How Do You Know You’re Working With A Bad Client?
While it’s best to weed out bad clients before a contract is signed and the project begins, often times it doesn’t happen that way. I recently shed the weight, stress and hassle of a “bad client”, so I want to share that experience and five warning signs of a client you should avoid at all costs.
So how do you identify a bad client?
1. Your client asks for several face-to-face meetings or lengthy conference calls before the project begins.
Initial meetings with clients are like job interviews — it should only take one or two meetings for both you and the client to decide to work together and start the project. I met once with my ex-client before we signed an agreement, but… after several meetings over the course of six months, the project was going nowhere and the client was spinning her wheels. The face-to-face meetings were not only time consuming — they were a waste of time. The client used the meetings to talk herself through what she wanted to do. After six months and no payment, the project was going nowhere. That should have been my clue to cut and run.
2. Your client brings in a “silent partner” that turns out to not be so silent.
Knowing whom you’re dealing with and who your key decision makers are is important to the success of the project. A few months into my project, my ex-client brought another person to our meetings that had new ideas. This person had been behind the scenes since the beginning of the project, unbeknownst to me of course. Once this silent partner got involved, scope changed and this became a major roadblock to progress. Worse yet is that my ex-client and the silent partner didn’t always see eye-to-eye on decisions that needed to be made.
3. Your client doesn’t value your time.
When a client sends you a barrage of e-mail, calls you to “chat” at all hours of the day and night and expects the “friends-and-family” rate, they aren’t being respectful of your time. You’re busy, and you don’t want the distraction that excessive e-mail or phone calls cause. Make yourself available during business hours – maybe even extending them into the evening by and hour – but let your clients know when you’re not available and make them abide by it.
Project budget can also cause tension. Even if clients agree to pay your fees, many folks just don’t have a frame of reference for how much projects cost or what they’re worth. Clients’ expectations are often unrealistic. If clients feel that you’re charging them too much, they will usually be more critical of your work and expect you to be available all the time.
I was working full time and freelancing at the time, so I accepted my ex-client’s low budget because it was a rather easy and straightforward project. My ex-client required several meetings before paying me, and virtually no progress was made in the meetings. I got more phone calls and e-mails from this client than others, and often the client wrote or talked about things that were not relevant to the work I was doing — even complaining on several occasions about other people that she’d worked with.
4. Project details and scope change regularly once the contract is signed.
My client and her silent partner would continuously change their mind about what they wanted. As a hired gun, it was hard for me to hit the moving target. After I provided estimates of the changes they wanted, they would say not to change the direction, only to request the same changes it in the next meeting. “Scope creep” plagues a lot of projects, but it can be managed with good contracts and a reasonable attitude on the part of your client. The unlikeliest of people — my nontechnical wife — gave me a superb idea to control changes in scope. She suggested that I make clients initial the paragraph about how additional charges would occur after web design comps were approved. I also am also making clients initial the “scope of work” section of my proposals that clearly state what is and what is not included in the project. This will give me footing to push back if any future clients gripe when they change their minds.
5. Your client uses buzzwords they don’t understand.
We’ve all been there — at least the web folks like me — where you meet with a client and they tell you that they want a “Web 2.0 blog with a CMS and social media integration.” As a web consultant, my job is to listen to clients’ needs and offer design and technological solutions. My ex-clients said they wanted a blog, when what they really wanted was for customers to be able to leave comments or reviews on products they sold online. It took two months for me to figure out that they were talking about product reviews because I assumed they knew what a blog was (after all, they brought it up).
Even the best freelancer will have experiences like this, so here’s what to do when you are put in this situation.
First, bow out gracefully. Let the client know that you aren’t a good fit with their project, and try to recoup as much money as you can. Often, you won’t get what you deserve, but getting something is better than the stress of continuing the relationship with the client. Remember that your bad client is a person too, and even though they frustrate you, be respectful of their situation. They hired you to do a job, and they deserve to know why you’re throwing in the towel and what you expect in terms of compensation.
Negotiate with them if necessary. I told my ex-client what fees they owed for work already completed, and when they balked, I asked them what they thought was fair. I didn’t make money on the project, but I shed the stress of dealing with them (and freed some time to work on more profitable, less stressful projects).
Finally, examine your contract template. My wife’s idea of making clients initial key parts of my agreement may turn out to save a future project. Also, making sure your contract contains a clear and concise statement of work is important. Make sure it details what you will do, and as importantly, what is not included in the scope of work. Finally, make sure you include a paragraph about procedures both you and your client would follow if you decide not to work together.
Rick Whittington is a web site design, usability and e-commerce consultant based in Richmond, Virginia. Prior to starting his consulting company, Rick worked at Circuit City and Crutchfield Corporation where he led web site design teams.