3 simple steps to avoid Bad clients and get Great ones

I wish i never took on this project! Sound familiar?

This is a sentence every designer tells to himself once in a while. Every now and then we encounter certain clients we wish we never meet after just a short period of time. Its seems like this is inevitable, and perhaps it is, but what if we could get only half of the bad clients we usually get during the year or even less than that. There a certain simple things we could do to make this happen.

When I was just starting out i began as a freelance designer with high hopes and little experience. I soon started to encounter all sorts of people some of which become clients, and my overall experience with clients after one year or so was far from good. Why? A lot of people wanted me to design e.g. a logo with 5 different concepts and unlimited number of revisions for $30-50! Most of the job descriptions went something like: ‘’I want a professional logo for my company that expresses our vision, professionalism, what we stand for…list of 20 items…and then it continued something like we want our logo to be just like some of the best logos in the world and so on. Then it usually continued: ‘’I want unlimited number of concepts and revisions and for your hard work you will be rewarded with an amazing $50’’! Imagine that 50 bucks for a world-class logo, that’s basically the same as if you went into a Ferrari dealership and said: ‘’I want you to give me your best car and I will pay you $1000’’. Nobody would do that because is considered absurd.

I wonder why is not the same considered for design and other intellectual services? Some people just don’t respect the mastery, experimentation and time needed to create and design beautiful things, years and decades of devotion and ‘’sharpening the axe’’, constant improvement to become the best you can be. There will always be unappreciative people like that and unless you absolutely have to get working with them, those kind of clients should be avoided, whatever the cost because your peace of mind and health are worth much more. In fact they are priceless.

On the other hand a lot of great potential clients are out there and if you know what to look for  you will eventually find them, there’s no doubt about that. You just have to go through a short ‘’client filtering process’’ and your overall work satisfaction will go through the roof.

Here are some useful tips that helped me transform my business:

1.Take a close look at the budged

If you are a freelancer in most cases you will approach the client first by applying to work on a project. Take a close look at the budged. If he’s seeking some great design service for a rock bottom budget, just pass through, it’s not worth it. And if you’re in the game of designing stuff for $5 I strongly recommend that you get out of it, because you will never truly enjoy working on a project. Design is a blend of Art and Business, it’s a beautiful craft meant to be perfected for a lifetime, not a mindless manufacturing process. Whatever your thoughts on this subject may be, just think logically, isn’t it better to spend a few weeks working, growing and developing a single project with a reasonable budget, then designing lots of low quality, quantity-based designs. Designing for a client is not the business of quantity but mastery and quality. When Steve Jobs approached Paul Rand one of the great fathers of design, and asked him to design a logo for ‘’Next’’ a company Jobs developed when he left Apple, he asked Paul to design a few concepts so he could choose the best one. Paul Rand replied in the words of Steve Jobs: ‘’I asked him if he would come up with a few options, and he said ‘No, I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution if you don’t want to, that’s up to you, but i will solve it and you will pay me’’. You can watch the interview of Steve Jobs discussing Paul Rand here.

I’m not implying you shouldn’t design more than one concept for your client, I’m just saying you should focus on creating the best solution and throwing 15 low quality concepts just for the sake of it, is not the way to go.

2.Listen to your hunch

When you make contact (no matter if the client approached you or the other way around) you need to listen carefully and watch out for the red flags…You can’t get to know someone in such a short time but you can learn enough to make the right decision.  I was called for a meeting with a potential client for a certain project, and was recommended to them by one of my clients. They’ve already seen some of my work and heard a little about me. I knew almost nothing about them except for the project description. I went to the meeting and as I introduced myself I shook the hand of the client, but he was rude enough to look at his phone while he was shaking my hand and didn’t even looked at me. What does that tell me about this man? Maybe it was a coincidence but most likely he doesn’t respect me, what I do or represent, and the importance of the potential role i could play in their business. Whatever the case may be I got a bad feeling from that. It was not the only red flag on that meeting but it was the biggest one. However the budget for the project was good and they were willing to see and consider all my proposals so I took the job. Less than 3 weeks after I regretted that decision and left the project. The problems were too numerous to explain in detail, i could dedicate a whole post just for that, but the bottom line is, I should have listen to my inner feeling.

I made similar mistakes many times in the past but it rarely happens now. It still does sometimes because no matter what, you deal with people, and psychology is not an exact science however most of my clients now are enjoyable long-term clients. They trust me, my opinion and experience as I theirs. The results are often great.

I know this ‘’inner feeling’’ may sound like some mambo jumbo, but there is firm scientific evidence that we have an amazing ability to understand and react to circumstances in our unconscious mind way before we become aware of it. It’s proven in certain experiments that in more than 90% our hunch turns out to be right. There is a great book on this subject by Malcolm Gladwell called ‘’Blink’’ you should definitely read if you want to go deep on the subject. The basic principle is not to over-analyze things to make a decision because there are too many variables and just not enough time. Listen to that gut feeling, notice what is the first thing that comes to mind when you encounter a certain project or a potential client, and whatever that feeling may be just differentiate positive from negative. Do you feel pleasant or unpleasant, anxious or excited…and so on. In the majority of the cases you’ll make the right decision. Try it out you have nothing to lose.

3. Imagine the future

Once you get to know your potential client a bit better through direct contact or through massaging just imagine working for him for a long period of time. Do you think that would work out, would you like the environment he’s imposing or not? Things don’t have to look perfect, and they never will, but they need to be at least OK.

I understand that in the real world in today’s economy getting a client is hard and here I’m talking about choosing clients, so the whole concept tends to look a bit out-of-order. But whatever the economy is at the moment, as long as there is any form of business in the world designers will be important part of that. You just need to work hard on yourself, always learning and being the best you can be. There will always be work for good professionals. I understand that budget is the main decision-making point we act upon, but it shouldn’t be the only one, because this thing that we do is not a one time gig but a lifetime orientation for the most of us. So as long as you do what you do, try to create the most enjoyable environment for yourself, and the results will be enjoyable at the least.

Like the great Jim Rohn said: ‘’For things to change for you, you have to change’’.


Share your thoughts and experience in the comments, I’d love to hear them.

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Nik Ljubicic

Nik Ljubicic

Passionate Graphic designer, educator and blogger. Inspired by nature, beautiful design, blues music... Always seeking for ways to improve things, and make a positive impact.

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