will always say to a client when I hear this:

“I will personally address when I feel there is an issue and tell you directly as I don’t want anything to get in the way of the project. Communication and trust is key to building a good relationship without the two we can’t deliver the best outcome”

This will let the client know you're serious and will not take any rubbish from them. It also lets them know you’re not intimidated by them and have their best interests at heart so be bold and reassure them you’re not hear to mess around and you’re a professional.

You will never know the full ins and outs of what went down with a previous relationship as a professional it’s your job to find out as much as you can work out this client for yourself, set expectations and boundaries, cover yourself and don’t be afraid to walk away if it goes pear-shaped.

Control the situation you’re the one doing the work! 

They Want More Work Without Renegotiating Pay

This is typically known as “scope creep,” which is a term for a project that exceeds its original outlined scope.

Most of us who have been working in the industry for quite some years have had this type of client, some just try it on, and others kick up a fuss and spit their dummy’s out when they can’t get their own way.

Forcing you to outline the design agreement which clearly states the original scope of work.

Make sure you have a design agreement in place that clearly states the scope of work for the project that the client agrees to.

Whenever you are asked to do more work than what was originally outlined and the client agreed to, you should renegotiate the project fees with an extension.

Make sure you clear all outstanding balances first, this way the client is not owing you too much later on.

For instance, you may have agreed on a direction for the project and half way through the client wants to go a different direction.

A new project fee must be agreed on as you have to start again basically, and most client don’t understand this, why they don’t understand this I will never know it’s a fairly simple concept you pay for my time and efforts and what was agreed upon.

In reality they are playing ignorant! And disrespect your time! You have done all that work leading up to this stage that was originally agreed on and this still needs paying for regardless if the client decides to swerve mid-project.

I have had clients like this who wanted to go in a different direction but we settled on what was owned then agreed on an extension fee to move forward in a different direction and then they paid a down payment on the new rates.

Remember you have a right to charge for your work regardless if the client wants to change the scope of the work and the direction of the project.

Reasonable clients understand this and will settle any outstanding fees owed.

Strategies to Help You Deal With These Difficult Clients

Now that you know some of the red flags to look out for with difficult clients, the next step is to have a strategy in place to help deal with them when they occur.

(Remember earlier – “Embrace The Dip!”)

You want to make sure you’re ready for when this dip will occur, having a solid process in place not only for your work but also for dealing with difficult clients will help you work more effectively and also make you happier in the long run.

It’s worth investing time into this as it’s something that will occur from time to time and more often than not in the early days.

A lot of young designers will never think of this until it happens, after all the anger and stress you go through finally makes you think I never want to deal with that type of client ever again.

Save yourself that experience and have a plan and process in place to deal with it.

Always trust your process, your process will look after you for years to come!

You may be dealing with a difficult client at the moment, let me help you with how you can deal with difficult clients.

Always Be Prepared For a Difficult Client

It’s the most important thing “Being Prepared” Take the time to document and brainstorm common issues clients raise and the issues that have arisen.

When you document things you have the information to put together a strategy ensuring you are prepared when similar issues occur.

By doing this you future proof of your process, it will stop you worrying what if? And give you peace of mind

Always Remain Calm

Never respond to an angry client in an emotional way as this will only escalate the situation further than it needs to go.

When you respond, remain calm and collective no matter how difficult this client is being.

Use the clients name make them feel like you are hearing their concerns and it sounds more personal when you refer to people by their name.

If the client is still pushing to wind you up don’t let it and never get defensive with they are the ones who are being difficult, your job is to remain neutral, and keep a calm posture and friendly facial expression.

If this client is generally trying to be funny with you, then by you being nice and calm will let them know whatever they are trying to achieve will not work with you.

Actively listen at all Times

When communicating with a difficult client give them your full attention and listen to them, consider their concerns and their complaints.

Ensure this is by:

  • Keep eye contact

  • Show concern and sympathy for the situation

  • Seeking common ground to relate to

  • Have an open posture while you’re either sitting or standing. Closed positions such as folded arms can communicate that you’re not interested

  • Ask them questions so you fully understand their issue

  • Never think about your next response when the client is talking to you, just listen and you may miss something

Always Admit To Not Knowing Something

I have seen this happen to quite a few young designers, they have a demanding client that requests something beyond a designer’s capabilities, the young designer just agrees without thinking as they properly feel under pressure.

We had all done it in the early years and learnt something on the spot to please a demanding client, we learned it but it was stressful way to do it.

Never be afraid to say:

“This is something that I don’t specialise in but a colleague of mine does. I will liaise with him and try my best to get the answers for you”

Or

“This is not the type of work I do, and I’m not the right person to ask about this, but I have a colleague who I can bring in to manage this for you”

If you don’t know anyone you can source someone who specialises in that field and you direct them through your client or pass the work over whichever is suitable for the situation I have done both in the past with no issue.

There is no shame in not knowing something your client will respect you for admitting you don’t know but will appreciate you even more if you’re willing to find the answers they are looking for or the right person for the job.

Use Positive Language and remain professional

I’m still shocked when I hear how some other business owners talk to their clients, it’s even worse when you see swear words on business social accounts etc.

You have to remember that you are your business and your business is part of your brand.

People talk, the word gets around before you know it you’re branded for the wrong reasons.

Keep your cool and refrain from letting rip on a client and losing your cool.

The majority of people don’t like it when you can remain calm, they will try and get under your skin, get you over a barrel and make you do something they can hold against you, so they can manipulate you.

Be positive, be professional and follow your code of conduct.

When speaking to clients try not to be negative by using phases like:

  • “I can’t do this…”

  • “I will not do this…”

  • “We will not…”

  • “Unfortunately…”

  • “Our company can’t…”

  • “We are too busy…”

  • “We don’t have time…”

  • “That’s not my responsibility…”

You get the drift try to be more positive in your answers, before sending something always read it twice you will be surprised at just how many times you will sound negative or you will notice you change the way something is written because it may be taken the wrong way.

Follow up with Client on a Regular Basis or Set Mile Stones and Update Stages

When you check in with clients regularly can help you identify issues early on before they become a real issue, reducing both your and the client’s frustrations.

When you complete a project for a difficult client you will properly be thinking

“Thank goodness it’s over and I will never have to deal with them ever again”

Think positive and send them a follow-up email thanking them for using you will be surprised and get a nice email back.

It’s nice to leave the relationship on a positive note, it may even lead to future business from a recommendation from the same client.

Even if it doesn’t or you hate that client, they will always remember how difficult they were for you, but you still sent them a nice follow-up email thanking them.

Ensure Your Time Is Respected

I will use an example that’s happened to me. Let’s say you’re having a meeting with a client you travel to their location it’s a couple of hours away.

You have agreed to meet at 1400 when you get their you’re told by the reception that the director will be with you shortly your set their for a further 30 minutes its now 1430 and you had scheduled 1 hour for the meeting there is now only 30 minutes left of the meeting.

When you eventually get into the meeting explain that you have to be somewhere else and you only have 30 minutes available.

It’s important to end the meeting at the agreed time regardless of when it started.

You got there on time and they made you wait, it’s disrespectful and rude.

By leaving on time you’re sending the message that they must appreciate your time and they will not mess you about.

You only make exceptions if the situation is a genuine emergency or something out of the ordinary.

This happened to me. I stuck to my schedule and told them politely  

“It’s took me two hours to get here. I have scheduled 1 hour with you, and then I have another two hours to drive back to see another client later today. That’s 5 hours I have dedicated to you today and I have other people to see.”

The client is fine with me I still work with this client today and they respect my time, I will tell you that! They even meet me half way when we need to meet up.

Set clear boundaries

Similar to clients respecting your time, you need to set and establish clear boundaries at the very start of the client engagement before a project commences.

For instance, make your daily working hours clear to the client, if you’re a freelance designer working from home, some clients think you work all the time so it’s important to clearly state.

For example, you work from the hours of 9am to 5pm and if you are not available outside of these hours clearly state it in your terms of agreement and on your website.

By setting clear boundaries when you receive a phone call, email or a cheeky text at 11pm at night or in some cases the early hours of the morning they will not expect you to reply right away.

I have set clear boundaries for my clients even though I work with clients around the world. I may get into the studio in the morning and find a bunch of emails from clients from the other side of the world.

They understand that when they send it during their working hours I’m properly asleep and they will get a replay when I’m back in the studio.

I sometimes make exceptions when I’m working on big projects and may have a late or early start so I can chat with them directly.

Make sure you abide by the boundaries you put in place and be consistent with them.

If you let clients push boundaries and break the rules they’ll keep doing it.

Communicate With Clients When They Overstep the Boundaries

Communication is key when working as a designer is equally important for both designer and client to be able to effectively communicate with each other to gain the best outcome for the project.

When it comes to setting boundaries, having the confidence to say “No” is very important.

Don’t be afraid to say no

As a designer, you need to learn how to say “No” more often in fact the more you grow, the more you will find yourself saying “No” it comes with the industry.

For instance, you will need to say “No” to future projects for a number of reasons.

Last week I said “No” to a project with a budget of £2000 I know it’s not a huge budget but it’s a decent amount to a brand new designer who may be reading this.

The reason why I turned it down was for starters I’m actually busy, and secondly they want too much both design and digital for their budget and needed 4x the amount for it to be even worth entertaining as there was months of work involved and the budget did not allow for time to complete the scope.

Saying “No” is sometimes best for business, and there’s no doubt that working with difficult clients and small budgets with large scopes can take a toll on you.

When you gain experience in the industry you will realise that every client is different and every project is different you can’t have set prices as every project is different in many ways, the client, the company, the scope, deliverables, deadlines the list goes on

Price the Client Not the Job

As previously mentioned, not all projects run the same, your clients are unique individuals with unique projects that require different deliverables and you need to be in the mind-set of pricing the client.

It’s a good idea not to display any pricing publicly and talk to your clients first and learn all you can before discussing and disclosing any prices with them lots of people think one price fits all and it’s quite simply not the case.

I know it can be difficult to explain and get across to your clients but it needs to be done early on to save yourself a lot of stress and it’s part of setting boundaries with a client.

Give yourself the opportunity to determine a price you think is fair based on the client and the scope of work that needs to be completed.

You can always Increase your hourly rate on what you base on a project fee up front for clients you’ve identified as difficult.

Learn to take difficult clients in stride

Difficult clients don’t have to bring you or your business down. With the correct client management strategies, you can effectively de-escalate situations before they get out of control.

At this point you can strategy ways to deal with the toughest of client requests with ease and a little stress.

Having documented policies and processes in place this means that every client issue is dealt with within the same manner and as they say by the book.

When issues occur every client gets the same treatment and is dealt with in the same way, you also are not put on the spot and wondering how to respond and trying to think what would be best thing to say to this client that is being so difficult your policy will guide you through the process.  

In business you need to be disciplined I know it sounds tough but once you are running a business it is a lot of fun by having rules, boundaries and policies in place they will keep you on track and flow of your client engagements will be far much better in the long run.

And remember as a business owner now and then give yourself a treat or reward for your hard work.

As I always say - “Stay curious & enthusiastic, and good things will happen!”

Thanks for reading. Please leave a like and show some love. I appreciate your support. 😃

What sort of red flags have you encountered when dealing with new clients? Share your experiences with me in the comments.

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