Originally published on November 6, 2020
Working with bad design clients sucks.
They treat you as an order taker, ignore your recommendations, always try to squeeze a much free work as possible from you, and they pay late, if ever.
After years of working with all types of bad design clients, and seeing they way the relationship with them evolved as their projects unfolded, I began to develop a gut feeling for distinguishing between good and bad clients.
I decided to write down all the characteristics of those bad design clients that were hard to work with and began to notice some patterns. I groups these patterns into this red flags checklist.
While you familiarize yourself with the checklist criteria, I recommend using it after your intro calls with each client. Don't get distracted by it during the call. You should be 100% focused on listening to your prospect.
Once you get used to the checklist, you'll be able to do the vetting in your head during the conversation, at which point you won't need this document anymore.
In this blog post, I explain more into detail what each item in the checklist means.
Company Red Flags
There are some exceptional first-time founders that will appreciate the value of design and will be great to work with. But those are the exceptions and not the rule.
In most cases, first-time founders inexperienced, have very small budgets and will demand a lot. They usually don't have a clear strategy in place which makes them ask for multiple changes that they'll try to get at your expense.
Don’t reject them right off the bat but use your intuition combined with the other red flags in this list to make your decision.
No corporate email
In many cases, not having a company email could be a sign that this project is not that important to them. This means they have more time than money and will seek for an inexpensive solution that they can boss around.
Depending on the amount of real-time interaction that your design process requires, working with bad designclients 10 hours apart or more can be challenging. This is not a red flag per se but something to consider in conjunction with the other factors in this checklist.
It ultimately boils down to whether you want to be taking calls at 2 AM. Not terribly bad if the project is very interesting and you can do a lot of the communication asynchronously, but if not, it can be a taxing endeavor.
Project Red Flags
Very Small Budget
You should be asking for their budget on the first call. If it’s far too low that’s a serious red flag. It usually means they consider the required skillset to be a cheap commodity that allows them to bargain and get the lowest price possible. They may also think this project it's not too big of a problem to assign a real budget to it. Either way, it's a red flag.
In some however it can happen that they have the resources but have no idea of what they need in order to solve their business problem.
There are many tools to get a simple landing page done for very little money nowadays. Almost anyone can set up a landing page in a day using Wix, Squarespace or similar ones.
It's hard to compete with these WYSIWYG tools profitably, specially if you need to do the coding manually. Ask prospect if they have explored those options already.
If you are still interested in pursuing these low price projects, you can train your team on how to use those tools to you lower your costs. Keep in mind you’ll have to sell a lot of these projects to reach at least seven figures in revenue.
Just Visuals or Just Wireframes
Asking you to take care of a tactic task without involving you in the strategic aspect of it can be dangerous. They'll hold your agency responsible for hitting a target you didn’t participate in identifying. You’ll be working blindfolded.
Since you don’t really know the details about why they chose that target, you’ll have a hard time moving in the right direction, which translates into hordes of design edits and diminishing profit margins.
Personality Red Flags
If the prospect reaches out to you with a copy-pasted message, you can be sure they have contacted several other vendors. This means they don't see or appreciate your agency's specialty and differentiation. Don't waste your time with them as they aren't willing to spend theirs on doing any meaningful research.
Talks Too Much
If they cut you off and or talk over you during calls you can be sure they won’t care about your ideas and your process. They won't listen to your solutions, and they'll make you do what they ask for even if you know it's a bad idea.
Sees Your Team As Order Takers
This type of client will tell you what to do instead of engaging in discussions to uncover the real issues that your process needs to solve. They give orders instead of asking for your expert advice.
Expect very little conversation and laundry lists of pointless requests. Can you move these image to the left? Can you switch that illustration’s cup of coffee for a cup of tea?
Your Own Intuition
Last but not least, be honest with yourself and listen to your gut. If something doesn't feel right, acknowledge it. Perhaps the project is in an area outside your expertise or in an industry you're not very excited about. You don't want to be trapped in a project you will end up hating, specially if you have to deal with a bad client.
I hope these list helps you start developing a sense for the type of clients you want and don’t want to work with. Feel free to modify it based on your own particular situation and experience.
For convenience, I’ve created a free PDF version of the list that you can use during your own sales process.
If you have any questions about any of the points in the list, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org I read and reply to all my messages.