7 Warning Signs of a Nightmare Client

July 13, 2010 • By

In the modern world of design and development, dealings with your clients are somewhat akin to romantic relationships. For one, both sides expect a certain level of standard and class from each other. Both are prepared to give, and both want to achieve something in that relationship. Second, just like when you’re on a date, your relationships with clients are governed by a set of largely unspoken rules, the strict adherence to which will define what the outcome of the date will be, and how long the relationship is going to last. And finally, for the union to be pleasant and lasting, the relationship needs to be more or less equal in terms of bargaining power.

While making the customer happy, do not forget yourself

In our culture of consumption, where the focus is all too closely set on satisfying the customer (who, as we all remember, is the proverbial king), we tend to forget, that not all of us live in the Kingdom. In many situations what your company wants is simply a finite network of steady clients (happily, the monogamy does not apply to business), on which it could rely and which would allow for growth in the future. Many businesses, especially those in the early stages of their development, make the mistake to follow the mass production logic, attempting to satisfy each and every customer no matter the cost. In reality, however, this model is not sustainable in the majority of cases. Since your capacity is more or less fixed in the short term, the quality of your clientele really matters. Just like with a romantic relationship, once in a while you have to ask yourself whether you are getting what you want from your clients. A set of bad clients will hurt the work satisfaction, lower the quality of your results and simply suck out all the pleasure of what you are doing.

Bad customer types to watch out for

Unfortunately, it is only possible to judge the quality of a client after you have worked together for a while. Nevertheless, there are some typical features lousy clients possess, and they should warn you of the trouble impending.

    The “extra freebie” client.

This one wants nothing less but perfection. He always finds a little detail that can be improved, or a tiny bit of extra functionality that would really improve the product. Of course, he wants you to stay within the same budget. And you do want to help him, since this client is not so bad, and keeping him satisfied seems like the right thing to do. Well, here is a trap: these little extras tend to accumulate into a heap of additional work no one is paying for.

Defense: make very precise agreements on what the scope of the project is, and do not be embarrassed to charge for the extras. That is, unless your prices are so high that perfection goes without saying!

    The “you should know what I want” client.

In most situations, you know the particularities of your product better than your client does. As result, the customer might want to delegate the decisions on specific details to you. The freedom to do your thing seems great at first, but for some reason these clients are never happy with your choices when it comes to paying the bill. It turns out they had a “hunch” the product would look otherwise, even though in the beginning they had no specific ideas at all.

Defense: first, just like in a good romance, you need to communicate well. Make sure the client understand the minute details of your choices. Second, the trick is to offer such a client several alternative variations of the product. When he chooses, the option to blame you for the consequences of the choice exists no longer.

    The “old virgin on a first date”.

This kind of customers does nothing but hesitate. They ask tons of questions (even the buying ones!), and they always seem like the contract will be signed tomorrow. Yet it never does, there is always some minor detail delaying the process. You spend time and energy pursuing a dead end lead, but only realize it after a good while.

Defense: you need to firmly decide how far you are willing to go to court a customer, and do not yield into temptation to cross that line. No need to abruptly end the relationship altogether, just be aware that this client has yet to prove his value, and act accordingly.

    The “control freak”.

This type cannot simply let you do your job. He will trust his doctor and car mechanic with his life, but there is no chance in hell he will respect your expertise over his own common sense. He will examine every single detail of the project and provide the most detailed instructions on each and every one of them.

Defense: while this type of client is not as bad as some others, his overly involvement does slow you down and increase communication costs. There is not much to do against it, though you can simply decide not to continue with this client in the future.

    The “discount” guy.

Some people believe that cheaper is always better. In this naïve belief they will seize every opportunity to get a lower price from you. It is tempting to accept, since it seems that little profit is better than no profit, doesn’t it?

Defense: while in the short term this might be true, such strategy may hinder your long term development both financially and psychologically. You can still work for the pocket change in certain situations, but be aware of the consequences. Better to keep your game at the level you feel comfortable with.

    The “lazy daisy”.

An average design and development project is a two-way street. While the work is mostly on your side, the client still needs to help along the way by providing the necessary information, making the critical choices and so forth. Spoiled by the consumer culture, many people expect simply to pay their money and receive the completed product without actually participating. More often than not it is an illusion on their part, but it is you who will be held accountable.

Defense: initiating a project, make sure the customer understands what will be required of him. Establish milestones in your project and agree to discuss them with the client, when appropriate.

    Let’s be flexible on the payment

Finally, the most dreadful client of all is the one who doesn’t pay on time. You can power through all the other bad situations, but receiving no money for the job you’ve done is just something that that spoils your relationship at once.

Defense: be polite but firm with the client who has a payment problem for the first time. Seriously consider firing the client who does this twice. Alternatively, work out a different payment arrangement which your client agrees on, and make sure to enforce it.

In conclusion you should remember, it is up to you to control the long-term relationships with your clientele. Do not be afraid of firing a bad customer, it is the only way to open a spot for a good one. Good luck!