As someone who’s worked on both sides of the freelancer-client fence, I give a lot of “insider” advice to designers on dealing with their clients. One of the most common problems I hear is that designers would love to be able to turn down their worst clients – the ones who pay late, don’t pay at all, or who just generally cause way more trouble than they’re worth. But the problem, these designers tell me, is that they just can’t.
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They have bills to pay, mouths to feed, and so on. Whenever I hear this complaint, I try to root out the source of it. What is causing these designers to have this mentality? Why don’t they see themselves as capable of having the so-called “luxury” of refusing bad clients? I think they’re looking at things from the wrong end. All they can see is ‘I need to pay my bills and can’t afford to be choosy,’ when the whole client relationship process is really about so much more than that.
Sitting Up Straight
When you start things off wrong, you will finish them wrong. That’s just a fact of life, and it applies to virtually everything. I’ll share an example from my own life that some of you have probably dealt with as well: design-related injuries. I had the world’s crappiest chair, which wrought major havoc on my back and shoulders until I finally replaced it this year. Most injuries to the back, shoulders, and wrists are caused by poor posture (and crappy chairs – I’m sure there’s a study on that somewhere).
If you sit down at your computer and your spine is bent in a weird position, or your hand is a bit crooked on the mouse, it’ll be okay for awhile. You’ll probably feel no pain for the first hour – maybe even two. But do that every day for a year and you’ll be in a brace and out thousands of dollars in physical therapy bills. How do you avoid that kind of catastrophe? By sitting up straight with proper posture in the beginning. I know, I know – I sound like your Mother. But she was right. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and all that. And eat your vegetables!
You have to start in a good position to end up in one. If you want a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship with quality clients, the cold truth is that you may to have to make some short-term sacrifices in the beginning. You might have to go into a bit of a crunch financially (yes, I said it), or refuse to work with a certain type of client if you notice bad behavior start to crop up. This isn’t to uphold some lofty ideal of “honor” or anything, but simply because every crap job you take puts you that much further away from your true goal of doing work you love and are proud to display to others. It might seem irresponsible to take a loss over a quick, cheap gig, but if you have a truly valuable service to offer valuable clients, it’s actually irresponsible not to.
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Sit up straight! Stop seeing yourself as not “eligible” to refuse bad business. Instead, start seeing it as your duty to do so. How else are you going to make room for awesome clients if your time is being wasted by the crappy ones? Work on changing yourself, rather than your clients. A bad client will never, ever, ever, ever change into a good one. Never ever. I can’t repeat this enough. You’re going to get sick of hearing it. But I still need to say it, because there are many, many designers out there who still don’t understand. It’s one of my main talking points for a reason; I see it over and over. Quit polishing the turds and find yourself some gold bouillon.
Dining Like Royalty
How does a designer go from struggling to put food on the table to beating clients away with the proverbial stick? Many designers are offended at the suggestion that they turn away work – don’t you know I have a family to feed and/or beer to buy? I get it. I know what it’s like to be a struggling freelancer, to have to take whatever work you can get. But I also know what it’s like to turn away work that doesn’t suit me as a professional. How I got from point A to point B is really not that complicated, nor is it a fluke or just my good luck. I’m not some rockstar creative with an overinflated opinion of myself, and you don’t have to be either.
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The key is to change your attitude. I acknowledged that I simply wasn’t going to be able to provide value to the right clients if I kept taking on the wrong ones. I had a great service that my ideal clients needed, and it was just plain irresponsible of me not to make room for them. You owe it to those dream clients, and to yourself, to focus in and weed the garden. Remember, niche = GOOD; generic = BAD. If you dedicate yourself to finding and helping people who “click” with you, you’ll soon be doing less work while making more money. And as a bonus, you’ll be way less stressed out and frustrated. Maybe fewer of you will have such horrific stories about bad clients and I won’t need to squawk so much about them. A gal can dream…
Adapt To New Opportunities
Human beings are extremely adaptable. Just look at how diverse we are. We’ve evolved to adapt to just about any situation – good or bad. If you’ve adapted to the lifestyle of taking whatever clients come your way and scraping to get by, don’t kid yourself that it’s anything more than that – an adaptation to a poor situation. (No, I did not mean for that to rhyme, but I’m going to leave it because I can. You’re welcome.) You may think that having an open-door policy with bad clients is just “how it is” for freelance designers, but it’s really not.
As a talented creative professional, you need to know that you are capable of a lot more than you give yourself credit for. Take control of your own thoughts and actions to make room for a new situation to adapt to. Create those new opportunities and don’t be afraid to eliminate what’s not working.
What Do You Think?
Designers, have you eliminated the worst clients from your roster? What strategies worked for you, and, more importantly, how has it improved your business?