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How To Spot A Problem Client

Whether you’re a solo freelancer or part of a bustling agency, there comes a time in every creative’s life where you’re faced with a problem client. In some cases, their nature may be evident from the first meeting, but in other circumstances, you may miss the clues that would have told you that you’re in for a rocky ride.

Whether you’re a solo freelancer or part of a bustling agency, there comes a time in every creative’s life where you’re faced with a problem client. In some cases, their nature may be evident from the first meeting, but in other circumstances, you may miss the clues that would have told you that you’re in for a rocky ride.

It happens to the best of us.

If you want to avoid being blindsided by hindsight, here are five red flags to look for when evaluating your next potential client.

They talk money early and often

While savvy clients should absolutely have ROI on their minds, beware of those who drop a mention of their limited budget in their initial interaction with you. If a potential client leads with how little they have to spend, it’s a strong signal that they value cost over quality. Bargain shopping is a great way to spend Black Friday, but a lousy approach to executing a creative project.

They play hard to get

If your early contact with a potential client involves protracted delays in replying to your emails, difficulty scheduling meetings and you continually having to break the radio silence, re-evaluate just how much you want this work. The client-contractor courtship dance is when both parties should be on their best behavior and seeking to make a stellar impression. If communication is spotty now, it won’t improve once the project kicks off. And if you think scheduling a scoping call is difficult, just wait until you try to get them to pay your first invoice.

They’re not in real pain

Maybe their chief competitor went through a rebrand, so they feel as if they should do one too. Maybe there’s money left in the department’s budget that needs to be spent before the fiscal year end. Maybe a new team lead has come on board and wants to shake things up. There are plenty of reasons a client might contact you with a project that lacks urgency or a clear need. While it’s tempting to take on this type of work if the rest of the stars are aligned, clients who can’t identify a specific pain point or don’t have defined, measurable goals they want to achieve in working with you are very hard clients to satisfy. If they don’t know what they want, giving it to them borders on the impossible.

They have unrealistic expectations

Whether it’s assuming they’ll get an immediate answer to an email sent at 11:30PM or believing a logo design process should be an easy two-week job, clients with unrealistic expectations are ones to avoid. They want a lot, they want it now and they want the right to change their mind on a whim (or have you be able to read it). There’s a difference between doing great work and working miracles. For clients who expect the latter, direct them elsewhere.

They don’t respect the client-contractor relationship

Good clients are good managers. They are clear about their (reasonable) expectations, they are professional communicators, they have clear feedback and they’re invested in making sure the project is a success and that you, as the creative service provider, have a positive experience. By contrast, problem clients don’t place a premium on their relationship with you and don’t take steps to nurture it. They may micro-manage your work, go MIA for extended periods of time or give you vague, low-value feedback when you present them with collaterals for review. In other words, they evince a distinct lack of respect for your time or your expertise. If, in your early interactions, a potential client isn’t demonstrating enthusiasm about collaborating with you and asking the type of questions about your process and proposed scope of work that would indicate they value your knowledge and really want to understand your methods, that doesn’t bode well for your future relationship.

While the possibility of problem clients is a hazard of the job for creatives, you don’t have to let them drag your business down. If you hone your intuition for recognizing these individuals and organizations, you can help stave off the heartache that comes from trying to fit their square peg projects into a round hole.

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