Caution! Six Warning Signs Of A Bad Client

By Alyssa Gregory
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Caution tapeSometimes, you have to say no to incoming work. No, I haven’t lost my mind. Yes, I know the state of the economy. And yes, I know how hard it can be, especially during a recession, to find design work when it seems like everyone is cutting back, tightening up and sucking in.

Designers need to design and bills have to be paid, but all work is not good work. In fact, some potential jobs (and potential clients) can cost you. Here are six warning signs that you may have a bad client lurking.

1. There is no agreement to terms.

The potential client seems ready…and then they keep trying to renegotiate your rate. You can’t get confirmation on deliverables or project end date. Nothing is in writing — no signed agreement or even an approval via e-mail. Then the client says something like, “Let’s just get started, and we can work out the details as we go.” That should be all you need to run — not walk — in the other direction.

2. The client refuses to scope the work.

Part of your job as the designer is to work with the client to specify exactly what the project will entail. If, even with your direction, the client is not able or willing to sign off on a detailed project plan, survey says you will be faced with scope creep and quite possibly, The Never-Ending Project.

3. The client is disorganized and scattered.

Let’s be honest. Many clients don’t know exactly what they want before you actually start doing it. As designers, we know this, and we each have our own methods to drive clients to focus. But if you’re doing everything in your power to keep the client on-task and focused, and they continue to refer to version 3.0, which is two years down the line, it is likely that their lack of focus will cost you time and money. Not to mention a heck of a lot of frustration.

4. The client has a dark history.

If the client had an abrupt end to a relationship with another designer, and frequently claims said designer was the cause of all that’s evil in the world, they may be of the impossible-to-please variety. Don’t forget it’s totally your right to check them out and do some of your own research before agreeing to the work.

5. The client is a jerk.

You should not have to deal with a client who is rude, obnoxious or disrespectful. Period.

6. The client is a “designer.”

We’ve all been there. The client once designed a “webpage” in FrontPage and they know how to do what you do, probably better than you do. They tend to question why you designed something the way you did and constantly make suggestions on how to do it better. I think it’s pretty clear that this is a bad job to take on.

So heed these warning signs, believe in your value as a designer, and avoid making a deal with the devil for a quick buck. Times will change, and you’ll be happy you didn’t sell yourself short along the way.

Image credit: Doug Wilson

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  • Jackson Carson

    Sounds like all of my clients actually…

  • dev_cw

    LOL This is very funny. You forgot “The client gets web advice from his bartender” I hate when clients will listen to anyone but you and second guesses every move.

  • Jaap

    Next time you come in contact with a client that rings the alarm refer them to Jackson Carson.

  • Boyohazard

    Great post Alyssa. Saying no is the most liberating and empowering thing you can ever do.

    I still remember the first time I said it. I really needed the work but everything I had read on the Sitepoint forums pointed at this guy being a waste of time, no-payer. I worried and debated for quite a while before finally saying that I was just too busy to take on his work.

    I’m not sure what became of him or his business and I do think back on occasion and wonder what if. But I guess that’s the price of trusting your instinct – to prove it wrong involves too much risk.

  • I’ve just recently had a client who wanted to be the lead designer. We’ve parted ways, but thanks to his “preferences”, the project turned into a complete catastrophe (even though he believes it is the most beautiful thing in the world.)

    Some people only learn the hard way…

  • Idea15 Web Design

    Learned this one the hard way: do not work with anyone who does not use their own computer or check their own email. Any client who proudly boasts that “computers are for secretaries” is neither going to see the project through nor pay you for your work. What century is this again?

  • anon

    My bosses tick all these boxes!

  • Rakesh Sivan

    Explanations fits exactly with my reputed client. The situation is now more pathetic with clients pressure getting more and more due to economic slowdown.

  • Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach

    I found myself nodding sagely while reading thru all of your points – great article!

  • Anonymous

    This article describes three of my first clients when I was just a newbie in this business. One of them had the ever changing brief; another refused to pay until the threat of legal action; and another refused to pay a deposit and asked for a big discount until I plucked up the courage to do exactly what you suggest and ended it. Having to deal with clients for the first time was scary and involved learning from mistakes.

    It becomes a lot easier with experience, when you work out contractual terms, don’t take bad treatment silently, and have the courage to deal with the issues. If you can work through the problems, you may not need to drop the client, but you have to be prepared to do so and make your position clear in as diplomatic a way as possible.

  • Erez

    5 advices about writing about customers.

    1. If your writing starts with “No, I haven’t lost my mind, yes I know …, and, yes I know … “, EDIT IT.
    2. If you have 2 good ideas, don’t commit on writing 6 items. Out of the 6 in this article, the first and fourth are genuine (if slightly obvious) good advices, the 2nd is a bit general and the rest are just bitching. If you have only 2 things to say (or 3, or 5), expand on them. Don’t hash 4 more items because it seemed like a good idea at the time.
    3. “If, even with your direction, the client is not able or willing to sign off on a detailed project plan…”, “you’re doing everything in your power to keep the client on-task and focused”. First rule of customer service: It isn’t the customer’s fault. Really. You’re may be good, but there is always a chance that “your direction” just wasn’t good enough to guide this particular customer, or that your project plan just missed something, or one of many things to consider before writing off the customer.
    4. “The client once designed a “webpage” in FrontPage and they know how to do what you do, probably better than you do.” Ow, Snap! Second rule of customer service: Don’t insult your customers. Despite what you may think, it is *you* designing for *the customer*. It’s his business he’s betting on your skills. You will get pay regardless of whether your design will cause the conversion rates to plummet to the abyss. The customer may not know how to express himself in technical terms, but that only means you are more fluent in the language than him. He may not be as good a designer as he, but then again, you may not be as good in his field, so where do you come with the notion you know better? And, if he thinks he bought the right to tell you what to do, it isn’t your place to counter, disobey, or undermine him, because he did. That’s why he’s paying you and not the other way round. You as the service provider must sell your service, you sell it before the contract, you sell it during and you sell it long after you signed on. You want him to accept your ideas, your designs, your way of doing things? Sell it. Convince the customer that you have the golden solution. If you are good as you believe you are, he’ll buy it. After all, he did buy into you when he signed on.

    5. Third rule of customer service: Don’t bitch about your customers in public. Even if they’re stupid, cheapskates who think they know better than you. That’s what the water-cooler is for.

    • Erez – An excellent review of customer service rules, although my post is not related to client relationships. It’s about identifying potential clients who are not going to become clients. Quality professionals don’t take on every bit of work that comes along, and the most successful ones create a persona of an “ideal client” to guide them in choosing their work. The items in this post are six likely red flags designers may want to watch for in order to determine if a client fits with their ideal. My philosophy is that although the “customer is always right,” each customer is not always right for me. Thanks for your feedback.

  • Peter V Cook

    You should be telling lots of prospects no, if they’re not a good fit, don’t hurt your positioning. David Baker talks a lot about this. For one good article check out
    Look for: Saying “No” and Caring Too Much

  • Steve Jones

    LOL @ dev_cw I must have the same clients as you, or did you pass on my contact details to your bad clients?

  • Boyohazard – Good for you for following your gut, especially when you needed the work. It certainly can be difficult not to wonder “what if,” but you didn’t compromise yourself for a job…to me, that equalizes any possible regret!

  • Brad

    I’ve been in that situation before and the client responds only when you properly raise his rates. You might be willing to put up with some of that behavior if the rate was inflated a tremendous amount. Everyone has different tolerances around their pain points.

    Sometimes clients are not aware of the professionalism of contractors they hire. A simple routine to educate a client on how to get more from you for their money has a good chance to modify bad habits.

    But other times, I agree, it best to walk away.


    • Great point, Brad. It is always advisable to try to make the relationship work and if you can do that with some education, that’s a great thing!

  • This is good ! One of my client has 3 matching points . Always changes his mind last minute. Found a website, do it like that! Found another a week later, do it like that. Although I’m done with him, I can’t believe I made 4 designs for without a single penny.
    So much for a client “friend” :/

  • I’ve never had a client that didn’t meet at least one of those. Add client threatens to take you to court because you won’t increase the scope without adequate payment.

  • loganathan

    very many clients are like this… nice article..

  • What the client wants to come over to your office and “just kind of see how it’s done”. This client thought their office secretary could “just kind of take over” after they watched me one day. I told them lessons were extra.

  • Alun

    LOL, the last one is very funny “the client is a designer” LOL..

  • Alyssa,
    What a great list. I love it!

    #4 is my favorite… I don’t know how many prospects I’ve met who have started the conversation with: “I just fired my last designer, developer, coder, webmaster, etc…”. I mean that was the first thing that came out of their mouths after meeting them. Big red flag and not once has one of those prospects turned into a client. It usually tends to lead to point #5.

    My other favorite is #6. Except they tend to decide that they would like to be the art director even though admittedly they have no background in design. This is another gigantic red flag.

  • Steve Jones

    Some of these comments have made me laugh out loud.

    Perhaps Sitepoint should have a Hall of shame? Where designers & sevelopers can name and list their worst clients, at least that way it would stop some other poor designer or developer picking up the bad client??

    Sound like a good idea?

  • alivebyscience

    It’s mostly how you say things, and your body language & energy.
    There’s a time to be collaborative, and get along-ish. There’s also a time to state things – your business terms as an example – in supreme confidence and authority. Don’t explain or justify them – state them! Black and white – bam!
    When they counter, and try to negotiate, you again have to say something with bluster and confidence, and let your voice end your comment in a period, not an eclipse (…). Say something like “we’re talking about how I do business, and I’ve laid that out for you.” There’s no argument. There’s no justification. You just say this is how it is – how I work.
    The fact that you’re in the conversation is evidence the client is interested in your brand of excellence, and design sensibilities. Don’t walk away unless they do. As long as they’re countering and trying to get consideration you have the upper hand. Play it. Don’t be harsh, just happily state your way works. PERIOD. Don’t budge an inch. Don’t sound like you’d budge an inch. Don’t sound like you need to justify your terms. They are what they are and that’s the way it is.
    You’ll have to practice. It would help to see it done several times.
    It’s effective, and establishes your authority in the project, and in the business proceedings.

  • Zack Mazinger

    Whoa, Erez!!! You have certainly spelled out a model of the customer service rhetoric and it might apply to small biz, short dollar and/or development of personal/vanity sites. This approach however, does not and should not apply to apply to larger scope, date I say more professional work. I am a design professional. I make my living listening, analyzing and understanding my clients needs and goals and offer solutions that map to these goals. I am constantly abreast of trends, techniques, methods etc that will best acheive my clients goals. I am being paid to do this, to be the expert, to offer my mastery and deep know how within the domain. I am NOT being paid to take orders and/or compromise a successful solution by bending to the whim of a non expert client. My point is there is a client who has needs they need fulfilled. They pay an expert for their expertise. I am doing a disservice to them is I follow off target requests. Look at it this way… You don’t go to your doctor to him/her what the best treatment for you is? You present “the problem” and the Dr. Prescribed the best solution. This service relationship directly applies to design/web work.

  • ^ Yup… I’m with you Zack.

    I think Erez is the type of individual this article was written about ;)