Clients come in all varieties, and I’ve had the good fortune to work with mostly great ones. I am also in the enviable position of being able to be very picky, only because I am fully employed as a technology manager at Starbucks, and therefore only have the bandwidth to take on 1 or 2 clients at a time. That also means I’m not dependent on my freelance career for income and can instead focus on projects & clients that interest me as opposed to what they will pay me.
With all that said, the day may come where I do indeed need to take on projects & clients beyond my immediate interest for sake of income. And with that, saying ‘no’ to or rejecting potential bad clients, will actually become an even more important skill.
Today, I turn down more clients than I actually take on, by at least a 3:1 ratio. And when I am in the initial communication process with a potential client, I consider the following items as to whether or not they are the right fit for me, and vice versa.
- Where did they come from? This first item is actually more of a positive than a negative. Simply, if they were referred to me by someone I know, it is an automatic plus for them. In my experience, referrals are typically the highest quality clients as everyone involved has a personal stake in the outcome. Plus the client already has a measure of respect and comfort by the simple fact that someone we mutually know, “vouched” for me. He is a friend of ours.
- Just say no to family. With that said, I have done a substantial amount of web work for friends and family, but I never charge for it and I did the work with the intent of building my portfolio. Arguably, friends and family can easily turn in to the worst clients if money is involved, as it’s clearly impossible to keep the relationship strictly professional. Now, if you’re just starting out as a freelancer, this is actually where you might want to start to build your portfolio. Just keep money out of the equation.
- “My last web designer sucked”. Giant red flags if they are coming to you to work on a project another web designer abandoned, or if there opening remarks to you are how bad their previous designer / dev was. Now, they could of course be the best client in the world and everything they are telling you is true. However, more often than not, when other designers and developers abandon projects you are considering, it is likely because they weren’t paid properly, or the client / project was just a bad one.
- Recognizes you are the expert. It’s taken me a while to fully understand how important this one is to the final outcome of a project. From the first communication with a client (likely via email) you should be able to quickly determine if this person is coming to you as the expert in your field, or if they have already established exactly what it is they need and how to do it and would rather dictate to you. When I look back at some of my past projects, my biggest regrets are where I failed to more effectively push back or properly educate a client during the requirements stage in defining what their project should be and how it should work. Example, a lot of clients still insist on having their entire site “above the fold” and it is your job to explain to them why this is a terrible approach. Their response to your explanation will give you an idea as to how collaborative they want the relationship with you to be. It’s up to you to figure out if you’re ok with that.
- Project Scope. This is a bit of a no-brainer, but the scope of what the client wants done should match well with their perceived effort level, timeline and allocated budget. Do they want a database driven website, optimized for mobile devices, with a full CMS, and “lots of 2.0-ness”… done in 2 weeks… in exchange for stock in their start-up? If after you have educated them as to the effort level needed to meet their project requirements, and they haven’t budged on either scope, budget or timeline,.. you should run run run.
- Values your time. This is kind of a combo of the last two, but worth specifying. The best clients I have had, that are collaborative (yet defer to me as the expert), and truly value my time by meeting deadlines, responding to emails and maintain reasonable expectations are almost always the ones that are paying me the most and have the most flexible budgets. If you set yourself up to be perceived as a cheap or cut rate designer / developer, this will translate to the client as desperation. Don’t sell yourself short and don’t do spec work.
- Do you “believe” in the project? No this doesn’t mean you need to love the subject matter of every project you are working on, but if the subject matter is in direct conflict with your values or you wouldn’t really want to include it in your portfolio, than don’t take on the project. I recently had a dog breeder reach out to me (was a referral) and while I was too busy to take on the project anyway, dog breeding for profit is not something I would personally feel comfortable creating a website for.
Bad client image credit to Smashing Magazine. Plus for a truly great article on whether or not there is any such thing as a bad client, check out their article, http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/05/25/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-bad-client/.
They sum it up nicely, “The only “bad clients” are the ones you take on in spite of your better judgment.”