Over the years I’ve had mostly positive experiences with clients, but I’ve had a few that were ugly, and a select few that were disasterous. I can’t claim that I or my firm were completely innocent in every case, and in some times we helped client be “bad,” but in most of the serious cases I can confidently say that had some things been different about the client the problems we experienced never would have happened. And so here’s my list of how to avoid bad clients.
1. Don’t discount your prices. Somehow giving clients a break seems like a good idea from time to time, but in my experience the clients who pay the most and don’t try to get discounts are always the best clients to work with, hands down, and not just because the profit margins are larger. They are genuinely different in personality. Sometimes you’re tempted to discount your prices because you want a certain client gracing your client list, or because of the promise of more work to come. If you have to discount your prices to land a client, it’s probably a bad sign. The project will probably go awry and while you may get their name on your client list, chances are you’ll never get more work from them. Think about what discounting your prices says about you. It’s like saying “We are so desperate to have you as a client that we’re willing to make no profit on this job.” Who would you rather work with? An agency that says that or one that says “We’re so good we don’t need your stinkin’ account because we’ve got tons of work.” I’d choose the snobbish agency any day. If they’re snobbish but busy then people must like the results enough to look past their other personality flaws.
2. Don’t agree to hourly agreements that have a cap. “We want to work hourly on this, but with a cap.” In other words, “We want to have our cake and eat it too.” Don’t let clients do this to you. It’s either a fixed bid or it’s hourly, one or the other.
3. Don’t allow scope creep without compensation. “We just have a few small changes we’d like to make, I’m sure they’re just small things…” Yeah, right. The next thing you know you’re doing 2-3 times as much work as you planned on, which means your profits are gone and you’re actually paying the client for the privilege of working with them. Tell clients up front that if they’re on a fixed bid then that means any changes in the scope of the project will mean a change order and additional charges. If it’s hourly then you’re fine, as long as you didn’t agree to that cap.
4. Don’t “partner” with clients. “We’re looking for a firm to partner with on a project.” Or in other words, “We don’t have any money and want you to do free work. On top of that, we have such a lack of confidence in our idea that we’re willing to give away 20% of our company to you rather than pay you $20K.” Don’t fall for this–partnerships rarely, if ever, work out. More likely, you’ll end up doing a bunch of work for no compensation, and then your partner/client will decided they’re not interested in the idea anymore and quit, leaving you with nothing of value.
5. Don’t do comp work. “We’d like you to do a few screens of our website so that we can make a decision which firm to go with.” Oh, you mean you want us to do 75% of the entire project with no guarantee we’ll get paid a dime? Plus you want us to do it with little or none of the planning and preparation we usually do with our clients which means it’s not going to be our best work? In the words of Principal Skinner “Why don’t I just go spit in a cup and drink it?” I’ve done free, or comped work, in order to try to land jobs 20+ times, and I’m not sure I’ve ever landed one of those jobs. In addition, I’ve seen our clients end up with websites that look suspiciously like the comp work we did more than once. If you want to know whether we’ll do good work look at what we’ve done for our past clients.
6. You can’t understand what they’re talking about. Have you ever had a client come in and talk to you for an hour and a half, and at the end you don’t have any clue what they’re saying? I used to assume they were really smart and I just didn’t get it, but now I see that they were the ones without a clue and that they had bad ideas. If you get involved with this type of client chances are you won’t understand their requirements, you’ll produce something that doesn’t meet their expectations, and you’ll have an unhappy client on your hands. Good clients express their objectives clearly so that anyone can understand.
7. They talk a lot. Anyone who can’t explain themselves in a few minutes is trouble.
8. They’re spending their own money. It’s not their fault, but a client who is spending their own money is likely to be pretty touchy about it. Go for the corporate dollars.
9. They’ve had a lot of bad experiences with past firms. This is a major red flag. It’s one thing if a client says they just had a bad experience and they explain it and it makes sense, but when a client tells you they’ve worked with five firms on this project previously and every one of them is a crooked and thieving, watch out, because you’re going to be next on their list no matter what you do.
10. You’ve got a bad feeling. Sometimes you just get a bad feeling about a client and you can’t pinpoint it, all you know is that if you didn’t need the money you wouldn’t work with them. Trust your gut, it’s usually right, especially when it says it wants a burrito from Gualberto’s.