Part II

In the first post I outlined Warning Signs of Sucky Clients. “That’s all well and good,” you may be saying. “How do I not get those?” Well, reader whose mind I just pretended to read for dramatic effect… I’ll tell you! What follows are six ways to avoid troublesome clients in the first place. The first two points deal with standards you should implement anyway (preferably before you land your first client); the ones after will either weed out sucky clients or prevent clients from becoming sucky.

Have a system (and a contract) in place.

As I said in the post 5 Things You Should Do Before Becoming A Freelancer, from the moment someone reaches out to you about a potential job, you should have a seamless system in place that will take you all the way through until you cash the paycheck. Not only does this save time, money, and gray hair, it also prevents mistakes and keeps deadlines easier to manage. Mistakes and missed deadlines give clients an opening to be upset. More to the point, it gives sucky clients an excuse to be suckier.

Always have a contract.

Clients become unpleasant when they can argue about things: scope of the project, deadlines, price, etc. So define everything up front. This means having a contract. A contract sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be. (I call mine a “Letter of Agreement” just to take the lawyer undertones out of the title.) It’s also pretty standard, so if this alone scares someone off, that may be the only red flag you need. Contracts are necessary because if there is ever a discussion, argument, disagreement, etc. about anything, you have a document (signed by both of you) you can reference.

That said, don’t go spending thousands of dollars on attorney’s fees or feel the need to read business law books before creating a contract. There are templates abound, and a basic one — tailored to fit your needs of course — will do just fine. The most important things to include are deliverables and payment terms: when and how they will get their stuff; and when and how you will get paid.

Set expectations.

The contract doesn’t have to specify every detail. Outside of the contract, however, you should be clear on what exactly is expected of you before you set off to work. This includes the deadline, boundaries, and scope.

Your time is valuable.

One thing that tends to get overlooked is setting an expectation of time. I’m not speaking so much to unreasonable turnaround time (see below for more on that), I’m more speaking to the person who expects you to make 4,903 changes to the project or thinks it’s ok to call you on Saturday afternoon. (I prefer not to answer client phone calls when I’m day drinking, thank you very much.) If you come to an agreement with your client on Wednesday and the deadline is the following Monday, that’s over 96 hours of potential work time, including a weekend. Some clients simply read that as, “You had four days!” While deadline is important, so is defining how many hours (and how many revisions) you expect to work on any particular project. These could be defined in the contract, but don’t have to be. Just make sure they are somewhere.

Don’t overpromise.

Setting expectations starts with you. Half the time I talk to a client they simply ask, “How soon do you think you could have this done?” I’m not a fan of that question — it puts the onus on me, and it just seems kind of lazy on their part, doesn’t it? But I understand. They need something as soon as possible and they need to figure out how “soon as possible” that actually is.

This really only comes with experience and figuring out your own process, but give them an honest response. As a freelancer you obviously want to earn and/or impress a client. If you don’t have much experience, you may also doubt your ability to get a project done quickly. This gets even worse when you think it should be done more quickly than you can do it. Overpromising does no good for anyone. Best case, you bust your ass and get it done, then they hire you again. Guess what? They’re going to have the same expectations as last time. Worst case, you miss the deadline and get fired.

As I said in my last post, I have dealt with clients who want you to do a lot of work and then not pay you “because you didn’t meet our expectations.” So make sure you meet them. This starts by realistically defining them.

Do research.

Now that you’ve got your systems in place to deter sucky-ness, let’s weed out the potential bad apples. If someone comes to me who I’ve never heard of, the first thing I do is Google them. Most of my business comes from referrals, so if I get someone random reaching out I need to know who they are. Don’t make me out to be paranoid; I don’t operate under the assumption that they’re full of it… it’s more of a “trust but verify” situation.

The last post goes into greater detail about general warning signs, but here are some specific red flags that tend to uncover themselves after simply doing a little research on a potential client. (Granted, I’ve consulted with companies who hired me because they fell into one of the following categories. It depends what you do.)

You’re not sure what it is they do.

Something I’ll advise any freelancer to do is have an elevator pitch that makes you stand apart. If your potential client doesn’t have their own, dig deeper. If you meet with someone who has grandiose ideas of how to change the world, and you leave the meeting going, “Wait… what?” it’s probably time to move on.

Their online presence is garbage.

I don’t think a small factory that makes plastic adhesives for piping needs a Twitter page, but if all you see is a website that looks like it was build in the 90s and a link to their MySpace page, you may want to start asking questions. Keep in mind that an online brand is an intentional, systematic part of a company’s culture. Know what else is? An indication of how much they value paying for quality (read: freelancers). By no means is a crappy online presence a nonstarter, but it is an indication you need to find out more.

Obviously, if you’re a web designer or social media consultant, these may be the people you target. But be wary of companies who haven’t bothered to hire someone’s nephew or set up a simple Squarespace landing page first.

They have a bad reputation.

I know this seems like a no-brainer, but how many times have you read a bad Rotten Tomatoes review and gone to see the movie anyway? (Suicide Squad.) How many times has your friend said, “I wouldn’t go out with that guy, he’s a notorious serial dater,” but you do anyway? (I can change him!) I don’t know what the phenomenon is, but we have a tendency to ignore red flags when we get excited about something. Again, maybe you loved Suicide Squad, and maybe that guy is just unlucky in love, but they’re at least worth talking to a couple more friends about.

Do the same if you find evidence of a shoddy client. Glassdoor and other sites have places where clients, former employees, and even freelancers can leave reviews. Also, don’t be afraid to hunt down an email address of a former employee or freelancer and ask! In my experience, no one is afraid of giving an honest assessment.

One more thing. Your potential clients will be doing this on you too. Plan and act accordingly!

Price out bad clients.

Seth Godin says, “Price is a story. It is not an absolute number.” Which is to say, people are buying experiences, names, feelings, prestige. A Tiffany’s diamond is negligibly better than the one you get from the mom-and-pop shop down the street but six times the price. Why? Because it’s Tiffany’s.

If someone wants to find the cheapest option, they will. Those are (usually) sucky clients. They may be fine people, but if you’re getting work because your prices are lower, you’re getting the bottom of the barrel. Don’t let that be you. Figuring out what to charge is a craft in and of itself, but don’t sell yourself short. Make sure you’re getting what your time is worth.

I like having pretty set prices, but in graphic design, one-off jobs come every once in a while that I’ve never priced out before. That’s when there’s a little wiggle room for negotiation. (That and when I’m doing a favor… but that’s walking a tightrope without a net.) Other than that, my prices are set in a way that’s consistent with industry norms, but scares bargain hunters away. More frequently it serves as a good weeding out process for the people who “just need a graphic designer.” They find me through a contact or this site and know nothing about my pricing; they just know they have a job for me. If they balk at the price, I say thank you very much and we kindly part ways before anyone’s time is wasted.

“But I’m still a beginner. Don’t I have to take what I can get and build my way up?”

To some extent, yes, but you still get to choose who you want your clientele to be. My advice is to target clients who will make you look good. If you’ve defined a niche you’d like to enter, target those clients. Brand and position yourself to look like a baller. Don’t lie. Don’t say you’ve worked for Apple or spearheaded national campaigns when you haven’t. Just make it look like they would have been lucky to have you. And when your target market does their research on you, they’ll like what they find.

Use your instincts.

I used a couple clichés in Part I. One was: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” The other: “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck… it’s probably a duck.” My limited higher-level use of language notwithstanding, what I mean to say is this: Most of the time, you can smell a bad client coming.

Unfortunately, I chose to write these articles because I’ve been there before. (And frankly it’s stressed me out reliving these emotions.) I’m writing to do my best to help. Cliché time: Hindsight is 20/20. I always learned after I had gone through the suck-itude of a client and said to myself, “I should have seen that coming!”

If your gut is telling you it’s a bad idea (like telling you to go see Suicide Squad), listen. Don’t make any brash decisions, but be comfortable with taking a pause and doing some more research. Ask yourself, “What will I gain from taking on this client?” If the answer is just money it’s not always a good idea. (Depending on how much money… I’m not an idiot.) If it’s largely undefined but someone else is making it sound like a good opportunity, your fight or flight should probably begin kicking in.

Don’t be afraid to say “no!”

This is actually important enough to merit a post itself. Don’t settle for bad clients. Even if that means you have zero clients for a little while, that’s ok. While it may seem like you’re turning down money; what you’re actually doing is defining a set of rules by which to run your business and live your life.

The power of “no” is amazing. Think of your business as a VIP club: Some clients get in; some are the guys with too-tight shirts and grease in their hair and the girls with insanely uncomfortable heels on and no coat even though it’s 32 degrees outside. (Too specific? That’s from experience too.) Once you get used to it, saying “no” is pretty easy and even enjoyable. You know the feeling when you decide not to go to the gym that day? It’s like that!

Here’s something I haven’t mentioned until now: Unless they don’t like you, sucky clients can be hard to get rid of! It’s way easier to say “no” than “you’re fired.” No need to be mean or ungrateful, but potential clients understand when freelancers can’t take on a project. And if they don’t… well, they might be sucky.

If anyone has any sucky client stories they’d like to share, feel free below. Or anonymously call someone out, people need to know!