Why bad clients keep coming your way

4 min read
Emily Cohen
  •  Mar 14, 2019
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We’ve become an industry of blamers.

As creatives, we blame clients for thrusting on us untenable and unfair contractual terms, for art directing us and for not having a clear decision-making process. We blame clients when they don’t meet deadlines, or when they request ever increasing and unreasonably short timelines. And, we blame clients for not respecting our values and demanding lower and lower fees.

We’re playing the blame game, like kids who made a mess and don’t want to clean it up, but all of this is within our control. We need to take more accountability for the current state of our industry.

As a business consultant in the creative industry for over 30 years, I work with many leading creative firms across the country, including Louise Fili, The Heads of State, Hyperakt, Volume, Matchstic, and Open. I’ve seen many trends and changes in our industry over the years, some good and some bad. But, in the last year, I have become increasingly alarmed by how we, as a creative industry, are no longer pushing back, and have simply resigned ourselves to our client’s unreasonable demands or damaging behaviors and expectations.

If we don’t start taking our clients’ behaviors more seriously and push back more often, then our continued inaction will eventually lead to long-term negative impact on both the value the sustainability of the creative industry overall.

We Are Becoming a Commodity, Credit: @vienna.pitts

The design bubble

Over the last ten years, particularly as entrepreneurially-driven millennials started entering the professional world, the number of design startups has rapidly increased.

Adding to this onslaught of new firms, industry veterans are also staying in business longer than ever before.

For some staying longer is attributable to a love of the craft; others, because they can’t afford the financial luxury of retirement. Either way, as a result, we are now encountering an overly saturated and highly competitive market. In our desperation to win and retain a client or project—often at all costs—that competitiveness has caused us to sacrifice some important business practices along the way.

We make these choices when we should be choosing to ask ourselves: What can we do to make this better, and how much am I willing to tolerate before I’ve sacrificed too much?

It won’t come as an epiphany. Here I’ve laid out some strategies for how we, creatives, can push back on clients, take more ownership of our actions, and quit this unsatisfying blame game.

Don’t be afraid to say “no”

Embrace Conflict, Credit: @vienna.pitts

From my experience, most creatives are people pleasers, seeking to make everyone happy—and thus avoiding conflict at all costs. But, being a people-pleaser can have costly implications.

Accepting scope or schedule creep without any consequences can impact resource management and budgets, and reduce profitability. When this happens, team members working on the misbehaving client’s accounts don’t feel supported or protected and often have to juggle their workload to accommodate these unexpected workflow changes.

As a result, poorly-managed clients bring down team morale and lead to high turnover. Another byproduct of poorly managed clients, particularly those who aren’t stopped from art directing, is demanding work that creatives aren’t proud of, leading to fewer examples of projects that can be used to attract the kind of work creatives want to do.

Instead of letting clients think they can art direct their hearts out and make last-second requests until you reach your breaking point, it’s on you to nip this behavior in the bud. And, if you can’t move to a mutually beneficial solution, then use that magic word: “No.”

“No” is a powerful word and should be used selectively, appropriately and after you’ve exhausted all attempts to negotiate a better solution. Reserve your “no’s” for situations that are unresolvable and can only have a negative impact on your work.

“Poorly-managed clients bring down team morale and lead to high turnover.”

Emily Cohen
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While saying no can be difficult (and financially challenging!), it also can have a significant long-term positive impact including happier employees, higher-quality work, and peace of mind knowing that you stayed true to your own ethics and values.

Read, and negotiate, contracts

One of the most terrifying trends I’m seeing is client-issued contracts restricting creatives and makers from using the work they’ve created or the name of their client’s company for self-promotional purposes. Without the ability to use our client’s names and the work we create, we lose the opportunity to promote and market ourselves.

This is not acceptable in any situation, even if we triple our fees to accommodate for the value lost by signing our self-promotional rights away. The more we agree to these terms, the more damage we are inflicting in the long-term. Despite this many individuals and firms of all sizes are signing these types of restrictive contracts, hurting all of us.

The solution? Education.

We must educate ourselves and read all contractual language provided by client. Look beyond the legalese to understand the true intent of each clause. If you don’t understand a clause or language in the contract, ask your client or their legal team to explain it.

Many of us are under the misguided belief that we have no choice but to sign contracts as is, when we have every right to negotiate the terms of our relationship. We’re often presented with boilerplate contracts provided by the company’s legal team that our client hasn’t written, read, or given much thought to.

It’s our job to defend ourselves. Once we read the contract we need to educate our clients and explain what the restrictive clause(s) mean, as well as insist that these clauses be adjusted to be more mutually beneficial.

“Many of us are under the misguided belief that we have no choice but to sign contracts as is, when we have every right to negotiate the terms of our relationship.”

Emily Cohen
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The more we accept these unreasonable terms, no questions asked, the more they will become common practice. In fact, I’ve already seen an exponential increase in these types of restriction clauses over the last two years. Now is the time to halt this—before these draconian clauses become the standard.

Documenting and communicating

Clients need to be provided with clear expectations in the form of detailed and clear proposals, contracts, creative briefs or strategy documents, schedules, project updates, and change orders. Or some combination of the above.

Many creatives do use these client management tools, and that’s great; however, once we get started we have a tendency to file them away without referring to them again as the project progresses and changes. With each and every email, meeting, or presentation with the client, it is our job to keep the client in the loop by showing and telling where we are in the process.

“Embrace your inner nag!”

Emily Cohen
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These documents should accompany every client interaction as a reminder and reiteration of what was mutually agreed upon. We have to hold our clients accountable and communicate with them accordingly (over and over again, if we have to) at all stages of the project. Embrace your inner nag.

Be proactive

Our Clients Misbehave, Credit: @vienna.pitts

Pay attention to each prospect’s red flags. These red flags are sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, and often unintentional signals that say “Stop! Client challenges ahead! Take a detour!”

Once we are aware of these, we can, and should, customize how we approach each relationship.

Do we anticipate working with several layers of decision makers? If so, build more presentations and revisions into your process and fees. If they’ve asked us to attend many unproductive, long-winded discussions or meetings, know that we may need to take a stronger leadership role by providing agendas as well as building more time into the schedule.

For each red flag raised, our fee should increase accordingly. If the client balks at our proposal, then we should use these red flags as a bargaining chip for a discount.

So, for example, when we anticipate that there may be several decision makers involved in the project, we can lower our fees if the client would be willing to guarantee us access to only one empowered decision maker from the start of the project.

Promote your generosity

In my experience, creatives have a tendency to over-deliver. Designers give more concepts and revisions than they promise because they can’t stop themselves, and then get mad when the client keeps asking for more than what was initially promised and continues to disrespect the boundaries of the relationship.

We just expect the client to inherently know, and even appreciate, that what we provided was above and beyond what was promised. Yet, most clients don’t keep track of this type of information, because that’s not their main priority and they are too busy or distracted by their many other day-to-day responsibilities (like all of us).

Instead, we must let them know when we are over-delivering, making an exception and/or are being generous, just this one time, to help them out as a favor.

“If we’ve built the love, communicated our generosity and do great work, then our clients will become our advocates and advocate for us, even when we push back.”

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So, if we end up agreeing to deliver an additional round of concepts or revisions or provide a “quick” favor or add in a few additional pages, features or components, we must tell them! We have to remind them of our generosity so that when we absolutely need to push back later on in the relationship, they understand that we’ve already gone above and beyond the call of duty and will be more amenable to the consequences (more money, more time, etc.).

When a client has a request that’s not included in your fees, you can say something like: “This new request was not included in our initial scope of work or our fees. But, as a courtesy, I’ll be happy to make this change at no additional charge. However, moving forward, any future work that is out of scope will have to be negotiated and billed separately.”

If the client knows we are over-delivering, they will appreciate us more, understand that they’ve used up their “favor bank” and will then be far more likely to better manage their future requests. And, if they do have additional requests that are out of scope, they will better understand any resulting implications of their actions or requests.

It’s also a great strategy to list these additional “favors” in our invoices and indicate “no charge,” so that our generosity has been further documented for the client in a way that they can’t miss—and that expresses your goodwill’s $$ worth.

Determine the consequences

Unruly Process, Credit: @vienna.pitts

We should praise our clients for their good behavior, as well as push back on and impose consequences when they misbehave. If we’ve spent the time building and ensuring a solid, trust-based and mutually beneficial working relationship—what I call “building the love”—then our clients will still love us, even if we say “no” to them.

If we’ve built the love, communicated our generosity and do great work, then our clients will become our advocates and advocate for us, even when we push back. But, when we allow our clients to walk all over us (and make no mistake, we do allow them to do this), we’ve become a vendor, not a value-added respected partner, and they no longer will be our advocates. It’s that simple.

“A client who is allowed to misbehave or to devalue our services, whether intentionally or not, will continue to do so with whoever they work with or wherever they go.”

Emily Cohen
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Some creatives don’t push back because they are afraid of losing clients or damaging relationships; however, it is my experience that most clients will handle this more gracefully than you would expect. This is especially true if you have done the necessary due diligence throughout the relationship to ensure that you’ve built trust with the client.

In these cases, the clients will value you and become your advocate, not your enemy. In the event that they do take it badly, that’s already a red flag. In this case, ask yourself are they the type of relationship/client you want anyway?

Clients, like most of us, are better behaved when given consequences. (That’s why laws exist!)

If the total project schedule expands well beyond the agreed upon timeline due to client delays, then start off by showing your generosity and inform them you are willing to expand the schedule by another month.

“We have to hold our clients accountable and communicate with them accordingly (over and over again, if we have to) at all stages of the project. “

Emily Cohen
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However, also mention that, after that one additional month, you will need to charge a weekly project management fee for every additional week thereafter. If they ask for additional work beyond the agreed upon scope, then let them know the additional costs before this work is executed.

If we invoice for additional work without giving warning, the client will be less likely to agree to the additional charges—and we have no way to justify our new invoice. If the client wants us to lower our estimated fees, then we should recommend specific ways we can modify our scope of work accordingly (e.g., fewer rounds of revisions).

By simply lowering our fees without any consequences, we reinforce the incorrect perception that our fees are random and not value-based.

Remember: You represent the creative industry

Many of us work in our own bubbles without considering that our actions have broad consequences, and what we do reflects the creative industry we’re in.

A client who is allowed to misbehave or to devalue our services, whether intentionally or not, will continue to do so with whoever they work with or wherever they go. So, as you make decisions moving forward, consider that how you work with this one client reflects on our entire industry, not just you or your firm. We all benefit when our clients are better managed.

So let’s work together.

Feel The Love, Credit: @vienna.pitts

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