After managing many client relationships over the years, I’ve learned the most important rule when considering a new client is to trust your gut. If I have a bad gut feeling about a client, it proves to be accurate later in the relationship.
And with this, I’ve learned to recognize the signs of a bad client, so when I’m questioning that gut feeling I have concrete evidence to back it up. I’ve written about what makes a good client. Now we’re looking at the client/designer relationship from another perspective. Of course, you can’t always know when a client is going to be bad or good. But these red flags help you avoid a potentially negative, expensive and/or draining client relationship.
Red Flag 1: The client is unorganized
This one is easy to spot from the start. The client misses or reschedules meetings more than once even before the project has started. They continue to send new information in bits and pieces long after your briefing. They overlook emails, forcing you to express an answer you already provided.
If you sense a client is unorganized before a project has even begun, you can be certain they will be during the project. And their lack of organization and efficiency will affect the budget, the timeline, the scope and your sanity.
Red Flag 2: The client talks shit about their previous designer
When a client complains about a previous designer or agency they worked with, be wary. It may be true their previous designer failed them, but it's equally possible the client was the reason for that toxic relationship. And if they are complaining about their previous relationship to you, their new designer, it's a clear indicator of their professionalism and maturity.
Red Flag 3: The client is a poor communicator
If you constantly have to translate your client’s messages back to them “just to confirm” you’re understanding correctly, it’s going to be a problem. One miscommunication can lead to hours of rework later and even if it doesn’t, it’s still a major waste of time.
Signs of a poor communicator:
– They send multiple emails back to back when it could have easily been summed up in one.
– You consistently need to ask follow-up questions to clarify their feedback.
– Your notes always seem to conflict with new information they provide to you.
If you seem to be on the same page with the majority of your other clients, but something just feels off-beat with this one, it’s probably their communication style. All relationships rely on healthy communication. When it comes to work relationships, poor communication costs money.
Red Flag 4: The client tries to do your job for you
We’ve all worked with the “designer client.” The one who took a design class or two about a decade ago or “dabbles” in design. Or maybe they have plenty of design experience, it’s just not their current job title. An educated client is a better client, but a client that oversteps is not.
If your client is sending you their own mockups or even re-working your designs, you will quickly feel frustrated. Of course, they might send you a sketch to illustrate a point or idea from their team, which is perfectly normal. This isn’t about your client giving you feedback you don’t want to hear. A client has every right to shoot down your design or request a specific change to it. It’s more about role definition and trust.
A good client has enough work on their plate and realizes they hired you for a reason. They recognize their role is to set you up with all the information and resources you need to do your job well. Trying to do your job for you shows a lack of respect and trust, which is one of the most important qualities in a healthy client relationship.
Red Flag 5: They fail to appoint one point of contact
If you’re getting emails from the marketing services director, the president, the intern, the assistant director and more, it’s a bad sign. A well-functioning company doesn’t have several cooks in every kitchen. They’ve streamlined their process and they trust the people they put in place to implement it.
When you don’t know who to contact or you have to cc a dozen people on every email, your client is doing something wrong. Wires will be crossed, feet will be stepped on, approvals will be delayed, email threads will grow miles long. When you start a project, require one point of contact from your client. If they can’t do this, reconsider the project.
Note: There may be occasional exceptions to this rule. For example, I’ve worked with startups who have 2-5 people on their team, so of course they’re all deeply involved in every aspect of getting their company off the ground. As long as those clients respect you and have a streamlined way of communicating with you, it might be just fine.
Red Flag 6: The client has an unexpectedly small budget
First, let me be clear: I’ve worked with many great clients with small budgets, and will continue to in the future. We may choose to do small-budget projects for a number of valid reasons (we love the company, we need the money, we’re building up our portfolio, etc.).
But generally speaking, I carefully consider these types of projects if I can afford to. For one, they are going to want a lot more than their budget can get them. Two, that small budget may be significant to them, and they will be very insistent and highly involved about how and when and why and where you spend it. I am especially wary if the budget is much less than they lead me to believe it was.
Again, not all small-budget clients are bad. It’s just one factor in considering a new client relationship.
Red Flag 7: The client doesn’t seem willing to take risks
This one goes both ways. A client might not consider a potentially rewarding risk unless you are good at presenting it to them. Some designers have learned how to gently, or not so gently, push the client across boundaries and do something unexpected. However, even the best designers can’t convince some clients to do anything other than what’s safe. I do my best to avoid those clients.
If a client comes to you asking for a design just like one they saw elsewhere, or they want you to continue a campaign they’ve been running for the last five years – exactly as they’ve been running it – consider how much you would enjoy and benefit from working with this client. There’s no shame in taking on the “safe” projects to pay the bills, but work with too many of these clients and your portfolio will show it.
Now, there are exceptions to every one of these rules, which is why I first and foremost trust my gut. You will learn what feels right and wrong for you. You will be burned more than once. I still get burned now and then. I still make my own mistakes all the time. No client or designer is perfect, but we can learn from the burns and remember them for next time.