11 Warning Signs of a Challenging Client

Whether you’re just starting in the design world or are a seasoned vet, every once in a while, the temptation to be a good person distracts us from seeing warning signs in challenging clients. It happens to the best of us! We at Noble are even guilty of it: a client says they don’t have the budget for a project, and our instinct is to give them a deal to make it work. Spoiler alert: it never works.

Here are some things to keep an eye out for when protecting yourself (and your company) from wasting your time:

1. They’re shocked at your prices (or they want a deal)

We don’t have a big budget, but we need a lot of help.

We wished we had learned earlier never to undervalue our work. We’re human beings (not computers), putting time, effort, and research into every creative decision we make. As a creative, you charge what you charge, and in the service industry, when someone doesn’t like your pricing, they’ll shop around. And the adage “you get what you pay for” couldn’t be more accurate in this case. Bottom line: this behavior never changes, and a tight budget today doesn’t mean they’ll get more funding later. And remember, once you’ve given a client a deal, they’ll likely expect it again.

2. They want you to squeeze in more work

I don’t like it. Can we start over?

A.k.a. “scope creep.” A good design process includes many opportunities for a client to provide feedback, so by the time the project is over, you should never hear the phrase “we need to start over” (unless the objective has changed, and the client takes responsibility for this). Significant changes should never be done for free (especially when it’s the result of the client not providing quality feedback early on in the process). Make sure your clients are aware, at the start of a project, that changes will require either a change of scope or a new contract entirely. If they don’t understand this from the beginning, there’s a chance they’ll want to squeeze as much out of you for the price of admission. Unless you’re comfortable sacrificing time and money, this is never a good idea.

3. They compare your pricing to others’

Other designers we work with charge half of that.

This is the biggest indicator that a client doesn’t understand what you do or the effort involved, which is the biggest and largest red flag. We’ll say it again: charge what you charge. Stand by that and don’t be bullied into reducing your prices by clients that don’t know the importance of what you do. That’s not to say you should charge outrageous amounts of money for simple tasks, but at the end of the day, the client is paying for you; your approach, your process, and your design style. As with any service, clients are welcome to shop around and find the best fit. Wise shoppers take several factors into account when comparing costs. For example, when shopping around for a mechanic, you might consider turnaround time, cost, and quality of work. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) hire the mechanic who uses cheaper parts if they cost half as much as a qualified mechanic. Down the road, the client will keep pushing back on your pricing, and you’ll end up earning half of what you’re worth to cater to their every wish.

4. They want a copy of something else that has been done

I just want that logo, but with my name on it.

It’s great when clients love your work. Still, when they ask you to repurpose something for their project, it shows that they don’t understand or appreciate the process it took to get there, which means down the road, they won’t understand why you’re pushing back on edits or changing the original logo that they wanted. Alternatively, clients may ask you to copy something someone else has done. Plagiarism is wrong for many reasons, but in this case, it’s wrong for the same reason as repurposing your old work.

5. They try to art direct (or say that they can design themselves)

Let’s go with this typeface instead.

At the risk of being blunt: if your client knows how to design (or acts as if they do), they should save their money and do it themselves (or hire a production designer to execute their vision). When graphic designers get to the point of charging a premium for their services, it means they have the experience and expertise that comes with that cost. If this becomes a habit early on in your relationship, either have a serious conversation with the client about what they’re paying you for or respectfully move on. Trust is an important factor when a client hires you to do a job, so if that trust is lacking early on, you’ll end up getting paid to execute someone else’s vision. Some people love that, but others (like ourselves) would rather retain some level of creative freedom.

6. They want spec work or test projects first

Before we work with you, show us what you can do.

This is a tricky one and widely debated. While many contracts have been won with “spec work” (work that is completed for the sake of proving your capabilities to a client), at the end of the day, you’re still donating time and ideas to a client you haven’t even secured. That’s time and energy that could be put toward paying clients! If a client wants to see what you can do, they should review your portfolio. Not to mention, if a client likes what you’ve done with spec work, there’s no guarantee they’ll hire you anyway. They can always take those ideas to another (cheaper) agency or designer to execute. Spec work is another breach of trust and a bad sign for a future working relationship.

7. They want a quick turnaround but are slow to respond

I know I just gave you edits, but can you have this done by tomorrow?

A.k.a. the ol’ “hurry up and wait” routine. One misconception within our industry is that clients can assign the work and go on about their day. While this is partially true, they still share a responsibility to communicate in a timely fashion and provide clear feedback (insert the clip of Jerry Maguire yelling, “Help me help you!”). When the relationship is too one-sided, with all the expectations falling on the designer, it creates an impossible scenario: you’re expected to work your buns off meeting some invisible deadline while you wait for the client to do their part. And chances are, if this happens once, it’ll happen frequently. Poor communicators tend to remain poor communicators.

8. They want you to always be available

We require you to be readily available whenever we have changes.

First thing’s first: if you’re a freelancer, it means you don’t answer to anyone but yourself. After all, you likely ventured out on your own to set your own hours and to work the way you like to work. Don’t let your client dictate or abuse your time. Set clear expectations with your client from the beginning for the hours that you plan to work, along with turnaround time, and make no exceptions. If the client doesn’t understand that, prepare yourself for many miserable nights away from your husband, friends, or dog (and you wouldn’t want to neglect your poor pup now, would you?). The fact of the matter is, most businesses operate within “normal” business hours, so chances are the project’s stakeholders won’t even see your project at 2 am anyway. If the client needs something quicker than the time frame that you’ve established, and you’re willing to work beyond your normal operating hours, let them know it will incur a rush fee, or that they will have to wait for the following business day. Sometimes, projects need to be turned around quickly, for one reason or another. A rush fee should be a last resort, as most projects can wait, but it helps the client think twice about whether or not it’s really worth your time (and their money) to rush. And you’ll get more playtime with your pup, too! Win-win!

9. They have a whole team of approvers

Let me see what my team thinks.

Okay, to be fair, wherever there’s any corporate ladder involved, there will always be more than one set of eyes on a project. As the designer, consider designating a single approver who vets and consolidates all of their team members’ feedback. You also want to be sure to establish trust with your designated approver that they will accurately defend and represent the ideas you’ve communicated to them. Team settings tend to invite personal opinions rather than constructive feedback that helps advance the original goal. If you don’t have someone in your corner, these opinions can get out of hand rather quickly, and you end up with “design by committee.” As a strategic designer, the last thing you want is to be the executor of a design thought up by ten different people. This eliminates the strategic part of your job and becomes a design for design’s sake. Kindly remind the stakeholders of your objective and never provide immediate solutions. Instead, hear their feedback and let them know you’ll consider it (which you should) as you refine the design.

10. They use language that belittles your value

I just need a quick logo.

If in the process of learning more about a client’s need, they make it sound like it’s a “quick” or “easy” project, it means they don’t understand the value of your process. Sure, designers have projects that take them a matter of minutes, but that’s for you (the designer) to determine, not the client. Don’t underestimate the impact of such words. They usually come with a small budget (because expectations are low), which is another red flag (see #1). If you really want to pursue the project, be sure to explain to the client what your process looks like to help them understand how involved it is. This will either deter them from wanting to move forward (which you should consider a dodged bullet), or they’ll gain a better understanding of what you do, the value of their project, and your services. Either way, communicating your process is a win-win.

11. A Contract is a Deal-Breaker

This seems like a bit much, don’t you think?

Graphic designers provide a service, and we’re just as liable to legal disputes and issues as any other service provider. Therefore, it’s highly recommended for designers to have their clients sign a service agreement. A service agreement should be written (and ideally reviewed by an attorney) to protect the designer from all of the above issues (including scope creep, too many revisions, unreasonable deadlines, and more). When clients are weirded out by this, it’s a huge red flag; it means they’re afraid to commit to a project and that they hesitate to respect your rights as a designer. If a client tries to make you feel bad about requiring a contract, there’s a good chance they don’t respect what you do. There’s also a good chance that they’ll try to take advantage of the lack of a contract by asking for endless revisions or knowingly squeezing more into the scope of work.