In Defense Of “Difficult Clients”

Almost every day, on Facebook or Twitter, I’ll see one colleague or another complaining about a client. Some people post their gripes on Tumblr sites or – even worse – public blogs. I’ve even seen designers create elaborate projects like this one to mock the people who pay them.

I have a few things to say about this.

First of all, it’s unprofessional. Venting, in person, to a friend is one thing; writing something snarky on the internet is something else. Even if the client you’re complaining about is not a Facebook friend, a Twitter follower, or a blog subscriber, you probably have other clients who ARE, and seeing you spout negativity does not give them warm, fuzzy feelings.

To put this in ad-speak, client-shaming hurts your brand. Branding, after all, is just another word for what psychologists call “conditioned response.” Like Pavlov’s dog, who learned to associate a ringing bell with a tasty meal, you want your customers to associate you with success, talent and integrity. Tweeting “Client hates the layout. Told me to make the logo bigger. #facepalm #fml” does NOT reinforce any of those positive associations.

Secondly, don’t expect it to be easy. When I was at SCAD, I met a lot of kids who were there because they thought art school would be easier than a liberal arts college. They were wrong. Working in a creative field is quite difficult, because there are a virtually infinite number of possible solutions to every problem.

Unlike math, where an answer is either right or wrong, the vast majority of photos, videos and designs exist somewhere on a vast and completely subjective spectrum between “fantastic” and “awful.” Your challenge as a creative professional is to make something that both you and your client agree is fantastic.

When in doubt, don’t be a diva; graciously give your customers what they want, even if it isn’t what you would choose. You never know, they might be right. 

Now, if the deadline is unreasonable, too bad. Suck it up and get it done. Working late is not the end of the world, and everybody has to do it sometimes. With that said, part of your job is managing your time and client’s expectations. If you’re routinely pulling all-nighters, something’s wrong.

Which brings me to my final point …

It’s probably your fault. If your client isn’t aware of your scheduling boundaries, or they can’t use the technology, or they weren’t clear on how much you’re charging, or they don’t understand your suggestions, you didn’t do your job.

Conversely, if you aren’t sure what your client wants, or how much they’re willing to pay, or when the deadline is, you also didn’t do your job.

I have worked with all kinds of clients in the last fifteen years. There were two or three who didn’t pay their bills, but I can only think of one who was actually an abusive, amoral person. I solved that problem by declining to work with him anymore. As freelancers and independent contractors, we have that prerogative.

The rest of the folks whom I was warned were “difficult clients” turned out to be totally fine. Once I earned their trust, they got over whatever negative experiences they’d had with other vendors, and many of them are my most loyal customers.

I’ll close with a few tips that those of you who find yourselves struggling with “clients from hell” may find useful.

1. Avoid jargon. Your clients are probably specialists in marketing, advertising, public relations or business. If they were experts in your field, they wouldn’t need you. Therefore, they may not be clear on the difference between a “frame,” a “shot,” and a “clip.” They may not not know what a “lavalier” microphone is, the difference between a “storyboard” and a “shot list,” or why a JPG embedded in a Word document is not the best way to send a logo. So, either explain it to them, or figure out a different approach. Don’t be patronizing or hostile, just talk to them the way you’d want someone to talk to you about something you don’t understand.

2. Make Win/Win Propositions. The essence of good business is making everyone a winner. Instead of adopting a confrontational attitude towards the people that make it possible for you to put food on your table, figure out ways for both of you to get something you want.

For example, if you don’t want your client sitting over you while you edit the video or make changes to the layout, suggest to them that they are welcome to check their email or make phone calls while you get the “grunt work” done, and that you will show the work to them as soon as it’s ready for their review. Nine times out of ten, they’ll jump at the chance to get their own things done, leaving you to work by yourself.

3. Put It In Writing. I’m the first to admit that I hate talking about money. The financial aspect is my least favorite part of owning a business. But, you have to do it. So, make it clear, make it concise, and put it in an email. After you meet with a client, send a follow-up email that includes something like this:

“Just to confirm a few details: I’ll be [providing whatever services], and the budget for this project is [$$$].”

If you fail to do this – and I experienced this quite recently – then, once again, it’s your fault. In a meeting with a client, I mentioned that a project would have two charges: the dayrate for filming, and an estimated amount for editing. Unbeknownst to me, he only wrote down the dayrate. Unfortunately, I did not follow up with an email to confirm the total budget, and when I submitted the bill, he was shocked to see my editing charges. I could have pressed the issue, but since this is a good client, I simply ate it, and took the loss.

I’m sure plenty of people disagree with me about this, but I believe that keeping a client happy is more important than getting every penny you’re owed. Obviously, you shouldn’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of, but if you didn’t get agreement on the budget before you started the job, or if you low-balled the estimate and wound up making $3 per hour, you made the mistake, not the client.

There are fly-by-night designers and producers, but that’s a hard road to travel, because it requires constant hustling. It’s much better to take a long-term approach, treat your clients with respect, admit when you’ve made a mistake, and – above all – be grateful that you have the opportunity to make a living doing something creative. Remember: McDonald’s is always hiring.

  11 comments for “In Defense Of “Difficult Clients”

  1. November 12, 2013 at 7:22 am

    I agree with most of your arguments and well said (written).

    The only thing is if your posting it on your person twitter or facebook and/or leaving out names. I think that is within your professional right to vent to your peers.

    Also, I would be careful of being too “the customer knows best”. I believe the that the customer hired “you” to know best and to look out for their interests and many of my clients have thanked me in the end.

    Lastly, beware of the client “child bully”. Payment can be a slippery slop and if you don’t set limits you can trickily bullied but in the end those clients have karma come and hit them in the face.

    Nice post.

    • Alexander
      November 12, 2013 at 7:41 am

      Thanks, Anthony, for the thoughtful feedback.

      Your caution about “the customer knows best” reminds me of something I was told when I first started working in production. “A job is like a train ride. You are the train conductor. Your client is the passenger. They know where they want to go, but you’re the one who has to figure out how to get them there. To do that, you have to operate the train properly, and you have to make sure they stay in their seat and let you do your job.”

      • Anthony
        November 14, 2013 at 7:52 pm

        LOL… Who ever told you that was working on a Steinbeck (I know I just dated myself). It’s more like your flying a jet plane and everybody is backseat driving.

  2. November 12, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Interesting article with a lot of good points.

    We always get the perspective from the creative side, complaining about the client. Never the other way around. It would be interesting to see how the client side sees things, if a “Creatives From Hell” could ever exist. Of course, I’m not in a rush to see the day that happens.

    As you mentioned, a lot of headaches can be avoided if everything is laid out up front. What you’ll be doing, how much you’ll be getting paid, all of that. I’ll quadruple check before I even start working on the project. If the client doesn’t know how much things will be, it is kind of the creative’s fault. On the flip side, if the client was given all the details up front and is still up in arms when the bill comes along, that’s something else.

    If I told you (the client) it will take 10 hours to finish something, send you the bill for 10 hours, and you are up in arms, I’ll gladly explain everything knowing I’m in the right. If I send a bill that says 20 hours, well, you have every right to question me. It’s simple customer service. Maybe working in retail for a number of years before getting into the business helped me learn how to deal with “customers”.

    Also, while it is fun to laugh at a client who sends a logo in a Word doc, I get a chuckle myself reading “Clients from Hell”, but if they really don’t know any better, can you blame them?

  3. Andre Elijah
    November 12, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Hey there Alex – just wanted to let you know that I had a bit of a response to your article posted here: https://medium.com/design-startups/51ac911314f4

    I think that you’re off base on some of your points but nonetheless its a great discussion for the community to have!

    Cheers,

    A.

    • Alexander
      November 12, 2013 at 12:59 pm

      Excellent … Thanks for joining the discussion!

      • Alexander
        November 12, 2013 at 1:18 pm

        Andre, I don’t see a way to leave a comment on your post, so I’ll follow up here with a brief rebuttal. I understand where you’re coming from, and I think we agree on the basics.

        With that said, obviously, I don’t agree with a few things.

        First, your positive assessment of jargon. To use your example of a doctor, I don’t like it at all when medical people use Latin terms that it’s unlikely I’ll be familiar with. I appreciate it when professionals use plain English, and my experience has been that other people do as well.

        As for the payment comment that inspired your response … Well, as you know, I anticipated that people would disagree! Believe me, I don’t work for free, but what I AM willing to do is negotiate with clients based on their value to me. If it’s a great project, or the client has given me business for years, YES, I will work with them to make the project fit their budget. I think that being unwilling to negotiate is just as short-sighted as giving away work for free.

        And, on that note, let me add something else: I’ve seen a TON of amateur or semi-professional creatives adopt the “I don’t work for free” attitude, even though it’s completely unjustified in their case. The fact of the matter is that nobody is going to pay you to do something you’ve never done before. Andre, you and I have been doing this for long enough to have plenty of work to show prospective clients. We should not work for free. On the other hand, some kid who just graduated the Art Institute and thinks they’re going to start booking full-rate jobs is in for a rude awakening. Just as the apprentices of olden days worked for free to learn the skills they needed, the beginners of today need to create work that they’re not compensated for, in order to have something to show prospective customers.

        Do I like 19-year-old kids pitching free work to my clients? No, of course not. But, TV stations do the same thing: they shoot commercials for $300, and the spots look like – well, like $300 commercials! You get what you pay for, and clients either know that or quickly learn it.

        In any case, I welcome the debate, I love the fact that I inspired you to share your thoughts, and I agree that this is a great discussion for the community!

        • Andre Elijah
          November 12, 2013 at 1:36 pm

          Hey Alex – its true – we do agree on the core points. I think that perhaps your positioning initially was unclear as being “BLAME THE CREATIVE OFF WITH HIS HEAD!” You get the idea. I 100% agree with you about the AI kids running around trying to charge full rate. I’m not totally down with them working for free either though. A small stipend to thank them is perfectly appropriate. If you’re good enough to do SOMETHING on a pro shoot then you’re good enough to get paid – however much.

          I think that there are *some* clients that are worth bending on day rates, and fitting into their budget. For sure! However there are a lot of clients that act surprised when the bill comes knowing the very clear terms at the outset of the project! Maybe I’m a bit defensive or more appropriately PROTECTIVE of other creatives but there is a lot of sketchiness in the industry and the freelancers seem to be taking the brunt of the abuse and shortchanging. Especially when they’re really big clients that have all the money in the world. I’m all for promoting a great working dynamic and respect between client and freelancer. Its a symbiotic relationship like I pointed out – but I just find that creative types on the whole don’t know how to stand up for themselves and the clients knowingly take advantage of that fact!

          Sorry that you weren’t able to post a rebuttal on my Medium note. (It was my first post on the service) You can actually click and create a “note” and append them to any of my body text and we can have dialogues as they relate to specific sentences. Someone just posted a note on my post and I’ve made it public for you to see. 🙂

          • Alexander
            November 12, 2013 at 1:41 pm

            “Maybe I’m a bit defensive or more appropriately PROTECTIVE of other creatives but there is a lot of sketchiness in the industry and the freelancers seem to be taking the brunt of the abuse and shortchanging.”

            Right on … I certainly don’t disagree with your papa-bear instincts! Perhaps I err on the side of being too forgiving, but we all have to find the balance that works for us.

  4. March 27, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    I love what you put down here. All of it so true.

    I’m a little different in that in this stage of the game, I am charging a flat amount. I tried the hourly/day rate thing and clients got all messed up about it and my closing rate was terrible.

    Once I went flat fee, my closing was 80% and clients were happy because they knew what the bill was going to be at the end.

    After speaking with the client and they seem game, I go home and build a quote that lays out as much as possible: hours planned, shoot locations, background music, actors (fees), and acceptable editing policy. After three years of this, I have worked out most of the clauses that have allowed me to have a flat rate with out working for $5 an hour.

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