Identifying red flags to avoid trouble clients
By David Airey November 26, 2012
Identifying red flags to avoid trouble clients
By David Airey November 26, 2012
Identifying red flags to avoid trouble clients
By David Airey November 26, 2012


Ed. note: Drawing on stories from his recently published book, Work for Money, Design for Love, graphic designer David Airey shares some insights into avoiding problematic clients. 

It does cost money to turn down a project, but saying “yes” to the wrong client can be equally as costly. We have only so many hours we can devote to our profession, and working with the wrong people means you don’t have time for more enjoyable—and potentially more profitable—jobs.

As the late motivational writer Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 2004), once said, “Doing more things faster is no substitute for doing the right things.”

Here’s an excerpt from an email I received earlier this year: “Do you have a money-back guarantee? Because I’ve already worked with two companies but I’m not satisfied.”

I’ve fielded thousands of inquiries, and a statement like that is a definite warning sign of a potentially difficult client. It hints that I, too, might be asked for a refund after I’ve started on a project. Besides, if this person was already unhappy with the work of two other companies, how likely is it that he or she would be happy with my design? Of course, there’s a chance that the other companies’ work wasn’t any good, but there’s also the chance that the problem actually lay with an impossible-to-please client. These are the sorts of clients to avoid, and when necessary, fire.

Tim Lapetino of Chicago- and Los Angeles-based Hexanine is just one experienced designer I know who has had to fire a client. Hexanine was engaged to create a new community website centered on issues surrounding women’s perception of their bodies. “We loved the concept as well as the cleverness and verve of the founder, and how we might be able to really flex our creative muscles,” says Tim. “In the early going, we were also very encouraged by the fact that this client seemed to get the process. Our client talked the talk, understood the lingo and seemed very responsive to what we proposed, as well as our process. A love fest, you might have said.”

But the tide turned almost immediately. As soon as the designers began putting pencil to paper, the conflicts began. The only part of the process that didn’t draw complaints, confusion, mid-course corrections and yelling from the client was the initial sketch concept round. “The client wasn’t happy with initial design rounds,” recalls Tim, “so we redoubled our efforts on many subsequent rounds, and sought to dig deep into unexplored territory. And out of that came some excellent work that will never see the light of day.”

For Hexanine, one additional round became ten, a few bonus concepts turned into many and they agreed to waive their normal practice of curbing scope creep in order to please the client. But they couldn’t land on something the client would approve, and the criteria devolved from stated business goals to gut hunches that couldn’t be predicted—hunches that were based on whims of the moment and ethereal catchphrases.

Tim remembers the experience well: “After quite a lot of work, we settled on an identity concept that was part of one of our ideas, but not wholly, and attempted to make it work. The client was still not happy with the mark, but for the sake of time, we pressed on to the website, naively thinking that it would be a better arena to work in, because we had specifically limited the scope.”

They were wrong.

“The site was even more of a disaster, and we couldn’t wrangle the client to choose specific items and commit to certain styles. All pretense of goals-based decision-making went out the window. The client was picking what they liked, and what was ‘liked’ turned out to be terribly ugly. We protested and fought, but in the end, acquiesced.”

Hexanine was contractually bound to complete the website, and did so, but the studio will never attach itself to any of the outcomes. “The work isn’t right for the specified audiences, and it ended up being designs that were dictated by one very opinionated client.”

The client treated Tim’s people badly. There was yelling, terse emails, blameshifting and anger when Hexanine didn’t respond immediately to weekend emails. Yet Tim later discovered that the team was actually treated much better than most of the client’s vendors. Several PR agencies had been fired and suppliers bullied. “For some reason, maybe our desire to keep things civil, we were spared the worst of it,” recalls Tim. “But of course, we heard later that the client had bad-mouthed our firm to others as well. This project might still be going on if not for our decision to bow out and end our relationship with the client. We did as much as we could to deliver on the client’s brand promises, but the working relationship wasn’t producing good results. We tried to exit amicably and with as much grace and care as possible, but the same fate seemingly awaited anyone who worked with this client.”

Drawing on this experience, Tim shares the following lessons: “Be flexible, but don’t subvert your own time-worn process, even if a client seems like they will work with you on it. Our process is our safety net, source of strength and the basis for keeping things on track. We diverge from it at our peril, especially if a client requests that we do so. We learned to always do our due diligence. Now we make sure the things other people say about prospective clients are things we’re comfortable with.”

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